Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tuk Tuk Real

Alex Boonphaya, who owns Circles in South Philly and Northern Liberties, and his sous chef, Silvestre Rincon have hopped onto the Mexican fusion train and opened Tuk Tuk Real at 5th & South.  The name is a play on the fusion concept - Tuk Tuks are the little 3-wheeled taxis buzzing all over Bangkok and Real meaning "royal" in Spanish. 

As the story goes, the two men had cook-off at Circles NoLibs, with dining guests rating each dish in a six-course meal.  They had to use a mix of Thai & Mexican ingredients and guests were not told who prepared which dish.  Rincon was pronounced the winner and named executive chef of Tuk Tuk Real, and the menu reflects his influence.  It very much leans toward the Mexican side - nachos, tacos, sopes, quesadillas, and  burritos, but with a Thai twist to each.  Think chile lamb mole, chipotle curry shrimp, lemongrass carnitas, and lamb massaman  nachos.

Salsa verde & chile de'arbol sauce with homemade chips are served straight away.  Based on the picture above, you could be at pretty much any Mexican restaurant in Philly.  Things quickly take a turn though. 

We got a plate of the lamb massaman nachos. Homemade nachos piled high with slowly cooked massaman spiced lamb, melted cheese, pickled red onions, cilantro and Mexican crema. At first thought Mexican & Thai would seem strange bedfellows, but all the limes, cilantro, fresh veggies & hot chilis present in both cuisines make this an intriguing and sultry relationship. 

Chorizo Tamales - the specialty of the day. Beautifully steamed with a perfect texture, fork tender chunks of chorizo sausage tucked inside like a little present. These were excellent and could hold their own with any at the taquerias in South Philly.

An assortment of sides for nibbling.  Some refried beans, fried plantains and black beans going clockwise from top-left.  The plantains were crisp on the outside and tender inside. The deeply flavored beans reflect the care and expertise of Chef Rincon.  A bonus at Tuk Tuk Real, like the Circles restaurants, is that they are BYO. So your meal just got that much cheaper.

The list of tacos here is impressive.  From the al pastor standby, to confit pork belly with kimchi and everything in between. I went for a plate of the pork kaprow tacos - roasted pork, salsa verde, pickled onion, and bits of fried basil scattered on top.  The pork is braised to a lovely crispness and intoxicating aroma. The pickled onion cuts through the succulent meat and the fried basil adds a dimension of brightness, taking the usual place of cilantro. I absolutely loved these.

I do think they could use some polish and refinement on the concept and execution. There's too many dishes that are just standard takes on Mexican dishes.  I can get beef tongue tacos at Taco Riendo or an al pastor burrito at Los Taquitos de Puebla. So I don’t really see the point in just doing standards like quesadillas and fajitas, unless they are executed impeccably. A few dishes were a bit dreary; fish tacos were under-fried and soggy, the nachos could use a better distribution of toppings on the layers underneath, and the salsas were a bit flat and lacked any real heat.

That being said, there's a lot to like on this evolving menu. The Thai/Mexican fusion thing is surprisingly appealing and doesn't feel like a gimmick.  Although the restaurant was fairly empty on Wednesday night in December, they seemed to be doing a brisk takeout business, which seemed encouraging. Looking forward to some return trips to see what twists and turns the menu takes on the road from Mexico to Thailand.

Food Baby Rating:  Twins!

Tuk Tuk Real
429 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

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