EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first full-length restaurant review published in Atlanta magazine in more than a year, and we publish it with a keen awareness of the danger still posed by the coronavirus and its delta variant. In light of the fact that the pandemic is ongoing, we urge diners to continue to follow safety guidelines set by health authorities and restaurants, to get vaccinated, to wear masks when it might protect you and others, and to tip generously. Also? Welcome back—and have a wonderful meal.
For the longest time, the best Thai food I could find in Atlanta—resembling what Thai people actually eat on the street and cook in their homes—wasn’t served in a restaurant at all: It was available at Decatur’s Wat Buddha Bucha temple, a center of Atlanta’s Thai and Laotian communities. I’ve eaten in the temple’s kitchen, where worshippers drop food off for the monks and—mostly during major religious holidays—walked the grounds as vendors peddled the kind of dishes seen rarely if ever in area restaurants: grilled sausages, sugar canes filled with sticky rice, vibrant curries, and more.
Atlanta has its share of Thai restaurants, from dime-a-dozen neighborhood joints to orchid-on-my-plate luxury operations—but foodwise, they’re usually indistinguishable from one another. Atlantans in search of more interesting global flavors often seek them out on Buford Highway, but Thai cuisine has been vexingly absent from our most international corridor—until now. With the opening earlier this year of Tum Pok Pok in the same shopping center as the popular Food Terminal, BuHi finally gets what it deserves: a superior Thai place that doesn’t pander to Western palates. Of course, it’s also a boon to the rest of the city. Pop-up darling Talat Market became a delightful permanent addition to our culinary scene when it made the leap to a brick-and-mortar business in Summerhill in 2020, but, for my money, Tum Pok Pok is now the ne plus ultra of Thai cuisine in Atlanta.
Adidsara Weerasin, who goes by Tum, and her husband, whom she calls Pok, are both in their 30s. (The name of the restaurant combines the owners’ nicknames with the Thai onomatopoeia “pok pok,” which evokes the sound of the pestle hitting the mortar when chilis and spices are ground to season dishes.) Their vision for Tum Pok Pok is thoroughly modern and—unlike at Weerasin’s family restaurant in Sandy Springs, the well-regarded Bangkok Thyme—it involves none of the usual filters meant to ingratiate the cuisine to Westerners. Here, a bustling kitchen, where Weerasin’s mother makes Isan sausage and crispy rice balls, is stocked with ingredients imported directly from Thailand, such as spicy curry pastes kept in a giant refrigerator of their own.
Tum Pok Pok’s menu is divided into two sections, “Isan” and “Very Thai,” both equally fun to peruse and order from. Isan is a region in the northeast of Thailand, bordering Laos, with food typically less sweet than that from other parts of the country, and almost never featuring coconut cream. The most famous regional specialties are som tum—shredded raw green papaya seasoned with fermented fish sauce, lime, ginger, and chili—and larb, a meat salad often associated with Laotian food. Both appear in many variations at Tum Pok Pok, where som tum comes with ingredients as varied as salted crab, crushed roasted peanuts, and thin vermicelli.
Larb consists of minced pork or chicken seasoned with lime juice and tiny, fiery chilis, eaten with sticky rice and cabbage leaves. The sticky rice at Tum Pok Pok comes in little bags, and the gloriously complicated larb khao tord is tossed with crumbled crispy curried rice balls, minced chicken, ginger, peanuts, scallions, and red onions. An Isan fondness for meat is expressed in pleasantly sour grilled Isan sausage, neau sa-wan (strips of spiced sun-dried beef, like supertender jerky), and pork skewers.
My favorite from the “Very Thai” menu is easily the pad thai Pok Pok, made with fresh rice noodles rather than the usual dry packaged ones and topped with giant freshwater prawns. (A less expensive version made with pork hits the same pleasantly sour notes.) Folded roti dipped in Masaman curry and green mussels fragrant with lemongrass and basil come fast out of the kitchen; my only disappointment was overly chewy grilled calamari. Killer specialties from the south of Thailand, where Weerasin is from, are slowly being introduced, often as specials. They include crab omelet, grilled mackerel with bamboo shoots and little Thai eggplants, and kua kling—a perilously hot but tasty dish of ground pork with red curry paste and shaved makrut lime leaves.
The ideal beverages to drink with Thai food are Thai iced tea (much less sweet here than at other restaurants; there’s also a version with lemon and lime and no condensed milk) and lager-style beers—Tum Pok Pok has an array of Thai and Japanese brands. Buford Highway is a street without much of a drinking scene, so the selection of whiskeys, bourbons, gins, and tequilas here is a rare and welcome sight. Fans of Jameson Irish whiskey (I am one) can order their favorite poison in cocktails such as a spicy Jameson ginger-lime drink.
A chill bar area, a colorful market corner with typical Thai plastic toys and assorted bric-a-brac, and other items of sentimental value—a small wooden shelf in the back used to be in Weerasin’s grandmother’s house—give the dining room a lived-in feel. A giant 3-D representation of the head of a water buffalo pays tribute to a beloved animal whose labor is relied on in the rice paddies.
The sincere, modern approach taken by the young team at Tum Pok Pok is a breath of fresh air in a city where Thai cooking by rote had pretty much been the norm. This is a Thai restaurant without equal in Atlanta.
★ ★ ★ ★
5000 Buford Highway, Chamblee
This article appears in our September 2021 issue.