Atlanta Orders In: Tum Pok Pok brings Thailand’s Isan food to Buford Highway

Takeout options from Tum Pok Pok include (clockwise from upper left): crab fried rice; som tum tard (Isan sausage, green papaya salad, and other nibbles); crispy fried pork belly; and pad Thai with shrimp. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Takeout options from Tum Pok Pok include (clockwise from upper left): crab fried rice; som tum tard (Isan sausage, green papaya salad, and other nibbles); crispy fried pork belly; and pad Thai with shrimp. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Some of the most memorable food of Thailand comes from Isan, the northeastern region bordering Laos and Cambodia. The cuisine is famously prickly and pungent — attributes that can make the sweeter, tamer dishes of central Thailand and Bangkok seem almost bland.

Adidsara Weerasin, who was born in the south of Thailand and grew up in Bangkok, said that fiery Isan food is her favorite of the regional cuisines of her homeland. It’s what she likes to eat with family. Yet, since she and her husband moved to America 12 years ago, they’ve had trouble finding it outside New York and Los Angeles.

With Tum Pok Pok, which opened two weeks ago on Buford Highway, in the space vacated by Kajun Crab, Weerasin hopes to change that.

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Some dishes on the menu at Tum Pok Pok include (clockwise from upper left): pad Thai, crispy fried pork belly, masaman curry with drumsticks, and glass noodle salad with seafood and minced chicken. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Some dishes on the menu at Tum Pok Pok include (clockwise from upper left): pad Thai, crispy fried pork belly, masaman curry with drumsticks, and glass noodle salad with seafood and minced chicken. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

“My mom, my aunt and me, we always cook like the real, real Thai food at home,” she said. She always thought if she had her own restaurant, she’d serve the dishes she loves to eat with family.

A few years ago, she and her husband, Jakkrit Tuanphakdee, bought Bangkok Thyme in Sandy Springs. They tried to improve it, but it was hard to do an Isan makeover, because the established clientele liked the menu the way it was.

Meanwhile, Tuanphakdee opened Crab 404, a seafood restaurant, in the space vacated by Food 101, and invested in Scoville Hot Chicken, both in the same shopping center as Bangkok Thyme. When he was offered a chance at the Kajun Crab property in Chamblee, he decided to give his wife the restaurant of her dreams.

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Adidsara Weerasin and Jakkrit Tuanphakdee are the owners of Tum Pok Pok, a new Thai restaurant on Buford Highway. Courtesy of Tum Pok Pok
Adidsara Weerasin and Jakkrit Tuanphakdee are the owners of Tum Pok Pok, a new Thai restaurant on Buford Highway. Courtesy of Tum Pok Pok

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Tum Pok Pok refers to the onomatopoeic “pok pok sound of a pestle hitting a mortar to smash the ingredients for green papaya salad, the most famous Isan dish. It’s also a play on the couple’s nicknames. She answers to Tum, he to Pok.

Weerasin decorated the restaurant in vivid colors, with hanging rattan lamps. Beside the entrance is a display loaded with toys, tchotchkes, kitchen gadgets and other Thai merchandise.

The chef takes pride in the freshness of the ingredients and authenticity of the cooking techniques. Her mom, dad and aunt all contribute. “My aunt is very good with Isan food,” she said. “With the first bite, you can tell the taste is totally different.”

She attributes the crab and pork dumplings to her mother, and the fried rice to her dad. She’s particular about everything, from the way the peanuts are roasted, to the noodles (fresh, not store-bought) and masaman. Though the famous Muslim curry is ubiquitous in America, she said, in Thailand, it’s a special occasion dish that calls for an experienced cook. She learned from such a masaman master.

Tum Pok Pok has a display of cooking gadgets, toys and bric-a-brac from Thailand, all available for sale. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tum Pok Pok has a display of cooking gadgets, toys and bric-a-brac from Thailand, all available for sale. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

With a few exceptions (Little Bangkok; the Niyomkul family empire that started with Tamarind Seed in 1997; Talat Market; the Sunday brunch at Thaicoon), Atlanta is not known for an abundance of top-notch Thai.

Tum Pok Pok hasn’t been open long enough for me to offer a legit critique, but my takeout dinner makes me think it has great potential. One could quibble that the pork belly was overly crisp and the Isan sausage a bit bland, but, overall, the food was fresh, beautiful and delicious.

The masaman was fragrant, yet delicately spiced. Just give me that gravy over plain white rice, and I’m happy. You can, in fact, order a dish of the curry for dipping with roti.

Tum Pok Pok is in the space vacated by Kajun Crab on Buford Highway, in the shopping center behind Food Terminal. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tum Pok Pok is in the space vacated by Kajun Crab on Buford Highway, in the shopping center behind Food Terminal. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

The purposefully simple crab fried rice had a gentle kiss of the wok, lots of clean-tasting crab, and none of the oiliness that typifies so many fried rice dishes around town. The yum woon-sen (glass noodles with minced chicken and seafood) was dressed with a wonderfully nuanced sauce of lime, fish sauce and lemongrass. I liked the pad Thai with shrimp, but I wasn’t blown away. If anything, the dishes at Tum Pok Pok could use a bit more oomph.

Thai street food isn’t exactly new in America, but the pickings often can be slim. So, it’s nice to have a local spot willing to take us deep into the northeastern corner of Thailand, where the pok pok sound is a signal that fresh green papaya salad is on the way.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

Tum Pok Pok specializes in the food of Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand, known for its fiery, flavorful cuisine. Courtesy of Tum Pok Pok
Tum Pok Pok specializes in the food of Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand, known for its fiery, flavorful cuisine. Courtesy of Tum Pok Pok

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

TUM POK POK

Menu: Isan Thai

Alcohol: full bar coming soon

What I ordered: pork belly, crab fried rice, som tum tard, masaman curry, pad Thai with shrimp, glass noodles with minced chicken and seafood

Service options: dine-in; takeout and delivery via Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash and Postmates

Outdoor dining: no

Mask policy: yes, for employees; requested of guests

Address, phone: 5000 Buford Highway NE, Chamblee; 770-457-7161

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Website: tumpokpok.com

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