Perfect Balancing Act: Thai and Sushi at Tamarind in Deerfield Beach
From Chiang Mai special noodle soup to spice-packed curries, Thai food is anything but simple. It's a complicated choreography of ingredients like fish sauce, dried shrimp paste, and lemongrass combined with seemingly incongruous spices such as coriander, basil, garlic, ginger, cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. But the heart of this cuisine is about balance, a chef mastering the full spectrum of flavors and creating a single, harmonious finish.
At Tamarind Asian Grill and Sushi Bar, a long-established Thai eatery in Deerfield Beach, that balance has been achieved by owner Khruawan Russmetes. From Thailand, she first came to the U.S. in the 1970s by way of New York, opening her first restaurant soon after. Missing her native country's warmer climes, Russmetes relocated to South Florida in 1982, selling her New England establishment and opening a second, Hialeah's Thai House. It was the first of a string of Thai eateries -- one closing here, another opening there -- as far south as Miami Beach. Several, including Thai House II in North Miami Beach and Thai House South Beach, are still in operation, albeit under new ownerships.
One thing they all had in common, however, is sushi.
Sushi found its way to the U.S. in the late 1960s, starting in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, and it was the Hollywood elite who helped make it a cuisine worth raving about. It's also why every sushi menu today ceremoniously offers the ubiquitous California roll. Sushi, however, is a Japanese dish and not something you'll typically find in Thai dining establishments -- except in South Florida.
In the '80s, Russmetes saw the sushi void in South Florida and decided to fill it. According to Tamarind's general manager, Joy Bountham, Thai House I and II were the first in the area to fuse both cuisines -- a marriage of sushi rolls and curry bowls -- what has since become a familiar pairing of two Asian cuisines today. For Russmetes, it's become a family trademark concept: Even her daughter, co-owner of Tee-Jay Thai in Wilton Manors and the new Sky in Fort Lauderdale, offers the same style menu.
Despite numerous concepts, Russmetes has found steady success with Tamarind, which opened in 2001, a few years after she closed the doors to her successful Lincoln Road restaurant, World Resource Café. She made the move to Broward next, purchasing a small shopping plaza on South Federal Highway in Deerfield Beach that today houses Tamarind and a small Asian market next door. The tamarind at the front of the property -- the flowering fruit tree used in cooking across southeast Asia -- she planted herself.
Past a hand-carved teak door, you're first greeted by a striking golden kinnara statue, both just a few of the many exotic imports Russmetes brings back from Thailand, giving Tamarind a touch of thrift -shop funk. To the right, you'll find a low-key dining area, perfect for large lunch parties or intimate dinners; to the left, a sushi bar with lounge-style seating invites a livelier atmosphere.
Like most South Florida Thai establishments, the menu at Tamarind is onerously large but has everything you could ask for. The options roll from one section to another -- everything from small plates, sushi bar starters, soups, salads, and chef's specialty dishes to noodles and curries or grilled and stir-fried entrées. Tamarind "favorites" round it out, enormous fish-based platters that include a crispy whole snapper, served at market price.
The sushi menu offers more than 20 specialty rolls, including the house favorite, Tom's Dream Roll, named for longtime sushi chef Tom Nanongkhai, who created it. It's a mash-up of texture and flavor, wahoo tempura paired with the mild cool from avocado, a kick from jalapeño, and topped with creamy baked scallop.
If you're feeling adventurous, a few dishes vie for the title of most original, including Russmetes' Thai fries -- cuts of boniato (a type of sweet potato) rolled in a coconut flour she prepares by hand each week and flash-fried.
For many Westerners, Thai food can be a confusing jumble of sensations -- sour, sweet, spicy -- in a single dish. For Thai people, however, this is an essential component for any meal; they delight in complexity.
"A great example is our papaya salad," said Bountham. "It's my favorite dish on the menu and something you'll see on every street corner in our Thailand. I could eat it all day."
The papaya salad at Tamarind is light and fresh. It will make you cry from the heat of diced chili peppers; laugh at the pleasure of unraveling a pile of raw, thin slivers of shredded green papaya; and pucker from the tang of the dressing, a combination of fresh-squeezed lime, ginger, and tamarind nectar.
You might not know about kama -- the chef's specialty from the sushi bar, highlighting a special cut from a fish's jaw (the section just behind the gills). Referred to as the yellowtail collar in English, it's said to be the best part of the fish. The thick slab of meat is supple and buttery sweet, the rich flavor of fish highlighted from a simple grilling and served with a side of the restaurant's ponzu sauce. Although it's a permanent menu item, the restaurant might not have it, but you'd be a fool not to ask.
For more exotic Thai fare, Tamarind's rich curry dishes, vegetable-laden rice, and noodle-based soups are house favorites, but it's the restaurant's Chiang Mai -- a rich, Thai coconut curry noodle soup -- that is a rare delight. Otherwise known as khao soi, it's served widely in northern Thailand but can be hard to find in Western Thai establishments. At Tamarind, the soup is served with large cuts of slow-cooked beef that bob in a viscous, red coconut-milk curry. It's topped with crispy fried noodles, the same ribbons of wide, gummy egg noodles that fatten in the dense broth, soaking up flavor that moves from mildly sweet to a slow-building, lingering burn from the curry's chili paste.
We asked for it spicy, but the kitchen takes the heat factor seriously, with the option to customize any dish to a temperature of your choice.
But in the land of spice and heat, it's best to experience Thai fare the way it was intended: with enough flavor to make you laugh, cry, and come back for more.
Tamarind Asian Grill and Sushi Bar is located at 949 S. Federal Highway, Deerfield Beach. Call 954-428-8009, or visit tamarindgrill.com. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.