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By Bernie Whitmore
Yoong Tong Thai Restaurant
278 Main Street (Route 20), Northborough
Although most of us will never venture to the Far East, we needn’t limit our knowledge of the most populous area on Earth to Wikipedia web pages and Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Not when we can get a taste of their cultures from the variety of Asian restaurants close by. Vietnamese, Korean and the various regional Chinese cuisines ~ each has a distinctive range of flavors and textures glorifying fresh vegetables and spices. Thai is one of my favorites, so I needed no coaxing when a friend suggested Yoong Tong.
Most of Route 20’s restaurants are housed in an ever-expanding series of strip-malls; I have trouble distinguishing from each other. Yoong Tong is an exception ~ it occupies a small building with an attached glass room. As one enters, there’s a full bar to the left and a counter for picking up take-out orders straight ahead. We were immediately greeted and shown to a booth.
Our waitress set us up with menus, a sushi ordering sheet, and a #2 pencil. As much as I was tempted by sushi, this evening was about Thai, so we began our study of the menu. Level-of-spiciness employs a chili-pepper scale; one pepper for least-spicy, three for ‘Very Hot and Spicy.’ For the unadventurous there’s a scattering of items registering zero on the pepper-scale.
We shared a couple appetizers: Yoong Tong Fresh Rolls are filled with steamed vermicelli noodles, shredded lettuce, mint and shrimp. These ingredients are rolled up in rice paper skins with sweet basil leaves and served chilled with their own special blend of soy sauce and crushed peanuts. We matched them with an order of steamed Thai Dumplings filled with tasty ground pork. Both were served over lettuce and garnished with carved carrot flowers.
From there we dived immediately into the soup course. My friend’s, a bowl of Tom Yum Seafood soup, is classic Thai cuisine. Crushed chili peppers give it a deep-red cast and spicy-heat that’s balanced with sweet tamarind, lime juice and lemongrass. Yoong Tong added sliced mushrooms and whole shrimp.
My soup, Kim Chi, is actually a traditional Korean dish. It was thick with squares of tender Chinese cabbage and crushed chili peppers. Two or three shrimp were lurking down amongst the cabbage and offered relief from the escalating peppery heat. About two-thirds through my bowl I began to regret not having ordered a bottle of beer, but our waitress was unflagging in her trips to refill our water glasses.
Tamarind Duck, our entrée, embodied qualities of Thai cuisine that I enjoy. Slices of lean boneless duck were flavored with a hint of fresh ginger. They were pan-fried with onion, tomato wedges, mushrooms and emerald-green peapods in a sauce flavored with tamarind. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been delighted with Thai cuisine’s treatment of duck!
Next to our portions of duck we scooped steamed rice and portions of Pad Thai, a mixture of rice noodles and crumbled fried egg, piles of crunchy bean sprouts, a liberal toss of ground peanuts and whole baby shrimp.
On first sight, Yoong Tong’s dessert menu had tempted me with items such as Black Sapphire Rice Pudding and Mango with Sticky Rice. But in the end I took our waitress’s advice and ordered Fried Ice Cream. It seemed like something you should do once every decade or so. This one really did seem home-made ~ an enormous dollop of ice cream jacketed in a thin pastry shell deep-fried ‘til crusty and served in a foamy sea of whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
Yoong Tong Thai Restaurant has endearing eccentricities one often finds in a family business. Non-stop Celine Dion may have provided an unexpected musical setting, but the scattering of Asian knickknacks was a visual delight. And their service and cuisine were “spot on.”
Photos by Bernie Whitmore