Nuts make you talk. Nuts make you cry.
I’m chewing Thai nuts while Phon, Cheri, Lynn, and I talk on about the king of Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He died six months ago, but for Thai people like Lynn it’s still fresh.
Right now, her eyes are welling. “He was like a father to me,’ she says.
This not-so-little sack of nuts is my appetizer. Costs $4. They make the perfect kap klaem (“drinking snacks”). The ladies are servers here at this brand new eatery.
Lynn says King Bhumibol didn’t just reign for 70 years — he held the country together when it was falling apart.
Me, I’ve always been sentimental about Thailand anyway. One of my early haunts. It goes even to these nuts I’m nibbling. They’re what you get on the streets of Bangkok. An instant, delicious meal in a bag that a guy — usually Indian — in the street throws together from a dozen containers on his three-wheeled bike. And we’re not just talking peanuts and cashews. What I have here is a little sack of baked peas, tua park-ar, or vicia seeds (okay, broad beans), deep-fried, looks like, plus pistachios, peanuts, cashews, and fried red pepper pods for a bit of heat.
1202 Kettner Boulevard #104, Little Italy
It’s all happening in this brand-new Thai eatery, set up where the Flight Path Wine Bar & Bistro was, in the McClintoch building next to the Santa Fe Depot.
“Hi! Welcome! This your first time? Do you live locally? We are brand-new. Just opened four days ago. Would you like to see a menu? What’s your name? My name’s Phon. It means ‘The Wind’ in Thai.”
Wow. This was Phon when I first came in. Her mama sure gave her the right name. She’s a whirlwind. And I remember the name: Think “Phon” like “Ty-phoon.”
So I can’t resist, even though I had been thinking of heading through to the Stone Brewery’s Company Store here in the same building. But this li’l place is classy. Maybe too classy. The white-on-white decoration they’ve inherited from the Flight Path wine bar makes you sure they’re going to charge top dollar (or is that top baht?).
I sit up to the white counter in a tall, white, molded plastic high chair. Thai-language love songs are playing as I glance through the menu. But first, how come the menu calls these nuts “AA-bang”? “‘Bang’ is a Thai word for ‘Muslim,’” says Cheri. “Thailand has a big Muslim community in its southern provinces.”
Of course, one of the country’s most famous curries is gang massamun, or “Muslim curry.” So maybe AA-bang translates as “Muslim mix.” Whatever, at $4, these nuts are a deal.
I see their curries run from $9, for tofu and veggies or chicken through beef ($10), shrimp ($11), pork shank ($12), to seafood ($13). Their massamun (curry paste with potato, carrot, and onion in coconut milk with roasted peanut) is usually mild, too.
I know Carla is gonna want the panang curry. (Was it named after the Malaysian island of Penang?) Lynn says the difference between panang and, say, red or green curries is it’s sweeter, milder, and has that roasted-peanut taste in it.
For me, I can’t help running to my favorite Thai thing, tom yum soup. (The name means something like “boiled spicy-sour salad.” It’s that spicy sour soup with chili, ’shrooms, lemon grass, lime leaves, tomatoes, and galangal ginger. Tom ka is more or less the same, with coconut creaming and sweetening it up.
Then again, I see they also have tom yum po tak. That’s the seafood version. Has prawns, squid, clams, bits of fish.
But here’s what I like about what I see here. If you’re a little strapped, you can have the soup, but make it tom yum gai (chicken), which is only $5. Even the shrimp tom yum is only $6. Add a little pile of rice for $1.50 and you have a filling meal.
Even some of the main entrées are pretty reasonable. Yes, they have baked mussels with coconut cream and Thai herbs. Costs $18. But then three items below, here’s khao karr moo — stewed pork shank with cabbage and boiled egg — which goes for $10.
I almost go for the spicy Laotian salad with ground chicken, larb, ($8.50) but instead order the tom yum po tak because, well, I’ve never had it. I tell Phon firmly: “Hot, Phon. Hot means hot.” Because I know how Thai places tame these things down for us gringos.
I needn’t have worried.
Ayee! Hot ain’t the word. This is scalding spicy. But with a side of rice and lots of water, I get it under control. And what a taste. It’s basically galangal — ginger — with bay leaves and cilantro and lemon grass. But floating among the lethal dots of red pepper and slices of straw mushrooms are black mussels, whitefish chunks, and shrimp. Combo costs $9.
And then there’s the panang, a silver tureen full of it. It’s thicker, redder, sweeter, and, okay, lusher than any I remember. Between floating chicken chunks, we’ve got carrots, broccoli, and tons of that beautiful sweet base liquid. I know it’s the cliché Thai dish, but I love it. I lavish it on the pile of rice on the big plate Cheri brought. Even the broccoli in it tastes great. Except, gotta stop myself, save enough for Carla.
Whew. Glad I did: When we tuck into it an hour later, Ms. C. declares this the best danged panang she can remember.
And the best news? The whole exercise cost me $23.70. And we still have a ton of nuts for next time we need some interesting kap klaem (drink snacks).
1202 Kettner Boulevard #104, Little Italy
Hours: 11 a.m.–3 p.m.; 4:30 p.m.–9 p.m. Monday–Friday; 4-9 p.m. Saturday, Sunday
Prices: AA-bang (nut-mix appetizer, Thai herbs), $4; tofu and vegetable curry, $9; chicken curry, $9; beef curry, $1; mock-duck curry, $10; shrimp curry, $11; pork-shank curry, $12; seafood curry, $13; panang curry, according to ingredients; massamun curry, same; tom yum soup (chicken), $5; tom yum (shrimp), $6; baked mussel entrée, $18; khao karr moo (stewed pork shank), $10
Buses: 83, 215, 235
Nearest bus stop: Santa Fe Depot Transit Center, Kettner at C
Trolleys: Green Line, Blue Line, Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stops: Santa Fe Depot (Green Line, Orange Line); America Plaza Station (Blue Line)