My review of Tommy’s Asian Bistro & Grill as posted on November 21, 2012 in the Marin IJ:
When I learned that a restaurant in Marin was serving Cambodian food, I nearly jumped out of my chair. Khmer cuisine is a rare bird around these parts. In the Bay Area, my informal tally notes five restaurants that offer the cuisine of Khmer, of which the new Tommy’s Asian Bistro and Grill in San Rafael’s Montecito Plaza is the most recent, and sixth, entry.
Named after co-owner and chef Tom Chau, the bistro moniker hints of the broad regional influences encompassed in the wide-ranging menu. Chau, a native of Cambodia, also spent time in Thailand. Co-owner, Mary Mao, Chau’s wife, has her roots in the Szechuan province of China. And so, a melding, if not exactly a melting pot, of Asian foods are available at Tommy’s.
The look of the single-roomed restaurant gives no clue of the diversity of cuisines to come. A smiling Buddha, found in restaurants all over Asia, greets you near the door but the reddish chairs and golden fabric on the lamps and chairs give little indication of their regional origin. With little to look at, the eye moves directly to the thick menu. There are a few Asian-inspired dishes such as a cheese wonton appetizer ($4.99) or chef’s soothing chicken ($6.99), minced and wrapped in lettuce, that cater to Westernized palates, but Chau’s dishes stay more or less true to their home region in style and flavor.
Thai-style fresh rolls ($7.95 for chicken or tofu), stuffed mostly with lettuce, were fresh but lacked interest. Crisp-edged and soft-centered North China green onion pancakes ($5.95), cut into petite wedges, hinted delicately of the scallion within. Thailand’s tom yum soup ($7.95 for small, which easily served four), was packed with vegetables and tofu, and the red sheen on the clear broth a revelation of its warm spiciness.
Enriched with egg and a scant bit of crab, chan pad poo noodles ($8.95), familiar to Thai and Viet tables, glistened with tamarind and palm sugar, its rich flavor and velvety texture welcomed by the diverse palates at the table. Listed under Chinese specialties, flash-fried salt and pepper pork ($8.99) was first tossed in rice flour, creating a crunchy coating crackling with pepper before finishing with a warm jalapeño heat.
The Cambodian specialty char kreoung ($8.95), made with the Khmer equivalent of soffrito (kreoung is a spice paste made of lemon grass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime zest, garlic and shallot) and the lemony ma-om (rice paddy herb), was disappointingly bland but the Cambodian hor mok ($12.99), cooked in banana leaves, stole the show. Topped with whole cilantro leaves, a ball-shaped, foil-wrapped surprise was presented to the table. Peel away the foil to reveal layers of vegetables, tender beef, fresh herbs and coconut milk, co-mingled with a red curry kreoung. Bursting with flavor in every bite, this dish ably represented the hearty character and welcoming nature of Cambodian cuisine.
The huge menu requires navigational assistance. It is too easy to get lost amid the wealth of offerings and too easy to suffer from palate confusion. Speak your preferences clearly to your server, who can guide you by cuisine style, flavor and texture, level of chilies or by choice of protein.
Chau and Mao, who used to run Szechwan 7 restaurant in the same plaza, have not yet been able to transfer the liquor license to Tommy’s so BYOB. There is a small patio for al fresco dining and plans are in the works to add a barbecue. Where on the menu these grilled additions will fit is anyone’s guess.
In the crowded world of Asian restaurants, Tommy’s fits into its own niche — the flavors of Thailand and mainland China with the new-to-Marin flavors of Cambodia on a single menu. The mix-and-match appeal of the familiar and the novel may keep you guessing and makes for lively dinner conversation. Enjoy the ride.
Christina Mueller writes about food — restaurants, chefs, products and trends — for local and national publications as well as other industry clients. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
REVIEW TOMMY’S ASIAN BISTRO AND GRILL
Address: 227 Third St. (at Union Street), San Rafael, inside the Montecito Plaza
Cuisine: Cambodian, Thai, Chinese
Noise level: Low
Recommended items: North China green onion pancakes, tom yum soup, salt and pepper pork, chan pad poo, hor mok
Liquor selection: N/A
Heart-healthy and vegetarian selections: Yes
Gluten-free selections: Yes
Dog friendly: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Credit cards: All major
Prices: $10 to $18
Reservations: Requested for eight or more
Summary: Chef and co-owner Tom Chau serves the wildly diverse offerings of Chinese, Thai and Cambodian cuisines in his latest restaurant, Tommy’s Asian Bistro and Grill. Curry, noodles and chow mein — it’s all here, but the Cambodian hor mok is one-of-a-kind in Marin.