Tuk Tuk Asian Bistro, 6 William Street, Newtownards, www.tuktukbistro.com
You can’t go wrong with Thai food. Even terrible Thai food is edible — and I’ve had some. Twenty years ago, when Thai green and red curries started appearing randomly on takeaway menus in chip shops, Chinese and Indian restaurants, very few of us knew what it was supposed to taste like.
Some young ones had started returning from backpacking holidays in Thailand and word got out about how fabulous the food was everywhere they went. Street vendors, beach cooks, restaurants and hotels offered brilliantly fresh dishes, they reported, featuring all sorts of flavours previously unknown to us.
I once managed to get to Bangkok and Chiang Mai for a week during which I embarked on a fact-finding mission to see and taste authentic Thai food in all its glorious incarnations. This included a bowl of sticky rice with some vegetables in red curry for about 30p and made on the kerb of a busy street by a woman whose loyal clients waited patiently every day (always the sign of quality) for their lunch.
There was also the staggering and mildly intimidating interiors of the Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin in the Siam Kempinski Hotel where they serve tom kha snow fish with wild mushroom, flan and black truffle for a very reasonable THB 1,200 (£27).
The overriding impression was freshness and balance. Everything I ate was delicious, crunchy, spicy, sweet, sour, hugely diverse and entirely different to anything I had experienced in the west — including good Chinese and south Asian food. Now I knew.
Soon after, the poor quality, gloopy stews which were passed off by many Belfast takeaways as Thai cuisine, the real thing started to appear. It began with the Sawadi on Great Victoria Street and was followed by Bo Tree Thai on University Road.
The Bo Tree has since moved to more modest digs in University Street where its popularity has never waned thanks largely to the quality of food produced by the Thai team.
Tuk Tuk in Newtownards, which is BYO, has been on the radar for a few years and it too has captured the hearts of spice lovers. So much so, in fact, that they’ve opened a second one in Bangor.
I can’t explain why it took me so long to get to it, but I’m glad I nabbed a table there a couple of weeks ago because it is charming, well managed and with the right sprinkling of friendly chaos to make it exciting and compelling.
The menu crosses over to Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and China, with dishes including siu mai dumplings, nyonya curries, masamans, red and green curries, panang, taobahn and satays.
The siu mai dumplings take a little time to arrive as they’re made on the spot and are lush, firm and moist, the flavourful minced pork balls bursting from their slippery wanton wrappers. The salt and chilli prawns are dry and spiced to just within the red line of heat tolerance, balanced, tasty and firm.
There are special fried rice dishes where the vegetables and blend of meat are enhanced with a thin chilli spice mix which gives the dish a huge punch. The fried egg on top makes this a standalone dish with little need for anything else. But we’re not here for austere reasons and the nyonya, a traditional Malaysian curry or stew reaches all the high notes with lemongrass, coriander and garlic and the deeper tones with coconut milk. The options are to have chicken, prawn or seabass in the mix.
Wok-fried seabass comes in another, mellower, chilli sauce with steamed vegetables and crispy onions.
It is entirely brilliant, the humble seabass lifted to new heights and cooked just right.
There are many other dishes including bowls of chilli-free curries that children and older people might prefer. Which makes Tuk Tuk a pretty good bet for a family outing.
I’ll be back as soon as I can.
Nyonya chicken: £14
Malaysian seabass: £18
Special fried rice: £15
Egg noodle: £5
Sparkling water: £2.50