Red Curry at Thai Hut 2, a Thai restaurant in a strip mall at I-5 and South 72nd Street in Tacoma. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com
Red Curry at Thai Hut 2, a Thai restaurant in a strip mall at I-5 and South 72nd Street in Tacoma. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com

TNT Diner

Sue Kidd has the latest South Sound restaurant news, with openings & closings, recent reviews and more.

TNT Diner

Don’t be afraid of strip-mall dining — Thai gems abound in Tacoma

June 10, 2016 05:00 AM

UPDATED June 11, 2016 03:35 PM

Oh, strip malls. How we love to loathe you.

Architectural eyesores. Acres of asphalt. Strongholds of traffic congestion.

The stores in them represent the check lists of our mundane lives. Dry cleaning, dental work, chiropractic adjustment, check cashing and nail taming.

But strip malls often harbor secret treasures: hidden gem restaurants.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for unlimited digital access to our website, apps, the digital newspaper and more.

They’re little, family-run places often ignored because, well, they’re located inside ugly strip malls. For four years, I’ve delved into strip malls as part of an occasional dining series. I’ve eaten my way through banh mi, sushi, Szechuan stir fries, Cambodian soups, Korean barbecue and gyro sandwiches.

I’ve written about Thai a few times, with features about Ayothaya in Puyallup’s South Hill and Long Beach Cafe in Lakewood.

Not until after I asked readers to give recommendations for their favorite strip mall finds did I realize just how rich the area is with Thai restaurants tucked into strip malls. The votes kept coming. And coming.

By my count, there are 20 Thai strip-mall restaurants from Gig Harbor to Bonney Lake.

There’s no succinct way to write about 20 restaurants in a single article, so I decided to whittle it down and focus on the top three recommended by readers. I’ve also included my own suggestions for two restaurants too new to garner recommendations but worth your dining dollars.

Here are five strip mall Thai restaurants to explore, all in Tacoma and in no particular order. The reviews here are based on two visits each.

THAI HUT 2

Where: 1901 S. 72nd St., Tacoma; 253-475-1214.

Hours: Serving lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Sundays.

Reader tip: Jenny Shipman wrote in her recommendation to order the “pineapple fried rice or traditional pad Thai. And the cream cheese wontons are my faves. Their curry is very good, as well!”

Background: Mother-son team Pranee Berggren and Suchat Choowong have operated Thai Hut 2 since 2009. Berggren previously owned Bua Thai in the Lincoln District, but had to sell it in 1994 after a car accident (she’s since recovered). She owned Kowloon in the Parkland area from 1989-1990. Choowong is lead chef, and wife, Lala, who often works the dining room, once owned a popular Auburn Thai restaurant, Khon Kaen, but sold it a decade ago.

Atmosphere: Definitely strip-mall fabulous. Inside a bustling shopping center where, because of traffic, I once spent 15 minutes trying to exit. While it might not be decorated as the most ornate Thai strip mall restaurant (Ayothaya takes that award), it’s cute, clean and built for comfort.

Service: Multiple table check-ins and consistent beverage refills. Food here is served family style. Dishes are brought as they’re ready.

On a first visit: Go for lunch, with six specials priced $7.95. Green curry tofu seesawed between spicy and sour, threaded with fresh basil, crunchy bell peppers and fried tofu. Golden cashew, the stir fry dish, combined fork-tender beef, cashews and crispy vegetables in a pool of sweet-spicy sauce. The rama sported spicy (as requested) peanut sauce over fresh spinach and a copious helping of chicken. Pad thai on the side (with every lunch order) tasted of tamarind, with excellent noodles that were gently resistant.

Raves: Quirkily named What A Feeling ($8.95) was a melange of meat — chicken, beef and pork — with a tangy orange sauce fragrant with lemongrass. Larb ($8.95), the spicy minced chicken salad served warm with raw cabbage for scooping, carried a dressing focused on mint and lime, less on fish sauce. Panang curry ($8.95) came with a creamy splash of coconut milk that gently melted into the volcanic peanut-tinged red curry. It carried a persistent tang and plenty of tender pork. Kee Mao noodles ($9.95) with prawns were a pan-fried delight with just-right charred vegetables and savory sauced noodles that tasted bouncy.

Upcharge: $2 for rice.

Spicing: Accurate as ordered.

