Atlanta is a city with a notoriously nonexistent street food scene. Lately, this has become the subject of much hand wringing. Longtime Atlanta magazine restaurant critic and Knife & Fork publisher Christiane Lauterbach, who has shunned the Internet almost entirely, recently started the blog AtlantaFoodCarts.com devoted to supporting the rise of street food in our city. The lack of street food is a result of many issues that drive Atlanta's gastronomic and cultural inferiority complexes, from governmental and regulatory to entrepreneurial and culinary.
While the hope for a street food scene here remains just that – a hope – a few restaurants aim to offer a taste of the street in the comfort of an indoor environment. One such restaurant is Tuk Tuk, which attempts to deliver the flavors from Thailand's sidewalk vendors. Located in the former Taurus location, Tuk Tuk has a pedigree. The chef, Deedee Niyomkul, is the daughter of Nan Niyomkul, who owns both Nan Thai and Tamarind Seed, our city's most upscale and critically acclaimed Thai restaurants.
The garish red velvet and harlotry of Taurus has been replaced, with mixed results. A cute tuk tuk (Thai golf cart-meets-cab) greets guests in the lobby and hints at the dining room's playful touches: a wall of glassed-in candy treats, a blackboard with whimsically drawn specials. But the room itself has a discomforting barn-like hugeness that begs to be broken up somehow. As it is, the floor seems too wide, the ceiling too high, the whole restaurant lacking intimacy.
If the feel of the place is somewhat disconcerting, the menu is equally disorienting. Certain items, mainly from the small plates selection, are utterly beguiling – the types of dishes that grab your attention and affection without mercy. The mussel omelet, a staple of Thailand's pad Thai street vendors, delivers a complex textural journey – the egg cooked with just enough rice flour to turn the lacy edges crisp and shattery, the center, studded with shelled mussels, creamy and luxurious. Sitting atop the crunch of bean sprouts, it's a dish I'll return for again and again.
I also loved the squiggly beef jerky. It's slightly moister than its American counterpart, and served with a small basket of sticky rice. Popped into your mouth in tandem, the beef's salty, sweet and savory tang is soothed by the rice and makes for an addictive combination. It would be the perfect bar snack alongside a well-made drink.
The mieng kum, a plate of delicate spinach leaves each holding a mixture of peanuts, coconut, onions and copious ginger, is boldly sweet (the entire concoction is dressed in caramelized palm sugar) and assuredly spiced. It's enjoyable and memorable in the extreme. The interplay of lime, onions and slight sugar tang run generously through the warm larb chicken salad, a more delicate and comforting version than others in town.
I wish such delicacy reached beyond the larb and into the rest of the menu, because the dishes that disappoint at Tuk Tuk suffer from a lack of nuance. The kao moo dang is advertised as three kinds of pork over rice – crispy, barbecue and Thai sausage – but the variations were difficult to distinguish. Of course, I could tell what was sausage and what wasn't, but it became muddied under an overpowering sticky brown sauce. Braised beef noodle soup had the same rich, overpowering intensity with nothing to cut through it. So much of what's great about Thai cooking is balance – richness meets freshness, sweet meets funk, spice rides atop a cooling undercurrent. Too many dishes at Tuk Tuk miss that interplay.
Others just missed the mark on flavor. The assortment of buns didn't have enough meat filling to give much flavor at all, making the experience mostly about the squishy bun itself. I tried the chicken liver skewers a few times just to see if my initial experience – of livers so metallic and funky I questioned their freshness – was a fluke or a purposeful preparation. On subsequent visits, the livers were slightly less reminiscent of wet dog, but they never lost that bitter penny-lick tang.
Tuk Tuk's dichotomy is perplexing: There are dishes that beg for a loyal and devoted following. It's also entirely possible to have a full meal here that leaves you confused and dissatisfied. The kitchen needs to assess its preparations and strive for more balance. Because Tuk Tuk's best dishes achieve a lovely equilibrium, that sweet and sour, piquant and cooling waltz I'd be happy to dance, on the street or even in a weird barn-like restaurant.