3737 India Street, Mission Hills
'Course, Hank and I didn't qualify for flu shots, but Hank said he had this idea. Like, where to get the next best thing.
"This is it," he says.
"This?" I say.
We're sitting angle-parked outside Saffron. It's the very first Thai restaurant in San Diego, Hank says. I've read about Saffron, and Su-Mei Yu, the intellectual Thai lady who started the place years ago. Thai chicken. That was her thing.
We get out. There are really two restaurants, one a sit-down place, "Saffron Noodles and Saté," and "Saffron Thai Grilled Chicken," which is smaller, all red and green, kinda exotic, but take-out only. Except it has outside seating on these cool terraces that lead up to Shakespeare's pub. Red paving with cream-colored stone balustrades, red-and-white umbrellas, and a view to the I-5 through jacaranda trees.
"Follow me, my son," says Hank. I do, right up to the "Specials" sheets Scotch-taped on Saffron Chicken's windows.
"Fish Curry," says one. "Red curry with swordfish, served with jasmine rice, cucumber salad, and chutney sauce. $7.50."
"Papaya Chicken Salad Special. Sweet ripe papaya and chicken salad with tangy sweet-tart dressing and jasmine rice."
"This is our ticket, dude, right here," says Hank. " 'Jungle Soup, packed with medicinal herbs and spices, with mustard, greens, mushrooms, baby corn, Thai eggplants and chicken or shrimp, and rice, $6.25 with chicken, $7.00 with shrimp.' "
Right. But the one that's grabbed my attention is the Salad Roll. "Rice paper filled with iceberg lettuce, stir-fried tofu, glass noodles, ginger, $1.51."
"Six pesetas! That's a good price," I mumble.
"Dude, repeat after me: 'Jungle soup. Jungle soup...' "
Problem is, I'm hankering for something that's going to strain ye olde belly. Plus I'm getting wafts of the rotisserie chickens inside, a couple of dozen grilling on a five-rack spit. Oh, man. The smell is making me dizzy. I mean, chicken is it here, right?
The door menu lists a dozen "Chicken Combinations, served with jasmine rice, Cambodian salad, and a choice of sauce." It ranges from two legs and one sauce ($4.43) to a whole chicken and five sauces ($14.28).
We walk into the little kitchen that has those chickens rotisserizing and two guys racing around. "I'm telling you, buddy boy, you need to arm yourself," Hank says. He orders his jungle soup with chicken (he could have had tofu) from this feller José, and a cucumber salad ($3.00 for large). I order a chicken combo with a breast and a leg, jasmine rice, and that Cambodian salad ($5.08). Hey, call me Chicken-Hawk. Plus a $1.51 salad roll, with tofu. Heh heh. That's two sauces I qualify for. I choose siracha (Thai, hot) -- sweet pepper, peanut, salsa, chutney, and egg roll sauce -- and a chutney. Hank asks for peanut. We each get an iced tea ($1.50), wait for them to bag it all up, and head for the terraces.
Oh, yes. This is the scene. It's breezy, blue skies, a beautiful fall afternoon. We sit among the jacaranda trees, the sun filtering through the leaves. My chicken is garlicky, gingerish -- and devilishly tender. The Cambodian salad is coleslaw-like, with eastern flavors. 'Course Hank hunkers in to his slurp routine. Comes up now and then to say something like "Hmm. Looks like baby eggplant." Or "What the heck leaf is this?"
That's when Su-Mei Yu passes by. I ask the question. "Yes, this was the first Thai place in San Diego," she says. "I'd always wanted to sell skewered grilled chicken prepared the way the Isaan people do it in northeast Thailand."
To get that Thai taste, and to make her chicken tender, she says, she marinates it overnight in garlic, ginger, chiles, and white pepper.
I want to know what's Cambodian about the salad. "Garlic, chiles, fish sauce, lime juice, and cilantro, that's what," she says. She tells me my $1.51 "salad roll" is a steal from Vietnamese cuisine, with fresh lettuce leaves, tofu, glass noodles, and ginger. Great dunked in peanut sauce.
And Hank's jungle soup? Turns out it really is to do with increasing your resistance. "The Thai believe that in a time of weather, seasonal changes make a person vulnerable. So we try to help the body adapt. We use the 'three queens' -- lemon grass, galangal [Asian ginger], and kaffir lime, which is very aromatic, bitter, and astringent. Then roasted shallots, ginger, and garlic to warm your chest and help your lungs, along with Thai eggplant, and 'Chinese keys' -- 'lesser ginger.' Then we mix them with hardy vegetables like pumpkin, potato, and mushrooms and make a soup. This time of year, I always cook with this in mind. It's a question of balancing wind, water, and keeping down the fire -- which comes from rich foods."
"As I said, my flu shot," Hank says. "Now I don't want to hear no 'woulda coulda shoulda' when you're hacking away two weeks from now. Although, guess there is one way out..."
"Come back tomorrow?"