1036 South Jackson Street
Reviewed: 18 March 2008
We usually aren't big fans of Vietnamese food. The restaurants we tried back in the 1980s were rather bland and uninspired, so we avoided the cuisine until recently when a friend of ours in Seattle suggested Tamarind Tree. Ironically, she recommended Tamarind Tree, a restaurant noted for its seven course beef dinner, because she was cutting back on her meat consumption. Needless to say, we didn't try the house specialty, and we have nothing to complain about.
Tamarind Tree is located east of I-5 in the International District, and it is a bit hard to find being located in a mid-block strip mall parking lot. We weren't sure what to expect., but once inside the restaurant, we were enlightened. There were fountains and fires and a pleasant sense of calm. Our table was right next to a pretty wood burning fireplace with an overhead hood. We settled down with our friend and went through the extensive menu. It wasn't at all like the Vietnamese restaurants we remembered. The food actually looked interesting.
As it turned out, the food was not only interesting, but delicious. The vegetables were fresh, the fish properly prepared and the cooking quite good. We started with the stuffed escargot, obviously a French fusion dish with ground pork, snails and ginger meatballs wrapped around zesty lemon grass stalks. It was sort of a pork lollipop, rich and tasty. The fresh lotus root salad was lighter with crisp disks of lotus root, jicama, carrots, and fresh herbs. Ours was served with lemongrass grilled tofu, an excellent match. The grilling really made a difference. Another great match was stir fried chayote sauteed with prawns. Chayote is a type of squash, or at least it tastes like a squash, but it was thinly sliced so it held its texture in the stir fry.
The steamed baguette was another French fusion dish, with a yeasty baguette, steamed and stuffed with ground beef like a hamburger a la Lyon. This was served with a fresh green salad, a collection of green herbs, mainly mint and coriander, and dressed with Vietnamese fish sauce. We probably would not have come up with this dish ourselves, but it we had to admit that the steam softened burger went well with the brightly flavored and crispy salad. Fusion cuisine is not always a faux pas.
We also had a great dish of Vietnamese water spinach, which is known locally in Port Angeles, where it is sold at the Farmers' Market, as New Zealand spinach. It has a lot of flavor, but a softer iron note than regular land spinach, and Tamarind Tree sauteed it nicely with lots of garlic. They also produced a competent, but not spectacular, pineapple seafood dish, with prawns, squid and scallops. This was probably the weakest dish, but this was only in contrast with the rest of the meal.
We should also mention that Tamarind Tree serves fascinating cocktails, many of them infused with herbs. They also serve traditional Vietnamese coffee, deliciously sweetened with condensed milk.
Tamarind Tree is not the first restaurant we have found in a strip mall, surrounded by a parking lot, that we have enjoyed. We now have to rethink our assessment of Vietnamese food. We liked the food. We liked the decor, and the service was good. We now have a new cuisine to explore. Next stop, the seven course beef special.