I stopped and stood at the entrance for quite a while, and then the two Indian gentlemen eating at the nearest table said to me smiling, "Try it, the food is nice." One of the gentlemen then got up and said he will introduce me to the boss. "The boss is very friendly", he said reassuringly.
And so I met Benny Sriphet, the owner. Benny is an IT professional from Sweden and the lady boss Aphinya Sriphet is from northeastern Thailand at the border with Laos, hence the Lao and Thai cuisine at Restoran Tam Zabb.
Aphinya had been a Head Chef in a Thai restaurant in Sweden before moving to Singapore where Benny works and now opening Tam Zabb in Johor Bahru.
Sriphet with her hometown kitchen crew.
The decor in Tam Zabb has a minimalist contemporary Nordic feel with touches of Thai and Lao in pictures and ornaments adorning the walls and niches around the restaurant.
What does the name Tam Zabb mean? It sounds like "thumbs up" and in Lao it means "Delicious Mortar". Aphinya said that in Lao cooking, the fresh ingredients are pounded using a mortar. In fact, there are different types of mortars made of different woods and stones for different ingredients. Foodies familiar with Southeast Asian cooking will know that hand pounding creates unique flavours and textures that cannot be replicated with modern electric blenders and grinders.
Aphinya said that Tam Zabb serves authentic Lao and Thai food with many ingredients imported from Thailand and Laos. Some of the herbs are even grown in their own home in Johor Bahru to ensure a secure supply of the key ingredients.
Wood Apple drink at RM5. Sweet with a hint of herbal flavour, this reminded me of the Chinese dried melon herbal tea.
Lemongrass Infusion drink served hot or cold at RM3. Made with Thai lemongrass which tastes milder than the local variety. Benny said that Johor Kaki readers will be offered a free Lemongrass Infusion just by mentioning "Johor Kaki" to the staff. So, you can try this Lao drink whenever you dine at Tam Zabb.
First up was the Som Tam Thai (RM10), a salad of fresh vegetables eaten with hot glutinous rice served in quaint little satchels made with woven leaves. Som Tam Thai was a complex blend of sweet, spicy, tangy and savoury flavours with interesting textures. It's a great appetiser to "open up the stomach" as the Chinese phrase goes.
Num Tok Phla (RM25) is a tilapia fish, its flesh diced into cubes, marinaded with hot spices, deep fried and served with garnishing.
Classic Larb (RM15) is fried finely chopped pork in tangy, savoury sauce. This is a classic Laotian dish. Also available made with chicken.
Steamed Glass Noodles with Shrimps at RM15. Savoury and spicy flavours.
Tam Zabb's Thai staple Pad Thai at RM12 was quite subtle in flavour. Aphinya said that this would allow the customer to add condiments like powdered nuts, chili powder, sugar, or chili pickle according to their personal tastes.
For me, I like my Pad Thai to have a little sting.
I like it that Tam Zabb's Pad Thai come with crunchy, pearly white bean sprouts with their roots removed.
Everybody, well almost everyone, orders a Tom Yam Kung when dining in a Thai restaurant. Tam Zabb's rendition of this Thai classic is mildly spicy and doesn't have that lingering sting of some Tom Yam.
With the milder palate that I have nowadays, Tam Zabb's Tom Yam was just nice for me. The key to good Tom Yam is fresh ingredients and Tam Zabb got that well taken care of.
We rounded up our sumptuous dinner with the Sticky Rice Mango dessert (RM12). The refreshingly sweet and subtly tangy mango went very well with the sweet sticky rice. That milky syrup on the mango is made with palm sugar extracted from "sea coconut" palms. Refreshing and yet not overly sweet. Not available in Johor, so Aphinya gets the palm sugar directly from Thailand. This was so delicious that somehow, my stomach found space for this rather substantial dessert.
We had a lot of food for four people and need to come back again for other interesting Lao and Thai food like the BBQ catfish which I can't wait to try.
Restaurant name: Restoran Tam Zabb Lao and Thai
Address: 48G, Jalan Bestari 3/2, Taman Nusa Bestari, Johor Bahru
Map: http://goo.gl/maps/QBa4W (rough)
GPS 1.481964,103.666407 (rough)
Hours: 11:00am to 11:00pm (Closed in Tuesday)
Date visited: 21 Jan 2013