Sometimes, it’s a soup that becomes a cuisine’s calling card. Vietnam is known for pho, Italy for minestrone, and Russia for borscht. Thailand has its own soups, often served in tureens heated by an open flame and infused with fragrance and flavor from ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, and coconut milk. Tom Yum, a small local chain of Thai restaurants, takes its name from a popular hot-and-sour soup. It might also help just a bit that the name contains the word “yum,” subtly adding a bit of the wordplay so common in Thai restaurant names.
Tom Yum’s Downtown Phoenix location is situated on the west side of Central Avenue just a block from the westbound Washington / Central light rail station and two blocks from the eastbound First Avenue / Jefferson station. The space is in the ground floor of a small building sandwiched between the larger office towers in the area, and the decor is generic but attractive and neat. The dining room is divided into a large main portion on the left as one enters and a narrower area to the right where solo diners and couples are sometimes directed during busier times.
If given the choice, take a seat in the main dining room since the smaller side area is sometimes visually isolated from the staff. During the day, the majority of diners are there for lunch specials that include an entree from a list of popular favorites, a cup of basic chicken-and-rice soup, and a vegetable spring roll. Each costs around $10, depending on the protein chosen to add to the dish. There is of course a more expansive dinner menu, available in addition to the lunch specials during the working week midday rush, and exclusively during evenings and weekends.
The spring rolls are pleasing, classic appetizers with a crisp wrapper around julienned carrots and cabbage with a touch of pepper. The satay is another familiar starter. The serving here is four skewers of flattened chicken breast with a smooth peanut sauce for dipping. Beef and shrimps are also available in the same format. Among the entree-sized salads, expect dishes such as larb, made with ground meat over lettuce and mint, and som tum, which features green papaya, used more as a vegetable than as a fruit, topped with peanuts and flavored with lime.
The curries are all sufficiently good with the usual panoply of red, green, yellow, panang, and massaman. Spice levels are specified by the customer with “hot” at Tom Yum meaning appreciable heat but not the extreme reaches of what is sometimes described as “Thai hot.” Where Tom Yum probably shines most is with its stir-fry dishes, including Ginger Angel with abundant multi-hued bell pepper slices in a dark sauce, spicy green beans with long pods flavored by an intense curry paste, and spicy basil with ground meat the option to add an egg.
As at nearly all Thai restaurants, there is a noodle section on the menu with popular items such as drunken noodles in a spicy sauce, pad see ew with wide noodles in brown gravy with broccoli, and the ubiquitous pad Thai among the instantly recognizable dishes. Beyond these shareable dishes, Tom Yum has a section of noodle soups for one that are clearly influenced by Chinese and Vietnamese traditions. Wonton soup is similar to the American Chinese restaurant standby, and the rice noodle soups with chicken or beef stew are not terribly far removed from pho.
Among the standard sections of the menu — curries, “wok” (stir-fry dishes), and noodles, the choose-your-own-protein model prevalent at many Thai restaurants is in effect. Tom Yum’s choices are more extensive than usual. As expected, chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, and tofu are all present, as is the option to simply add more vegetables. Where Tom Yum goes further than some is in an expanded array of choices that includes vegetarian mock chicken, calamari, duck, salmon, white fish (pompano), and, for those who can’t decide, mixed meat and mixed seafood.
This modular approach takes a break on the “chef’s specials” section of the menu where more distinctive dishes are prepared with their ingredients already specified. For example, the massaman stewed beef offered here is more in line with the Thai tradition of slow simmering than the massaman from the curry section, where any choice of meat is added to the dish on request. This is also the place to find dishes that do not fit neatly into the usual categories. Featured items include clay pot shrimp, crab fried rice, and pla rad prik, a fried pompano served whole.
A board displayed near the restaurant’s entrance lists even more specials, both entrees and desserts. The coconut ice cream is made on site with impressive results; the play-it-safe option of French vanilla comes from an outside source. Sticky rice can be paired with fresh mango when that fruit is in season or a custard dappled with flecks of tropical fruit. Fried banana, either in cheesecake or with ice cream, is the most indulgent choice. The liquor selection is limited to bottled beer and wine, and iced and hot teas are non-alcoholic alternatives to the soda fountain.
With its expansive menu that caters to just about any taste preference and some obvious American, Chinese, and Vietnamese influences, Tom Yum is clearly trying to appeal to a broad clientele of daytime office workers, evening event goers, and the growing population of downtown residents. Sometimes that means tame food for those who are tentative about Thai, but there are also bolder choices for diners with more experience and sense of adventure. Tom Yum is first a soup, second a pun, and, with both combined, a reliable choice in the downtown core.
110 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004