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'Italian. Italian. Italian. My giddy aunt! Another Italian. Listen, why don't we just have Italian? When in Rome..."

"We ain't in Rome. We're in Solana Beach. You know I can't eat pasta. Jeez!"

This is Hank. We're driving south. He has to meet someone here at seven. Right now it's about 5:30. Early dinnertime.

"I see one more Italian," says Hank, "I'm gonna -- Okay. The next place that's not Italian, we're stopping at. I don't care if it's Flipperburgers."

"Very good. Unlikely though," I say.

"I'm serious. Next place that's not Italian."

He jerks into a strip mall called Mercado Del Sol and heads for Fusion Learning Center, Creating the Balance Between Learning and Life. Man. I could do with some of that. But it's gotta cost. Kids are sitting on the curb yakking into cell phones. Moms wait in their Beamers or Volvo wagons.

Hank leads me next door. It's an eatery -- I hadn't noticed -- with, like, a jungle protecting it from the sidewalk. All in pots, four feet high, at least. Banana trees, ferns, vines. That's when I notice the sign. "Bangkok Bay. Thai Cuisine."

"Yeah, but can we afford it, dude?" I'm saying. "I've got my one Jackson. That's it. No other deceased presidents."

"Hmm. Look at these specialties, dude," says Hank. We lean in over a banana tree to scan the outside menu. "Thai crêpe with chicken, ten dollars. Panang salmon -- oh, man. That looks good. Salmon and panang curry. Thirteen bucks! Roasted duck curry, 15. If we'd come for lunch they have all these things at around 6, but..."

"So let's forget it," I say.

"Keep lookin'," he growls.

Typical Hank. Digging his heels in. He's found a veggie place, he's got a parking spot. He'd rather fight than switch. We keep looking.

I see they have "Appe Thai zers." Spring roll with plum sauce for six bucks. "Summer rolls" -- shredded veggies, tofu in rice paper with tamarind sauce and peanut sauce. Mmm. Also $6.00. Chicken satay with the peanut sauce, $7.00. But is it enough food? I don't think so.

Hank's looking at the salads, natch. Mr. Low Cholesterol. And hey, the Siam Beef Salad is only $7.00. So is Bangkok Bay Wrap, with ground chicken, rice, and onion "served in lettuce cups." The Sea Salad, with shrimp, scallop, calamari, and mussels sounds a bit more filling. But that's $13.00.

"Can't go on leaning over the banana tree, dude," I say. "Back's killing me."

"Hold it," Hank says. "Hold...everything. Lookee here. Entrées, noodles and fried rice, curries -- there's four prices, right?"

Oh yes. Any of those things with a seafood combo (shrimp, scallop, calamari, and mussels) is $13.00, with just shrimp or squid, $10.00, with the meats, chicken, pork, beef, or mock duck, $9.00, and with veggies and/or tofu, eight bucks.

"So we drink water, we eat vegetarian," says Hank.

"And promise a big tip next time," I say. "Can we go in now?"

Oh wow. I like the inside of this place. You know me and Thailand. Loved it at first sight when I was a mere stripling. This girl sits us at a bench behind the potted-plant jungle. The table has northeastern sarongs as tablecloths under glass, plus ads for Singha beer. Sigh. If only. In the back they have a northern Thai house roof. Cool.

So now Buntipa is waiting for us to make up our minds. Hank mumbles something about "cashew nut." I see it's a spicy entrée, with roasted chili, cashews, water chestnuts, and rice. 'Course then he snaps his menu shut and says, "Vegetable delight." A medley of veggies sautéed in soy sauce. The guy's sticking with his health binge.

Me, it's a question of volume. So I'm looking at ye olde traditional Bangkok Fried Rice, or Spicy Bay Fried Rice with chili, egg, and garlic, or those Drunken Noodles. Love the Lad Na, a Chinese dish of fat noodles with veggies and gravy, or those wicked Thai curries, like Panang with coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves, or the sweet green kang khew wan with the bamboo shoots.

Hank's snoring by the time I decide on none of the above, but "Spicy Eggplant," with veggies and "a fiery sauce," just 'cause I love eggplant and Buntipa says she likes it too. It's pathetic. I know. I should be seeing someone about this. I am -- Carla, every night.

Long and short of it is it's dee-lish, it's filling -- comes with a pot of rice -- and it's hot. And yes, Hank steals half of it. He should be seeing someone about that too.

I get to chatting with TJ, one of the two brothers who took over this place a year or so back. He's from Ubon Ratchathani, in the northeast. I used to hitchhike through there, on the way to the Mekong, and Laos. Sigh. He's kind of sighing too, because he's missed songkran, the new year's water festival that happens in April. Man, I love that festival. The idea is to wash away your mistakes and sins, become "clean" for the new year. Everybody goes home to sprinkle lustral water on Buddhas and over parents' hands. But pretty soon, out on the streets, the water starts flying. Everybody tries to douse everybody else. Whole towns become water war zones. Three days. It's great. You can be a kid again.

Outside, when we leave, TJ is watering the banana tree. It has a bunch of green bananas hanging from it. "It's a Thai banana tree," he says. "Once it grows its fruit, it dies. Then we raise one of the babies."

"Like us, only one life to live," Hank says.

"Enjoy the moment," I say. "Uh, TJ: Borrow your watering can?"

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