Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The creamy tom yum soup at What a Soup in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Time to noodle up, Cambridge! Maybe the last thing one might think the area needs is more noodle shops, as we’ve got wealth of ramen – ramen here, ramen there, ramen, ramen everywhere. Not that ramen isn’t good and glorious. It is. We’ve often extolled the virtues of many such outposts in the past (most recently Tsurumen Ramen in Somerville’s Davis Square). But we’re here to shout out about other Asian slurpables – good hearty warmness that’ll put a bead of sweat on your brow and bring you back for more.

Central Square, home to the revered Pagu, where they know a few things about noodles (hand cut) and ramen (Guchi’s Midnight) is now home to two more soup-bowl establishments, What A Soup and Lanner Noodles & Bar, both in their early opening stages. Lanner, Chinese-based, takes over where longtime Tibetan favorite Rangzen was on Brookline Avenue; What a Soup sets up in the spot that was River Gods – the bohemian retro-hip speakeasy that Cambridge desperately misses – on River Street. 

What a Soup, a no-frills operation with cozy, colorful decor, is perfect and needed for these chilly days.

The soft-opening menu’s not vast, but it covers the bases and nearly all entries pop off the cheeky, laminated street-style card. There are rice dishes and appetizers, but when in a soup shack, have soup. The signature dish is an aptly named What a Signature, with wagyu beef and rice noodles, meatballs and fried wontons in a rich soy broth. There are only six soups (or I should say noodle offerings, as one is brothless), and while the Signature piqued my interest, my gut directed me toward the creamy tom yum soup with ground pork and crispy pork, bean sprouts and fried garlic. I was wondering what would be creamy about a tom yum, a sweet and sour broth made mouth-puckering with Thai chili, lemongrass and fish sauce, and when my bowl came out there was nothing creamy or dairy about it. It was just an excellent version of a basic Thai recipe (tom yum means “boiling mix”). Pork lovers will dig the crispy, cubes of lean meat with a broiled fatty outer layer; the ground pork was a nice addition. The meat was atop the eatery’s “instant noodle,” which I would describe as fine, run-of-the-mill ramen noodles leaning toward the angel hair side of the house. I particularly appreciate it when Asian soups (especially pho and ramen) come crowned as this one did with fresh bean sprouts – a zesty, earthy offset to the sweet and sour bite.

A shrimp omelet rice dish at What a Soup. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Other basics on the menu include a chicken bowl and Beef Boat, which as you can imagine is all things beef, including tendon. One of the rice dishes is basically the Beef Boat on rice, with a fried egg; another is the shrimp omelet, a small bowl of rice crowned with a velvety fold of egg and prawn. It’s not a big dish, but something well worth trying as a starter and a reason in its own right for a return visit. There are plenty of Thai beverages too, including coconut juice and Thai iced tea or coffee. 

Each bowl of soup comes with its own bit of pageantry to go with the restaurant’s festive manga mural and neon lights: a fried wanton chip that sticks up like a real estate for-sale sign with “What a Soup” seared into it. It’s a neat flourish – and yes, you can eat it.

What a Soup could stand to spring for one of those cold-weather entryway curtains. My last visit, we were down below 20 and I scored the table next to the door. I had to keep my jacket on, which wasn’t so bad – and in some weird way may have magnified the warm, satiating quality of the soup.

No matter. I’m curious to see how What a Soup grows the menu. For soup lovers, this is your stop, and if you plan to come, come early, because the place fills up fast.

What A Soup, 125 River St., Central Square, Cambridge


Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.