Last December, I received a pleasant e-mail from Vila Jarrell. She explained that she and her sister had moved from Seattle to Tucson to open a Thai restaurant here, and she invited me to come check it out. "We guarantee to elevate your taste buds to a whole new level for Thai cuisine," she promised.
Being a fan of Thai cuisine, I couldn't wait to try out Vila Thai Cuisine. As I waited for three months to pass after Vila's opening (as is our procedure for reviewing new restaurants), some friends visited Vila's; they unanimously fell in love with the place. It's safe to say my expectations were sky high when Garrett and I finally went to Vila's, incognito, on a recent weeknight.
I'd be lying if I said the place met my lofty expectations. Vila's does, in fact, offer some of Tucson's best Thai food--but the location and the higher prices at Vila's (in some cases, by more than 50 percent, compared to the place that always wins the Best of TucsonTM) turned me off a bit.
Vila's is located in Main Gate Square, on the second story of the building at the southwest corner of Park Avenue and University Boulevard. This means parking's a bitch, but we were there on a quiet weeknight and had no problem securing decent, free parking nearby. (The good folks at Vila's will also deduct the cost of valet parking at University and Tyndall Avenue from your bill during dinner hours.) We wandered in--past a personal-improvement class that pretty much had monopolized the outdoor seating between Vila's and Oriental Express--and were quickly seated at one of the dozen or so tables inside. An abundance of windows along one side gave the restaurant a pleasant open feel; bright green and red walls, complemented by mirrors and some framed art, further brightened up the place.
The menu offers all the standards you'd expect, along with some unique options. We decided to split the summer rolls appetizer ($6.25), the tom kar coconut herb soup with chicken ($9.25) and the grilled beef "crying tiger" salad ($8.25). For main courses, I picked that popular standard, pad Thai with chicken ($11.25), and Garrett went with the rama chicken ($11.25), a peanuty dish our server identified as a favorite.
It didn't take too long for our food to arrive. And I mean all of our food: The server brought the summer rolls first, followed by the soup and the salad, and within two minutes or so, our entrées. As a result, our table was very full, and we felt rushed, trying to eat everything before it cooled down.
Thankfully, we were enjoying what we were eating. The four smallish summer rolls were fantastic. The clear-wrapped rolls containing shrimp, noodles, greens and carrots matched perfectly with the warm, creamy peanut dipping sauce. The tom kar soup--with straw mushrooms, lime leaf, lime juice, lemongrass, chicken and coconut milk--hit the spot, although Garrett felt it was a little too sweet. I was impressed by how the flavors (led by the lemongrass, followed by the subtlety of the chicken) blended together. Meanwhile, the salad--beef, onion, tomatoes, cucumbers and lime with greens--was the weakest link among the starters. Compared to similar salads, this one didn't offer flavors that were as complex.
Our entrées were also palatable. My pad Thai was different--we could not detect any fish sauce, a key ingredient in most pad Thais in this country--but I enjoyed the sweet, peanut-packed dish. Garrett liked his rama chicken--sautéed pieces over spinach and topped with a sweet peanut sauce--but he'd ordered it "beyond Thai hot," yet it had almost no kick at all. (The server asked us to request spiciness on a scale from 0 to 5; Garrett requested a 20 or so.) We overheard a similar complaint at an adjacent table about a lack of spiciness.
Exhausted after our marathon of eating, we decided to cool things down with some red bean ice cream ($3). It was perfect, in my book.
We returned a couple of days later for lunch; Garrett had to park in a pricey garage several blocks away. We got the spicy calamari for an appetizer ($6.25); I picked the curried noodle lunch ($7.25), while Garrett got the garlic chicken lunch combo; all the lunch combos also come with rice and vegetarian pad Thai ($6.95). The service was again good and fast, and we had our spicy calamari--which was enjoyable thanks to the sweet mango sauce, although it was nowhere near what I'd consider spicy--in no time. Garrett again ordered his dish to come ridiculously hot, and it again did not come that way; in his words, it had a little kick, but not much. He liked the sauce on the chicken, which featured more than just garlic, and the pad Thai was again a winner. My curried noodles looked and smelled fantastic--the noodles came with ample amounts of vegetables including celery, mushrooms, pea pods, carrots and onions--and I enjoyed it, although the sauce-to-noodles ratio was a bit low for my taste. There's no such thing as too much sauce.
We enjoyed Vila's Thai Cuisine; make no mistake. But I also had a hunch that their prices were out of whack compared to the aforementioned Thai restaurant that always gets the most Best of TucsonTM readers' votes, so several days later, I headed down Fifth Street and picked up a menu from that place. Sure enough, Vila's is more expensive almost across the board--by a lot, in some cases. The equivalent beef salad is $2.30 more ($8.25 vs. $5.95), and the soup was $1.30 more ($9.25 vs. 7.95). The pad Thai with chicken was a whopping $4 more at Vila's ($11.25 vs. $7.25).
I like Vila's Thai; I really do. I wish them well, and overall, I recommend them. But the next time I am craving Thai, I'll probably save some money and avoid parking hassles by going to that other place.