110 47th Street, 3, San Diego
“Hot? Hot-hot? Hot-hot-hot?” Sanaa stands there, in one hand a big pestle at the ready, in the other, a bunch of nasty little green and red chili peppers ready to throw in for crushing. Ready to burn my mouth out, too. That foot-long mortar means business.
’Course, I have been shooting that mouth off about how I can take the heat. Now I have to ante up or lose face. Sanaa is making tham mak hong, Lao-style. In Cambodian, it’s bok la hong. In Thai, it’s called som tum. But everywhere this can be one lethal weapon if you’re not careful. We’re talking about green papaya salad.
“On a scale of ten?” says Sanaa.
D’oh…manhood on the line here. I hesitate. But, man, I’m thrilled to be here. I walked up from the 47th Street trolley stop, just to grab a lunch. This place is always good, and always Lao, but it seems to have had a different name posted above the entrance every time I’ve passed by. It’s been Vientiane Food to Go, then Mekong Village, and then Imperial Thai Cuisine. Now I find this revamped, cream-stuccoed building with midnight-blue tile highlights and palm trees and flowers — freshly transplanted — plus a whole swag of signs over the front. “Banh Phonkeo’s Food to Go.” “Thai Garden Restaurant.” “Sinh Mai Lao Silk, Custom Arts and Crafts, Real Estate, Video Rental.” And “Under New Management. New Improvement.”
Can’t tell if Banh Phonkeo’s the actual eatery now or the Thai Garden. Phonkeo sounds more Lao. But by the time I get in through the store, rich with Lao silk sarongs and crafts, and make my way to the eating area, I realize it’s both.
“ ‘Banh Phonkeo’ means ‘Phonkeo’s place,’ ” says one of two ladies behind the counter in this sparkling, freshened-up dining room. She’s peeling shallots. “I’m Phonkeo. I do the Lao cooking, and my friend Noy does the Thai cooking. We call it ‘Thai Garden’ because everybody knows about Thai food. Not so many about Lao.”
Bunch of older men — Lao, I’m guessing — eat what looks like Vietnamese pho from soup bowls. They sit at a long table near a statue of a beautiful, traditionally dressed Lao girl. Some women are eating larb, the Lao beef-salad dish.
They have a pretty extensive menu, but all I’m seeing in front of me is a display cabinet with barbecued chicken on sticks, Lao sausages, and what look like 100-year-old eggs. Sanaa says they’re “barbecued eggs.”
In the end, it’s kinda simple to decide — even though the menu has lots on it, and with good pricing, too. Six spring rolls are $3.95, Thai fried shrimp go for $5.95, tom yum soup with shrimp, the one with the delish sour-lemongrass flavor (which should be rampant with peppers) is $4.50. So is the kinder, gentler tom ka gai, with chicken and coconut milk. Larb, the famous spicy Lao salad with minced beef or chicken and lots of ginger and other seasonings, costs $8.95.
They have the standards, like pad Thai (rice noodles sautéed with chicken, egg, peanuts, $6.95) and panang or massaman curry (the one with potatoes, $6.95). But papaya salad ($5) it is. The menu says “fresh shredded green papaya and tomato sauce, mixed well with our own garlic and lime dressing,” but I know it’s really all about the mix with the chili peppers, and deciding on how many you can handle, and how much sugar and salt to crush in the mush.
Sigh. This all suddenly reminds me of those Travel Channel shows where guys wander around Asia sampling the fare at food markets. Shots of women squishing away with mortars and pestles, grabbing handfuls of chili peppers, slicing papaya flesh, chattering and laughing.
But this is for real. Must concentrate. Sanaa is dropping the evil little peppers in, one by one, crushing, grinding. “Say when,” she says. Guess she’s up to six or seven before I cry uncle.
I add a Lao sausage ($1), a couple of barbecued chicken sticks ($2), a barbecued egg ($1), a little traditional straw basket of sticky rice ($1), and an oliang, sweet Thai coffee without milk ($2), and after Sanaa has flailed those strips of papaya enough, she sets it all down before me. I inhale the garlicky-lemony, almost woody smells and chomp in. And wait for sweat to break out on the back of my neck. Must say, the egg is great to tamp it all down. And the sticky rice. The pork sausage is lemony, garlicky, and wonderful, and the chicken’s nicely marinated.
“That’s the thing about Lao food,” says Phonkeo. “We don’t like sweet and sour, like the Thais and Chinese. We say sour food makes healthy people.”
Sour makes you smile? Love it. I’ll be back, and adding a couple more peppers next time. ’Specially if Carla comes. Got a reputation to think of.
The Place: Thai Garden, 110 47th Street (at corner with Imperial), 619-527-8890
Type of Food: Lao, Thai
Prices: Spring rolls (6), $3.95; Thai fried shrimp (4), $5.95; tom yum soup with shrimp, $4.50; tom ka gai soup (with chicken, coconut milk), $4.50; larb (spicy Lao salad with minced beef or chicken), $8.95; pad Thai (rice noodles sautéed with chicken, egg, peanuts), $6.95; panang or massaman curry, $6.95; papaya salad, $5; shrimp fried rice, $8.95; red curry frog legs, $8.95
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. daily (closed between 3:00–4:00 p.m.)
Buses: 4, 955
Nearest Bus Stops: Imperial and 47th