The large, aquarium-like windows that offer glimpses into Falls Church’s Tara Thai only accentuate the restaurant’s already prominent underwater theme. “Tara,” as it appears in Thai literature, translates to “water,” and the area chain’s various locations are awash in under-the-sea décor.
At the Idylwood Plaza Tara Thai, the theme is writ large in shades of blue and green as fish swim across aquatic wall murals, splotched tabletops seem to mimic sea ferns, and a massive shark figure hangs overhead from the ceiling. And as smooth jazz renditions of last year’s hits play through the dining room, the treatment seems to walk so finely the line between serene and saccharine that both the cynical and the sincere will be satisfied.
The oceanic motif carries over to the menu: Crispy tilapia filet, seasonal picks like whole rockfish and soft shell crab, mussels several ways, black tiger shrimp, scallops, squid, crabmeat, and a seafood option for nearly every noodle, fried rice, or curry dish. Even the Papaya Salad Deluxe ($6.99) is served with a pair of grilled, skewered shrimp. Before the first bite, the only indication that the surrounding quiet will soon be excited are the tiny chili peppers next to some of the menu options. Two chili peppers hint that the spicy lime dressing that coats the strips of crunchy green papaya and string beans will grow more potent with each bite of the salad appetizer. The Larb Gai ($5.99) also receives two chili peppers for its “exotic spices” which give the minced chicken and lime juice starter deep heat cooled only when joined by leaves of iceberg lettuce. (The menu says this dish “tastes a lot better than it sounds,” and that’s the truth.)
The heat is ratcheted up a notch with a few of the entree offerings. The Crispy Duck Kapow ($15.99), one of only about half a dozen Tara Thai Specials and one of a handful of entrees on the menu to earn a three-pepper warning, serves crispy-fried chunks of duck that are sautéed in a spicy basil sauce that lives up to the onomatopoeic name, but that heat is tempered by some sweetness in the dish.
The Panang Curry ($9.99 with chicken, beef, or pork; $15.99 with seafood), one of only four curries on the menu, strikes a similar balance. Creamy coconut milk sweetness and complex curry spices play off of one another for an inviting blend fragrant with fresh basil leaves.
Desserts tempt diners with the promise of refreshing sweetness – ice creams, sorbet, pudding, and the lengthy list goes on. But in that moment before the final course, when tingling heat clings to scorched lips, the stark contrast between marine surroundings and heat-laden cuisine is most pronounced. The authentic, deliciously spicy Thai food at Tara Thai makes waves.
Tara Thai is located at 7501 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church. For more information, call 703-506-9788 or visit tarathaifallschurch.com. Restaurant hours are Monday – Thursday: 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday: 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Saturday: Noon – 11 p.m.; and Sunday: Noon – 10 p.m.