Tam Tam Restaurant — The Little Sister to Tamarine in Palo Alto
Chef Tammy Huynh has had a long, storied legacy in the restaurant industry. Her parents opened Vung Tau in downtown San Jose in 1985, one of the pioneering authentic Vietnamese restaurants in the region. In 2002, Huynh followed in her family’s footsteps to open the contemporary Tamarine in downtown Palo Alto.
Now, at the other end of Palo Alto’s University Avenue, she’s opened up Tam Tam Restaurant, a more casual, more regionally focused establishment.
It’s still a family affair with Huynh opening up her latest restaurant with her sister Tanya Huynh Hartley. Huynh’s son Kevin Phan is the general manager.
I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant, which opened in mid-September not far from the CalTrain station.
A large bar makes up the back of the dining room, making a popular spot for solo diners and couples to plop down for a quick bite after work. The dining room is decorated with paintings by Vietnamese artists to add a splash of color.
Banh khot, otherwise known as “cupcakes,” have been a signature at Vung Tau for years. Here, the usual shrimp filling gets upgraded with uni, crab, and flying fish roe ($12). The small crisp shells are as fun to eat as ever, and are a must-order.
Fried chicken wings ($10) are coated in a sticky, spicy, sweet sauce. You can taste the umami hit of fish sauce, too. The flesh is juicy and tender. These are messy but good, and definitely worth getting your fingers dirty for.
Banh xeo ($12) is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. The lacy, crisp crepe is as sunny looking as an omelet, but it gets its coloring not from eggs but turmeric. Typically, it’s made in one big pan. But here, two mini crepes arrive on the serving plate almost like big tacos. They’re bursting with shrimp, pork, jicama, bean sprouts and mung beans. Cut off a hunk, fold into a lettuce leaf with mint leaves, and dunk into chili-fish sauce for an addictive bite.
Caramelized garlic prawns ($27) are jumbo-sized and shell-on. You can go the extra mile and peel them — or just eat the shell that’s as crisp as a potato chip. The shrimp get coated in a sweet caramel sauce, along with garlic, onion and lemongrass. A beehive of fried rice noodles crowns everything.
The whole fried branzino ($28) arrives with a crisp exterior. It’s also deboned for easy eating. The fish is garnished with hunks of pineapple, red peppers and onion. Dill fronds add a nice distinctive herbal note.
The grilled Porterhouse pork chop ($24) is as big as it sounds. It comes to the table already sliced, and heady with five-spice, garlic and lemon grass.
Chili garlic cauliflower ($10) is only truly spicy if you eat the dried red peppers. Otherwise, the tender florets are mostly sweet tasting.
Sticky rice ($7) gets gussied up with sauteed shallots, shiitakes, and a touch of tamari and sesame oil. It’s savory and earthy tasting, and so good that you might not want to share it.
The savory dishes seemed to skew toward the sweet side. I wished for more acidity from lime juice, a little more funk from fish sauce, and a bigger hit of spicy heat now and then to balance it all out more.
For dessert, there’s a lovely pale green-hued coconut pandan creme brulee ($9) with the requisite burnt sugar top you have to break through. The custard picks up a subtle sweet grass flavor from the pandan. I just wish it had been set a little more, as digging a spoon into it left a telltale runny residue at the bottom of the dish.
Corn pavlova ($9) is a modern take on a classic che bap corn-coconut milk pudding. Here it’s presented as a baked meringue topped with a creamy corn mousse and fun freeze-dried corn kernels that really amplify the corn flavor.
Tam Tam’s location has been a rather revolving door of restaurants over the years. Here’s hoping this new venture by the Huynh family will endure for many years to come.