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A Popular Ride

At Tuk-Tuk Thai, named for that country's auto rickshaws, Westsiders wait in line for dishes such as shredded papaya salad.

March 22, 2001|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One night in February, six young diners sat out in the bitter cold, warming themselves on the steam from a simmering hot pot. Tuk-Tuk Thai was so crowded that the sidewalk table was the only one they could get.

This little place has quickly endeared itself to a youthful Westside crowd. On weekend nights, you have three choices: Arrive early, sit at the tiny bar or wait in line for a table--maybe even an outside one.

The place looks smartly contemporary, with striking Thai artworks mounted in niches in the warm gold walls. The tabletops are black, the heavy china plates in interlocking circles and squares of black and white.

And all around are hand-carved, miniature tuk-tuks, the auto rickshaws so typical of Thailand. One hangs over the restaurant entrance, copying that once-hot fad of autos plunging into restaurant roofs.

The menu is written in English only, and you'll find "authentic kick-ass spicy Thai sauce" on it (with the devil wings). The food is not challengingly authentic--there's no dried shrimp in the som tum. This shredded papaya salad, flavored with very fresh-tasting grilled shrimp and chopped cashews, is one of Tuk-Tuk's best dishes, by the way, sprightly with lime juice and hot with chiles.

Old customs aren't totally ignored. Sticky rice comes in the traditional covered basket, not a bowl. You scoop out knobs of rice with your fingers and use them to dip up food. But no one will mind if you eat it with a fork.

The best meal I have had at Tuk-Tuk was simply som tum followed by salmon panang and Bangkok steak. The spicy, creamy, mellow panang sauce is a lovely layering of flavors that works beautifully with a rich fish like salmon. Bangkok steak is marinated with garlic, grilled medium rare, sliced and served with a spicy lime juice and fish sauce dip.

The fried shrimp paste patties (tod mun gung) aren't rubbery, as so many are--they're the lightest and fluffiest I have encountered in Los Angeles. The rice noodles in the mee krob are properly fried, neither hard nor overly puffy, and always crisp, no matter how long they sit on the table.

Specialties With a Taste of China

Tuk-Tuk has a specialty dish called green curry dumplings--Chinese-style steamed dumplings filled with shrimp and scallops, served in a light green curry sauce and garnished with red bell pepper and basil. It's a fine appetizer.

Another of the restaurant's originals is green pear salad: pear cut into matchsticks combined with roasted cashews and shrimp in a spicy sweet-sour dressing. Don't miss this one. Glass noodle salad, finished off with shrimp and ground chicken, is almost as good.

Secret green beans reveal at least part of their secret--the Chinese salted black beans that coat them. I'm guessing that other components might be salted shrimp and preserved sweet radish. The beans are sauteed at high heat, which wrinkles them slightly.

Garlic pepper is a standard seasoning for Thai stir-fries. Here it also flavors grilled chicken breast, handsomely presented with cabbage and broccoli florets. You can get a pork chop presented the same way, but with a spicy dipping sauce instead of sweet sesame-soy.

Seafood sensation is squid, shrimp, bay scallops, mussels and fish stir-fried with red chile paste, basil and a bit of sugar. It's a nice dish that should be eaten with rice.

Have a Hangover? Try Drunken Noodles

Drunken noodles are like an intoxicated person who falls into a stream--soppy--but nicely spiced; it's perked up with basil and bell pepper. This dish is great for hangovers, the menu promises.

Some dishes miss. The whole shrimp deep-fried in wonton skins comes dripping with oil. A Thai friend gave low marks to the duck curry, and a green curry was average. The barbecued chicken, as so often in Thai restaurants, is partly cooked in advance and then finished on the grill, which makes for dry white meat.

Tuk-Tuk offers a small wine list and beer. Try the Sterling Sauvignon Blanc. It goes well with this food. Possibly the restaurant's best drink is Thai iced coffee, which is strong and richly flavored.

Thai iced tea is on hand too, and not only as a beverage. For dessert you can have Thai tea ice cream, which accurately captures the flavor and milky look of the drink.

(2 photos) * Tuk-Tuk Thai, 8875 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 860-1872. Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Street parking. Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $35.

*

* What to get: Salmon panang, tod mun with shrimp, seafood sensation, Bangkok steak, green curry dumplings, som tum, green pear salad, glass noodle salad.

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