There is much to love about Thai food, and much to hate about Thai restaurants.
To love: Those jagged flavors like none other. Those enticing mounds of salad, fresh and bright, sharped to a near lethal edge with hot chilies, red onion and needles of ginger. And then those bowls of rich coconut curry — wellsprings of woodsy galangal and floral lemongrass jumping from a warming base of shallot and spice.
To hate: Those recipes that are prepared competently but without any heart. That glitzily elegant decor that soothes and stupefies like easy listening music. Those elaborate, carved carrot garnishes that you suspect will be washed off and reused. That nagging feeling that every Thai restaurant in the country serves the same recipes, follows the same manual and runs on autopilot.
I always suspect that Thai restaurants, as they exist in the United States, are a convenient fiction, much like the Japanese steakhouse or Mongolian barbecue — easy-to-digest formulations that convey some of the flavors yet disguise the complexities and regional variations of Asian cooking traditions.
The last time I was in Thailand was 25 years ago, and I was admittedly more interested in the beach than the dining, but I recall the best food was served in the street stalls, and the few bricks-and-mortar restaurants I visited were more often than not Chinese.
That’s why I find Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft such a welcome change of pace. It doesn’t play by the well-thumbed book. Deedee Niyomkul’s second-story Brookwood Plaza restaurant aims to bring Thai street food to the American table. There are dishes here like neau sawan ($8) — sweetly seasoned strips of warm beef that are two shades past well done and four chews away from jerky. Or mieng kum ($8) — spinach leaves topped with minced toasted coconut, ginger, rind-on lime, onion and one fierce red ring of Thai bird chile. You fold it up like a bitty taco, pop it in, and it goes pow.
Niyomkul — the daughter of local Thai royalty Charlie and Nan Niyomkul (Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro, Nan Thai Fine Dining) — opened her restaurant three years ago, and at first the whole “street food” thing felt a little shaky. There was no mistaking this chilly, acres-of-tile Atlanta dining room for the streets of Bangkok. Niyomkul had some fun with the decor, from placing an actual tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) at the entrance to constructing a wall from colorful tins of Thai biscuits and crackers. But this was, at heart, a high-gloss uptown restaurant.
It was also too frequently empty. I enjoyed the weirder contours of the menu but didn’t like that feeling of being the only bowler in the alley. So I did that thing that all frequent diners do but food writers are particularly guilty of: I wrote the place off. Just assumed it would limp along and quietly pull the plug. “Bad location,” people would tut tut about Tuk Tuk.
Tuk Tuk did not close. In fact, it began quietly winning the hearts of neighbors in Brookwood Hills, Peachtree Hills and Peachtree Battle. Friends and readers kept recommending the restaurant with this telltale phrase: “It’s not like other Thai restaurants.”
I’ve been twice recently — weekend dinner and weekday lunch — and found the place bumping on both occasions. When you have a dining room the size of an Arthur Murray dance studio, that matters.
And — yay, yay, triple yay — Tuk Tuk is not like other Thai restaurants. Niyomkul re-creates many of her street food dishes as small plates, and there are some doozies to get the party started. Moo yang ($9) — grilled pork skewers that hang like meaty baubles from a steel bracket — get all the attention. But hoy tod ($9) deserves more. This lacy pancake holds mussels, bean sprouts and scallions in a batter that offers both creaminess and flossy crispness in every bite.
More than the small plates, though, I’ve learned to appreciate the Bangkok Street Noodles and entrees, each of which offers a balanced plate of food. They remind me very much of the plate lunches I snarfed up at street stalls in Asia.
Ba-mee moo dang ($13) unites slivers of barbecue pork, thin egg noodles (mee), sauteed yu choy greens and gobs of scallion, cilantro and red pepper in a bowl. It looks lovely and tastes lusty.
Pla tod ($21) brings a whole fried snapper and earns the spot of most expensive item on the menu. But this furled creature, which looks like it was engaging in fish yoga when it got lowered into a vat of oil, is not merely there to admire. It shares a plate with a terrific green mango salad, rice and a slurpable chile dip. It’s a big, messy plate of bone-picking goodness.
If you prefer your dinner without eyeballs, then go for the excellent kai yang ($16) — a barbecued half chicken hacked into sticky-skinned hunks and served with a choice of three dips.
More than anything, I love that feeling of not going to a Thai restaurant and having that same “Groundhog Day” meal again and again. The same appetizers, the same curries, the same carrot swan swimming on the side of the plate. By mixing it up, Tuk Tuk reminds you why Thai cooking can captivate.Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft Address, phone: 1745 Peachtree St., Atlanta, 678-539-6181 Website: tuktukatl.com Hours: lunch: 11:30 am.-2:30 p.m., Mondays-Fridays; dinner: 5:30-10 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m., Fridays, 5-11 p.m., Saturdays, 5-10 p.m., Sundays. Price range: $$-$$$ Vegetarian selections: a few, but you may want to watch for fish sauce in the condiments and sauces. Noise level: moderate Children: fine