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Stopped in my tracks last night. Walking north on final few yards of Park Boulevard. University Heights, at Adams. Looking for that little kinda French place, Savory Deli & Market. I’d had the best beef Bourguignon ever there.

But…erk?

This has to be it…4661…

Now the sign says Plumeria. A vegetarian/vegan place (4661 Park Boulevard, University Heights, San Diego, 619.269-9989).

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Look through the window. People eating nuts? Twigs?

I go in anyways, thinking farewell flavor, hello Brussels sprouts.

But It’s Thai. That's hopeful. Thai vegetarian.

Ten minutes later I’m ordering my favorite soup: tom yum. No shrimp, of course, but loads of veggies, and a promise from Jeremy the server that this doesn’t just taste like the real thing, but actually has all the ingredients of the heart and soul of this hot sour soup.

“So,” he says, like, ‘let’s see if you can handle the real thing…’ “How hot would you like it? On a scale of 1-10…”

“And 10 is like dragon’s breath?”

“Ten is the hottest.”

“Well, feeling a little wimpy tonight. Gimme a 9."

I know it could whack me about, but don't they say chili peppers are good for you? Headaches, blood pressure, weight, heart, lots of vitamin C?

“You are sure about this?”

I can see he’s visualizing me exploding like a string of firecrackers all over his dining room.

But can’t back down now.

Result? The 9 is – how can I do this justice? Like a nuclear shock-wave passing through you. Like a pyroclastic flow. Piercingly, gut-wrenchingly hot. Like entering the Center of the Universe. And then, feeling a warm galangal-flavored river radiating out of you.

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Looks innocent enough, with other food, brown rice...

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And all vegetarian, including tofu, broccoli...

Through the tears I can see the wavy face of Jeremy staring at me, worried. Looks like he’s going to knock on my forehead with his knuckles. See if I'm in.

He’s brought some brown rice.

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Jeremy, with Patty, the owner. Sorry for the shake. Taken under stress...

Me, can’t say anything. Just point to my empty water glass as I wipe my eyes.

But here’s the thing. The heat doesn’t kill the lemon-grassy, sour, rich flavor. When it finally fights to the surface, you realize you’ve made it through purgatory to the Promised Land of heavenly soup flavors. Beautiful.

Plus your hair’s standing on end. New hair style! Just in time for New Years.

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Patty Thongchua: heat? What heat?

More in upcoming Tin Fork.

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