7970 University Avenue, Suite 310, La Mesa
"Another jungle," Hank announces.
" 'Another' jungle? Where was the first one?"
"You don't remember? Saffron? Thai place? Jungle soup? Keeps the flu away? Look at me, son. Now did it work or not?"
The guy is all spunk and cheek these days.
"My point is, winter's when you gotta eat healthy."
Sigh. He's back on the lecture circuit.
Hank has just picked me up in his Camry at the La Mesa trolley stop. It's a rainy Tuesday night. I'm half drowned and shivering. Two minutes later, we park at La Mesa and University, cut down a few steps, and swing through a glass door into a little L-shaped room buzzing with people. There are nine tables -- I count 'em -- and only two are empty.
"What's the deal?" I ask. "Some Tuesday night special on?"
"Everybody's here for the Jungle, dude."
Yui the waitress comes over. She sits us down at one of the spare tables. I scan the menu. Oh yes. They have appetizers I long for: chicken satay with that yummy peanut sauce and the sweet-sour cucumber sauce ($4.95), shrimp and chicken spring rolls with plum sauce ($4.95), or mee krob, crispy noodles and tofu in sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce ($5.45). Plus soups like tom yum koong, hot shrimp soup ($4.95, small, $5.95 large), salads like papaya ($6.45), or larb (a Lao-tian dish with "ground chicken mixed with spicy chile lime juice and ground toasted rice, mint leaves, sliced green onion, red onion, and cilantro"). Tempting, but $9.45.
Plus Hank's shaking his head. He's paying tonight.
"Main?" I ask.
"Main," he says.
So, okay, the main entrées page. Basically, every dish here costs the same. You choose the protein first: entrées come with chicken, beef, pork, or something vegetarian like tofu, and they cost $7.95. Calamari or shrimp, $8.95; scallop, duck, or fish, $9.95; and mixed seafood (shrimp, calamari, scallop, and mussel), $10.95. If we'd come at lunchtime, almost everything would have been more than a buck cheaper, the mixed seafood dishes $3.70 less, at $7.25. Less seafood on the plate, though. No scallops or mussels.
Most of the entrée dishes are stir-fry veggie combos. Like Number 2, fresh ginger with onions, mushrooms, celery, carrot, green onion, and black soybean sauce. Or Number 9, sweet basil, with Thai chili, bamboo shoots, mushroom, onions, carrots. But they have half a dozen curries, too. Number 17 is panang curry, coconut milk with carrots and sliced lime leaf. Number 18 is that delish musman, the curry from Thailand's Muslim south, coconut milk with carrot, potato, onion, and toasted peanuts.
"Dude, no point in scrutinizing," Hank says. "You're here for Eleven, the Jungle."
I'm about to squawk, demand my First Amendment rights, when Yui chimes in. "Yes. Jungle stir-fried is the most popular. So healthy!"
"So he'll have Number Eleven," Hank says, "and I'll have Number Six, Mixed Vegetable."
Oh, what the heck. I want mine with pork. Hank, natch, orders tofu -- but hey. "You're not having the Jungle?" I say. "After all your preaching?"
"Mixed Veggie's just as good, dude. Wait and see."
He's right. I can smell the garlic as Yui passes him his plate. It's loaded with cabbage, carrots, green beans, peas, celery, broccoli, mushroom, zucchini, cauliflower, the whole shootin' box.
"Cooked in oyster sauce," says Hank.
"That's the basis of most stir-fry dishes," Yui says.
My Jungle is a little different than Saffron's jungle soup. As I recall, that had eggplant, corn, mushrooms, mustard, herbs. This is all chiles, carrots, zucchini, cabbage, celery, basil, fresh garlic, chile paste. But the taste is muy sabroso, or aroy di, as we used to say when I was kicking about in Bangkok. The sauce is dark, slightly soy, slightly garlic, but it doesn't kill the veggies' burst-in-your-mouth freshness.
'Course the heat -- the spice level -- is Americanized, gentle. Guess you gotta expect that in conservative La Mesa.
Yui asked if we wanted "steamed jasmine rice" (95 cents). Hank said no. I said yes. I'm glad I did. I also got a pot of green tea ($1.95).
"If this guy hadn't been here," I say to Yui, "I would have ordered the kau pat [fried rice]. Used to eat it on the train to, like, Chiang Mai, or Phuket..." I suddenly realize. "Hey, I'm sorry for what your country suffered in the tsunami. Do you have relatives there? Are they all right?"
"Thank you," Yui says. "I come from Bangkok. My relatives are all right. But our country is so sorry because many died, and our king's grandson, Khun Bhumi, died. He was only 21. Did you know he was born here?"
"Yes, in San Diego. His mother, Princess Ubolratana, married an American. They lived here. Khun Bhumi only went back to Thailand three years ago. He was autistic. We were very sad when he died."
I remember now, hearing about the prince jet-skiing, then getting caught in the tidal wave.
We're both kind of sober by the time Hank drops me back at the trolley. "Hate to leave you here in the rain again," he says.
"Don't worry, dude. In the scheme of things, what's a pair of wet shoes?"