TNT Diner

Isaan-style Thai restaurant now open in Tacoma

Thai curry is served in a hollowed pineapple at Loak Toung Thai, newly opened on Center Street in Tacoma.
Thai curry is served in a hollowed pineapple at Loak Toung Thai, newly opened on Center Street in Tacoma.

When Jeremy and Maam Ray decided to open their restaurant Loak Toung Thai, they wanted to start — and stay— small.

And 24 seats definitely classifies as small. Those seats are spread among seven tables in a hole-in-the-wall strip mall just off Center Street and South Union Avenue in Tacoma.

Fans of Indochine Asian Dining Lounge in Tacoma will want to visit Loak Toung because Maam previously cooked at that restaurant. For eight years, she worked with chef Vathunyu “Yu” Nanakornphanom, who went on to open Indo Asian Street Eatery in 2015 with his wife, Buoy Ngov (whose sister and brother-in-law own Indochine downtown; another sister owns Indochine on Pearl and Fuzion Cafe).

The Rays opened Loak Toung quietly March 12 in an out-of-the-way locale, but they didn’t have to worry long about attracting customers. Jeremy said, by phone, that Thai and Cambodian patrons from far away are coming to his restaurant for one reason: Isaan-style food.

“The food is made like it is from where Maam is from,” explained Jeremy, by phone. “She wanted it Isaan style, which is from the rice-growing region on the northeastern side, near Cambodia and Laos.” Jeremy described the region’s cuisine as Cambodian influenced. “Even in her village, they don’t speak Thai, they speak Khmer,” the official language of Cambodia, he said.

Because of that proximity, Jeremy added, “They have a lot more food from Laos, more fermented foods, less sugar. If you speak to Thai here, they complain everything is so sweet.” Isaan food, he said, can be a bit more spicy. He described it as “simple country food.”

Here are first-bite tasting notes based on a single visit:

Off menu finds? Yes, for Isaan or Thai natives wanting a taste of Isaan homestyle food, there are pictures of items that aren’t on the menu that can be ordered, such as the Isaan-style sausage.

Dining room: Tiny! The seven tables are arranged in such a way that the room can feel cramped when near capacity, but it’s more cozy than claustrophobic. It’s decidedly casual, with simple, but interesting, decor. The walls are a family scrapbook. Snapshots, affixed to twine that crisscrosses the walls, show family, friends, Thailand, photos of food and all kinds of interesting glimpses into the Ray family.

Family: Speaking of family, the Rays have three children. The oldest is a 21-year-old college student; the 17-year-old helps out at the restaurant after school; and the youngest, an 8-year-old, is an elementary school student. The family closes the restaurant on weekdays from 3-4 p.m. to go pick up their youngest from school.

Lunch specials: Bargain priced $5.99 from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. There’s a choice of basil or garlic chicken or red curry, with rice and a spring roll. The chicken dishes come topped with a fried egg. This lunch deal is an incredible bargain. (Tip: A slight price increase might be coming).

Menu overview: The brief menu lists 20 dishes (a fraction of what most Thai restaurants list). It’s also much lower priced than most Thai restaurants. The menu lists a choice of six appetizers ($3.99-$6.99), five entrees ($6.99-$8.99), three each of curries and noodle dishes (all $8.99), three salads ($5.99-$7.99) and two soups ($5.99). A few kid-friendly items include fries ($1.99) and nonspicy wings and rice ($4.99).

Appetizers: Fried or fresh spring rolls, spicy wings, fried cauliflower or tofu, or fish cakes.

Curries/noodles: Panang, green or red with a choice of chicken or tofu, with rice; phad Thai, phad see-ewe or phad woon sen, with a choice of pork, chicken and tofu.

Salads/soups: Larb, the chopped chicken salad with a sour lime dressing; also yum woon sen, the glass noodle salad, and papaya (som tum) salad. Soups include the classics: tom yum, the sour lime soup; or tom kha, the coconut milk soup.

Entrees: Garlic or ginger chicken, or spicy eggplant — all with a choice of chicken, pork or tofu.

Vegetarians? Nearly every dish has the option of tofu, but two dishes are listed specifically under a vegetarian heading. Those are mixed vegetables with broccoli, bean sprouts, green onions, tomatoes, cabbage and carrots; or garlic green beans. Both are $6.99, but tofu can be added for $2.

On a first visit: Absolutely order the red curry, a dish that shows up attractively presented in a hollowed-out pineapple, which lends a light, fruity sweetness to the chile-spiked curry. Sunk deep into the pineapple, I fished out crunchy julienned slices of bamboo shoots and lots of red bell pepper slices. The curry was deeply flavored, with kicky spicing. They’re not afraid to use chiles here.

Pretty plating: Like the curry served in the pineapple, plating here receives special attention.

Sticky rice? Yes, they list both jasmine and sticky rice, which is popular in the northeastern region of Thailand.

Loak Toung Thai

Where: 3807 Center St., Tacoma; 253-248-9813;

Serving: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. The restaurant is closed from 3-4 p.m. weekdays so the Rays can pick up their youngest child from school.