Matthew Lickona 3 p.m., April 28
Chillin' with Mama Tam
It’s a little ratty.
That was my first thought when I stepped into Tam’s Thailand Food in Normal Heights. Clutter accumulated on various surfaces and the “today isn’t your day and tomorrow doesn’t look good either” sign on the counter gave me the creeps, as though I had walked into a bad high school guidance counselor’s office. Between the plastic table cloths and the legit art by local artists hanging on the wall, I just didn’t know what to think.
That set the tone for my entire Tam’s experience. The place is just plain weird.
The extremely friendly proprietress (could this be Mama Tam? I prefer to think it is, all facts aside) set me up at a table, greeting me in heavily inflected English. The cowboy hat perched on top of her head was like a nehru shirt in a BBQ place, but she was enthusiastic and I banished my skepticism as she bounced back to the kitchen.
The server, perhaps Mama Tam’s partner in a business or personal sense, eventually brought water in bottles, for which I might have paid, I still don’t know, but I think was just the house version of tap water. I ordered the “amazingly rich pork,” thinking that I liked things that were amazing, rich, and made of pork, why not try all three at once?
Despite the fact that I was one of three total guests in the place, the food took forever to arrive. I don’t rush meals, as a rule, so I wasn’t bothered by this, but it’s a good thing to have in the back of your mind before eating at Tam’s. Once, during the long intermission, the woman in the cowboy hat came out and explained something to me. I think her accent is actually Laotian, which is kind of awesome, but I seriously couldn’t tell what she was saying, so I just agreed with her because she looked happy about it. By that point, I was just enjoying the ride anyways. The weirdness of the place was infectious rather than off-putting.
Then the food arrived, and I figured out what Mama Tam had been trying to tell me. ‘Amazingly Rich Pork is no good for you, so I am making you a pork stir-fry instead,’ or something to that effect. It became apparent as she set a plate of pork loin and vegetables down in front of me that was far from amazingly rich.
Now, I’ve been served food I didn’t order and I’ve been told the thing I ordered was unavailable. This was new to me and it would have been a total bummer except for one thing: it was damn good pork. Mama Tam can really thrown down some homestyle cooking. The dish was less oily and heavy than I’m accustomed to with Thai-style restaurants. Everything was cooked delicately and seasoned appropriately. It was no haute cuisine, but it was still very, very good. It was also enormous, which excused the fact that Tam’s prices are a bit higher than the average.
Strawberry chicken was likewise delicious. The battered, fried slices of breast had been coated in a sweet glaze that I suspect was mostly strawberry jam. It was weird, just like the rest of Tam’s, like a chicken funnel cake or something, but I have to admit that this wacky idea worked out well.
Eating at Tam’s was a random, quirky experience that pulled me outside of the restaurant norm in a big way. It wasn’t unpleasant, though. Far from it. The honesty of the place was endearing, with its rough-around-the-edges charm, and the lack of propriety was almost refreshing in a world where things quickly get stale.
3456 Adams Avenue