Her Thai mom taught her to cook and now she and her husband run a Cambridge mom-and-pop
The modern mom-and-pop is a savvy couple with worldly experience and business know-how. They may not have a PR budget, but they understand how to woo customers with warm, welcoming hospitality, explaining everything on the menu enthusiastically.
All of this is palpable at the new Mae Asian Eatery in Central Square, where Thailand-born Yuri Asawasittikit, 41, is the chef, and her Indian-American husband, Anil Rayasam, 37, raised in New Jersey, runs the front of the house.
The 20-seat restaurant, which opened in December, is in the space on Main Street across from Royal East that used to be Beijing Tokyo (the Mae sign isn’t up yet and you can still see the word “Tokyo” on the blue awning). In the light, renovated dining room, golden basketweave pendant lights hang over tables and food arrives on blue-patterned Royal Doulton plates or square and round light-wood trays.
Mâe (pronounced MAY-heh) means “mother” in the Thai language. Dishes are based on recipes from Asawasittikit’s Thai mother — the couple FaceTime daily with her — and includes Chinese specialties that she made for her late husband, along with other Asian dishes she knows. Yuri Asawasittikit was raised in the Phetchabun Province in the north of Thailand, in Lom Kao District, near the Laos border, where her mom still lives.
This is home cooking, presented simply. Asawasittikit has a very light touch. She trained at Johnson & Wales and worked at the Marriott in Newton, then at a relative’s restaurant, Tree Top, in Waltham. You aren’t getting dishes that are overly sweet or salty; you can taste the high quality of the produce and meat.
The appetizer Golden Bag is almost too cute to eat. Six little beggars’ purses with deliciously crisp skins are filled with curried potatoes, carrots, and peas (think Indian samosas), served with a vinegary sauce. Hot-and-sour tom yum soup in a tomato-flavored chicken broth with mushrooms, has just enough chiles to warm you.
Ubiquitous pad Thai with rice vermicelli, shrimp, and chicken is perfect in its light tamarind sauce. Asawasittikit says she also uses palm sugar to give the noodles a shine and balance flavors. Pad se-ew, made with flat rice noodles and Chinese broccoli, is tossed in a dark soy sauce.
Original Street Noodle, which comes on a square tray, is a Chinese dish with Thai influences, says Rayasam, who lived in Thailand with his wife for the last two years. A bowl of soft noodles is topped with pieces of pork belly, triangles of fish cake, thin slices of roast pork, bean sprouts, squares of crisp wonton wrapper, cilantro, and ground peanuts. You spoon some of the light broth that accompanies it onto the noodles, enough to moisten them but not make the dish soupy, then add condiments, like a sprinkle of chile pepper or hot vinegar, and mix it up. It’s a fun bowl.
Mae’s fried rice is a mild dish of jasmine grains with morsels of chicken and shrimp. The shrimp, in all these dishes, is fresh and juicy.
Sauteed ground chicken with bell peppers, onions, and basil form the base of pad krapow gai, which is mildly hot. The Vietnamese dish bun cha, a bowl of rice vermicelli with grilled pork and shrimp on a bed of lettuce and salad vegetables, topped with sprouts, basil, mint, and peanuts comes with a mildly sweet fish-sauce dressing. It’s a well thought out version of the classic. The food is popular at home, says Asawasittikit. “In Thailand, we eat a lot of Vietnamese food.”
Once you’re seated at Mae, a bowl of crispy, salty, ultra-thin banana chips comes to the table. They’re made by Snack Food Farm, a company Asawasittikit and Rayasam set up Thailand (he’s a former banker with an MBA from Babson) with a facility in New Jersey. The couple are shipping them to Japan, where they’re gaining popularity. Chips come in spicy barbecue, toasted seaweed, and cheesy corn flavors; you can buy a sack at the counter (they’re $2.99).
This mom and pop aren’t just new restaurateurs. They’re also entrepreneurs. Today, you may need more than warmth, charm, and great cooking to succeed. Restaurants are closing like tents collapsing in a wind storm. This duo has positioned themselves in the sweet spot.
781 Main St., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-354-3388, www.maeae.com.