Thai food in Boston tends to fall into either of two camps. The first is typified by very traditional places like S & I Thai and Dok Bua: frequented by Thai ex-pats, these restaurants have lots of Thai-language names on the menu, and feature the bracing, unmuted flavors of chilies, green peppercorns, galangal, fish sauce, and shrimp paste. The other might best be described as Thai-American: their clientele favors chicken satay and pad thai from safe, same-y menus, many cheap ingredient substitutions (e.g., green peas for Thai baby eggplant, curries from a can), and few arresting flavors. Tamarind House falls somewhere in the middle, not quite offering the street-food ferociousness of my traditional favorites, but still pleasing with the bright but milder flavors of Thai home cooking.
A good example is gaprow gai krob ($11.95), a stir-fry of bell peppers, onions, and chunks of chicken with well-crisped skin, the whole covered with a blanket of lightly dry-fried, still-vivid-green Thai basil. That last touch pushes the dish from ordinary to gorgeous and delicious. Yum talay ($13.95) is a very simple seafood salad with a dressing of rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar, and dried chilie. But it's loaded with fresh-tasting scallops, squid, shrimp, and lightly fried fish fillets brightened with red bell pepper and red onion, a perfect summer dish. Spicy eggplant ($10.95) shows the generous heft of most entrées here, a mound of ground chicken and sliced Japanese eggplant in a mildly fiery brown sauce, punched up with some fermented black beans and copious Thai basil. Green curry with pork ($9.95) offers the green-on-green-on-green flavors of bell pepper, green beans, and Thai basil in the coconut-milk-softened curry sauce, with slices of Thai melon for mildly bitter contrast and tender slices of pork loin. The rarely seen Northern Thai dish of salmon haw moak ($13.95) is an airy, delectable, soufflé-like fish mousse, steamed in a banana leaf and served with a mild coconut-milk curry with vegetables.
Noodle dishes include a creditable pad woonsen ($6.95/lunch, $8.95/dinner), slippery, transparent mung-bean noodles stir-fried with shrimp, peas, choy, and mushrooms, and khao soi ($6.95), Northern-style egg noodles with chicken and Thai radish in a thin yellow curry, garnished with crisp-fried noodles. Drink options include vanilla-scented Thai tea ($1.95/hot, $2.50/iced with sweetened condensed milk) and bottles of Chang ($3), a fizzy, refreshing Thai lager. Service is typically friendly in a pleasantly sunny, lime-sherbet-colored room. Tamarind House perhaps shows too restrained a hand with its cuisine's boldest flavors, but it's a useful step up from the bowdlerized meekness of the suburban Thai run-of-the-mill. Call it a Triple-A Thai joint in a town with too few major-league ones.
Tamarind House, located at 1790 Mass Ave in Cambridge, is open Monday–Saturday, 11:30 am–3 pm and 5–10 pm, and Sunday, 12–3 pm and 5–10 pm. Call 617.491.9940 or visit tamarindhousema.com.