For lovers of authentic Southeast Asian cooking, discovering that Vatcharin Bhumichtir is chef at a neighborhood Thai restaurant in North Beach is akin to learning that Emeril Lagasse just opened a gumbo shack in Overtown. It's not the caliber of the food at relatively humble places that's in question. It's that one expects high-profile chefs to be associated with high-profile -- and high-priced -- restaurants. And since moving from Thailand to England in 1976, Vatch (pronounced "Waht") has indeed opened several world-renowned Thai restaurants, including Chiang Mai, the Thai Bistro, and Southeast W9, all in London, home of the Western world's best Thai food. He has also published half a dozen cookbooks that are regarded as Bibles of Southeast Asian cuisine. The guy is Mr. Thai.
But he really is in fact executive chef at Tamarind (www.tamarindthai.us), a space formerly occupied by a series of short-lived Italian and Latin eateries across from the now-bustling fountain area where Normandy Drive merges with 71st Street. That's not to say Vatch is always in the kitchen. He opened Tamarind, in late 2004, in association with two old friends from Thailand -- food/wine maven Day Longsomboon and her husband Surasak, with whom Vatch went to art school. The artsy background is happily evident in the place's décor. Whereas all its predecessors retained the same outdated Old World look, the room is now stylishly sleek, with a monthly revolving art exhibit on the walls. The ambiance is now suitable for a romantic evening or even an important business meal.
And the reasonably priced cuisine (entrées sized for sharing average $11 to $13, with starters around $7), prepared by chefs trained by Vatch and supervised by Day, will delight even the most knowledgeable and sophisticated fans of Thai cuisine. Although many local joints turn out tasty Thai dishes, what's most often missing is the exquisite balance, found in top Thai spots in London and Thailand, of textures, heat, and tastes -- sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savory. This occurs in individual dishes but also in full meals, because the Thai dining style involves sharing four or five dishes (which the chef balances regarding flavors and textures) rather than each person eating his or her own entrée.
The no-brainer way for a couple to experience Thai mix-and-match dining at Tamarind is through the so-called garden mixed appetizer platter: two pieces each of five snacks (sweet "golden baskets" of mee krop noodles, marinated pork skewers, mini shrimp spring rolls, chicken wings, and curried samosas) plus two kirs, for $19.95. This is enough food for a full meal for two, with one shared main dish added. Especially recommended: Tamarind duck. You don't like duck? This one could convert you. Crisp outside but almost fat-free under the skin, the thick boneless poultry slices come topped with fresh pickled onions and peppers, and sauced with a tangy sweet gravy (containing an intriguing hint of fennel) that also enhanced accompanying steamed vegetables (cabbage, carrot, and broccoli). The whole thing made much more sense than typical Western, one-dimensionally sweet, orange-sauced duck.
The restaurant also features some appetizers so unusual that for those accustomed to Americanized Thai, they were tough to resist. Laap gai is a chili-lime flavored, onion-garnished minced chicken salad in a cabbage-leaf bowl. The creation is as delicious as it is healthy. Tahu tod is another dish that will make converts of the reluctant. Tofu is blank slate, but drenched in Tamarind's ground-peanut rice vinegar sauce it is transformed into something that could be addictive. To be honest, Tod man goong, rather gelatinous corn fritters with a pulverized shrimp base, might be an acquired taste. The dried-plum hot-sweet dipping sauce, however, seriously shortens the learning curve. Whatever you order, get a side of puffed roti bread to sop up every drop.
Notice something missing? Yes. Sushi. Those who want California rolls with their pad thai can dine at one of Miami's countless less-authentic Thai eateries. This one is the real thing.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.