The foodist winds of fate have not blown kind on the corner building at 1000 E. Locust Street. Native Riverwesterners scoff at the patchy history, and inactive Facebook pages whisper of yesterday’s discarded crusts from the likes of Milano Pizza, Luna Pizza, 4 To 4 Pizza And Wings, JAX Pizza…the list goes on. But such volatility might not seem like much compared to the cutthroat realty world of San Francisco, where husband-and-wife team Tim and Suchada Nelson plied their trade—he as a sports bar owner, and she as a Bangkok native learning American cooking and supplementing their burger fare with Thai dishes like pad gra prow. Now, the couple brings Milwaukee Tuk’s Thai Kitchen (414-539-3164).
The space: Most recently Antonio’s Pizza, this is still a classic pizza pickup joint: there’s the big vent hood, a Dr. Pepper soda cooler, old-school clinking cash register, sad slated bench, and two folding chairs implying a hasty grab-and-go for an in-front-of-the-TV meal. There’s also a shirt display (maybe for sale?) with one T emblazoned with “Thailand tuk yuk thai classic standard,” and two tank tops: one with a bedazzled outline of an elephant, one with a dojo dude giving another an on-point flying knee to the jaw. Teamed with the plastic banner across the front paneling, it all adds up to an aesthetic that is thrown together and fly-by-night-ish. Even so, we’re happy the door is unlocked, the lights are on, and all signs (aside from the darkened ‘Antonio’s’ one) point to someone giving it a go. And if it doesn’t work, the transition back to ’za-slinger shouldn’t be too difficult: they still have the shelved pizza ovens right back behind the counter.
The service: Not super friendly, but then again, maybe neither are we. Or maybe it’s just not the most welcoming place to sit and wait, the bubbling countertop plastic Buddha trying, but not helping, our ordering Zen. But once the kitchen sizzling began, and we got our lips around the straw of a Thai Iced Coffee ($3), the sugary caffeinated teet that should precede all such excursions, nothing was wrong.
Milwaukee Record’s food: What’s most striking on first glance is what’s not on the menu: crab rangoon. Is this indeed a takeout Thai joint going all the way toward the foodie distinction of authentic? Are we going to start an Asian meal without the creamy, crispy nuggets of fishy fried perfection that you’d have to hate the process of consuming food itself to dislike? Either way, we thought it refreshing to tend toward something more real.
Well, not exactly. The pork spring rolls ($7.50) have that same ubiquitous side of red sweet and sour goop found in every Sysco truck in front of every Chinese delivery joint. The three rolls themselves came a little bit crumbly, wrapped together by a nice fry job, leaving moist, just oily-enough bites of the cabbage, carrot, and mushroom mash. All the while the pork kept to itself, subtly chilling in the background. The mayo-y cole slaw alongside was an apt metaphor for the dish: neither high nor low, but solid filler, some standard fried foreplay before the main event.
The Tom-Yum soup ($8.95 chicken or tofu, $10.95 for prawns if you don’t mind the product of slave labor) was where things got interesting, just on the portions alone: at least three generous bowls filled our plastic ware, and the chicken chunks were bountiful enough for a tailgate’s worth of skewering. The broth, spicy and sour, was chocked with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, tomatoes and mushrooms. It began with a floral upfront essence, and ended with a giant kick in the Adam’s apple. This is a tremendous sick-day soup.
The red curry ($9.95 with chicken/pork/beef) kept buds gesticulating. Here, coconut milk carried the day, with the bamboo just periodically coming to pop the tongue. Creamy, sticky, and velvet-consistent, this was a nice, tenderizing pool for the little pork bits, which meshed with bell peppers and sweet basil in happy forkfuls.
Unfortunately, the Pad Gra Prow ($9.95 with chicken/pork/beef) was hindered by a somehow botched to-go technique. The spicy chili garlic sauce put a hurt on the foil bed and the Styrofoam container, and was one pothole away from turning our Honda into a delicious smelling vampire-repulsor for years to come. The sauce was a bit oily and lacking meat-sticking thickness, while the overall chicken-to-veggie ratio skewed a bit too much toward the tree-hugger taste. But as a brown gravy alone, it was interesting in that you could see it next to a burger or French dip, maybe even as a side just for some ol’ fashioned freedom fries. As a whole plate, it was good, not great, but satisfying in that underwhelming way that takeout Chinese cartons can so often be, where half the eating experience is about foraging through benign rice and obtrusive carrots to get what you want.
The verdict: Both inoffensive and interesting. And for such an influx corner, you have to root for something resembling gastrointestinal stability. Even if those far-East spices might give you the opposite.