While downtown Tucson's restaurant scene is growing in both abundance and diversity, it's severely lacking in patio and green space. V Fine Thai Dining, formerly Vila Thai, is filling that void with their new digs in the space that used to house Chileverde and Centro.
The new incarnation of V Thai is nearly triple the size of the old space on University Boulevard, with an expanded menu, including many new grilled items and sticky rice. Though the menu is not as expansive as those at many Thai restaurants, it's approachable for those unfamiliar with Thai cuisine, and there are still plenty of options for vegetarians, carnivores and lovers of Thai food alike.
When restaurants relocate, it often leads to mixed results, and V Thai is no exception. Both visits had positives and negatives, and there seem to be some kinks being worked out. On our first evening visit, the restaurant and patio were pretty empty, and our server seemed distant and aloof. The appetizers were the highlight of the meal, food-wise. The crab puffs ($8) were large, crisp pockets of cream cheese and actual crab, with a sweet chili dipping sauce. The spring rolls ($7) were a treat, and despite being deep-fried, were light and delightful, packed with mushrooms, ginger, green onions, garlic and cabbage.
The entrées didn't fare quite as well; my drunken noodles with tenderloin ($14; $12 for chicken or $16 for shrimp) were a little low on the noodle-to-other-stuff ratio for my taste, and the vegetables were cut too large for easy forking. The slices of tenderloin were cooked to a nice medium-rare, but the whole dish was so drenched in the stir-fry seasoning that the sole distinguishable feature between meat, vegetable and noodle was the texture. Ted's Thai bouillabaisse ($22) was quite tasty, but seemed to be lacking in the Thai herbs advertised on the menu, and the snow-crab legs were overcooked, making the meat a little on the chewy side. The scallops were perfectly cooked, and there was an abundance of shrimp, clams and mussels. Although it lacked a particular "Thai" flavor, the tomato broth was tasty and seasoned well.
On our second dinner visit (V Thai isn't yet open for lunch, but the owners have plans to add lunch hours sometime in the fall), the food was absolutely spot-on, although the service still needed some polish. It was a cool evening, so we decided to take a seat on the patio. Ted ordered a sabai sabai ($9), which is a Mekong with mint, Sprite and lime. Although the flavors were nice, the price tag seemed a bit steep for the size and strength of the drink.
Our server was gracious, but seemed a little nervous, and appetizers arrived quickly. The herb summer rolls ($7, or $9 with either green-papaya shrimp or spicy tuna) were fresh and delightful, and beautifully presented, almost in the style of a sushi roll. The calamari ($10) was also quite tasty, fried to an airy perfection with a nicely seasoned breading, though the portion size for a $10 appetizer was quite small.
The entrées took quite a while to come out, but they were excellent. Ted ordered the special, a lamb massaman curry with potatoes ($22). The lamb chunks were plentiful and grilled to a perfect medium-rare, and the curry was ever so slightly spicy. I opted for my absolute favorite Thai dish, tom kha, with shrimp ($10; $8 for chicken, or $16 for mixed seafood). Tom kha is a spicy, coconutty mix of mushrooms, galangal, chiles and a few other tasty additions, depending upon the chef, and V Thai makes an excellent version. The coconut offsets the slight heat from the spice, and the mushrooms and shrimp were plentiful and not overcooked.
One thing detracted from our evening experience: The chef, who was intermittently in and out of the kitchen, was smoking near the outdoor dining area. OK, I understand that you can smoke on any patio that you'd like, as long as you're 20 feet away from the entrance, but during my time working in kitchens, it was taboo for the staff to smoke anywhere near any diners, ever, purely from a professional standpoint.
We ended our evening nicely, with black-rice pudding for dessert ($6)—my second choice, as they were out of the assorted tropical ice creams ($5), as well as a drink featuring one of V Thai's house-infused liquors ($9), with pineapple-infused vodka mixed with a ginger liqueur.
Despite some inconsistencies in the food and service, with a little polish and professionalism, V Fine Thai Dining could be a great addition to the growing downtown scene.