Seven of us (Han, who organized, and Yimster, Derek, Mark, Erica, Jane and myself) met for lunch at Pho Tam (aka Tam) in Milpitas. I was only 15 minutes early, and thus was the last person there (I've found that chowhounds are invariably prompt when food is involved).
With the usual chowhound gusto we ordered nine dishes: two appetizers, two salads, a soup, a curry, a grilled dish and a couple of seafood specials. We also ordered four milkshakes in different flavors to share.
Tam bills itself as a Vietnamese-Thai restaurant, and although the dishes on the extensive menu all have Vietnamese names, many of them have Thai influences.
We started with the Bo Bia (spring rolls with sausage, jicama and peanut). Without a doubt the best Vietnamese spring rolls I've ever had. I'd given up on them because they were invariably rubbery and bland. These had thin, tender, almost transparent wrappers and were bursting with flavor. I was expecting the sausage to be of a loose style, but it was thin strips more like salami. We each got our own dish of spicy peanut dipping sauce, a nice touch.
Opinions were mixed on the Vietnamese crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and greens. Some people thought it was a little bland, while others (me anyway) appreciated its delicate balance of flavors and the hint of curry in the crepe itself.
The calamari and duck salads were both prime examples of the best of Southeast Asian cuisine: bright, fresh, complex flavors. Both were big hits, with particular praise for the tenderness of the flower-cut calamari, the tasty, meatiness of the duck and the fabulous ginger-chili dressing on the duck salad.
Next up was the Canh Chua Do Bien Thai (spicy and sour combination seafood soup). As the name suggests, this was more of a Thai-style soup, not as hot as some versions, but flavorful with more flower-cut squid, crab claws, green mussels, straw mushrooms and herbs.
The green curry chicken with bamboo shoots (cari ga voi mang) was also a familiar dish, mild but very well excuted. Derek commented that the heat snuck up on him behind the intial flavor of rich coconut milk.
Everyone raved about the grilled lemongrass pork chops. "Succulent!" said Jane. "Smoky," said Yimster. "Mind if I finish it?" said Derek.
Finally, two items off the specials board: Jumbo prawns with Thai Sauce and White Bass with Tamarind.
The prawns are a signature dish -- as reputed, they were indeed jumbo. I commented that I'd never had a prawn that required cutting into several pieces. The prawns (four to an order) were butterflied, battered and fried, and tossed with strips of sauteed bell peppers and straw mushrooms in a thin, dark sauce. Although they were good, I think the sheer novelty value of the huge prawns is the main appeal of this dish.
The whole bass was partially removed from the bone, lightly battered and fried. Han remarked that even the skin was good. Although both fried dishes were good, they didn't blow me away the way some of the others did.
We also shared four shakes: avocado, mango, jackfruit, and another fruit that none of us (including the waiter) could pronounce but was delicious. The sweet creamy shakes were delicious and balanced the spicy and aromatic dishes well.
Service was friendly and helpful, and once we convinced him that despite his misgivings we liked the dishes we chose, he even brought us some extra condiments: a dish with red chili sauce and a lethal looking green "sauce" that appeared to be pure minced jalapenos with all the seeds.
Overall, I think it was the best Vietnamese meal I've ever had. Han commented that nothing was lower than a "B" and several dishes were outstanding.
With tax and tip it came to $20/person, plus we passed the hat for Chowhound.
We commented that like many restaurants in strip malls, Tam doesn't look like much from the front. In fact, the entrance is offset in such a way that you can't really see the dining room from the outside. Just one more example of the payoffs to mining the strip malls of the South Bay for hidden gems.
Thanks again to Han Lukito for his chow-sniffing skills and for organizing this event.
1720 N. Milpitas Blvd (in the mall with the Lion supermarket)