Thumbs up for Tamarind House

About a week ago I lamented to a friend the apparent lack of quality Asian restaurants in the Cambridge/Somerville area.  Not that I’m an expert on Asian food here after a month, but up to that point I’d been decidedly unimpressed with the Asian places I had been to (and inquired about): an inconsistent Cantonese meal in Chinatown (which my dad suffered a parking ticket for), a mediocre Americanized buffet lunch, and some unmentionable takeout.  I was starting to wonder what the deal was for a place overrun with Asians.  But recently, things have been looking up.  Last weekend I had really beefy pho at Pho ‘n Rice and today my coworkers introduced me to a Thai place a short walk away from the Press.  I ordered the Gai Gaprow and was very pleased with my dish.  Minced white meat chicken and plentiful, expertly sauteed bites of peppers and onions in a fragrant chili-basil sauce.  I especially appreciated how uniformly my vegetables were cut, an overlooked art in the age of Asian-style fast food.  The sauce was spicy and flavorful without being overwhelming, lending itself magnificently to being sopped by the well-cooked rice that accompanied it.  We also ordered some fresh and fried spring rolls, which were solid, though I’m generally not a huge fan of either.  The pad see ew earned praise, as did a tofu dish bearing the title “tofu extreme” or something equally awesome.  I’m sensing that the place isn’t aiming to be exquisitely authentic, considering it carries dishes with names like “exciting tofu” and “ocean madness.”  Still, it was evident to me that at least today, the food was made with attention and care.  Add to that some fish sauce and garlic, and tasty Thai-inspired food can’t be far away.

Tamarind House
1790 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02140

For the past few days, my mother and I have been laboriously sifting through a junk collection that represents twenty-plus years of sheer laziness or hard work, depending on how you look at it. Over the years, my parents have accumulated a mindboggling array of useless knick knacks, and not only refuse to jettison their own odds and ends but often feel compelled to appropriate other people’s trash as well, whether through friend-ly donations (mom) or garage sales (dad). It’s not even like these secondhand items are elevated to first-class treasures in our household: they almost always take a seat on some dusty storage shelf, falling victim to my parents’ “hoard, then ignore” purchasing mentality. It’s actually very humorous to observe, but when it comes time for this bounty of trash to be sorted and reduced, it is a huge pain in my ass. It’s stressful and time-consuming, but most disheartening is that I’ve had to survive on a mix and match diet of rotisserie chicken, pistachios, and blueberries. After half a dozen consecutive meals, eating has become just a bit (gasp) tedious. Not to mention one comes dangerously close to having nothing to food blog about. Luckily for me, I still have some unpublished goodies from Thailand in my backpocket.

The chef’s chicken with cashew nuts stir-fry demo at the cooking school in Chiang Mai:

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My product, complete with a slightly woosy scallion garnish:

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Craving of the moment: oatmeal with mushy bananas.

Spotlight: Khao soi

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Khao soi is a popular soup noodle dish in Northern Thailand.  It’s great for a quick bite during the day but serves as a particularly nice savory alternative for breakfast, if the mood strikes you so.  The one I had in Chiang Mai was crowned with fried dough sticks reminiscent of the ones complimentarily served at casual American-Chinese food joints.  Below these crispy crawlers were egg noodles, bean sprouts,  tofu, and tung choy in a light but flavorful and fragrant, curry-like broth.  Mild enough so that you don’t break a sweat first thing in the morning but with enough of a kick so that you get up from your stool with your eyes a bit more open, that much more prepared to take on the day.

 

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A day of eating. Literally.

A few weeks back, one of my fellow foodies suggested a “day of progressive eating.”  The idea was novel to me and the territory unknown — an entire day devoted exclusively to eating — and I’m always one for stretching myself and my stomach capacity, so I eagerly got onboard.  This also gave us an excuse to try some of the best-rated restaurants in Hong Kong according to the local food website, openrice.com.  An itinerary was mapped out: 11 restaurants/food stalls were chosen for the task, most within walking distance of each other, cuisines spanning Chiu Chow, Malaysian, Thai, and local Hong Kong specialties like wonton noodles.

