The last time I ate at Tuptim Thai Cuisine, in Montclair, NJ, was when I completed my graduate studies in 2006. It wasn’t graduation day (that was held at The Meadowlands). Rather, it was the Graduate School Convocation which was held in the amphitheater at Montclair State University.
I had the opportunity to eat there again last Sunday. My wife had some lululemon (it’s all she wears; she’s a former professional ballerina and now she’s a pilates, Gyrotonic© and dance instructor) gift cards that her clients had given her for Christmas. Afraid that she’d be want for sizes or styles if she waited for another shopping opportunity, we decided to hit the new lululemon store in Montclair.
By the time she’d finished shopping, the sun had settled, drivers had turned on their headlights and my wife and I were famished. Thai food has also been on our minds, thanks to some new friends we’ve made – parents of one of our son’s classmates in kindergarten – because the father is Thai-American. Incidentally, the wife is Vietnamese-American. Between the four of us, we’ve spoken about where the good Asian food spots are. By good, I mean authentic and by that I mean the kind of Thai places Thai people would go to, the kind of Filipino spots my fellow Pinoys would hit, the dim sum restaurants I and my fellow Hong Kong-raised foodies would frequent and so on.
Montclair has two such spots when it comes to Thai. There is Thai Chef and Tuptim, both of which are located on Bloomfield Avenue. Thai Chef, at least by the virtue of the sturdy silverware and the thick snow white table clothes and the shiny brass statues of Buddha, appears to be the more chichi of the two eateries. Thai Chef also proudly hangs a picture of the queen of Thailand on one of its walls and signage that boasts it as the queen’s choice of Thai restaurant in the entire United States. Apparently, she goes there whenever she’s in America. I’ve eaten there on several occasions and the food is flawless but I prefer Tuptim over the queen’s choice.
In sharp contrast to Thai Chef’s glamour, Tuptim’s tables are covered in colourfully woven table cloths; the kind a tourist might pick up from the inexpensive street hagglers as gifts when returning home to America or Europe. The furniture is wood, and dark wood to boot, that gives Tuptim a rural feel. There’s something ‘peasantish’ about Tuptim’s ambience that enhances the enjoyment of the food. Bear in mind, however, that in its ‘peasantness’ it doesn’t lack sophistication. It also reminds me of the humbler spots I grew up enjoying in Hong Kong and Manila.
With regard to the food, and that’s what we’re really interested in, Tuptim’s chef has mastered balance – in flavour, quantity, and texture. We ordered a whole flounder, fried and flavoured with their garlic chili sauce, Paad Thai shrimp, and Thai barbecued chicken for our son, who is the Mac ‘n Cheese-Chicken Nuggets-Waffles Champion. And for dessert, we had the Fried Banana. For starters, we had a simple Goong Satay (shrimp barbecue).
Let me start with the chicken. Like I said, my son is a picky eater. Outside of what I listed in the paragraph above, the most he’s ventured to Asian cuisine is char shiu (roast pork) which he calls ‘Chinese chicken.’ So, when we ordered the Thai chicken, I asked if it were spicy (it’s not) and we ordered it because it seemed like the most generic thing on the menu that he might eat and, actually, enjoy. The pieces were largely from the chicken’s white parts but they came to the table well seasoned, without being overwhelming, and without being dry. Our son ate quite a lot of it before he got full. So, if you’re a parent and your kids are a little picky, Tuptim does have something for your little ones while you enjoy the richer dishes.
As for the Paad Thai and the fish, both were perfectly flavoured. The noodles had just the right amount of saltiness and heat that I was able to taste the naturalness of the shrimp, which were generously large. The noodles, also, didn’t get lost in the dish. When a noodle dish is over-flavoured, the noodles are just a slimy addition to the what you’re eating. In this case, without being tasteless, the chef managed to maintain the noodles starchy blandess thus allowing the noodles to absorb the soy, the peanut flavour, the chili sauce, and the other ingredients that give Paad Thai its unique taste. Additionally, the serving size was quiet generous making my wife and I think that Tuptim caters more for families or family-style eating. In Asian culture, it’s common to reach between each other’s plates, after all. Lastly, the Paad Thai was abundant with bean sprouts, scallion and chopped peanuts to round it out – if you’re not allergic to peanuts or other nuts, that is.
