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Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft breaks the Thai restaurant mold

Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft (all photos by Becky Stein)

Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft (all photos by Becky Stein)

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.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

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.

Hoy tod - a lacy, crisp mussel omelette

Hoy tod - a lacy, crisp mussel omelette

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.

Gai yang - sweet barbecued chicken with three dips

Gai yang - sweet barbecued chicken with three dips

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.

Chef/owner Deedee Niyomkul

Chef/owner Deedee Niyomkul

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

12 comments Add your comment

[...] Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft breaks the Thai restaurant moldAtlanta Journal Constitution (blog)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 … [...]

Edward

February 21st, 2013
9:45 am

You should mention the service. Attentive without being hovering, and always happy to explain any dishes. The bar service is the equal of any high-end mixologist in town, too.

Robert

February 21st, 2013
10:31 am

Mixologist? I think you meant “bartender”.

julio_chorizo

February 21st, 2013
11:33 am

Why does food writing have to be so jargony? It’s so stale and almost unreadable. And that’s a shame because to read a critical review of this restaurant.

julio_chorizo

February 21st, 2013
11:35 am

^I wanted

Damn ‘puters.

Paulina

February 21st, 2013
12:35 pm

Outstanding Restaurant, Love the article. From the moment I wlaked in, the services, the food and thier was incredible! I will definetly go back.

Lorenzo

February 21st, 2013
1:02 pm

It looks and sounds great, but I have a difficult time with paying American sit-down restaurant prices for Thai street vendor food (which is one reason I don’t visit Thai restaurants much). Granted, eight or ten bucks is hardly expensive, but the memory of eating the stuff in Thailand for pennies on the dollar–and in a lot more fun atmosphere than a shopping center strip–gives me pause.

Vegetarian Thai Food Recipes

February 21st, 2013
8:42 pm

[...] Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft breaks the Thai restaurant moldAtlanta Journal Constitution (blog), on Thu, 21 Feb 2013 02:15:42 -0800That 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 … The last time I was in Thailand was 25 years ago, and I was admittedly more interested in … [...]

Edward

February 22nd, 2013
10:11 am

Robert, I’m quite capable of writing exactly what I mean, I don’t need your input. And Lorenzo, please tell me where in America you can purchase any food at Thailand prices. Hey, why pay those horrendously exaggerated American prices at the Mexican or Indian restaurant nearby when you can fly to Mexico City or New Delhi and get it sooooooooooooo much cheaper!

Marco Rubio

February 22nd, 2013
3:58 pm

From 2010- still will never go back. I had a disasterous evening at the restaurant. Actually, the food was quite tasty and my companion and I were having a nice time. At the end of the meal, in which we accumulated up a decent tab for a restaurant of this price point ($160), I left a customary 15% tip.

My companion and I walked out of the restaurant and down the elevator and to my car in the parking lot in the back of the building, where we were accosted by our waitress “Zi” who complained about the tip and asked for more money. Mortified and angered, I gave her an additional $20 dollars on top of the 15% tip. I responded in shock quite frankly and should not have given her anything.

Robert

February 22nd, 2013
4:21 pm

All in fun, Edward. Don’t take it (or me) too seriously. It’s only mixing drinks after all. Although, I do think the term “mixologist” has an air of self-importance to it whereas the term “bartender” has a nice working man’s ring to it and has sufficed forever it seems. I just can’t see someone trying the get the person’s attention behind the bar and calling out “mixologist, mixologist” (unless, of course, they are wearing black horn rimmed glassed and skinny jeans). Oh well, to each his own.

Bottoms up.

Marsh

February 26th, 2013
11:55 am

Don’t let Edward confuse you – saying the word “mixologist” instantly makes you stupid.

An ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.