Seventeen years have passed since the debut of Tamarine, the venerable Vietnamese fusion restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. Soon after opening its doors, Tamarine began amassing a loyal, well-heeled following and a bushel of accolades, including a Forbes Magazine listing as one of the "World's Top Ten Power Dining Spots."
This fall, sisters and partners Tanya Hartley and Tammy Huynh unveiled the long-awaited follow-up to Tamarine. Tam Tam is a Vietnamese concept designed to be a less formal counterpart to Tamarine's upscale enterprise. The two restaurants bookend University Avenue, with Tam Tam perched on the western, Stanford University end of the street at the site of the former Opa Mediterranean restaurant.
The gestation period for the new restaurant was short, not surprising for an operation conceived on the fly. When the sisters first discussed expansion in early 2019, they envisioned a fast-casual Vietnamese eatery. That script abruptly flipped when they were offered -- and accepted -- the opportunity to assume Opa's lease in the historic building that housed Miyake for decades. Since the large layout was better suited to a full-service restaurant, they shelved their original idea and created Tam Tam from scratch in a few short weeks.
With Tamarine holding its own just down the street, Hartley and Huynh are presently focused on Tam Tam and its pan-Vietnamese cuisine. Huynh, who serves as executive chef, aims to branch out beyond South Vietnamese cooking, the style most familiar in the U.S.
"Because the large majority of immigrants come from South Vietnam, restaurants tend to exclude dishes from other parts of the country," she said. "There are so many great recipes from the north and central areas. I want my guests to experience these unique and exciting flavors."
Tam Tam furthers Huynh's mission by listing the region of origin for most items on the menu. Huynh hews closely to traditional preparations, though she takes creative license with the occasional dish, most notably the banh khot "cupcakes" ($13), which substitute uni and crab for the classic shrimp filling.
Hanoi-style beef pho ($17) seemed like a solid starting point for testing Tam Tam's inclusiveness initiative. Long a standard bearer of Vietnamese restaurants, the southern-style pho we know is a heaping bowl of slurpable noodles served with bean sprouts and hot sauce. Tam Tam serves a simplified northern version, and it's a revelation. Featuring fresh-made noodles and tender brisket slow-cooked for 24 hours, the beefy broth takes center stage. Hold the hoisin and savor every sip.
The Indian-influenced lemongrass tofu ($22) was a vegetarian delight, melding herbal, citrus and spicy chili seasonings. Divergent flavors were also used to full effect in the seared salmon ($28). The moist, medium-cooked filet stood up nicely to bold ingredients, which included sautéed onion, bell peppers, pineapple, dill and a lovely tamarind sauce. Steamed branzino ($29) was a more subtle entrée, leaning primarily on ginger to enhance the milky taste of the fish. The presentation -- the branzino is served whole with a stuffed center cavity -- was expertly executed.
Though the oversized cubes of sweet potatoes and carrots in the yellow chicken curry ($22) created a dramatic visual, the vegetables dwarfed the scant portions of lemongrass-infused thigh meat. The ledger soon balanced, however, when our server delivered a hearty poached chicken salad ($14), featuring shredded cabbage and copious pieces of poultry tossed in an exquisite chili-lime vinaigrette with fish sauce.
Central Vietnam, according to Huynh, is a poor section of the country prone to flooding. Flood-tolerant rice is a mainstay in the region and is cleverly incorporated into many ingredients, including the rice flour shell used in Tam Tam's moon crepes ($13). This dish did not quite stick the landing. While I enjoyed the taste and textures of the crunchy outer layer and the soft, savory pork and shrimp filling, the crepes left an excessively oily residue.
Tam Tam offers a satisfying assortment of beer and wine. The light, crisp Saigon Export beer ($6) paired especially well with the spicier fare. Dessert options include coconut pandan crème brulee ($9), Vietnamese coffee tiramisu ($9) and the intriguing corn pavlova ($9), which combines baked egg white meringue with corn mousse and freeze-dried corn.
Tam Tam's vibe is contemporary and comfortable. A collection of yellow backlit panels dot the restaurant and cast a tranquil glow. A long communal table -- a detail cribbed from Tamarine -- attracts a diverse group of diners in the center of the room. The restaurant provides ample space for the remaining tables, bucking the modern trend of squeezing guests into ridiculously tight spaces. The Vietnamese art is striking, though the stone covered walls and dark wood, holdovers from Opa, suggest an influence that's more Santorini than Saigon. Huynh says there are plans to refinish the walls for a softer look during a second phase of remodeling. Removing the block veneers would also reduce the booming noise level.
Service was sincere, attentive and cordial. Our server handled my guest's onion allergy with great care, reviewing her concerns when the order was taken and providing reassurance once food was delivered. There was an easy flow to the dining sequence, impressive for such a young operation.
Sequels often fizzle, but Tam Tam lives up to its lofty expectations. Hartley and Huynh are already plotting the next chapter, taking their sister act to Mountain View's San Antonio Road, where they plan to roll out their revived Vietnamese fast-casual concept in spring 2020.
140 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: No
Parking: Street and garage
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Happy hour: Monday-Friday 5-6 p.m., bar only
Corkage: $20 per bottle
Noise level: Loud