-Grubbing in Chicago
Isan Cuisine in Lakeview
Chicago’s Thai food scene continues to grow with the opening of Thai restuarants pretty much always being a thing. Which ones do you try first (or ever) is also a thing you have to figure out. For me it simply comes down to the menu and maybe the presentation of it. What I mean when I say the menu plays a big part in whether or not I’m going to check a spot out is what do they have, if anything, that sets them apart from other Thai spots in town. So I’m looking for more than the usual suspects as far as Pad Thai or spring rolls and so forth. Just like with any other cuisine I’m always on the prowl for regional offerings too which is what got me into Tuk Tuk Thai Isan on Clark a few doors down from the old Century Mall. It's owned by the family who runs Green Tea Japanese Restaurant which is also on Clark up in Lincoln Park (across from Francis Parker school). They’re Thai and figured why not open a spot serving the food they typically make for themselves at home and family gatherings and the likes. The family has roots in Northeast Thailand which is the Isan region up near Laos.
The food of the region is famous for being very spicy and pungent and well seasoned with fresh herbs and fermented fish being abundant. This cuisine has more in common with that of Laos then the rest of Thailand, as the people of Isan have been more heavily influenced by the neighboring country's culture than a place like Bangkok. They even speak in a dialect closely related to Laos and thus food is also more like Lao cuisine than it is Thai in alot of ways. So it’s always nice to get an Isan option since there’s just one Lao restaurant in Chicago and it’s only a ghost kitchen at the moment. Tuk Tuk is planning on getting a liquor license but it’s byob for now so bring some beer and some friends bc the menu is the type that’s really good for sharing. Of course we had to start with a papaya salad and we chose the Isan style which comes pounded with green beans, tomatoes, garlic, lime dressing, fish sauce, thai chili with fermented anchovies and salted crabs. This had that funk one wants when they want a proper papaya salad. We also got an order of the fried meatballs (pork) aka Laab Moo Tod. My only complaint with them was some were really small and thus fried kind of hard. The larger meatballs were much juicier so maybe they could increase the size of them just a bit. A good start nonetheless.
Moving along we also tried a couple of the entrees as appetizers since there was four of us. We got the green curry with shrimp and also the Rad Nar with shrimp and both were a hit. In the case of the curry I enjoyed the fresh chunks of Thai eggplant that had clearly been cooked to order and not left in the pot to sit and get soft. It wasn’t the best curry I’ve had in town but it was a good one. As far as the Rad Nar we all liked that too. First off the shrimp that it came with were some of the better textured shrimp that I’ve had in Chicago in a long time. It was served up with fresh Chinese broccoli that still had a lot of snap which is how I like it. The gravy was pretty spot on and the noodles were soft as expected with them being covered in sauce but overall this dish was also a hit with the group.
Tuk Tuk presents a few signature dishes and they all seemed worth ordering but we had to do a whole fried fish just because in my opinion nobody fries up a whole piece of fish better than the good people of Thailand. Almost all of the best versions of whole fried fish that I’ve had came on a trip to Thailand and I’ve had a few good ones at Thai spots in the States too so with this being a favorite dish of mine I decided we would try that and was happy that we did. They serve their deep fried snapper topped with a Thai-style three flavor sauce - spicy, sweet & sour. I detected some tomatoes, green onion and cilantro plus dried chiles on top of the sauce. My only real complaint was that we didn’t get a second fish as this is going to feed one or maybe two people as a meal in of itself but we also ordered a few rounds of sticky rice and it came with some regular steamed rice as well so we all felt like we ate just enough after we tried the housemade coconut ice cream served up with peanuts, fresh chunks of coconut and evaporated milk. I love any and all Asian desserts but I have a special bond with Thai style coconut ice cream going back to a visit to a popular Bangkok Market where I ate more than a few scoops on what was a hot ass day. With the weather heating up and Northeastern Thai food being the perfect match for a warm summer day I recommend Tuk Tuk to those in the Lakeview and Lincoln Park area looking for the exciting and delicious flavors of Isan style Thai.
2852 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60657