To get to the host stand at Tamarind Tree, you’ll head to the far-back corner of a strip mall in the International District, and walk past the front patio where a waterfall gently trickles down a giant stone wall. It’s not the most obvious, and yet, this sit-down Vietnamese spot is packed day and night.
The crowds are here for a reason - for an exciting but affordable 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.
In the heat of the lunch rush, there’s a natural order that makes things move peacefully and quickly. It’s like all of the four elements are working together in here, only to operate a Vietnamese restaurant instead of to make or break a camping trip. The decorative trees in the dining room represent earth - and the servers will happily move them around if another friend shows up and you need to make space. Water streams down the aforementioned stone wall in the patio, where you’ll be lucky to sit on warmer days. If you’re not lucky (or it’s misting in that noncommittal Seattle way that makes you turn your windshield wipers on, then off, then on again), the nice alternative is to hang out near the firepit inside, which is where fire comes in. Then there’s air, which you’ll need to remember to inhale between bites of rice paper salad rolls and grilled pork chop. It’s the kind of operation that could probably handle catering a wedding, let alone a quick lunch for you and your boss.
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 $35 seven courses of beef for two, for instance, they might tell you it’s a big waste of your money - and suggest the chili lemongrass beef, which is better than any of the seven, and only costs $12.50. And even if it’s cold out and you’re tempted to get the pho, don’t. You’d be missing out on other, more exciting options, like the lemongrass tofu, which might be the best thing here. It’s perfectly charred, rubbed with an herby spice mixture, 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 fish sauce.
Lunch options in Seattle are endless, especially in the ID. But if you’re in the mood for Vietnamese food and would like to sit next to a (vertical, manmade) babbling brook, grab a table at Tamarind Tree.
These are tasty hunks of chicken marinated in lemongrass, grilled on a stick, and served with fish sauce for dipping. Order multiples.
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 should not be blown off. They're filled with ground beef, lettuce, and noodles. Don’t be shy with the salty peanut dip.
We prefer the tofu over the meat here, and it’s because eating the tofu at Tamarind Tree 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 even through the middle.
Your server might dissuade you from ordering the seven courses of beef for two. The chili lemongrass beef noodle bowl is why. It’s a classic bun cha bowl with vermicelli noodles, cucumbers, and fish sauce, but you get a huge pile of spicy beef that you'll think about days after the fact.
The only miss here is the short ribs, and it’s not because they aren’t tender in the middle and charred on the outside. It’s because they aren’t always that consistent. Roll the dice, or just go with the chili lemongrass beef.
If you’re not a fan of vermicelli noodles, allow us to introduce you to the grilled pork chop rice, which has a nice kick from black pepper and is still great after you’ve abused it with the little dish of fish sauce it comes with.