The flounder was equally delicious. It was fried perfectly, giving it just enough crunch/crisp around its edges without giving it a body of fried armour. Moreover, the garlic chili sauce was absolutely divine, the chef maintaining the integrity of the recipe and his (or her) own palate. In a word, the balance brought my own palate to life – and as a foodie and home cook, I like to think mine is pretty astute and vibrant. The garlic awakened my taste buds and the chili made them dance. The flash frying process by which whole fish is cooked, before seasoned with a sauce, allows the fish to remain light and prevents it from becoming weighed down by the sauce. When a fish isn’t cooked correctly, sitting in the oil instead of the oil being poured on it, and it drowns in the sauce and becomes heavy, it sits in your stomach after eating and you regret eating it. Essentially, it ruins the natural texture of the fish and destroys the health benefits of eating seafood. With this dish, none of this was the case. The flounder was just the right size, deftly fried and expertly flavored that what we thought was a dish for which we’d have leftovers turned out to be something we finished at the table.
For dessert, the Fried Banana was so exquisitely presented that I almost didn’t want to eat it. The shell around the banana was thin, almost like a wafer, and wasn’t oily the way some other fried desserts or spring rolls are. Drizzled with sesame seeds and what I thought might be syrup, but turned out to be honey, made this heavy-sounding dessert sweet enough to cap a meal nicely and light enough to prevent any guilt from developing.
I’m mentioning the appetizer last, not because it’s not worth writing about but, while it was delicious, it was relatively basic and something that may not necessarily be unique to Tuptim. The shrimp satay was well cooked, which is a plus for shellfish since it can get overcooked easily, and, like the shrimp in the Paad Thai, full of size and flavour. The number of skewers was generous also – four sticks, about nine inches each, filled from end to tip. Accompanying the satay was a small dish of peanut sauce and a chutney of diced cucumbers and onion.
I wouldn’t call Tuptim unassuming. It has a pink facade, after all, that is well lit and hard to miss in the main downtown area of Bloomfield Avenue. It is, however, simple and, when it comes to taste buds, simple neither means lacking in creativity or sophistication nor lacking in flavour. In fact, when it comes to food simple is often best.
It was, then, with great pleasure that we went to Tuptim for dinner last Sunday. It was almost like coming back home to an auntie’s kitchen. In the 1990s, Tuptim was a place I went to often; so close it is to where I used to find myself – the Taekwondo schools In Bloomfield then Cedar Grove, Montclair State University, chilling with friends who used to live in Verona and Glen Ridge. Nowadays, I find myself going to those parts of New Jersey less – much less – than I used to. I’m glad, though, I found myself there this time. I was reminded of another place to go for dinner with my wife, son and friends, I got to reminisce a little of some of the ‘good old days,’ I got some material for this blog (haha!) and I got to share one of my old stomping grounds with my son. I’m definitely not going to wait another seven years before I go there again and, when you’ve had your fill of holiday food and are looking for something that’ll challenge your taste buds not to stir, make sure, unlike I did, you don’t forget Tuptim.
Tuptim is located at 600 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey
Tuesday – Friday 11:30am to 2:30pm
Tuesday- Thursday 5:00pm to 9:30PM
Friday – Saturday 5:00pm to 10:30pm
Sunday 11:30am to 9:30pm (Dinner menu only)
Tuptim is a BYOB and there’s a liquor store directly across Bloomfield Avenue. I recommend a sweeter wine or rose with Thai food; something like a Riesling or a Muscatel.