1555 Palm Avenue, suite H, Nestor
‘Whu-where are we?”
Yes, I’m kinda nervous. Driving with Ria, Carla’s best buddy. I mean, she’s a good driver and all, but this wagon: Volvo, 200,000 miles before the odometer stopped working, heater won’t turn off, driver’s side window won’t wind down.
“You, sir, are in Egger Highlands, San Diego,” says Ria.
Egger…? Highlands? All I know is we’re kinda between Nestor and Palm City, inland from Imperial Beach.
“The Egger family was big around here,” says Ria, who had this idea of driving us both to get eats at a Thai place she knows. We’re both waiting for Carla to get home. Figure on eating some, taking some back to her. One thing for sure, Carla loves Thai.
It’s dark by the time we pull in to a strip mall on the south side of Palm and roll to a halt in front of a storefront with the sign “Noodles Noodles.”
“Why here?” I say.
“Because this is our neighborhood Thai,” she says. “It’s a block away from where I live. Also, it’s the cheapest Thai place we know.”
A-ha. Now she’s speaking my language.
Inside’s kinda spare, very clean, and kinda classy. Solid polished wood tables, maroon bench booths. The counter is lined with shiny gray marble tile, and they’ve got the standard puffy pictures of elephants and mythical dancing characters dotted around the olive-green walls. It feels new.
“Been here a year,” Ria says. “First thing I had was lard nar. Pretty good. Nice and sloppy.”
“But, really, lard nar is kinda tamada when it comes to Thai dishes,” she says after she’s thought a minute. Turns out tamada means “ordinary, so-so” in Thai. Ria’s American but she and her brothers and sisters spent a lot of years in Bangkok.
Emily, the girl at the back counter, says she hasn’t been to Thailand, even though her father, the guy cooking in the kitchen behind, is from there. We decide to get two or three dishes, sample some, take the rest home.
My eyes scan the starters. They’re totally standard but so nicely priced. Crispy rolls with ground pork are $3.50 for three. Spring rolls (tofu or chicken) go two for $3.50. Pot stickers are five for $3.50, fish balls you get eight for $3.50, and fried tofu with peanut sauce is $4.50.
But it’s the last one that catches my eye. Tom kha kai soup. With chicken, $4.95. This is the coconut milk soup with galangal (Asian ginger), lime juice, plus veggies. And you get 16 ounces.
“Let’s start off with that while we check out the rest,” I say to Ria.
It comes creamy-orange, with green and red pepper slices and bits of white chicken bobbing around in the thick liquid. And in a solid white bowl, nothing polystyrenish. And that galangal’s twang comes through the slightly sweet-savoriness of the soup. Normally I go for the tom yum soup, the more lemony-cilantroey version that comes without the coconut milk. But this is great. I’m liking the place already.
Pleasure additive: We get some oliang, Thai iced black coffee. Ria knows about this stuff. A lot.
“O [means] ‘black’ in the Teochew Chinese dialect,” she says, “Liang [means] ‘cold.’ Most Thai Chinese speak Teochew.”
Wow. Impressed. But what I love is the taste. It almost feels brewed. For some reason I think of Mission Brewery’s Dark Seas stout.
Here there’s the coffee, plus soybeans, corn, and sesame seeds in the mix. Dang, but it’s good and thirst-quenching.
So, what next? Ria, who’s a spunky no-BS kid with a twinkle in her eye and firm opinions, says the lard nar she had here last time was “okay,” but those big, wide sloppy noodles that slap your face are a pain, and the black-bean gravy sauce “wasn’t that interesting.”
Ria takes another slurp from the tom kha kai. (“It means ‘chicken’ — kai – galangal — kha — soup — tom,” she says. “It’s good.”)
So, then we kinda coast into two mistakes. First Ria goes for a curry. The panang is basically more coconut milk. Again, great deal at $7.50. She gets chicken with this and could have pineapple, but drops that. It’s good, with a basil flavor to it, and plenty of meat and carrots and bell peppers, but it’s not different enough from the soup. Our fault, not theirs.
Mistake #2: I ordered the BBQ pork rice. I was thinking kow moo dang — skewered, red-rimmed mini-medallions of pork. Swear I had that once. But what turns up is one big grilled pork chop with a pile of rice and a small bowl of tamarind sauce.
“I think it’s because they have a lot of ferang — foreigners, us — here, and they kind of compromise on some dishes,” says Ria.
The tamarind sauce is tasty, with chili, cilantro, and crushed shallots giving it grit, but somehow it doesn’t feel Thai to me. And I see a lot of what look like “compromise” dishes. Chicken teriyaki, chow mein, yakisoba. Still, pork chop and rice for $6.95...I ain’t complaining.
We reserve the panang for Carla and end up taking half of the rest to share. It’s a lot. I mean, this place is a definite deal. Next time, all we’ve got to do is ask more questions before we leap into the wild unknown.
“So, Egger Highlands?” I say. I’m climbing gingerly back into the Volvo. “How come I’ve never heard of them?”
“Mr. Egger owned all this land back in the 1940s,” says Ria. “He gave a big block to build the first Catholic Church in these parts, Saint Charles. Catholics know about it. But you know what this place should be famous for?”
I shake my head.
“Just the first-ever manned flight in the U.S. John Montgomery, 1884, 20 years before the Wright brothers! The Egger Highlands were the highlands he flew from.”
Wow. Buy this girl another oliang. This has been what you might call an Ed-ucation.
- Prices: Crispy rolls with ground pork, 3 for $3.50; tom kha kai soup with coconut milk, chicken, $4.95; lard nar flat noodles with black bean gravy, $7.50 (with fried tofu, chicken, pork, or beef), $7.50, with shrimp, $8.50; spicy basil (with squash) and same meat choices, same prices; panang curry (same meat choices, same prices; BBQ pork rice, $6.95; green tea ice cream, $2.50
- Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:30 p.m. daily
- Buses: 933, 934
- Nearest bus stop: Palm Avenue at 16th Street