Thai cooking celebrates freshness, flavors, textures and colors, and nowhere is this more evident than in the street food of Thailand. Eating on the street is so popular in that country -- for natives and tourists alike -- that entire guidebooks are devoted to the possibilities (Thai Hawker Food, It Rains Fishes). The food those books extol is cheap, homemade, accessible and deceptively simple, with an emphasis on noodle bowls, grilled or barbecued meat and chopped-to-order salads made from papaya, chiles and lime.
The Thai street-food concept translates well into fast food, this country's favorite way to eat. In the two years since it opened a more traditional Thai restaurant, Tuk Tuk Thai Bistro, in Westminster, the company behind the Tuk Tuk eateries has given Denver diners a movable feast of Thai food. Lakewood's Tuk Tuk Thai Grill, which is a little more casual than the snazzy, brightly colored Bistro, came next. Tuk Tuk Thai Wraps, just off Sixth Avenue in central Denver, is more casual still, with a "fresh Mexican grill" feel, a slightly grungy attitude and an emphasis on getting the food out fast, whether you plan to take it out or eat in. But while both service and setting vary among the three Tuk Tuk Thai restaurants, they all serve well-executed fare.
The words "tuk tuk"-- pronounced "took took"-- refer to Thailand's ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis. At Tuk Tuk Bistro, all of the menu items are named after streets and alleys that are common stops for tuk tuk drivers who take tourists to find good street food; the offerings at Tuk Tuk Wraps and Tuk Tuk Grill are dishes that come from the streets themselves. Although meals in Thailand rarely involve courses, like most Thai eateries in this country, the Tuk Tuk outlets cater to Western palates by including starters. All three offer the Sukhumit Road chicken satay, named for the Bangkok street that's known for its satay vendors. Tuk Tuk's version consisted of four skewers of lightly charred, tender strips of chicken, with a thin, sugary peanut sauce for dipping. The same peanut sauce came with the Satorn Road spring rolls, two fat bundles of rice noodles, shrimp, chicken and just enough mint to add some sweetness, wrapped in large, thin rice wrappers; these are harder to work with than the usual wrappers, because they tear so easily, but they also make for much less chewy rolls.
The Bistro featured a few additional appetizers, including an unusual plate of mini "taco shells" (really thin Thai pancakes) stuffed with shrimp, chicken, corn and onions, and the Wireless Road, three shrimp along with green onions and water chestnuts folded inside a rice-wrapper "blanket." The Bistro also offered the best salads, including a grilled-shrimp version that tossed the charred crustaceans with lemongrass and cilantro. The JJ Park beef salad was another winner, with thin slices of steak providing a salty, spicy counterpoint to sour lemongrass, sweet tomato and sweeter mint. While the salads available at the Tuk Tuk Grill and Wraps -- a peanut-covered chef's salad and a peanut-sauce-covered chicken -- weren't as exciting, they were notable for their fresh ingredients.
Even though they're unwieldy to eat on the run, soups are another popular streetside meal in Thailand. At all three Tuk Tuks, our favorite was the tom kha chicken, with a broth that relied heavily on a chicken-based stock along with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and ginger for flavor; coconut milk provided an enriching side note. The tom yum shrimp soup was fine, too, although the broth wasn't as impressive, and the lime leaves were so strong they left the brew a little off balance.
Bangkok's Royal City Avenue is studded with tourist-trap eateries that serve drunken noodles -- a dish now almost as ubiquitous in this country as pad Thai (and whose name really translates as "poor drunken man's noodles"). Tuk Tuk's version, offered at all three outlets, put thick rice noodles in a basil-pumped sauce that had been sweetened with grilled onions, red and green bell peppers, and shrimp. Like many other dishes, the drunken noodles could be ordered mild, medium or hot; in keeping with Thai tradition, Tuk Tuk's medium is an American's yowsa. By ordering the pad Thai mild, we got to enjoy the lime tanginess and a faint chile bite shining through the light peanut flavor. All three Tuk Tuks served both entrees, but the portions -- and the prices -- were bigger at the Bistro.
Of course, the Bistro has a bigger menu, too. Among the unexpected finds was Saochingcha, a unique eggplant dish made from the longer, thinner Asian eggplant; it came topped with chile-fired shrimp, mussels and squid saturated with coconut sauce and strewn with fresh basil. Another entree, the Elephant Building, lived up to its name: The mound of pineapple-flecked shrimp fried rice was huge, with the interesting elements of raisins and cashews adding more sweetness and crunch.
Instead of featuring fancier dishes, both the Tuk Tuk Wraps and the Grill rounded out their offerings with wraps that were an ingenious combination of burrito savvy and Thai healthfulness. The panang chicken wrap, for example, took coconut-milk-soaked, mildly curried chicken, chopped peanuts, basil and cucumber and tucked them all neatly inside a tortilla that was more like a streetside crepe than a Mexican tort. Other wrap combos were even tastier: garlic-packed pork with sesame seeds and lettuce, tender strips of beef with green beans and basil, and grilled bits of chicken with zucchini and bamboo shoots, all with just the right ratio of soft and crunchy, sweet and spicy elements.
With food like this, Tuk Tuk shows it has the street smarts to really go places in this town.
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