Deep Cuisine

Sit back, relax, explore at Tamarind Tree.

A Vietnamese proverb says "Heaven punishes, heaven reprimands. But heaven does none of this when people are eating." That's the vibe at Tamarind Tree. Its sleek warmth envelops you; its crisp presentation and fresh flavors captivate. The gritty authenticity of International District commerce and heavy traffic seem to swirl by without a sound. I wasn't sure what to make of Tamarind Tree as I inched my vehicle toward the dead end of a strip mall parking lot. The sign visible to drivers is too humble, barely whispering black letters on an abyss of glowing white. But I was lured by deep red, orange, and black— a sultry fireplace of a room beckoning through the drab exterior. The decor is smart. Dark paint masks an acoustic tile ceiling and polished wood paneling softens the room's edges. Artful, low lights accent the luscious color scheme. It's sharp without pretension; cozy without kitsch. But perhaps the best aesthetic of all is the food. When in the International District, you really ought to think outside the teriyaki-to-go box and do as the locals do. With Vietnamese cuisine, this means understanding two things. First, the Vietnamese place friends and family at the height of importance. What better way to spend time with the folks that matter most than enjoying a bountiful table of food? Lengthy meals are considered a good thing, which may explain a little about Tamarind Tree's apparent understaffing. (That, or word-of-mouth raves have drawn unanticipated crowds.) No matter, the fizzy sweetness of a kumquat syrup soda ($2)—enhanced by real kumquat rinds—kept me quiet between courses. Second, the Vietnamese like fresh food. In a traditional Vietnamese kitchen, there's no refrigerator or freezer. People buy ingredients at the market every day. That's what makes Tamarind Tree so satisfying. Even the ice cream's never more than a day old. Start with the turmeric coconut rice cakes ($6.75): Crispy cakes topped with shrimp arrive next to a pile of greens, the latter of which serve as a wrap. A hint of sweetness hazes the palate, but the salient joy is in the combined texture of ingredients, the fresh greens melding with the shrimp's saccharine juices. Alternatively, the Tamarind Tree Rolls ($4) are an excellent opening act. Enveloped in rice paper, these combine herbs, coconut, jicama, carrots, and fried tofu. The ripe crunch just makes you feel healthier. Choosing a main course is tough, as the menu offers a long list of intriguing dishes. I suggest the combo noodles platter ($8.45)—a boring name for a literal "dining experience." Scrape shrimp meat off a sugarcane stick that's laced it with flavor alongside an array of skewered beef, pork, or shrimp and greens. Choose the rice paper option and dip crisp sheets of the stuff in water to make wraps. The satisfaction of D.I.Y. dining will enhance the already fresh, amenable flavors. The pineapple seafood ($9.95) satisfies in conjunction with other dishes. Plump chunks of pineapple extend their juices to a diverse medley of stir-fried veggies, shrimp, scallops, and squid. I hate to admit I didn't venture to try the steamed baguette. Owner Tam Nguyen later informed me that Tamarind Tree is one of few restaurants in town offering this regionally specific dish. Apparently, it's quite popular among diners familiar with the cuisine of Ho Chi Minh city. Dessert options are equally difficult to narrow down. The roasted-coconut ice cream ($4.25) is a must. Shredded coconut tangibly enhances the rich flavor. Avoid the sweet rice banana cake ($3). Banana sushi soaked in warm coconut milk makes for an awkward marriage of textures. Don't come to the Tamarind Tree expecting to skim the surface of Vietnamese cuisine. The intriguing menu'll have you ordering deep into the heart of the culture. Be prepared to stay a while in this hidden pocket of the International District. You'll be in no hurry to leave. epage@seattleweekly.com Tamarind Tree, 1036 S. Jackson St., Suite A. 206-860-1404. 10 a.m.–10 p.m. daily. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT.

 
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