At least for today, I think Thai Yum is Baltimore's best Thai restaurant. Word will soon spread, and Thai Yum might not be ready for a sudden crush. When we visited, Penny Chungsakoon appeared to be working the line herself. There are unresolved service issues. Please be patient with it.
This is the restaurant that used to be known as Ten-O-Six, from its street number on Light Street. When Tom and Penny Chungsakoon opened it back in 1999, the Federal Hill restaurant worked with an innovative menu that was half fusion (with exotic or then rarely seen ingredients such as wild boar, sweetbreads and ostrich) and half traditional Thai.
The public loved it, and then the public stopped loving it, and who can say why? Somehow, it got into people's heads that the Thai part of the menu was also a kind of Asian fusion, not really Thai. So it was galling, you'd think, for the Chungsakoons to watch Thai cuisine increase in popularity (e.g., the big hit Thai Arroy, which the Chungsakoons can see from their front window), as Ten-O-Six continued to fade in popularity. When I visited in 2005, I thought it was "timeworn," although I meant defeated.
Today, Thai Yum is the picture of health. A needless dining platform has been razed, and worn carpeting has been pulled up; wood floors are gleaming. You still walk past the open kitchen on your way into the dining room, but the service counter is no longer cluttered with unread mail. I talked recently about good first impressions — it smells like Thai restaurant heaven in here.
The menu combines the familiar curry, noodle and sauteed dishes with a list of Chungsakoon specialties. You can't go wrong either way. If you order a massaman curry or a saute of Thai eggplant, basil and Thai chili peppers because that's what you always do, you'll find that it makes a difference when a dedicated chef is working with her own hand-ground spices. You might decide, as we did, that the flavors are warmer and wider. Depending on what you have added to these standards (for example, tofu, shrimp or beef tenderloin), you'll pay anywhere from $9 to $12.
Specialty dishes like coconut sea scallops, maple-leaf duck breast and frog legs (all Ten-O-Six veterans) are in the $15 range. (Isn't that weird? I'm used to $27 specialty dishes.) So you should try them. They are lovely, and I think they'll convince you that Thai food doesn't need three-star heat for effectiveness when it's prepared with as much passion and precision as Penny Chungsakoon lavishes on a simple pan-seared orange roughy in green curry with avocado or with as much dynamism and flair as she brings to a crispy soft-shell crab entree with sweet basil, Thai chili, green peppercorn, garlic and onion. One dish works subtly, the other with drama. Both are outstanding.
The appetizers at Thai Yum portend the great things to come. A gorgeous calamari dish orchestrates the disparate flavors of sweet Thai basil, fresh mango, lemongrass and homemade fish sauce. The traditional minced chicken appetizer, Lahb Gai, makes its case with pretty fresh mint and cilantro. I liked how the preparation of crispy string beans still comes across as vegetables — the batter is light, the frying is gentle. Thai Yum is a very refreshing preparation of chili, cilantro, cucumbers and onions, to which you can add chicken, tofu, shrimp or calamari.
What none of us saw coming was an ecstatic dessert course. In or out of a Thai restaurant, it's among the best dessert courses in town. Every bit of it is homemade, including the green tea ice cream that arrives hidden under a scalloped cloud of meringue. Chungsakoon grows the leaves she pulverizes for her delicious kaffir lime pie. A coconut flan is simply perfect. Even the decaffeinated coffee gets praise at Thai Yum.
What's not so perfect? Things that didn't matter much to us this evening but might to you. These include a sketchy wine list and service that was notable for being thoroughly charming and sweet but which would frustrate people who like to complain about service.
This has happened before. Just when I needed it, Thai Yum showed up on my list. It reminded me that good food writes its own review. That it's a comeback story of sorts makes it just meringue.
Where: 1006 Light St.
Contact: 410-528-2146, thaiyum.com
Hours: Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6.50-$7.50 Entrees, $12-$16
[Outstanding:✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]