Tukka Tuk Canteen, on that long stretch of Whitchurch Road which is home to a slack handful of Cardiff’s more interesting independents, is a lively proposition.
From eye-catching cartoon murals, swathes of rich browns and coppers, and a handpainted sign mimicking those from on docks in Kochi, where fisherman return to sell their catch and nearby shacks display “You Buy I Cook” for a wholesome version of fast food: this doesn’t look like anywhere else.
It has taken a while for owners Rupali and Anand to get here: more than anything, Tukka Tuk Canteen is a testament to sheer dogged perseverance.
Boxing Day afternoon, in the middle of nationwide hospitality restructions: my phone rang, and over fifty-two minutes, Anand painted a picture of a new direction, even as the pandemic threatened the survival of many businesses. In the intervening years there have been many setbacks and obstacles involved in bringing the right staff, with the right skills, to the country, besides other frustrations in pressing on with this impressive refit. It has been a long, hard labour.
The process has taken in Barry’s Goodsheds, Swansea’s Founders & Co and of course the balcony in Cardiff Market, and culminates here in the first sit-down Canteen. (By the way: if you can name any other chefs in the area who have mastered both formal restaurant dining, including the long tasting menus with wine pairing thing, and street food, then answers on a very, very small postcard, please.)
Over four visits- one for a tasting session for feedback, one as a guest, and two as a paying customer- I wander through the menu. Influences here aren’t limited to the Southern Indian flavours Anand is known for at Purple Poppadom, or even at the other Tukka Tuk branches, but embrace neighbouring Sri Lanka. So, from the ‘Short Eats’, choose beef fry: rustic chunks, a sauce which clings like that needy ex, the bowl aromatic with a robust mix of curry leaf, ginger and garlic making sort of thing you’ll think about over and over, right up to the point when you come back and order it all over again.
Lamb rolls are essential, of course: on their debut at Sticky Fingers, they were an instant classic, nothing short of a defining dish of the local street food explosion. Back when it was exciting, in other words.
Those crisp pastry cylinders; that mix of spiced minced and cubed lamb (for some technical gubbins on how Tukka Tuk’s version tops others, see here); that chilli ketchup: how I have missed them, and how good to find them as beautifully delivered as ever. Chicken kothu roti, a tumble of sliced flatbread with egg and vegetables, is silky but substantial: mushroom pepper fry more than lives up to its name, punchy with black pepper.
A thick, rich onion masala has been slow roasted into spiky sweetness for madurai chaps. You will gnaw on these lamb chops. You will worry at them until you have ravaged the bone clean. You will not care how you look while you do this.
Dosaa are made here, to order. This is clearly a key dish: you may remember that Tukka Tuk’s first incarnation was called Dosaa, and the quest to find just the right formula has preoccupied the kitchen. Where many will make up a batter from a boxed powder, two hulking stone grinders (another, smaller, grinder is in the kitchen, for the chutneys) grind rice before fermenting for two days. The result? The unmistakable lactic tang and an impeccably rendered texture: standout accompaniments include a smoky tomato chutney- even better when it was more rustic, I think- and a sambhar with drumstick (moringa, aka ‘bone marrow for vegetarians’). This recipe took three months to perfect: my friend, who has forgotten more about this cooking than i know, reckons they’re as good as any she has had in India.
Parotta are everything they should be, too. Crisp, flaky, layered, buttery. Most restaurants don’t have the skill or the resources to make them by hand: you’ll be unsurprised to know no such compromises have been made here. Have a couple. You’ll get one with your varuval- two lengths of bone split open to reveal that precious, wobbling marrow on a sauce rich with roasted coconut. Scoop, dredge, smear: just do whatever it takes to get this glistening triumph into your voracious maw.
Use the other for the Mangalorean fish. The glossy coconut and red chilli sauce delivers the promised tamarind sourness, along with heat, but the halibut is never lost.
Perhaps order yet another for the crab, where a crisp soft shell sits in a sauce enriched with with the sweet white meat. Anand has always done good things with soft shell crab at Purple Poppadom: this is more robust stuff, and demands more busy hands.
There’s a coconut dessert which has improved since the taster session, glossier and richer yet still feeling lighter than it should, and a playful, evocative take on a Knickerbocker Glory my friend loves.
There’s more here for vegetarians and vegans than at first sight, with most of the sides suitable but not yet explicitly labelled as such. A minor niggle, soon rectified on future print runs. Some may quibble over the pricing of some of the mains, or rather the portion size, but when the flavours are this good but generously favoured. As always, your perception of what constitutes ‘value’ will be your own private compass: you should expect to spend around £40 a head here, and to leave feeling happy you did.
Service is a strength, with Vineeth, Janin (whose cocktails will prove a draw) Ramees and Ebin already forming a most welcoming front of house team. Rupali and Anand have something very good here: this must make every setback, every frustration and dead end along the way feel worth enduring. Tukka Tuk Canteen already feels fully-formed and accomplished: in short, the real deal.
Tukka Tuk Canteen, 90-92 Whitchurch Rd, Cardiff CF14 3LY
Monday to Sunday, 530 – 1030pm: except Tuesdays.
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:
This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.