The story: Salisa Skinner grew up in a traditional Bangkok home where the women filled the kitchen with delicious food and where Asian children were encouraged to pursue professional careers. So Skinner graduated with a law degree and clerked at a Silicon Valley law firm until her passion for cooking drew her to make a career shift and become a first-time restaurateur, opening Tamarind Hall in the former King of Thai Noodles location in North Beach.
Why I went: I was invited as a guest of the house to check out the four-month-old restaurant, which specializes in Thai cuisine that Skinner grew up with in Northern Thailand. I’ve been on a Thai cuisine education after a couple of eye-opening meals in Portland earlier this year, and wanted to explore the Thai food scene in the Bay Area. I convinced my friend Christina of East Bay Dish to cross the bay and check out Tamarind Hall with me for dinner.
The vibe: The large restaurant with an equally large bar has a contemporary and slick decor with typical dark woods and exposed lighting. Skinner wanted to emphasize a theme of strong women so paintings of Thai female kick boxers dominate the walls. The crowd is young and very much the North Beach/Marina vibe, but many seem to greet Skinner like regulars. But that’s no surprise as Skinner makes a point of getting to know every customer. Although she developed the menu and does cook on most nights, she can also be found in the dining room making customers feel welcome.
The booze: With such a large bar, Skinner made sure she backed it up with a full bar program, including several specialty cocktails that put a Thai or Southeast Asian twist to standards like Tom Collins (called a Thai Collins) or mojito (a mango-flavored version here). While we tried the Mango Mojito, Siamese G-Spot (tequila and St. Germaine with lychee and grapefruit), and Thai Collins (all for $10 each), I found the drinks were pretty but a bit lacking in punch. The drinks are rounded out with bottled beer and wine by the glass.
The menu: While there’s typical Thai dishes like Pad See You or Panang Curry, Skinner adds a lot of childhood favorites, many often common street food like pork sausages in lettuce wraps or roasted chicken plates. Skinner was an excellent host and recommended several favorite dishes, and a few of them were new to me so it’s always fun exploring Thai cuisine and going beyond the flat rice noodles or curry. One interesting dish was the Yam Makua Yao ($12), a gluten-free dish of smoky grilled eggplant served in a tart vinaigrette with cooked duck eggs, mint and coriander. It was definitely one of the prettiest dishes, and while I’m not an eggplant fan, they were cooked in a way that wasn’t as mushy as I’ve found eggplant to be. Christina had this traditional Thai dish at Portland’s Pok Pok, and she said Skinner’s version would have been better if the eggplant pieces were cut smaller.
Another common Thai dish is the Gay Yang Som Tum ($17), which is a roasted chicken rice plate. Skinner serves up a roasted chicken leg and thigh, the meat nice and tender, and served with sticky rice and dipping sauces and papaya salad.
Side note: Christina thought it was interesting that they never asked how spicy we wanted the dishes. So not sure if all the dishes came with just one spice level or if we were given the “safe route” but we definitely felt some of the dishes could have benefited from a bit more heat.
My favorite dish: A unique dish to me and another popular Thai dish right now according to Skinner was the Phuket-style Crab Meat Khanom Jeen ($14). A bowl of lump crab in lemongrass-based curry is brought out with a plate of vermicelli rice noodles. Skinner then tossed the curry in the noodles at the table, and it was a pleasing curry that was nice with the rice noodles. But what I really liked were the bits of chopped pickles and herbs like fresh basil and mint, which added a perk of flavors with the curry. This was a refined and subtle dish that was a surprise to me.
The last bite: Skinner, with no experience in the restaurant business, has created a welcoming and first-class Thai restaurant in a sea of Italian spots in North Beach. The diversity of the menu expands your image of Thai food. While the cocktail program needs to catch up with the food, Tamarind Hall is a welcoming gathering place.
Since I was a guest of the host, I’m not giving my usual rating. This isn’t necessarily a destination spot, but it’s worth checking out if you’re planning to be in North Beach. Thanks to Skinner for being a gracious host!
The deets: Tamarind Hall Thai Street Food and Bar, 1268 Grant Ave. (at Vallejo), San Francisco. PH: 415.866.6337. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.tamarindhall.com
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