PEANUT SAUCE THAI CUISINE

Where: 5003 Tacoma Mall Blvd., Tacoma; 253-475-4889; peanutsaucethaicuisine.com.

Hours: Serving lunch and dinner Mondays-Saturdays.

Reader tip: Linda Cicero wrote in her recommendation, “I’ve liked everything at Peanut Sauce and they are vegetarian friendly (and just friendly in general).” Indeed, there are three pages of vegetarian dishes.

Atmosphere: Skip the jam-packed upper lot to find wide-open parking in the lot below, next to the mattress store. A vibrant dining room in hues of pumpkin, eggplant and gold.

Service: Friendly table-side prattle, several check-ins. Dishes were brought family style, arriving as they were finished, not all at once.

On a first visit: Go for lunch, featuring 24 specials, $7.95-$10.95. Avocado curry ($8.95) was fragrant, with leaf after leaf of basil, and a copious helping of sliced eggplant and firm avocado. Pad cashew nut with pork ($7.95) carried pan-roasted cashews, plus still-crunchy vegetables in a spicy-nutty sauce. A salty vegetable soup accompanied lunch.

Raves: Papaya salad ($8.95), a chilled salad of firm, shredded green papaya, carried a lime-forward dressing with just a hint of fish sauce. Stop what you’re doing and go there right now to get the moo yang ($9.95), which is the most delicious Thai barbecued pork you will ever taste. The flame-grilled pork strips spent time in a spice-laden marinade. Served with two dipping sauces, one slipped salty, the other sour-sweet.

Also try: Swimming rama ($8.95) was predictably delicious, considering that’s the namesake of the restaurant. A sweet peanut sauce blanketed fresh spinach and chicken. Pad see ew ($8.95) noodles were coated in the typical sweetened soy sauce, with crunchy broccoli and too-small-chopped noodles that diminished the chewy tug that commands that dish.

Upcharge: $1 per person for rice, with free refills. Brown rice is $1.50.

Spicing: Uneven. A 2-star tasted like a 4. A 3-star tasted like a 1.

LELE EAST WEST

Where: 5015 Tacoma Mall Blvd., Tacoma; 253-302-3998; lelerestaurant.com/east-west.

Hours: Serving lunch and dinner daily.

Reader tip: John Louderback wrote in his recommendation, “been there several times, always great. The Saigon crepe, yummmmm.”

Background: This is a third restaurant from Dza-Thao H. Le, who everyone calls Lele. She opened her first Lele in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, followed by a Gig Harbor Lele. In October, she opened Lele East West on Tacoma Mall Boulevard, in the former home of the Vietnamese restaurant Wendy’s II. Staffers from that restaurant, as well as from the former East West Cafe (including Le’s mom) cook at the restaurant that serves a Thai and Vietnamese menu, with a few dishes from China, Malaysia and Korea.

Atmosphere: Plenty of parking. The dining room carries wood tones accented by chocolate, copper and gold. A drop-beam ceiling frames the rear of the restaurant, where there’s also a bar.

Service: Always gracious. Attentive. Water and rice always replenished.

Raves: Green papaya salad ($11.99) was a Thai-Korean mashup, with shredded green papaya and a tangle of bulgogi-marinated beef dancing between salty and sour. The lime vinaigrette was enlivened by fresh Thai basil.

Crying Tiger ($10.99), the grilled beef salad, came with char-marked ribeye here, with a liberal dose of sour-spicy vinaigrette atop crunchy iceberg lettuce, lots of fresh Thai basil and cilantro leaves, plus raw jalapenos. Swimming angel ($10.99) with chicken swam in a yellow-tinged peanut sauce, with sauteed spinach, onions and carrots mounded in the center of the dish. Panang curry ($10.99) was a terrific, lighter bodied representation of the peanut-based red curry, with pan-fried pork and lots of vegetables — green beans, bell peppers, eggplant, mushrooms and carrots.

Also try: Crispy eggplant ($10.99), coated-and-fried cubed eggplant with a sticky sauce. Pad Thai ($9.99) with a tamarind-heavy sauce clung to chewy noodles, with fried, broadly cut tofu carrying a sticky-sweet glaze.

Plating here is treated with extra care. The nicest presentation for any restaurant visited on this tour.

Upcharge: No charge for rice.

Spicing: Accurate.

GOLDEN TEAK THAI RESTAURANT

Where: 1620 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-565-1921.

