Tara Thai–El Paso, TX

Tara Thai
2606 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX
(915) 219-9307
Tara Thai

Tara Thai


Tara Thai is located in the Cincinnati Entertainment District, a popular night spot for UTEP students and others throughout the city. When I first visited it in 2009, though, its main customer base seemed to be the university students who came here for lunch. Tara Thai took over the former Golden Buddha restaurant, and transformed this location from what I think was considered a economical restaurant to one which is more upscale. Probably because of the dichotomy between budget minded students at lunch and a more sophisticated crowd at night, Tara Thai has different menus at lunch and dinner (the most well known Thai dishes versus ones that are more innovative and upscale).

The lunch and dinner menus have similar types of sauces and flavors, but dinner has more upscale meat selections as well as some unusual curries (such as chuchee curry for the salmon dish). Meat selections at dinner include salmon, calamari, or rib eye steak while lunch is mostly a choice of chicken, pork, shrimp, or tofu. Some substitutions are allowed, and I think you can order from the dinner menu at lunch if you want, but dinner is definitely more upscale.

One thing Tara Thai has accomplished is serving food with a real Thai taste (and this has not always been the case in El Paso). I make this statement comparing the Thai food I have tried in a number of cities. Thai food, like American food, leaves a lot of room for individual cooking styles and interpretations of the traditional cuisine. When I can taste so many spices and flavorings, though, I believe I have found the “real deal,” as at Tara Thai. The owner told me they serve food from Bangkok, and I believe this includes the best dishes from different regions as you would find in most national capitals.

Another important element of Tara Thai is high quality ingredients. I refer to some items at the restaurant as being more upscale than others, and some are ones that I believe have a better flavor, but as far as the food’s quality and faithfulness in executing any dish the way it should be, I have not seen a difference in anything I have tried here.

Lunch Menu

Lunch salad

Complimentary lunch salad

A complementary Lunch Salad is an extra benefit of going at noon time. The greens were very good and the ginger vinaigrette dressing goes very well with Asian food. I do note, though, that many Thai restaurants give you appetizers such as spring rolls or dumplings, while at Tara Thai these cost extra.

Keaw warn

Keaw warn

One good dish from the “curry” menu at lunch is Keaw Warn, a dish of chicken, green beans, bamboo shoots, and sweet basil leaves cooked in this special green coconut curry. I substituted tofu for the chicken, and for an extra charge you can also get beef, pork, or shrimp (I was very happy with the tofu, though). I believe I ordered the medium spice level which turned out to be what I normally consider as spicy (I may be remembering this incorrectly, but I do know that the three spice levels available here are low, medium, and Thai). In any case, they will not serve customers an extremely spicy dish without disclosing this at the time it is ordered.

Some notable characteristics of the keaw warn were that the flavors were complex, very good, and not sweet like Americanized Thai food. There are three other types of curry served on the lunch menu which I expect share these same characteristics.

Spicy basil chicken

Spicy basil chicken

Spicy Basil is a plate I ordered for lunch several years ago (now the menu has a Basil Sauce dish with a Thai chili sweet basil sauce). I do not know if this is still the same dish, although the vegetables are just about the same, and it still comes with the default chicken (but you can get other meats or tofu if you wish). What confuses me is whether there are really two different basil sauces (a sweet one and a spicy one) or whether they use different wording for the same sauce.

The spicy basil sauce was so good I was tempted to keep ordering it on return visits. This would probably not be a good idea at Tara Thai since everything on the menu seems to be worth trying, but nevertheless I was very impressed with the basil sauce.

The dinner menu has two basil dishes, a Street Style Chicken Basil topped with an egg and a Crispy Chicken Basil with lightly battered chicken. The crispy chicken has what they call a spicy basil sauce (the same one I ordered on the lunch plate), but the menu is not really clear about whether they have one basil sauce or two.

My experience with the basil lunch plate was that it turned out spicier than I expected (this was quite a while ago, but I believe I ordered it medium as I did with the keaw warn). In any case, I have no personal plans to order anything here “Thai spicy” just to see how hot it really is.

Dinner Menu

Pad woon sen

Pad woon sen

Pad Woon Sen is listed in the “Fried Rice and Noodles” section of the dinner menu, and came with shrimp when I ordered it (but now is served with chicken). These are glass noodles with egg, garlic, baby corn, carrots, and cabbage in the restaurant’s “home cooking sauce.”

I did not find this as notable as some other dishes in terms of flavor (I was not really able to tell if the home cooking sauce made a big difference). It was good, though, and sometimes Thai noodles are exactly what satisfies a person’s craving for Thai food.

