3731 India Street, 1, San Diego
I’m confused. Here I am, top of India Street, breezy Friday, trying to decide between Mexican and Thai. El Indio and Saffron. Each one’s a sort of record-holder. El Indio’s one of the oldest taco places in town — they actually invented the taquito — and Saffron was the first Thai place in town.
Seems like an eon since I tried either. Thing I remember is, they’re both generous, El Indio and Saffron. But what sways me is, well, Isan. Aah, yes. The smell of Saffron’s Isan-style grilled chicken floods out. ’Course that only happens in their original shop, a little ol’ green-red-brown place at 3731 India. The newer addition next door, at 3737, is all about noodles and saté.
But you can’t beat the taste of chicken as the spice-loving Isan people cook it up in Thailand’s northeast. It’s enough to get any gastro-freak’s juices flowing.
The thing about old Saffron’s storefront is it looks kinda distinguished. It sits right next to stone steps that climb up a set of terraces lined with cream-colored concrete balustrades, tables, and one metal umbrella. Shakespeare’s Pub sits at the top. Yes, I do think about going along to the more sophisticated Saffron shop for maybe a curry or a fat-noodle sen-yai. The menu’s completely different there, and the decor is modern. But what the heck, I whip in to this cozier little chicken counter instead. Take-out only. It’s bulging with customers. A dozen rotisserie chickens grill golden on a five-rack vertical rolling spit.
Hmm...I see the door menu lists a bunch of chicken combinations, “served with jasmine rice, Cambodian salad, and a choice of sauce.” It ranges from two legs and one sauce ($4.87) to a whole chicken and five sauces, for around $15. Three guys, all in red T-shirts, slave away around the chickens, mounting new birds for broiling, chopping up the cooked ones. They tell me the Issan flavor comes from marinating the chicken overnight in garlic, ginger, chiles, and white pepper. I go for the two legs and one sauce, and while they’re cookin’, I make a dash up to the corner for a coffee from Gelato Vero Caffe ($1.40). I come back right on time, haul my little polystyrene box up the Shakespeare stairway next door, and sit down at a table under the lone umbrella. I open up, and maybe it’s that garlic-ginger combo they marinate the bird in, because this chick is hot and luscious. But gently luscious. No violent chile burns here. I do taste the ginger coming through, but not in a mean way. What’s more, I chose the peanut sauce (I could have had Sriracha, sweet pepper, salsa, chutney, or egg-roll sauce), and dipping the legs in that is great. Plus, hey! They threw in a wing, too, on top of the jasmine rice and Cambodian salad.
’Course, I’m wondering what’s so Cambodian about the Cambodian salad. It’s, what? Shredded lettuce, carrots, with peanut crumbs on top? Then I taste, and I know it’s genuine...fish sauce. Nam pla. Fish sauce in the salad! Turns out they put garlic, chiles, lime juice, and cilantro in as well. So that’s a little plastic bowl of pleasure, and all in all, what with munching through two legs and a big fat wing, as well as the rice, it’s a lot of food, and tasty all the way. And a pleasure to chow into up here on the terrace, looking out toward the coast (though all you see is the I-5 freeway) and all for a total of five greenbacks.
I finish up and then decide to get something for Carla, but from the noodle side of the restaurant. Huh. On the way into the cool, art-strewn main eatery, I pass a bunch of photos showing the owner, Su Mei Yu, with Julia Child, Jimmy Carter, Charlie Gibson, Diane Keaton…Wow. This lady is popular.
And I’m impressed with the fact that she’s selling reusable plastic containers for takeouts (“Keep them in your car!”) and even offering 10 percent off if you bring your own cutlery and plates and bowls.
Gal named Willi is eating a green curry ($7.60). Ooh. Carla might like that. I ask her about it. “I’ve just spent two years in southern Thailand,” she says, “and this is the real thing.”
The other “real” thing is the water-filled plastic bags dangling from the ceiling. “To keep flies out,” says Willi. “I don’t know how, but it works. I think the water optics confuse them. That’s very Thai, too.”
Oh, man. Ain’t that the truth. Actually, it really does feel like a little slice of Thailand in here. Nothing fancy. Not the usual Buddha and elephants on the walls. Just something about the smells and the overall atmosphere. I steal a taste of Carla’s curry before they box it up. It’s all in there. The basil, the lemongrass, that galangal, Thai ginger, and the coconut milk. Maybe I should take one of the water-filled bags, to dangle, just to bring the atmosphere home.
The Place: Saffron Thai Grilled Chicken, 3731 and 3737 India Street, 619-574-0177, 574-7737
Type of Food: Thai
Prices: Chicken Combination (with jasmine rice, Cambodian salad, sauce), e.g. two legs, $4.87; breast and leg, $5.50; whole chicken and five sauces, $14.88; salad roll (rice paper with lettuce, tofu, glass noodles, ginger), $1.51; egg roll, $2.19; fish curry (red curry with swordfish, rice, cucumber salad, chutney sauce), $7.50; chicken saté, $5.85 (one skewer)
Hours: 10:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Monday–Thursday; 10:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday; 10:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Saturday; 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Sunday
Nearest Bus Stop: India and Washington