Natick couple Nui Phitpiboonlerd and John Mongkontavy have long dreamed of running their own restaurant, and they took steps recently to do so in Salem, N.H. through a partnership. They refurbished the place, and it looks great, but they decided it just wasn’t the right fit, for among other reasons, the long commute.
“It’s long in winter, but summer’s worse,” Mongkontavy said.
Finding the right spot closer to home wasn’t easy though. They looked at space in Natick, but then through a longtime connection were able to purchase Coconut Thai Cafe in Wellesley Hills, where Phitpiboonlerd once worked. A straight shot up Rte. 16—now that’s a commuting upgrade.
The space, with a manageable and cozy 12 seats for dining in, is just what they were looking for, too, as first-time business owners.
You may recognize Phitpiboonlerd and Mongkontavy from their days working at Natick Center’s Dah-Mee. In fact, that’s where they met in 2006, when Phitpiboonlerd was a waitress and Mongkontavy a chef. Both had moved from Thailand to the United States, and they’ve been in Natick since the early 2000’s.
The couple worked hard to refresh the interior of Coconut Thai during a brief restaurant closure earlier this year as the business changed hands. They did most of the work themselves or with friends, removing or painting over wallpaper, replacing lights and fans, and adding floral arrangements and friendly wall decor. The makeover includes the bathroom, which Mongkontavy insisted I check out (it didn’t disappoint!).
“This space is just the right size, just what we wanted,” Mongkontavy said. “With a bigger place, finding help is really hard.”
The new owners will redo the exterior as well, but they’re going to catch their breath first.
They have revamped the menu though, slashing the number of items from about 100 to more like 30. Among the new attractions is a hot stone pot that includes a mix of a meat (usually beef), rice, egg, and vegetables, and that sizzles as you eat it. “It’s the kind of thing you’d otherwise need to go into Boston to find,” said Mongkontavy, who coincidentally used to work at Brown Sugar Cafe on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, a Thai restaurant I’d visited a few days before I met him at Coconut Thai.
Such connections within the restaurant community helped Coconut Thai’s owners get to where they are now, and will no doubt keep popping up.
Phitpiboonlerd said she was delighted when Coconut Thai’s first customer turned out to be a patron she knew from Dah-Mee.
Coconut Thai Cafe (257 Washington St., Wellesley)
Take-out & dine-in (delivery coming soon)
More: Where to eat in Natick