All tangled up in Thai
Two new Northeast Portland spots, Tuk Tuk Thai and Thai Noon, boast out-of-the-ordinary offerings
You could argue that Portland has capped its quota of cleverly titled Thai restaurants (think Typhoon and Beau Thai). But you won't hear the residents of the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood or the so-called Alberta arts district complaining about the new Thai establishments on their blocks, no matter how kittenish their names.
Both Tuk Tuk Thai on Northeast Fremont Street and Northeast Alberta Street's Thai Noon fill niches heretofore overlooked on these up-and-coming restaurant rows.
Tuk Tuk Thai
The vividly colored walls of Tuk Tuk Thai shout Cuban or Caribbean more than Thai, but one whiff of Flaming Beef and you know you're in solid tom yum territory. With nearly 70 items on the dinner menu, Tuk Tuk Thai presents plenty of choices, but it's not your run-of-the-mill list.
Lead off with an order of Rock and Rolls, rice paper rolls wrapped around lemon-grass chicken and wispy rice noodles. The subtly scented poultry makes these rolls sing. Stick with rolls or satay over the salt and pepper calamari, which is as dry as sand.
Gather some friends to take full advantage of the restaurant's extensive menu, ordering a curry, stir-fry and noodle dish or three. Flaming Beef, which casts blue flames around for a couple of minutes after arriving at the table, is especially engaging for a group because it gives you something to toast if nothing more compelling comes to mind. Besides, it's delicious, redolent of garlic, sesame oil and the liquor used to set the tender strips of beef ablaze.
If you habitually order pad thai, give pad see-ew a whirl. Made with wider noodles, egg and broccoli instead of bean sprouts, and no peanuts, this dish is less sweet than its sibling but similarly hearty.
With the exception of shrimp, steer clear of seafood choices. The squid is too tough and chewy, and the scallops are small and mushy. Chicken, pork and tofu are more reliable and tend to absorb flavorings best, especially in robust curries such as gang mussamun and gang ka-ree.
Within walking distance of New Seasons Market and vegetarian-friendly Chez What, Groundswell and Vita Cafe, it's not surprising that Thai Noon boasts 'healthy Thai cuisine.' That translates to entrees bountiful with chicken breast meat, choice pork and plump tiger prawns. Organic vegetables can be substituted in any dish for a $2 charge.
Fried wontons are lighter than average and stuffed with little morsels of tofu or chicken. And clothesline-fresh ingredients pepper nearly every dish, from the sweet basil leaves in an unusual curry to the fibrous green papaya in a tangy salad.
Thai Noon emphasizes lean preparations Ñ appealing to Western palates that savor the spices but not the gristle of Thai dishes Ñ without sacrificing authenticity. Instead of the usual gargantuan menu offering every variation of every Thai recipe under the sun, Thai Noon presents diners with a well-edited list of favorites and uncommon specialties.
Fried fish cakes, made from a puree of white fish, red curry paste, coriander and lemon grass and then molded into patties and fried, have a springy, firm texture and zippy bite. Neutral cucumber dipping sauce is the ideal complement to the complex combination of flavors in these cakes.
Papaya salad is similarly sophisticated, pairing slivers of crunchy papaya with shaved carrots, tomatoes, whole peanuts and dried shrimp (whose pungent, unmistakably fishy flavor isn't everyone's cup of tea). Dressed in lime juice with chili, the piquant salad revs your appetite for the main course.
Salmon, the culinary mascot of the Northwest, gets an Eastern makeover when deep-fried and covered with a spicy-sweet, three-flavored sauce. The contrast between the rich flesh and crispy coating is dynamite, and flaky, fried basil leaves contribute another welcome layer of texture.
Thai Noon serves pad thai, but with more intriguing options on the menu, why bother? Of the few noodle and rice dishes, pineapple fried rice stands out, thanks to a winsome mixture of fruit chunks, raisins, peas, carrots, egg and cashews. Chicken or prawns work particularly well as a meat choice.
There's no better time than right now to visit Thai Noon. The garage door swings open on fair nights, letting the longest daylight hours of the year pour in while diners linger over in-season mango with sweet sticky rice. Night after night of packed tables would seem to indicate that Alberta residents know when to seize a good thing.