Just when you thought Tacoma couldn't support one more strip mall Thai restaurant ... surprise! And welcome to Oriental Noodle & Grill.
But what sets this Southeast Asian eatery apart from its kin is a beautiful interior, although you might never guess from the generic strip-mall exterior.
The dark, wooden tables are dressed with linen napkins, handsome dishes and substantial flatware. The walls are layered with floor-to-ceiling, richly colored wood paneling accentuated by interesting artwork, bamboo floors and muted lighting.
Oriental Noodle & Grill caters to the same kind of diners who appreciate higher concept Thai cuisine found at South Sound bistro-style restaurants like Galanga Thai, East & West Café, Indochine and Wild Orchid.
If Oriental Noodle & Grill reminds diners of Wild Orchid, that's because the restaurant's owners are one and the same – Lim Po An and Jurirut Krong Krajonsuk. They opened Oriental Noodle & Grill Sept. 28.
A higher concept Thai style bistro with a menu that digs into noodle dishes and grilled meats, such as grilled chicken, pork, shrimp, trout and beef short ribs that are more Korean than Thai. Diners will recognize an attempt at elevating dishes with liberal use of flavorful Southeast Asian ingredients like fresh basil leaves, slices of lemongrass, galanga, kaffir lime leaves and Thai eggplant.
The people in the kitchen: An and Krajonsuk are the duo who run the operation. Prior to Wild Orchid, which he opened in 2004, An said he owned Indochine in Federal Way before he sold it to a cousin. Oriental Noodle & Grill keeps the menu focused on Thai mostly, but a few Korean and Chinese dishes are offered, as well. An said he wanted to broaden the appeal of the menu with items he personally finds delicious, such as Korean-style beef short ribs. It's working for him. "They're a good seller," he said.
Dishes sampled: The Chef Recommendations section is a good place to start on the menu at Oriental Noodle & Grill. It's where you'll find some of the more interesting dishes, such as salt-and-pepper calamari and seven-flavor beef.
The calamari ($9.95) is a dish composed of substantial slices of calamari, battered and crispy-fried and served in a peppery, fragrant vinegar-based sweet-savory sauce over a bed of dry, crispy noodles. You'll fork fight over the last piece of crispy calamari – the dish is fairly small and is meant as an appetizer, although it's not obvious that the calamari is grouped with the appetizers.
The seven-flavor beef ($10.95) is a meaty helping of tender beef stir fried with aromatic slices of lemongrass, basil leaves, chili peppers, peanuts, hoison sauce and served with slivers of garlic and bell peppers over a bed of bean sprouts. You'll want to order a side of rice ($1.50) to enjoy with the saucy dish.
The daily special ($8.95) is a good order for a first lunchtime visit. It's a platter of a lot of different tastes that change daily. On the day of my visit, the daily platter was a small helping of spicy pork sautéed with too-crunchy long beans, carrots, mushrooms and basil leaves in a spicy-sweet sauce that bordered on being too salty. A small portion of pad thai was tepid and mildly flavored (a little on the sour spectrum as far as the sweet noodle dish goes). The accompanying salad roll filled with noodles, shrimp, ground pork, lettuce and cilantro was filling, but unremarkable, my dining partner noted. A large helping of saffron rice anchored the dish and was far more rice than was necessary for the small helping of pork that was meant to be eaten with it. Note to kitchen: more pork, less rice, please. An overabundance of rice was a problem with other dishes, too.
We ordered takeout on a second visit. From the grilled meats menu, lemongrass chicken ($9.95) was fragrant from a marinade of lemongrass, curry paste and coconut milk – and grilled with a slight char. It seemed too small a helping of grilled chicken, dwarfed by the mountain of saffron rice. The crunchy, pickled vegetables on the side were a nice sour-sweet treat. The beef short ribs ($11.95), a Korean dish, also was too skimpy as a portion, and again served with far too much rice. It was good, but the small mound of short ribs would have disappointed me if that's the only dish I had ordered.
The red curry noodles ($8.95) would have been far better had they been served with thicker rice noodles. The thin noodles were a bit too slimy, something with more chew would have been a better companion to the sautéed vegetables – carrots, mushrooms, eggplants and peppers – and tofu (also available with chicken, pork or beef).
What I'd try next time: Grilled whole rainbow trout ($12.95) served with a lime garlic sauce and saffron rice. Also, three-flavor seafood ($11.95), a dish of prawns, scallops and calamari stir fried with chili sauce and basil.
You're on TV! What's with all the security cameras? We counted five cameras in the dining room. We'd love to get our hands on the greatest bloopers reel. It was odd to be monitored so closely while eating noodles and curry. Does this joint turn in to a casino after hours?
Oriental Noodle & Grill
Where: 1620 S. Mildred St., Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Price Range: $-$$ (prices under $30)