8687 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
So I was just leaving this kinda cute patio where I'd been having a late brekky with my friend Ernesto (La Mesa Bistro, more on this in upcoming Tin Fork), and, well, we talked a long time. An hour maybe. When I left, I was already starting to feel lunch pangs. And it's at this weak moment that here comes a li'l old place advertising "Sushi, Dim Sum & Thai Food" in the same shopping complex.
I stop, look, listen to my stomach.
Next to the sign, they have two way-big red and gold Chinese lanterns, and between them, in white letters, "Chopsticks Inn."
"Like something to eat?" says this Chinese lady coming out.
"I guess," I say. Because the other thing is I'm starting to feel stirrings again...for tom yum soup. Something about the sweat-sprouting heat combined with the taste of kaffir lime, galangal (Asian ginger), lemon grass, and all those swimming button mushrooms. Also the red flames of the charcoal fire shooting up the soup bowl's center chimney.
It's a Thai dish, of course, and this place looks mainly Chinese. But hey, if you don't speculate you can't accumulate. So a moment later I'm in a low dining room, with a big, golden, laughing Buddha on a shelf and a giant, jade frog with a gold coin in his mouth on the counter.
I set down in a comfy red leatherette booth. This gal Shirley comes up with a massive menu. Massive, but the items inside seem to be reasonably priced. Like, paper-wrapped chicken is $4.95, spare ribs are $6.95, hot and sour soup goes for $2.25, dim sum are about four bucks, and sushi rolls start at $3.25 and go up to $12 (for the Diamond Special, 8 pieces with spicy scallops, salmon, avo, masago, green onion). Noodle soups are eight at lunch, ten for dinner. Fifteen seems to be the top price.
So tom yum? Most soups are Chinese. But at the bottom, there they are, numbers 12 and 13, the Thai hot pots, tom yum and tom kah. Tom kah is pretty-much the same as tom yum but with coconut milk. It's totally delicious and sweet as well as sour and hot.
But for me the real thing is tom yum, with its ginger, lemongrass-y lime tartness combined with chicken or shrimp (my favorites, though you can get beef or pork too), and of course Thai chili to give that tart spiky thing that matures as you go down into a rich meaty taste storm that's hot in all senses to the last spoonful.
So I ask for the chicken version ($9.55, "for two." With shrimp it's $11.55).
"Shirley," I say. "Don't be kind. Have the cook put in extra chili. I like it hot. I won't sue for pain and suffering."
And she's as good as her word. This lake of liquid is straight out of Mt. Pinatubo's crater, I swear. Okay, they don't have the flaming chimney bowl. But it does come in a sexy silver soup tureen with a plate of crispy noodles. You can see the chicken roiling with everything from snow peas to 'shrooms to onion and tomato and who knows what else. Shirley ladles some of it out into a smaller china bowl.
"I had to tell Annie that you meant it," she says. "She wasn't sure. Most people in La Mesa like gentle tastes."
Turns out Annie's the cook, the lady I met on the way in. They've been here since 1988. Came from Hong Kong. It feels old school. I like it.
So I leave totally burned out and stuffed full. This soup was a little more expensive because it was meant for two. But I guarantee, if you have it just for you, you'll have checked all the boxes for a total meal.