There are certain foods that function as a bellwether, letting you know how confidently you may proceed to the rest of the menu, and likewise how much authenticity you can expect. At Mexican restaurants, it's tacos. At Italian places, it's pasta. At bars: burgers. And at Thai restaurants, a good bellwether is tom yum -- the tangy, spicy soup accented with chicken or seafood, mushrooms, cilantro, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and various other ingredients depending on the restaurant. Here's how two local takes on tom yum match up:
Tom yum is best when shared, and Sen Yai Sen Lek came armed with serving bowls and an adorable mini-ladle for our big bowl of the chicken variation of the soup. The broth was dark and greasy, the flavor lime-y, with a delayed spiciness and a fair amount of green onion, cilantro and lemongrass swimming around. The canned mushrooms were -- as with all canned mushrooms -- nothing special, but we were a little surprised by the wan, bruised tomatoes bobbing around. A bowl, which offers three fairly small servings, cost $7.95.
We sort of felt like we were on "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" when we approached True Thai's chicken tom yum. First it was, "Holy stalks of lemongrass!!! Then it was, "Watch out for that ginger, man!!!" You know the saying "Go big or go home?" True Thai definitely goes big. The product of going big is, logically, big flavor, and True Thai's got that too. Generous slices of chicken come with almost every bite and kaffir lime leaves show up about every third. Still, there's those dang mushrooms. A bowl, which offers three generous servings, costs $9.95.
The Winner: Maybe we're being superficial, but one of the greatest things about tom yum is the vessel it traditionally arrives in: a tall aluminum, vase-like with a moat extending from its midsection and a flame lit from the bottom that rises through the hole in the middle. There are other reasons Sen Yai's tom yum failed to win us over, but its serving dish is one of them. While True Thai's broth tasted a little too fish sauce-y, its ingredients were brighter and fresher, and any bite could be enhanced by rolling one of the life preserver size lemongrass stalks or stumps of ginger around in your mouth.