Chuchee salmon

Chuchee salmon

Salmon with Chuchee Sauce was something that really turned out to be better than I expected. The salmon was good quality (although I do not know what kind of salmon was served). The chuchee sauce made this one of the best salmon dishes in El Paso, with a complex flavor worthy of a good Thai dish (chu chee curry in Thailand is made specially for seafood dishes). With Tara Thai’s specialized curries and dishes that cannot be found at most other restaurants, I really see that they have upped the game for Thai food in El Paso (although at higher prices than at most Thai restaurants).

Other Dishes
The menu is somewhat of an odd combination of not having some of my favorite dishes (such as pad prik king), while other dishes are listed that I have not seen anywhere else. There seems to be very little overlap between the lunch and dinner menu, so if you want familiar dishes (pad thai, panang curry, etc.) go at lunch. For dinner you can expect very upscale items that I think will be served at few restaurants anywhere in the country (they do have panang curry at night, but it is with sliced beef and not the normal meats served in this dish).

Other Information
Tara Thai shares a parking lot with the Rib Hut next door, and this sometimes makes finding a parking space, and especially an accessible space, somewhat difficult. I think Tara Thai does not have any control over the parking situation, but this could be a factor if you come at a busy time.

The restaurant, though, is apparently able to handle customers even when the restaurant is full (as it has been certain times that I have gone). With the quality of the food served and the lack of alternatives for similar food, I do not see how it could not be full most of the time.

I believe you can ask for a default spice level that the chef believes will best bring out the flavor. I do not remember if I have ever tried this, though, and I know that on my most recent visit the waiter asked me which of the three spice levels I wanted (low, medium, or Thai). When I find out more information I will report it, but for now I strongly advise the great majority of people not to get anything above the medium level.

The Thai tea here is very good and works well to help quench any heat in your mouth that might result from the chefs being very zealous in adding chiles to the meal.


RATING: 25

Cuisine: Thai
Cost: $$
Hours: Closed Sun.
Accessible: There was no marked handicapped parking on my last visit
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Jul. 26, 2018
Number of Visits: 3
Best Items: Keaw Warn, Chuchee Salmon, Spicy Basil

 

Asian Food Details

Tea: Thai Tea
MSG: No
Buffet: No

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Chuchee Salmon (dinner)
star 5 Pad Woon Sen (dinner)
star 5 Spicy Basil (dinner)
star 5 Keaw Warn (lunch)
star 5 Thai Tea

The German Pub–El Paso, TX

The German Pub
9530 Viscount Blvd.
El Paso, TX
(915) 595-8888
German Pub

German Pub


I understand that The German Pub (or simply “German Pub” as it says on the sign) used to be a popular place on Fort Bliss, particularly with the many German personnel who were stationed there. I think it was always meant to be a drinking place where you could get some good food rather than the other way around. Either way, though, the food is pretty impressive for a place that is this small and this focused on good beer.

The menu selection is somewhat limited, and it seems that about half the items are different types of schnitzel. It does list several types of fish, though, as well as bratwurst and sausages, and even potato pancakes.

The atmosphere here is basic as would be expected in a pub. It is lacking some of niceties that would be evident in many German restaurants such as table decorations, etc. I did not think the noise level was too bad but apparently it is noticeable at times.

Schnitzel

Wiener schnitzel

Wiener schnitzel with home fries

Schnitzel seems to be a specialty of The German Pub–there are different toppings and they even have a chicken schnitzel. I thought the Wiener Schnitzel was one of the better ones I have eaten. The meat was good quality, and I particularly liked the breading. For flavor this was certainly a very good choice.

Jagerschnitzel

Jagerschnitzel with sauerkraut

Jagerschnitzel has a mushroom sauce on top, and is usually my number one choice for schnitzels. In this case I am not sure, since the regular wiener schnitzel was so good, but this one was good as well. It had the same excellent breading as the regular schnitzel, and of course the only difference is the topping. As for the sauce, I have to say that I think Peter’s (in west El Paso) has a sauce that is more flavorful. There is not enough difference, though, that I would prefer going to one restaurant over the other.

Cordon bleu

Cordon bleu with home fries

I thought the Cordon Bleu was overall the best dish I tried, but I do not have an analysis of it other than to say the flavors came together very well and the quality was very good.

Side Dishes
The Home Fried Potatoes were a very good choice for a side dish. These are cooked with bacon, and I think have all the flavor that would be expected in German style potatoes.

I did not think the Sauerkraut was one of the best ones I have tried, but it was fresh and had the characteristics of one that was house made.

Summing It Up
The food here compares favorably with German food I have had in other cities, with the exception that the menu was more limited than usual. I think this is especially true of the vegetables and side dishes.

El Paso has a very limited choice of German restaurants, but the quality of the food is good because of the fact that Fort Bliss has a hosted the German Air Force for a number of years in joint training missions. The German Pub and other restaurants have proven the test of satisfying their German customers as well as the American ones.

