Soup is hardly ever a reason to recommend a restaurant. And yet Tom Yung Gung, the favorite soup of Thailand, makes an alluring argument for roaming the Carlisle Pike in search of the aging strip mall where Bangkok Wok has thrived for 19 years. If the soup is this good, how much flavor can they pack into the main plates?
Tom Yung Gung is a velvety, spicy hot and sour lime juice broth with shrimp and mushrooms punctuated by lemongrass. It is knock-your-socks-off good, a dish you keep eating until you open your eyes and notice it’s gone. Yes, it is spicy hot – more about that in a moment – but so well balanced that only the most delicate diner will hesitate before taking seconds. What I’m saying is get the big bowl.
That balance is a serious feature of Thai food. Hot, sour, salty and sweet are the four elements (and the title of a terrific Thai cookbook). To achieve flavor balance across a meal or in one dish, the condiments are ginger, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, basil, kaffir lime leaves and Thailand’s version of fish sauce, nam pla.
Bringing the ingredients together has been the midlife project of Chuck Martz, who opened Bangkok Wok with his wife Tauenta in 1990. Together they trooped to the Thai New Year Festival every April in Washington, D.C., for ingredients, and they grew some herbs and chilies at home.
Tauenta scoured local Asian groceries, the produce stands at the Broad Street Market and the seafood counter at Giant in Camp Hill. “I enjoy going to the market and finding something new,” she told food writer Sue Gleiter. When Tauenta died in 2000, Chuck continued with his mother-in-law reigning back in the kitchen.
Out in the dining room, décor is calm and pleasing. The space is open enough that our table of 8, sitting next to another table of 8, had no trouble making and hearing dinner conversation. Deanna was on my left and Pepka the Magnificent on my right as Pam came up to the table to open wine (BYOB) and take our order. I was ready.
“You have list!” she cried. “Very good!” Oh yeah, I had list.
My list began with Larb. In fact, I came to Bangkok Wok anxious to try the Larb. Why? Euphony. The name sounds like something Popeye would give to an appetizer, perhaps in honor of a favorite Labrador Retriever. “Arrgh, gimme the Larb, ya lubber!” (Euphony: inherent pleasantness or beauty of the sound of certain utterances.)
In the event, Larb was a green salad topped with shredded chicken, a Laotian dish. Not a lot of flavor until you add the sweet chili sauce and then, BAM.
Pam identified all the sauces that came with the appetizers. We tried the pineapple sauce with the slim, delicate egg rolls and the peanut sauce with the stuffed wings. The Joy How, crisp bean curd skin filled with minced pork, bean thread noodles and onions, seemed a little dry to Pepka, “but with the sweet chili sauce it is really good,” he said.
Same with the satays. Good taste, but don’t forget the sauces.
Here’s the deal: Chefs in Thai kitchens are very aware that what is tasty to them may be super-hot-&-spicy to you. Even if you’ve escaped the culinary penal colony that is Pennsylvania Dutchville, it’s better to have you asking for hot sauce than downing bowls of Jasmine rice to put out the flames in your mouth. So if the dishes seem too … what’s the word … moderate, ask for sauce.
Happily soup was next and the spicy Tom Yung Gung needed no adjustment. “I can’t tell what there is about the broth that I like so much,” Gloria said from across the table. “I can’t place it.” Along with the sour lime and lemon grass, there was a hint of sweetness, sort of a soft anise taste. It was, our other server Bonnie said, basil. Hmm. More assertive than other sweet basil, Thai basil is known for a light licorice flavor.
We also ordered Tom Ka Kai, which got mixed reactions. It’s lime coconut milk soup with chicken, galanga and fresh mushrooms. Those who liked it loved it.
“You can taste the citrus right off the top,” Scot said, “but it’s not overly tart. This is one of the most creative dishes I’ve eaten in a long time, possibly the most fun soup I’ve ever eaten. It was bursting with lemon citrus with the coconut coming at the end. I could keep gallons of that at home.”
The rest of us were put off by the lime in the coconut. (Apologies to Harry Nilsson.)
Next we started negotiating the entrees, looking for a mix of protein. Chicken, beef, pork, shrimps, scallops and squid are the choices. Generally, any one can go in any dish.
We went with:
n Beef with Garlic, slices of beef stir-fried with spicy white pepper and crispy garlic on a bed of fresh chopped cabbage.
n Chicken with Cashews in Red Tangy Sauce, slices of chicken stir-fried with diced bell peppers, onions, carrots and cashews in tangy tomato sauce
n Pork with Thai Hot Chili and Bamboo, slices of pork stir-fried with bell peppers, onions, and finger hot peppers in spicy brown sauce
n Panang curry, Thai basil and finger hot peppers, with a hint of bell peppers, simmered in nicely flavored thicker coconut milk
n Pineapple Fried Rice, a traditional Thai rice dish, with white Jasmine rice and yellow curry stir-fried with raisins, cashews, pineapple chunks, diced onions, scallions, egg and a seafood combo.
“I do like the Chicken with Cashews and I didn’t think I was gonna like that,” Laurey said. Adam was intrigued by the Panang curry, mentioning the aftertaste, and really enjoyed it. (Again, the basil with licorice notes.) “The licorice taste was kind of a new beginning for me. Yeah, I liked it a lot.”
Pepka the Magnificent, who ordered the Beef with Garlic, said, “It’s good, I just like everything else better.” But Laurey loved the beef, and so did Gloria, who said it was her favorite.
This is the upside of the Mode Meal Model, a network you can eat with. Try it with a group of friends — or with some accommodating strangers (as we were). Get a bunch of people together, go to a restaurant and order everything you want, then pass it all around. Split the bill.
Deanna was surprised by the Pineapple Fried Rice, which server Pam had suggested. “It really works, and I never would have thought of putting fruit into fried rice,” she said.
Laurey wanted the Pork With Chilis to be a lot hotter. “I’m a little disappointed. I want my mouth to like be on fire,”she said. “It says in the menu that you can order things to be extra spicy, and normally I would have done that, but I’m trying to accommodate the other people.” Alas, there’s the downside of the group dining effort: courtesy.
Fortunately, it is curable with hot sauce.