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Tuk Tuk Thai serves big portions and big flavors. Photo by Lee Chastain.

UT has Guadalupe Street, TCU has West Berry, UNT has Fry –– half the fun of higher learning comes from the seedy edges of the ubiquitous college strip, where pitchers of suds and tattoo parlors gobble up the dregs of that scholarship money. Most schools have at least a nominal collection of businesses positioned nearby to take advantage of the student body, but the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth can feel like it’s left out. The 2,200 graduate students have easy access to the Cultural District’s charms (if they can afford them), but few businesses have set up shop with the students themselves in mind.

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Tuk Tuk Thai, 3431 W 7th St, FW. 817-332-3339. 11am-3pm and 5pm-9:30pm Mon-Thu, 11am-3pm and 5pm-10pm Fri, 12pm-10pm Sat. All major credit cards accepted.

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Located in the same strip mall that houses Michael’s Restaurant on West 7th near North Hi Mount Elementary, Tuk Tuk Thai has gamely stepped up to rectify the problem. The eatery is situated roughly midway between budget-busters Saint-Emilion and Le Cep, and is poised to serve students and local residents alike with an expansive menu of fresh, inexpensive Thai favorites. The small, cheery dining room is a five-minute walk from the UNT campus, just right for taking some air after an ambitious dissection. The shop does a brisk business in carryout and offers free delivery for a limited area with purchases of $20 or more.

The dining room, very casual and very purple, was nearly empty on a recent weekday evening when my guest and I settled in to peruse Tuk Tuk’s large menu. Its 73 neatly numbered items make for easy phone ordering, but there is a lot of information to wade through. Newcomers to Thai cuisine would do well to ask the friendly staff for a recommendation.

Our server, herself a native of Bangkok, steered us gently away from the pot sticker appetizer and toward the chicken satay. A few minutes later, four piping hot wooden skewers of marinated grilled chicken arrived, glistening with a golden, turmeric sheen. The chicken was nicely seasoned, missing the char of an open flame but cooked well enough to serve its purpose as a delivery device for the accompanying peanut sauce. Tangy, with plenty of soy, ginger, and vinegar, the sauce was probably too sweet for Thai purists, but it was just right for a sugar-loving occidental palate.

Our appetites whetted, we were ready to tuck (pun intended) into the kitchen’s green papaya salad, a tangle of shredded fruit with chunks of tomatoes and crushed peanuts tossed in a chile-lime dressing that made my scalp sweat. The tiny, krill-like dried shrimps usually found in this dish (and advertised on the menu) were, sadly, nowhere to be found, but the dish made for a jazzy intermezzo nonetheless.

My guest’s Pad Thai was big enough for at least two meals — another strong selling point for scholars on a budget. The dish of rice noodles stir-fried with egg, tofu, and bean sprouts was flavored with sweet tamarind paste and fish sauce and spiked liberally with red chile paste. Heat levels and proteins may be customized to suit your taste, with chicken, beef, pork, or tofu included in the price. Shrimp or seafood costs $2 extra.

I was leaning toward a classic red curry but allowed myself to be upsold on the kitchen’s Golden Pumpkin Curry. This turned out to be, I believe, the same dish with a better name. It’s true that a few cubes of orange squash graced the thick, spicy, coconut milk bath, but any flavor or color they might have imparted to the dish was overwhelmed by the strength of the other ingredients. I ordered my curry with chicken but would probably skip the meat if I order the dish again. The heat of ginger, garlic, and chile is particularly well suited to a vegetarian option, and the vegetables (other than the pumpkin) retained their personality in this dish better than the chicken did –– the strips of white meat became rather tough and charmless as they poached in the soup. The steamed brown rice served alongside (white rice is also available) was unusually good, with a tender nuttiness that suggested fresh preparation.

In a neighborhood with plenty of high-end meal options, Tuk Tuk Thai is a welcome addition for anyone looking for big flavors and big portions at a reasonable price.

[box_info]Tuk Tuk Thai
Chicken satay .    $6
Papaya salad     .$8
Shrimp Pad Thai .    $12
Golden pumpkin curry     $12[/box_info]

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