I have not tried the German beer at The German Pub, but this is obviously one of its main attractions.


RATING: 23

Cuisine: German
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: Beer (has German beer on tap)

Most Recent Visit: Jul. 10, 2018
Number of Visits: 2
Best Items: Cordon Bleu, Wiener Schnitzel, Jagerschnitzel, Home Fries

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Cordon Bleu
star 5 Wiener Schnitzel
star 5 Jagerschnitzel
star 5 Home Fries
star 4 Sauerkraut

Mekong Thai–El Paso, TX

Mekong Thai
1816 N. Zaragoza Rd.
El Paso, TX
(915) 856-0299
Mekong Thai

Mekong Thai


Mekong Thai represents both the frustration I have with El Paso Asian restaurants and the surprise that we get Asian food this good in a city where most people know little about authentic Asian cuisine.

My frustration stems from the fact that this restaurant is called Mekong Thai, Vietnamese, and Sushi (the Mekong River runs through two of these countries so that part at least makes sense). My philosophy is almost always that if a cook is from a certain country, that is the cuisine I want to try in that restaurant. I also know that if I ask for the authentic version there is a good chance it can be specially prepared, or that I will be pointed to the best menu choices for the type of food I want.

At this restaurant I was trying to ask these questions but I really do not think they understood what I wanted. The waitress told me that pad thai was a very popular dish and therefore that is what I should order (which was not the question I was trying to ask). I did order it, though, and afterward one of the chefs came into the dining room and I was able to ask him what had been my real questions. I found out that this was in fact one of their better dishes and that I had been given a good recommendation. Thai food was the chefs’ specialty, and at least the name “Mekong Thai” and the fact that most of the menu was Thai food gave a good indication of this.

Further conversation revealed that at least one of the chefs is from Laos, and the “native” food for both of them is Lao/ Northern Thai (Isan) style food. A former restaurant called True Thai on Fred Wilson Avenue across from Fort Bliss had an owner from this area, and she once made a special order of Isan style pad thai for me which I really loved and have been seeking out ever since. I believe the pad thai at Mekong is what I have been seeking, and perhaps it could be made a little bit more authentic if I request it, but the version they served me seemed really close.

Pad Thai

Pad thai

Pad thai

Pad Thai is supposedly one of the most popular dishes at Mekong, and this makes me think that people in El Paso (as in most other places) appreciate authentic and well prepared Asian food when it is made available. I think this surpasses the flavor in most pad thai dishes, although I could not say specifically what ingredients are in it unless I asked the chef. The color makes me think tamarind paste is prominent in the sauce, and the other ingredients are what I would expect in a good pad thai. In any case I thought this was a very good version of the dish.

My notes say I ordered the pad thai at a three star chile level, but I do not know the maximum amount of stars they have. To me the 3 star level was not enough, and I used the chile they gave me on the side to supplement it. It is always necessary to experiment with the chile level when I try Thai food in a new restaurant, and I made it right by adding my own. At least I am fairly confident that they will not surprise people by making the food too spicy for them (I have had this happen on occasion, and restaurants are probably following good policy by erring on the side of making it too mild rather than too hot).

Lao Food
On one hand I was upset that the wait staff could not give me enough information to know that the chefs were Lao, so that I could have ordered this type of food. On the other hand, though, I got one of the best pad thai dishes I have ever had (at the waitress’s suggestion), and I do think it was northern Thai (Isan) style based on what I can remember about the pad thai I had at True Thai Restaurant.

My belated conversation with the chef did give me some good information for next time, though, or just for general knowledge. He indicated that a couple of items on the menu are Lao dishes–papaya salad and a beef dish (I did not get the name of it but I think it was written on a special menu board they had).

The chef also indicated that there are several dishes on the menu that you can ask to be prepared “Lao style” so that they will have a little different flavor than the normal version. One thing he mentioned is that Lao food has more egg in it than the Thai version.

Some Further Comments
With Thai food I need to try several dishes before I can determine what I think is their best dish. What I can say, though, is that the pad thai was one of the top ones I have had anywhere.

I am not giving a rating to the restaurant yet because of the small sample size of food I have tried. In addition, I have not tried the Lao food, and I do not know if there are any “special dishes” which I could try. I do know, though, that the regular menu has some solid choices of delicious food.

They apparently have Vietnamese food as well, but I have not tried it and I do not even know what dishes are offered. I do think, though, that these chefs have good expertise with Asian food.


RATING: N/R

Cuisine: Thai
Cost: $$
Hours: Closed Tue.
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Jul. 10, 2018
Number of Visits: 1
Best Item: Pad Thai

 

Asian Food Details

Tea: Thai Tea
MSG: N/A
Buffet: No

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Pad Thai