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Little Saigon’s Tamarind Tree — the Vietnamese sensation that had me crowing over bonbon salad and padania-leaf ice cream in my 2005 review — is branching out. Owner Tam Nguyen and his family have leased the vacant Qube space at Second and Stewart and expect to open their new restaurant in late January. They’ll call the place Long (pronounced laong) — the Vietnamese word for dragon.

The menu, like the one at Tamarind Tree, will reflect a wide variety of foods from north and south Vietnam. At Long, they’ll serve some Tamarind Tree favorites, many grilled dishes and plenty of “lighter fare,” says Tam — like pomelo and scallop salad and clams steamed with beer and lemongrass. As at Tamarind Tree, prices will be modest. Tam’s sister Ngoan will oversee both restaurant kitchens as executive chef, working alongside their brother Thiet, who also cooks. They hope Long will appeal to downtown dwellers, and folks who will stop in for a bite after work or before a show, and they’re looking forward to introducing more of us to the to the “wonderful complex spices” used in their native cuisine, says Tam.

Improvements to the space at 1901 Second Avenue are now underway. The new 70-seat restaurant and bar will have a live jellyfish tank (for viewing, not for eating), and Tam has commissioned a Balinese stone-carving of a bamboo forest that will double as a decorative partition. It’s yet to arrive from Indonesia, and he’s still awaiting a container from Vietnam filled with special tableware, crossing his fingers that everything will arrive in time for a January debut. The interior design is meant to reflect a strong Asian theme, says Tam, whose elegant taste is already on display at Tamarind Tree.

It’s clearly been a busy time for the Nguyen family, whose four-year-old restaurant in the Asian Plaza off 12th and Jackson recently underwent a remodel.They’ve added a waiting area and expanded the existing patio, which now seats 40-some guests. It’s sporting a solid roof and radiant heat-lamps — allowing patrons to sit outdoors during the rainy season, “which lasts nine months,” Tam wryly notes.

Despite the huge success of Tamarind Tree, whose devotees are many, Tam admits he’s nervous about his foray into the downtown core given the economy, and the swift failure his new restaurant’s predecessor, Qube. “We’ll be facing a big challenge,” he says. “Are we up to par? Are we ready? We are not formally trained to be in the restaurant business and the hospitality industry like a lot of folks with restaurants downtown.”

I assured him that given what they’ve done with Tamarind Tree (turning a corner of a rundown stripmall into a destination dining place where the food is delicious and inexpensive and the drinks divine), he should sleep easy. Anybody else want to chime in? Opening a new restaurant is a scary and expensive, but good vibes from the folks who love them are free!