Updated January 6th, 2021
To get to the host stand at Tamarind Tree, you’ll head to the back corner of a strip mall in the International District, and stroll past the front patio where a serene waterfall gently trickles down a giant stone wall. It’s not the most obvious entrance, and yet, this sit-down Vietnamese spot is packed day and night.
The crowds are here for a reason—to have an excellent lunch during the workweek, where even a simple salad roll tastes decadent. Tamarind Tree has some of the best food in the ID, and you’ll be in and out in about an hour.
Even in the heat of the midday rush, there’s a natural order that moves peacefully and quickly. It’s like all of the four elements of nature are working together in here, only to operate a Vietnamese restaurant instead of being things that make or break a camping trip. The decorative trees in the dining room represent earth—and the servers will happily Tetris them around if another friend shows up and you need to make space. Water streams along the aforementioned stone wall in the patio, where you’ll be lucky to sit on mild days. If it’s misting in a noncommittal way that makes you turn your windshield wipers on, then off, then on again, your consolation prize is to hang out near the ablaze firepit inside. Then there’s air, which you’ll need to remember to inhale between bites of rice paper fresh rolls and black pepper fried rice. It’s the kind of operation that could handle catering a wedding, let alone a power lunch for you and your boss.
photo credit: Chona Kasinger
The menu here is larger than Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, and your servers will make sure you’re on the right track. If you try to request the $50 seven courses of beef for two, for instance, they might tell you it’s a big waste of money—and suggest the chili lemongrass beef, which is better than any of the seven, and only costs $16.95. After having both, we agree with that assessment. And if it’s cold out and you’re tempted to get the phở, take a beat. You’d be missing out on other, more exciting options, like the lemongrass tofu, which is our favorite thing here. It’s rubbed with an herby spice mixture, has a terrific char from the grill, and somehow tastes meatier than the beef or pork. But, those too have impossibly crispy dark edges and juicy insides, best enjoyed when piled on top of a vermicelli bun bowl with a side of herbed fish sauce.
Lunch options in Seattle are virtually endless, especially in the ID. But if you’re in the mood for top-tier Vietnamese dishes and would like to feel like you’re in the lobby of an island resort, come to Tamarind Tree.
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Gà Lụi Lá Lốt / Chicken Satay
These tasty hunks of chicken are marinated in lemongrass, grilled on a stick, and served with fish sauce for dipping. Get multiple orders.
Gỏi Cuốn Bò Xã Lụi / Lemongrass Beef Rolls
There’s an abundance of lemongrass at Tamarind, and we’re not complaining. The lemongrass beef rolls are the best appetizer in the house, and could even act as a full lunch. The rice wrappers are filled with ground beef, lettuce, noodles, and a baton of fried spring roll dough that gives the whole thing this majestic crunch. Don’t be shy with the salty peanut dip.
Bún Đậu Hủ Xào Xả Ớt / Lemongrass Tofu Noodles
We prefer the tofu over the meat here, and it’s because eating Tamarind Tree’s lemongrass tofu noodle bowl is like driving a brand new convertible home right off the sales floor, without paying interest until 2025. We’ll update this after 2025. Anyway, get this tofu. It has a charred sear from the grill, and it’s flavorful with salty, grassy heat, even throughout the middle—a place that tofu marinade seldom reaches.
Bún Thịt Bò Lụi Xã / Chili Lemongrass Beef Noodles
Your server might dissuade you from ordering the seven courses of beef for two. This chili lemongrass beef noodle bowl is why. It’s a classic bun cha with vermicelli noodles, cucumbers, and fish sauce, along with a huge pile of spicy beef that you’ll think about days after the fact.
Cơm Sườn Bò Nướng / Grilled Beef Short Rib Rice
The only miss here is the grilled beef short rib rice, and it’s not because the beef isn’t tender in the middle and charred on the outside. It’s because it isn’t always that consistent. Roll the dice, or just go with the chili lemongrass beef if you’re interested in red meat.
Cơm Sườn Heo Nướng Xả / Grilled Pork Chop Rice
If you’re not a fan of vermicelli noodles, allow us to introduce you to the grilled pork chop rice, which has a hot kick from black pepper and comes with a dish of fish sauce for dipping. Dip your heart out.