Restaurant Review - Yum Yum, eat 'em up

The name says it all at Yum Yum Thai

Who could have imagined, on the happy day long ago when we were introduced to variety of Thai cuisine, that pocket-sized Thai restaurants would pop up on every other block, most of them peddling the same tiresome things. Perhaps we could live with the lack of imagination on the menu if the food at these places had any flavor whatsoever. But no; anything not overloaded with dehydrated chili flakes long past their prime is bogged down with thickened cornstarch.

Except at Yum Yum Thai, a small, neat, family-run restaurant in a Tucker shopping center where the staff's personalities are as sunny as the orange sherbet-colored walls festooned with American flags and prints of Thailand.

For three years now, Yum Yum Thai has held out against the expedient, the trite and the cheap to produce an astonishing array of authentically prepared dishes. Even the typical under-$6 lunch plates are different here than at similar establishments.

Consider that seemingly throwaway lunch dish, the cup of soup. One recent afternoon this was a stellar hot and sour soup. How I wish it were on the regular menu, this beautiful, clear broth long-simmered to bring out the essences of its ingredients. The same loving care — meaning putting in the time to coax the flavors together — enhances the listed soups as well: spicy and sour soup (tom yum goong, $2.95), its delicate mushrooms and sweet shrimp afloat in lemony broth; chicken coconut soup ($2.95), spicy and sour seafood soup ($4.25), and mixed vegetable soup ($2.25), a refreshing vegetarian choice.

Note that "spicy and sour" is not the heavy-handed onslaught of opposing sensations usually associated with inexpensive restaurants. Yum Yum Thai takes its mild, medium, hot and extremely hot categories seriously, but the kitchen prefers to season each dish as it would be prepared in Thailand. If you want to discover or rediscover the glories of Thai cuisine — as closely as American ingredients can capture it — ask your server to make each dish the way they would make it at home.

Generally speaking, mild comes first, as with the soups or such beginning tastes as deep-fried tofu with freshly ground peanut sauce for dipping ($4.25) or the deep-fried fish cake with piquant cucumber sauce ($5.95). Next come the more intense salads, of which the prime example is nam sod ($6.25), minced pork with lime sauce, dried chili, ginger, onion and peanut.

Yes, there are the stir-fries ($7.25 to $8.85) and the obligatory noodles or rice combined with egg, peppers, onions and so forth (as in Pad Thai, $7.25; Drunken Noodle, $7.25; fried rice with basil, $7.95), along with four distinct curries ($8.25): red, green, panang (with coconut cream) and massaman (with potatoes, onions and peanuts).

What you really want, however, is one of the authentic specials. Not all of these are available every night because — miracle of miracles — Yum Yum's owner actually rejects ingredients that aren't up to snuff. Meaning that, while the outstanding Basil Duck ($12.50 for half a boneless duck, its skin crackling around its moist meat under a hair-raising chili sauce) will surely be awaiting you, specials involving fish or lobster may not be.

If luck is with you, do not miss Three Flavors Lobster (market price), bathed in a delectable sauce that is by turns sweet, sour and spicy. Or the simple, fragrant steamed lemon fish preparation (market price) that takes advantage of the best whole fish or filet the kitchen can obtain. Or Yum Yum Shrimp ($13.75), for which the kitchen initially roasts chilies, then reduces them to a fiery but nevertheless nuanced paste.

Although you can't go wrong with any of these, the best way to taste what this kitchen can do is to collaborate with your server. Find out which specials are available, then order soup and salad to balance them. I regret to inform you, however, that the experience will spoil you.