Black Thai dining
Sacramento, CA 95841
On entering Tuk Tuk, a surprisingly elegant new Thai place in a giant Natomas shopping center, I was first struck by the pervasive scent of lemon grass and then by the décor. Full of dark-wood detailing that’s angular rather than ornate, low benches and sand-colored walls, it’s dramatic in a way you don’t expect from the shopping-center surroundings and the slightly whimsical sign outside. That’s not to say the interior doesn’t have its whimsical touches: The most obvious is a bas relief of the restaurant’s namesake. A tuk tuk, it turns out, is a motorized rickshaw-type vehicle used in Thailand. Its image lends a certain charm to the opulence.
It’s not just the décor here that’s more ambitious than the average Thai place. The bar menu, too, offers tons of specialty cocktails, and there’s a wine list with quite a few offerings, especially by-the-glass ones, varying from mass-market basics on up to Opus One.
The menu doesn’t have as many offerings as some Thai restaurants, though it covers all the bases and offers some more unusual items, as well. I liked its slightly more curated approach, which includes menu descriptions in varying degrees of elaboration. Some are helpfully descriptive of flavors, while others give more personal stories about certain dishes. Our server’s approach—helpful to a fault—was of a piece with the tone set by the menu. The owner also stopped by each table to check on things.
My friend and I started with an appetizer of miang kam: spinach leaves topped with a tiny lime slice, peanuts, coconut, ginger and more, served with a sweet chili sauce. I’ve often seen miang kam as a roll-your-own experience, but here the leaves came looking like tiny canapés, all neatly piled. Because the coconut was sweetened, sugariness dominated the balance of flavors, but I still liked their aromatic, nutty quality. I could have done with more heat in the sauce, however, and depending on one’s tolerance for bitter flavors the lime peel could be a bit much, but they were a nice, not-too-filling starter.
I was tempted by the salads, of which there is a full complement (including catfish and green apple, roasted duck, seafood, spicy beef, lahb), but instead tried a classic tom kha gai soup. It was chock-full of flavorings, chicken and vegetables, but even though I asked for medium it was a little on the mild side. However, the coconut-rich broth had a nice tang about it.
We debated which type of the curries to order, but settled on the green curry, which—ordered at medium heat—was spicy but not fiery. My friend and I both loved the complexity of the aromas and the sweetness of the coconut, which was enhanced by the fact that it was served in a young coconut and strips of its flesh were in the sauce. The promised eggplant was a little thin on the ground, but there was plenty of chicken and basil to round out the dish. Over perfectly steamed rice, the sauce was just rich enough and very delicious.
The drunkard’s noodles, with their bright colors and riotous flavors, were a very different type of dish from the elegant curry. They seemed more apt as a lunch dish, but I was happy to eat them any time. Big, wide, soft rice noodles, stir-fried with bright vegetables, shrimp and (slightly dry) chicken and basil leaves, coated with a lightly spicy sauce—it’s not an unfamiliar dish, but it’s likely to be a pleasing one.
Poo pad asparagus, described on the menu as “stir-fried soft shell crab with fresh asparagus and lobster sauce,” was a much quieter dish, one that probably would have been better served by not following two such spicy, flavorful items. With its finely textured egg and crab scramble and its fried crab, it almost seemed like an upscale brunch dish. Thin slices of asparagus made it a good dish for spring. It was presented elegantly, with its tumble of crab mixture on fanned-out slices of asparagus and topped with a deep-brown soft-shell crab. The latter looked a little spider-like, but tasted delicious and wasn’t too oily. The spears of asparagus were very lightly steamed—so much so that our forks could not cut through them, though they were tender enough to bite through if you picked them up to eat.
Tuk Tuk also offers a few desserts: mango with sticky rice, rum banana ice cream, deep-fried coconut ice cream, and a daily sampler plate. Full from the various dishes, we decided on the most virtuous option: mango with sticky rice. I’m not normally much of a mango fan, but these were good, and the sticky rice—colored a slightly lurid shade of seafoam green—was deliciously sweet and rich. The presentation, with the mangos fanned precisely, was as attractive as just about everything else at Tuk Tuk. It’s a great improvement on the welter of chain restaurants that surround it and a delicious surprise in its setting.