Thai Takeover 

Washington chain takes on Short Pump.

As an expatriate Washingtonian, I have enjoyed Tara Thai at all but the newest of its other locations. So the Richmond outpost, whose opening was delayed for months because of problems with contractors, was greeted with much anticipation. And for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

Tara means water in Thai, which explains the exotic décor that’s a trademark of Srisawat’s restaurants. The Short Pump branch looks like it was designed by Salvador Dali after a three-pepper dinner. Sea-green and blue colors are woven throughout the large room. On the ceiling, flickering lights beamed up from urns atop the booths create an effect of rippling water as seen from a glass-bottomed boat. Look at one wall and you might be in an aquarium, as dolphins and other fish, along with a deep-sea diver, are glimpsed through portholes. Plexiglas partitions between booths echo the underwater theme while octopus and squid are etched into the floor.

But the food’s the thing, and it sparkles, too. Most of the entrees are priced between $8 and $13, slightly less for smaller portions at lunch, but there are a couple higher-priced specialty dishes that reward the adventurous.

Whole rockfish ($28), filleted at the table, is available three ways—grilled in banana leaves with lemon grass, garlic and screw-pine leaves with a spicy dipping sauce; steamed in plum sauce with chili sauce and crushed peanuts, and steamed with fresh chili, garlic and lemon juice.

That last is the spiciest, and can be ordered with or without the head and tail. I prefer the head on, the better to dig out the sweet meat under the eyes. Two other market-priced seasonal specialties are pu nim, which is a pair of crispy soft-shell crabs, and whole flounder.

If you love heat, you’ll go for the ferocious fire-red chicken curry ($9) served in a boat dish and topped with cilantro, slivers of red peppers and miniature eggplant. A milder curry is Panang ($9 to $13), cooked in curried peanut sauce and fresh basil leaves.

Pad Thai ($9), the national noodle dish, is a good way to judge a Thai restaurant, and again Tara Thai stands out. Thin rice noodles are stir fried with shrimp, bean curd, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, scallions and egg. Vegetarians can choose from a dozen dishes ($8).

For starters, there’s a satay grill that offers mix-and-match bites of salmon, tiger shrimp, scallops, chicken, pork and beef ($1.55 for a skewer of meat, $5.50 for four; $1.95 for the seafood, or $7 for the three) and a variety of dumplings.

Kanom jeeb dumplings ($4) have long been my favorite appetizer in any restaurant I regularly patronize. Crabmeat, minced pork and water chestnuts are wrapped in wonton skin, steamed and served with a Thai soy sauce. But this was the lone disappointment in three visits, and that was in presentation rather than taste. Manager Ki Ti Chai Kongtond, who came from the company’s location in Gaithersburg, Md., said the change — smaller portion, smaller price and no garnish — was made to take advantage of the grill, which prepares each order fresh.

Twenty members of the staff have been transferred from Washington and others, like the employees up there, came directly from Thailand. A language barrier may account for some spotty service — at lunch our satay arrived after the entrée — and the blandness of some dishes.

Owner Srisawat plans to spend a lot of time in Richmond fine-tuning the operation. He even bought a house for himself and employees in nearby Wellesley, whose previous owner, incidentally, was famed chef Jimmy Sneed, who has moved on to a new venture in Charleston, S.C. S

Tara Thai ($$-$$$)

Short Pump Town Center
Lunch and dinner: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

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