Flavor: Classic mildly-spiced Thai-American cuisine
Ambiance: Accessibly elegant
Here's the good news: Not everything tastes the same at Tamarind, the Thai restaurant that this summer squeezed in behind the big-box stores that have lately taken up residence in Arden.
Too many American Thai restaurants opt to tell the same story with each dish by dousing their plates with lime juice, applying cilantro indiscriminately and making everything so relentlessly fragrant that diners feel like they're trapped in a hotel elevator on prom night. Not Tamarind: The kitchen has taken full advantage of the array of flavors available in Thai cuisine. Thanks to a judicious use of ingredients, there's no mistaking one dish for another. Tamarind duck is nothing like the duck curry, which is entirely different from the green curry, which bears absolutely no resemblance to the sweet-basil eggplant.
But here's the bad news: Not everything tastes the same at Tamarind. Just because you have a phenomenal dinner one night, there's no guarantee you'll have one the next. Tamarind's menu is impressively extensive, but it's also uneven. Lurking alongside some of the best Thai food in Buncombe County are dishes that are disappointing.
Albeit hit-or-miss, Tamarind is really too delicious to skip. The more I think about my meals there, the more besotted I become with the place. There's something about Tamarind that's tremendously endearing. Perhaps it's the earnest stabs at fancifying the standard strip-mall decor -- lacquered tables are set with napkins elaborately rolled into a thumbs-up shape and the walls are hung with pretty paintings of ingredients central to Thai cooking. Or maybe it's the friendly staffers, who specialize in what might best be described as folk service -- untrained, but heartfelt. I don't know: But by the end of a dinner with friends there, even dishes that didn't add up flavorwise were eliciting "awws" instead of "ewws."
("I think they tried," one of my companions said, poking at a plate of soggy fried bananas spritzed with whipped topping.)
In fact, all the desserts and appetizers I tried were less than satisfying. The spring rolls, featuring layers of crisped, oily dough with a paltry pork stuffing, smacked of far-away origins. The curry puffs also had a boxed flavor, and it's my guess that whoever froze them didn't intend for the distinctly Indian hors d'oeuvres to emerge in a Thai restaurant.
The soups I sampled were much better, with a clear Tom Yum, ballasted with fresh cauliflower and tomato quarters, providing a tangy start to the meal. The lemongrass-infused broth was admirably delicate and free of the oiliness that mars so many similar soups.
There are a number of salads on Tamarind's menu, including a vinegary beef salad that's a flavor cousin of American coleslaw. The thick slices of beef were perfectly cooked and sounded distinctly meaty notes that could be easily detected above the dressing's persistent sourness.
Still, entrées are the main event at Tamarind, with dozens of different takes on chicken, fish, beef and tofu listed on the multipage menu. On my first visit, I dutifully followed our server's recommendation and tried the Spicy Noodles with Tofu, which I ordered "Thai Hot."
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that Tamarind's concept of heat differed from mine. But still, Thai Hot should sting. Thai Hot should clear sinuses.
(I wish I knew the secret to persuading servers that when I say hot, I mean hot. I've toyed with the idea of keeping a few peppers on my person, thinking I could impress my dubious order-taker with my feats of taste. Confronted with evidence of my actually enjoying food that leaves the tongue numb, surely the server would have no choice but to lobby the chef on my behalf. I don't expect to ever get anything truly Thai Hot in a restaurant that caters to non-natives, but I'm still hoping to find an Asian restaurant in Asheville willing to pack enough heat on its plates that I'd need my water glass refilled.)
I was much happier with the Ba Mee Noodles, a plateful of thin, curly egg noodles served with roasted pork. The soft nest of noodles was terrific, as was the meltingly rich pork. The dish tasted like the best street food: Fulfilling and simple, with an easily appreciated depth of flavor.
The Three Flavor Red Snapper was equally rewarding: Caked in fry and bathed in a syrupy sauce, it was better than it looked and sounded. The snapper was beautifully cooked with a balanced lineup of spices.
But my favorite entrée by far was a velvety duck red curry, which was swimming with red peppers and pineapple. The sauce was transcendent -- the sort that makes you wish curry was served with a straw. And the duck itself was meaty and smoky and lean. With a dish this good, I wondered, did Tamarind ever consider scrapping the whole full-service thing and becoming a Duck Curry Express?
Probably not. The minds behind Tamarind are too focused on the many flavors at their fingertips. And that's something to celebrate.