The Hartford Food Guy returns with a review of Tamarind Bar & Grill.
We are lucky to have more than one good Thai restaurant in the area from which we can choose. That said, and with no disrespect to the East West Grill on New Park Ave in Elmwood (which is really, really good), my wife and I are partial to Tamarind Grill on Pratt Street in Downtown. In fact, this review is long overdue because my wife and I go there a lot (and we also get delivery from there pretty regularly) and we have had many, many delicious meals.
We went again on Friday after work, and I resolved that this would be the trip I would blog about.
Let’s start with the disclaimer; Thai food is obviously very different than what most Americans eat most (if not all) of the time, especially in terms of what the phrase “hot and spicy” means. Indeed, much (if not most) Thai food is a real challenge to the western palate. That’s a good thing, however, because there is a lot more to life (and food) than eating nachos, fried chicken, and hamburgers.
I started with a bowl of the Tom Ka Gai soup. At $4, it is a ridiculous bargain. It consists of chicken in lime leaves, coconut milk, tofu, and red pepper. It has great flavor and is very spicy (the Tamarind menu gives it a 1 pepper spicy hot rating, though I think most people not familiar with Thai food would give it 2), though the coconut milk and tofu do a nice job of balancing out the heat of the dish. I also like the Tom Yum Goong soup ($5), which is a hot and sour soup with prawn (think shrimp) with lemon grass, tofu, and red pepper.
My wife and also split an order of pork dumplings ($7.50). Mrs. HFG thinks Tamarind makes the best dumplings around, and I can’t argue with that assessment. The dumpling itself has a great texture and is never, ever, rubbery, which you sometimes see. The filling is delicious, with steamed pork, sesame, cilantro, and some chili sauce, for kick. Outstanding. It is also served with a soy-based dipping sauce which adds some flavor and moisture.
For dinner, I had the beef hot pot ($15). It is not my all-time favorite Tamarind offering (the mango beef probably is, see below) but it is delicious. More importantly, you can’t get it delivered (nobody is going to carry piping hot stoneware 4 blocks just so the HFG can have a hot pot :<).
One note, both the beef and chicken hot pots are rated as 2 pepper symbols hot on the Tamarind menu, and I agree with that assessment. Still, it is an outstanding choice and you should let the 2 pepper rating scare you away.
My wife had the green curry ($12) (another 2 pepper hot dish, again with good reason) over brown rice. The green curry is a bit different than the sort of curry you’d get in an Indian restaurant as it is thinner, with much more liquid. Still, it is hot and delicious. Tamarind’s green curry is made with chicken, eggplant, peppers, onion, basis leaves, sugar snap peas and bamboo shoots, which are a great balance of textures and which all become infused with the flavor of the curry.
Mrs. HFG and I have had most (if not all) of the food on the menu at one time or another and your really can’t go wrong, regardless of what you end up ordering. One recommendation, however, especially for the more timid; try the mango beef.
The sweetness of the mango cuts the spices and the red, green, and yellow peppers used in the dish. This makes it bit different than a lot of the menu, but it would be a great choice for a beginner and you would still get a great taste of Thai cooking.
One of the best parts about the food at Tamarind is that it is not heavy. You can eat a large (and delicious) meal and not feel stuffed or overloaded. This is the result of them not using a lot of grease or fatty food in their cooking and it also allows the flavors to really pop. While fried foot can be great, there is something really special about flavor profiles that are simply and cleanly prepared.
The service at Tamarind is friendly and hardworking and they are able to deal pretty effectively with the flood of customers who show up every day at lunchtime (seriously, if you go there for lunch after 12 or before about 1:30, be prepared to wait to be seated). Tamarind is a popular spot with people who work in the office buildings Downtown, especially the 20-something crowd, who seem to favor it as a spot for a lunch date. In the evenings, the restaurant is much less crowded, though it is rarely ever even close to empty.
An added plus at Tamarind is the bar. It may not look like much, but it is pretty well-stocked and, more importantly, the people behind it can make a variety of excellent cocktails, ranging from a mai tai, which you would expect, to a margarita, which you would not, to a Manhattan, which I certainly didn't expect (I had two with dinner on Friday :> x 5).
Tamarind is a great place. The food is excellent, the people who work there are very capable and among the most welcoming and friendly in the area, and the prices are very fair. That’s a tough combination to beat.
In fact, about the only negative thing I can say about Tamarind is that, because it is on Pratt Street, there’s not a lot of parking in the immediate vicinity. That, of course, doesn’t matter if you work or live Downtown, but I could see where it would be a pain in the @ss if you don’t. That said, you shouldn’t let that stop you from making the trip, or at least stopping in the next time you go to the XL Center (only 1 block away), Hartford Stage or Theatre works (both 2 blocks away), or otherwise find yourself Downtown. You won’t be disappointed.