TARAD Thai Market and Restaurant is a small, casual restaurant with an emphasis on Northern Thai specialties and a supporting roster of familiar Thai staples. It is also, to a lesser extent, a little Thai market, where you can browse a few shelves' worth of authentic pantry items and cold produce. It's the third Portland restaurant project in which PaaDee and Mee-Sen's Earl Ninsom has played a leading role, and has been open on inner SE Morrison since February.
A communal table for 10 fills the center of the room, but because it's raised like a bar, the intimacy that bothers some diners about this arrangement is somehow lessened. Two tables for four and a two-top line one wall, and a little counter comfortably fits a handful more. The interior is of the fashionable reclaimed-wood scrapyard variety, but closer observation suggests that all the timber was taken from a single demolition, with the street number of a gray-and-cream bungalow that used to live in the east 100s plainly visible on one of the siding strips. Looking down from that humanizing detail, it becomes clear that the market's cupboards used to be someone's kitchen cabinets, and the shelving struts were bits of interior trim. It's an inside-out house with chandeliers of handmade mango pickers, and it feels somehow exotic and alive—a great complement to the food.
Dishes at Tarad are intense, complex, and engaging. Wonderfully balanced sauces are built near to the breaking point with juices, sugar, fish sauces, chiles, herbs, and salt, but are never cloying, overly rich, or greasy. Freshness and lightness of touch emanate from nearly every item. Those who eat with refractometers and notebooks might say Ninsom's menu is a touch sweeter than his Northern Thai peers around town, but given the abundance of flavors in play it's a very minor detail.
Nam prik ong ($9) is marinated ground pork in a red curry with plenty of sweet stewed tomatoes, onions, and shrimp paste. It's much like a loose ragu Bolognese, and comes with raw green cabbage, carrots, and sliced cucumber for scooping. One of the most enjoyable moments of dining at Tarad was feeling the cold, refreshing cucumber against the tangy, moist sauce. It's a must try, though more attention to the crudités (larger cabbage, fresher carrots) would be welcome.
Khao soi gai ($11), braised dark meat chicken in a Northern-style coconut curry with egg noodles, is another standout. At the center of the dish are a large thigh and drumstick, often overcooked but here so carefully finished that the meat yielded easily and was uniformly tender to the bone. Toothsome and abundant noodles make it a good dish for two, and ordering extra rice for the sauce—the kind of sauce you keep dipping your spoon into after you're done eating—isn't a bad idea.
The pad thai bo-raan (old style), $8, is also excellent. I don't particularly know what makes it "old style," though I'm guessing that in times gone by pad thai used to be better—and this is. Noodles are well dressed but dry and springy, appreciably sour, and carry a respectable portion of tender egg and meat. Whole dried shrimp and crushed peanut add satisfaction to the fragrant stir-fry. Other noodle dishes, like the pad kee mao ($8) with its perfectly wokked wide egg noodles, were also rewarding versions of the classics.
"Spicy" is not lip service here, and if that word is used, you're going to get a respectable dose of ungentrified chile with a lasting, permeating, but well-applied heat. (You can order mild versions of many items.) My standard midday psycho-tickle is a half-cup of 1:1 Sriracha and water, so I'm not exactly a wilting flower where heat is concerned, but the chile oil condiment that came with the khao soi gai napalmed the back of my throat with such intensity that I coughed like a rookie stoner for two minutes—and that was from less than one drop. Perhaps this is why the cha manao peach iced tea ($2) is so sweet: It's a critical balm when experimentation blows up in(side) your face.
That's hardly meant to scare anyone off—it's a note of respect that they don't dilute authentic intensity. But not all items are playgrounds for heat. The guoy teaw moo ($8) is a clear soup with an onion and dried garlic broth, noodles, tender sliced pork, and simple pork meatballs. It's comforting and restorative. The larb kua ($9), a ground pork and cilantro salad served with cabbage leaves like the nam prik ong, is an irresistibly sweet and salty crumbled sausage.
Dishes at Tarad ranged from very good to noteworthy. Exploration was uniformly rewarding, and it's a safe bet that a meal here will reawaken any jaded diner to the possibilities of Thai cuisine.
Open for lunch and dinner all days but Sunday. Dinner available until 3 am on Friday and Saturday. See website for exact hours.