I am sitting across from two young women who are very much in love. If only one were right-handed and the other a lefty, they could munch on their crab nuggets while holding hands. Alas, they're both righties, so they hold hands between bites.
A few days later, another young couple, male and female this time, sits in the window, also holding hands and slurping noodles from each other's bowls.
Both nights the restaurant, across from Berklee College of Music, is nearly empty. With its welcoming manner and friendly service, this is apparently a good place for romance over dinner. If cupid is about to strike, you should know where to go.
Tom Yum Cafe, which operated as Bangkok Cuisine until two years ago, is spotless, cheerful, and cheap, and everything is made to order. While that may mean an extra Singha beer while you wait, it also guarantees crisp textures and fresh tastes.
Tom Yum has been in the same family since 1979, when it was opened by the eldest of four Sueksagan brothers, Visith. The rest of the family worked for him until he let a couple of the brothers take over. They spruced up the place with Thai decor, small hanging pendant lights, and faux mahogany wainscoting.
As Korapin, the wife of the third brother, Sawat, explains it, "We wanted to make it more competitive in that location." She is aware that her neighbor on the block is Bangkok City, another Thai spot, but thinks there are plenty of students to go around. She and Sawat also own two restaurants in New Hampshire and run Tom Yum with "number two brother," Suvan, in the kitchen. Youngest brother, Visoot, owns Coconut Cafe in Wellesley and Newton.
The tofu sheets on the outside of those Thai nuggets ($5.50) are very crisp, even with a crab filling stretched with an unknown starchy something. Satay ($5), which so often linger in other kitchens, are especially good here. These flat strips of sweet, boneless chicken on skewers come with a subtle peanut sauce and a vinegary cucumber sauce.
Two signature bowls are offered. Tom Yum soup ($3), a hot and sour broth with a lemon-lime taste, is well flavored but not intense. Freshly sliced mushrooms and curls of shrimp garnish the bowl. Tom Yum noodle soup ($7.95) is a marvel. Wide rice noodles, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, chili peppers, minced pork, tiny ground fish balls (they look like scallops), tofu, and a terrific chicken dumpling float in the mildly spicy broth. Listed with two stars, which indicate heat, the soup is actually mild. If you like heat, speak up.
Kah-prow is a spicy dish of ground chicken or beef ($6.95-$7.50) with lots of onions, peppers, and chilies over rice. It's addictively good. Another success is pad see-you ($7.75), wide noodles in a black bean sauce with strips of caramelized beef, Chinese broccoli, and scrambled egg. This is made in the style of a pad Thai ($7.75), which boasts rice stick noodles with shrimp, chicken, and tofu - a fine version here - but the see-you has more flavor, and the very thin, flat, and wide noodles capture the dark, salty sauce better.
Those noodles are also easier to pick up when you reach across to taste your companion's. Hopefully, it's someone you feel like holding hands with.