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Thai Highs

[whitespace] Tam Restaurant
Christopher Gardner

Prawn of a New Era: Nhon Luonz shows off the jumbo shrimp in Thai sauce (detail above) at Tam Restaurant.

Tam's menu navigates a delicious course through Southeast Asia's culinary geography

By Andrew X. Pham

OUR WAITER LEANED close to let us in on a secret: "People drive all the way from Palo Alto to eat our tempura prawns."

So, he did talk us into the prawns. And as soon as we started querying about the rest of the menu at this Vietnamese-Thai restaurant, he launched into a litany of his favorite dishes--all Thai.

With a penchant for hard-selling the menu's winners, he was the pushiest, yet nicest, waiter we had ever encountered. When one of our group --a single-minded Scottish sailor--wanted Vietnamese beef noodle soup, the waiter politely turned him down--twice--practically refusing to serve it. He said that it was better as a breakfast or lunch entree. He was right about that, just as he was with all his recommendations.

The restaurant opened almost a year ago in one of Milpitas' mega strip malls. The attractive dining room belies the low prices. While neither the marquee nor the menu accurately describes the house's specialties, the restaurant is probably best judged by its famed dishes, which are primarily Thai and Viet-Thai in origin. Of course, the menu offered Vietnamese mainstays such as bun (rice vermicelli with vegetables and grilled meat), individual rice plates, rice porridge and claypots.

The menu suffered a bit from poor exposition, and even our loquacious waiter could only describe the house's famous specialty as "shrimp tempura with Thai sauce" ($7.95), which definitely was the starlet of our evening. The shrimp were actually jumbo prawns almost big enough to be petite lobsters. Lightly battered and deep-fried in their shells, our four crustaceans were doused with a bell pepper sauté redolent with garlic yet exceptionally balanced.

Against our waiter's wishes, we strayed to grilled mussels on the half shell with tamarind sauce ($6.95) and instantly regretted our minor insurgence. The only major stumble of the evening, the mussels came off as chewy and the tamarind sauce tasted woefully teriyaki-sweet. Naturally, his other recommendation--a calamari salad ($7.50)--was flawless. Cross-scored calamari collars steamed to a petal-tenderness reposed on cushions of Vietnamese slaw with lemongrass and mint, all drizzled with a rice vinaigrette. Lovely, cool tones. The calamari were as tender as poached scallops.

The kitchen surprised us with its version of bo bia ($2.95), a favorite Saigon street food often served after dark. Cousin to the salad rolls (but much better) that are regulars at every Vietnamese diner, bo bia featured the same rice-paper wrapper, but Tam's cook added lettuce and bits of mint to level the playing field. The real texture and flavor came from steamed jicama, which tasted like sweet daikon without the radish sharpness, and thin coins of slightly sweet and fatty Chinese sausage, very good with the accompanying hoisin dip and a couple of 33 Beers ($2.75), a Heineken-like import from Vietnam.

The most Vietnamese dish of the evening proved to be smartly grilled pork chops, which derived their flavored from a marinade of fish sauce and brown sugar. More typical of Thai and Viet fusion were beef tips ($6.95) sautéed in a faintly shrimpy sauce with fried tofu and Japanese eggplant, seamlessly panned to preserve beef tenderness as well as the eggplant's al dente texture. Thai hot-and-sour shrimp soup ($7.75) gave a good showing of shiitake mushrooms and a generous amount of shrimp. A very balanced rendition, faintly sweet but sassy with chile-tamarind overtones, the soup focused more on bringing out the fragrance of lemongrass and lime leaves than on igniting the broth with chile.

Our favorite desserts were coconut ice cream and rice with fresh mango. The house-made ice cream--a little on the sorbet side because of the addition of coconut milk--was confettied with jelly-like ribbons of young coconut meat and jackfruit. Instead of going with the usual sweet fried banana, we elected instead the glutinous rice with fresh mango, a Thai sweet which has been enjoying an upswing in local popularity. The cook assembled a huge plate of ripe mango, perfectly selected--just ripe, blossoming sweet fragrance and completely free of mango fiber. Sweet coconut milk soaked through the generous strata of pressed rice. This is one of those special desserts that can double as a summery appetizer--though be forewarned that one portion can easily serve two.

At the conclusion of this fine meal, one of our party confessed that she had come all the way from Redwood City--and was glad that she did. Our waiter grinned with a glint in his eyes, and in that instant we could see him thenceforth, leaning close to new patrons and saying, "People drive all the way from Redwood City to eat our ..."

Tam Restaurant
Cuisine: Thai-Viet and Vietnamese
Ambiance: Casual family diner
Menu: $4.25-$10, hot pots $14-$16
Hours: 9am-9pm daily
Address: 1720 N. Milpitas Blvd., Milpitas
Phone: 408/934-3970
Extras: Extensive vegetarian menu

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From the July 30-Aug. 5, 1998 issue of Metro.

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