Our first stop was a place I had been meaning to visit for months, Australian Dairy Company.  I’ve heard nothing but the highest praise for this restaurant’s simple fare of eggs, toast, and macaroni soup.  At the entrance I ran into some friends of my parents, who apparently recognized me even though I had not the slightest clue who they were (and still don’t).  It’s always a bit awkward and disorienting when people you don’t know claim to know (of) you.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, ADC was to be my favorite restaurant of this day.  But the scrambled eggs and thick-cut toast were spot-on and satisfying in the visceral way that only foods like scrambled eggs and toast could. I could see why even the humble-sounding macaroni soup had secured a faithful following, as the salty broth with supermarket ham tidbits and elbow macaroni could very well be the Hong Kong equivalent of chicken noodle soup.

Australian Dairy Company:
47-49 Parkes St, Jordan

Scrambled eggs with toast.

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Xiao long bao and Thai

Since I’ve only been in HK for two weeks, I’ve been scoping out the restaurants in the area, and hence, eating out a lot. Usually, I try and cook something for lunch, so as to reserve dinner for these restaurant escapades. Under the recommendation of someone who was in my program last year, my coworkers and I decided to try a Shanghai place in Old Tai Po.

George ordered some bak choy sauteed in garlic to get some veggies in his system.

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Emily went with a Shanghai noodle and vegetable stir-fry, which looked gorgeous and tasted darn good as well.

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Ryan, a vegetarian, opted for the vegetable fried rice. I’m pretty sure he polished this off.

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Winnie got the sauteed string beans (I’m pretty sure they’re also fried at some point), which is classic goodness. As you can see, she was eager to dive in.

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Of course, a number of us got a dish of xiao long bao, Shanghai soup douplings.

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I was really excited to try these, because I’ve had some darn good ones at Joe’s Shanghai. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like these matched up. The texture of the skin was chewier than I’m used to, which I actually enjoyed, but when I bit into the sucker, it lacked the burst of porky flavor that I was expecting. I liked the ratio of soup:meat:skin, but they just didn’t satisfy my soup dumpling urge like I had hoped they would.

I also ordered a dish of spicy wonton, and asked for it extra hot…but I think it ended up just being extra salty. I added the chili sauce on top to help compensate for this oversight, which itself was also extremely salty.

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I enjoyed the wonton themselves, which were densely packed with pork and shrimp. But all I couldn’t help but think about the killer spicy wonton dish at a Hunan restaurant near my house in NJ (that unfortunately, recently closed down). The much more delicate sauce was spicier, but slightly sweet and with a hint of vinegar, while the wonton skins were more substantive and not overdone. One might suggest that I stop comparing what I eat here to what I’ve had in the States, but a large part of my interest in the cuisine here is precisely how it contrasts with what I eat at home, and so I think the comparisons are inevitable, even if they are unspoken.

On Friday, we went out with some of the students from our TESOL class, most of whom grew up in the area. They suggested a popular Thai place in Tai Po called Chung Shing Thai, and off we went.

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The kitchen is indoors, and the seating area of the restaurant is all outside under the umbrellas and the striped canvas roof cover. I really liked the homey, lowkey feel of the place, especially in combination with some thoughtful nuances in decoration. I had never seen a picket fence in a restaurant before, and I thought it was so charming.

Some appetizers: garlic bread, chicken satay, marinated beef, and a naan-type fried bread.

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And some main courses: Seafood pineapple fried rice and curry crab.

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And of course, some greens: coconut curry mixed vegetables and Chinese tung choy sauteed in a spicy garlic sauce.

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I also missed shooting the New Zealand mussels dish, a few curries, and the seafood lemongrass soup that the restaurant are famous for. The food was delicious — this was probably the best meal I’ve had since getting here. I loved the curries — each one was boldly and distinctly flavored, and the thicker red curry was made to be sopped up by bread. Any bread. Even moldy wonder bread. Over some slightly sticky white rice (the way it should be, in my book), the curries were so good it’s not even funny. We cleaned up house.

We also got dessert on the house, a plate of sweet sticky red rice with mangoes on top, along with some jellies, drizzled with coconut milk.

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What a good meal — I left with my belly full and my mouth still slightly tingling from all the powerful flavors (in some cases, perhaps too powerful). I’m definitely hitting this place up again. Probably once a week…which leaves me about 49 more visits.