Vegetarian Thai for Everyone at Pukk
If you're feeling torn between voyaging on an intergalactic space mission and enjoying a meat-free dinner, here's some good news: At East Village vegetarian Thai restaurant Pukk (71 First Avenue, 212-253-2742), you can do both.
I don't typically associate Thai food with the future, but it's hard not to think of it that way when you see this place. The eatery's façade is fluorescent emerald (must be an homage to the restaurant's motto: "eat more greens"), the chairs are transparent plastic, the beats are bumping, and every surface of the narrow interior -- including walls, floor, seats, tables and the ceiling -- is covered in shiny black and white tiles.
But settle in and order: The meat-free fare is not only innovative, it's also cheap.
At most Thai restaurants, fish sauce is ubiquitous, and fare that's truly vegetarian is hard to find. Pukk, though, offers dozens of meat- and fish-free dishes with plenty of room for personalization. And lovers of fake meat can rejoice -- Pukk's menu includes mock chicken and mock duck in addition to standard tofu offerings.
Most of the appetizers sell for five dollars or less, so there's no reason not to begin with a starter or two. Skip the crispy but unremarkable spicy spring rolls (which aren't actually spicy), and try something like the mushroom puff: A mushroom, onion, carrot, and potato puree is enveloped in a soft, flaky pastry shell, and each curry-imbued bite is both sweet and savory. The cucumber salsa complements as a dipping sauce or a teeny-tiny standalone side salad.
Entrée pricing -- $10 to $13 -- is also starving-artist friendly, and portion sizes are generous enough that if you wanted to save half for later, you could easily box it up and bring home the leftovers. If you revel in pan-fried wide noodles, try the Pad See-Ew, made with broad noodles, fresh Chinese broccoli, faintly sweet black bean sauce, and salted egg, if you want it (and unless you're vegan, you do want it). Unless you're a die-hard seitan lover, skip the mock meat and go with classic tofu: The seitan is unremarkable.
The tofu, on the other hand, is a crispy, succulent, juicy standout. Try it in the spicy eggplant tofu, which is served with a side of sticky white rice, and any questions you might have had about the freshness of Pukk's produce will fly right out that fluorescent green door. The dish comes with plentiful zesty basil interspersed with sliced sautéed bell peppers, chunks of eggplant, and that tofu, cut thin and fried crackly; it's all mixed into a spicy garlic sauce.
Is this is what the future holds, I'm on board.