El Paso, TX
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.
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.
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 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.
The Ginger Sauce lunch special is probably my favorite I have had so far (although I think I said the same thing after trying some of the other dishes). The dish I ordered was with tofu, but you have a choice of meats. This was honestly quite a special experience because the flavor was so complex and good that it can only be matched by a very few dishes I have had at Thai restaurants anywhere. In fact, all of the food at Tara Thai seems to be very high quality, but with this dish I also found a flavor combination that hit the spot for me.
The lunch menu has several sections including dishes, curries, noodles, and fried rice. The “dishes” section is the one that includes such generic sounding items as basil sauce, garlic sauce, and ginger sauce. The basil sauce and ginger sauce dishes have so far been among my favorite items of anything I have tried at Tara Thai, so I have come to the conclusion that you can get some excellent items on the lunch menu for not much money. It took me a little bit of time to realize, though, that some of the best dishes have somewhat generic descriptions on the menu.
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.
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).
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).
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 a 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.
Hours: Closed Sun.
Accessible: There was no marked handicapped parking on my last visit
Smoking: No smoking
Most Recent Visit: Nov. 4, 2019
Number of Visits: 4
Best Items: Ginger Sauce, Basil Sauce, Keaw Warn (lunch items); Chuchee Salmon (dinner item)