Published On: Fri, Mar 9th, 2018

Tuk Tuk Canteen sputters to a halt

Mike Tan stands in the open kitchen of Tuk Tuk Canteen.

He is alone. His sous chef has called in sick but it’s a full house at the new Cambodian snack bar on Roncesvalles Ave.

So Tan cooks with both hands, hoisting squid out of the deep fryer with his left while simultaneously tossing tamarind beef stew in the wok with his right. He stops to pound green papaya salad in a stone mortar.

“It is what it is,” he says later.

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Tan (ex-Oddseoul) opened Tuk Tuk on Jan. 10 to showcase the food of his parents. He named it after the ubiquitous southeast Asian vehicles because their drivers are supposed to know where to find good food.

While Tan is a personable presence, sadly the journey at Tuk Tuk sputters to a halt due to unbalanced flavours.

Tuk Tuk took over the dingy space that was the Rude Boy hamburger spot. (The eponymous movie poster remains.)

Red memorial candles flicker on the copper bar top. Behind the bar, a wooden sign says “2017” in Khmer (the year Tan hoped to open Tuk Tuk). Even without a phone number or website, the restaurant is busy.

Cambodian food, like the country itself, sits between Thailand and Vietnam. Tan, 31, also cites a strong Chinese influence. He hopes to introduce non-Cambodian diners to new flavours.

The Khmer-accented cocktails includes a gin and tonic ($ 13) in which an abundance of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves quickly wear out their welcome. The fragrance of lemongrass is more subtle in a homemade glass of soda ($ 3), so subtle it’s barely detectable. Ditto the coconut supposedly in the homemade cola ($ 3).

The lack of balance continues with the solid fare. Tuk Tuk uses a dim sum-style paper menu for guests to check off their orders.

Under the snack category fall decent crab dumplings in stiff wrappers ($ 16) and extra-crisp chicken wings ($ 12) inundated with potent fish sauce. You might like the slightly sticky Khmer peanuts ($ 5), essentially peanut brittle that Tan bakes in a giant brick and chips to order. Be warned: the lemongrass adds up. Again.

The servers suggest a pair of diners order four or five dishes to share. In good conscience I can suggest only one: Crisp tofu salad ($ 11).

This is a lovely dish, built on fried glass noodles, diced cucumber and tofu infused with sweet soy sauce and chilies. The lime dressing is heavy on the garlic, yes, but offset by grace notes of fresh mint, Thai basil and cilantro. It is the high point of dinner, the equivalent of a thrilling tuk tuk ride through Phnom Penh.

After that, it’s all tastebud gridlock. This includes beef stew with all its moisture sucked out ($ 18). The squid ($ 18), which we’ve seen go from left-hand fry basket to right-hand wok, are inedible salt bombs in their coating of oyster sauce and red curry paste.

Next time I’m in Tuk Tuk, Tan has his usual help in the front kitchen.

The two cooks pivot between a flat-top grill, the deep fryer and a gas-fired wok that produces the searing flames Tan wants for Cantonese-style wok hei, the essence high heat imparts to stir-fried foods.

Even with a full kitchen complement, the squid remain too salty. I give up after the first bite.

“It’s a little bit saltier because of the oyster sauce but it should be palatable,” Tan later says.

It should. But it’s not.

Amy Pataki’s restaurant reviews are published Fridays online and Wednesdays in print. Read more at Reach her at or on Twitter @amypataki.

Tuk Tuk Canteen

Address: 397 Roncesvalles Ave. (at Howard Park Ave.)

Chef: Mike Tan

Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday, 3 to 9 p.m.

Reservations: Online only

Wheelchair access: Washrooms downstairs

Price: Dinner for two with cocktails, tax and tip: $ 100

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Tuk Tuk Canteen sputters to a halt