Hours: Serving lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Sundays.

Background: Gary and Orawan Graham took over this space in 2015, replacing Oriental Noodle and Grill, a restaurant previously featured in one of my strip-mall tours. This is a first restaurant for the couple who live in Lacey. Orawan, born and raised in Thailand, is in the kitchen, with occasional help from Gary, who kept his day job maintaining machinery.

Atmosphere: In a strip mall with good parking and a great Vietnamese restaurant, Kim Ahn. The terrific El Sabor Taqueria is next door. The attractive dining room looks unchanged since its former life, all the way down to the artwork of colorful Thai dishes. Wood paneling climbs the walls, giving the room a dark, cavernous feel. Well-spaced tables are a bonus.

Service: Attentive, yet unobtrusive. Our server skirted our table, waiting for eye contact or another prompt before approaching. He also was the sharpest dressed on this tour, outfitted in a dark dress shirt and matching pants on both visits.

Raves: Scan the specials menu posted in the entry for the restaurant’s two best dishes. Avocado curry ($9.95) combined fried tofu and still-crisp bell peppers in a chile-spiked curry sauce that permeated my palate, though creamy cubed avocado tamed the (requested) spice some. Asparagus prawns ($14.95) proved a must order, with stir-fried asparagus cooked over high heat until blistered, but still crunchy inside, and oceanic prawns with a garlicky sauce. Also be sure to get the crying tiger ($12.95) salad, with flame-grilled sliced beef and a lime-heavy dressing, plus a touch of roasted rice powder for a nutty finish.

Also try: Pad Thai ($9.95) with a tamarind-heavy sauce that barely glided over the skinny noodles (some will find those noodles too slippery). Pork panang curry ($9.95) was airy textured, with a lightly sour hint in the sweet peanut base (some of the pork tasted leathery). Golden Teak noodle ($9.95) reminded me of the flavor of Singapore noodles, but with a much broader noodle and lots of sauce. That sauce was delicious, but overwhelmed the noodles.

Upcharge: $1 for a cup, $2 for a bowl of rice. Brown rice is $1.50-$2.50.

Spicing: Mostly accurate.

LOAK TOUNG THAI

Where: 3807 Center St., Tacoma; 253-248-9813; facebook.com/LoakToungThai.

Hours: Serving lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays.

Background: Jeremy and Maam Ray opened their tiny restaurant in March. Although this is their first restaurant, Maam worked for eight years in the kitchen of Indochine Asian Dining Lounge in downtown Tacoma. The restaurant features Issan-style food from the northeastern side of Thailand, near Cambodia and Lao (where Maam grew up). The food there is spicier, and that’s reflected in the cuisine at Loak Toung. The menu here also is much smaller than other Thai restaurants.

Atmosphere: Parking can be an issue in this tiny strip mall that also holds an excellent sandwich shop, Melon Seed Deli. Loak Toung’s tiny dining room is cramped, with 24 seats spread across seven tables. It’s comfortably outfitted, with fun glimpses of the family through snapshots that zigzag the walls.

Service: Terrific, doting, glasses always filled, several table check-ins.

On a first visit: Three lunch specials, $7.99 each, with rice and a spring roll. Garlic chicken was dressed with a fried egg, with a wallop of garlic cloaking the chicken. Red curry was fancy in a hollowed-out pineapple, a kicky wave of heat kept giving and giving, with cubed tofu set deep inside the pineapple bowl and crunchy bell peppers and bamboo shoots.

Raves: Crispy cauliflower ($4.99) carried a zesty batter, the cauliflower still holding its crunch. Larb chicken salad ($7.99) carried the sunniest lime vinaigrette of the tour. Pad see ew ($8.99) carried serious heat in the spicy sauce, the extra-wide noodles providing a delicious chewy tug. Silky-textured eggplant ($8.99) with tofu veered heavily into spicy territory again, with an herbal blast from lots of chopped Thai basil.

Upcharge: No charge for rice.

Spicing: Accurate, but the style of the food is spicier than other Thai restaurants.

Your favorite place

Have a favorite Thai strip mall restaurant? Let me know. I’ll pass your tips along to my readers. Call me at 253-597-8270 or send an email to skidd@thenewstribune.com. But there’s a catch. You can’t simply recommend the restaurant, you have to tell me at least two dishes to order and why they’re so good.