The Assimilated Appetite

Does Thai Tara aim to please the American palate at the expense of traditional tastes?

Pud Kee Mao and Tod Mun
Pud Kee Mao and Tod Mun (Photo By John Anderson)

Thai Tara

601 W. Sixth, 236-0856

Monday-Thursday, 11am-3pm, 5-10pm; Friday, 11am-3pm, 5-11pm; Saturday, 5-11pm; Sunday, 5-10pm

One of the things I enjoy most about Thai food is the variety of ingredients and the juxtapositions of flavors, textures, and temperatures. A good Thai meal that balances spicy and sour, hot and cold, sweet and salty, can elevate one's spirits and open the door to a new taste experience. It is with this in mind that I went to Thai Tara, visits that resulted in a mixture of delight and disappointment.

The interior is comfortable, with a similar arrangement to the previous restaurant incarnation. It is softly lit and quiet, and it could be a very nice romantic spot but for the TV screen hanging directly over the dining room, permanently tuned to CNN. Why restaurants insist on having TVs in their dining rooms still baffles me. A sporting event at a bar is one thing, but I don't like bloody wars and talking heads while I'm trying to have a nice dinner.

The menu at this downtown eatery features a combination of traditional Thai dishes and others with Chinese and Western influences. On our first visit, we were pleasantly surprised. We started with a bowl of Tom Yum Soup ($3.75), a spicy broth redolent of fresh lemongrass and galangal, the shrimp and mushrooms plump and perfectly cooked. The only complaint concerned the actual container in which it was served: a heart-shaped, shallow bowl that prevented the broth from covering the ingredients and made it difficult to spoon out the soup. The Siamese Rolls ($2.25) were crunchy and hot, filled with shredded cabbage and carrot, but the dipping sauce was a bit too sweet for my taste.

I usually gravitate toward the Thai salad entrées. They are hot, sour, fresh, and full of interesting flavors. The ones we chose were very different from those we had seen at any other Thai restaurant in the Austin area. Both were artistically arranged and had lots of eye appeal. The Num Tok ($10) was similar to a composed salad: a generous array of crisp lettuce, tomato wedges, cucumber slices, finely shredded carrot strands, and thin slices of deliciously grilled beef topped with crisp minced shallot, toasted rice powder, fresh mint leaves, and Thai chiles, served with a tangy lime juice dressing. A bowl of fragrant, steamed jasmine rice was the perfect companion, making an altogether satisfying summer entrée.

Our other excellent and unusual selection was the Yum Pla Duk Foo ($9.50), fluffy fried fish served alongside a tangy and spicy green apple salad. I had never had this dish before, but I have found out it is a very popular salad served across Thailand, traditionally made with catfish and served with a spicy mango salad. The preparation is truly unique. The fish fillet is fried, with no flour or breading, for just a few seconds. It is then drained of excess oil and pounded with a mallet to a thin, lacy consistency. Next, it's flash fried to a golden crisp. The best way I can describe the resulting texture is that of a light fish chicharrón. I found it absolutely irresistible. Although not the traditional salad accompaniment, the matchstick slices of Granny Smith apple, green onion slivers and whole roasted peanuts in a lime juice, fish sauce, and Thai chile dressing were the perfect foil to the melt-in-your-mouth crispiness of the fish. I became instantly addicted. This dish exemplifies exactly the texture and flavor combinations that I love so much in Thai cuisine.

Our server was polite and attentive, offering explanations when we asked for descriptions and suggestions. On our second visit, however, things were a bit different. The two young waitpeople on the floor didn't seem to be very efficient, experienced, or friendly. We were seated by one of them and, while waiting for a friend to join us, we sat there for about 10 minutes without being offered a drink, despite attempts to attract the waiter's attention. When our companion finally arrived, the other waitperson came and asked if we were ready to order. While it may sound picky, it is one of my restaurant service pet peeves. It is always best to offer drinks first and then allow diners enough time to look through the menu.

We started with the Tod Mun ($4.50) fish cakes. The fish cakes had good consistency and flavor, and were served with the traditional cucumber salad, although the sweet-and-sour dressing was a bit too sweet (perhaps the same dipping sauce served with the spring rolls). We followed with a bowl of Tom Kha ($3.75), the classic chicken-broth-and-coconut-milk soup. Unfortunately, the broth had only a hint of coconut milk and seemed to have been thickened with cornstarch instead. And since it was served in that same shallow bowl of the previous visit, most of the chicken pieces were sticking out of the broth, and the whole thing cooled quickly.

Moving on to the entrées, we could not help but notice that just about every stir-fry, noodle dish, curry dish, and specialty on the menu had bell peppers in it. Even the dinner specials had bell peppers. This is an ingredient that is not necessarily traditional in Thai cuisine but more a Chinese influence, and while I don't dislike it, it can have an overpowering flavor if used indiscriminately. For instance, the Pad Kee Mao ($8.50), described as stir-fried flat noodles, mushrooms, Thai chile, basil, garlic, makrud lime leaves, and choice of meat (we opted for chicken), consisted mostly of sliced onions and bell peppers – with surprisingly few noodles – in a sweetish brown sauce that was not spicy at all.

We also tried the Sea Treasure ($14.74), another entrée that sounded much better than it actually was. It was described as shrimp, squid, scallops, and green mussels with napa cabbage, fresh basil, lime leaves and – you guessed it – red and green bell peppers in curry paste. As with all dishes at Thai Tara, the presentation was nice. The seafood came enveloped in an aluminum foil pouch that was sliced open in the middle to reveal the contents and release a tantalizing curry aroma. But after tasting the dish, we noticed that the sauce was broken, the mussels were a tad too done, and the curry "paste" wasn't spicy. Just to reassure myself, I also ordered my favorite dish from Thai Tara's menu, the Yum Pla Duk Foo. Thankfully, it was as good as the first time, and it was the first dish to disappear from the table.

Thai Tara's dessert menu is small but includes a couple of interesting offerings. The chilled Lychees Over Ice ($3) and the House Special Ice Cream ($3) both seemed like a refreshing way to end a Thai meal. Unfortunately, the waitress dropped off the check without offering dessert, and since it was getting late and service hadn't been stellar, we opted to skip it. I will have to try them next time I go in for my fluffy fish salad fix, which I most likely will need soon.

Thai Tara's menu aims to please the American palate rather than offer traditional Thai flavors. While this is good news for diners who enjoy Thai food without the heat (and I know a few), it would be nice if they provided condiment trays for those of us who prefer the fiery aspect of Thai cuisine, as other area Thai restaurants do. Putting a little extra attention into detail, improving the service, and turning off the TV would make the Thai Tara experience much better upon future visits. end story

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