744 Market Street, San Diego
“Know why this area’s called the ‘Stingaree’?” asks Mark. We’re at the bottom of Eighth, right where it meets Market, inside this Asian bistro I just happened on called J. Wok. Mark Richmond’s an artist. He painted the huge, crouching tiger that fills one wall.
“Stingaree?” I say. “Uh, no.”
“These were mud flats, back in the day,” he says, “and workers bringing timber ashore to build downtown would get stung by the stingrays that lived in the tidal waters. Then, when it got reclaimed and populated by pimps and thieves in the 1880s, people were still getting stung, so the name stuck.”
Mark’s here to touch up his mural — and to get something to eat. This is lunchtime on a Thursday. Busy. It’s kind of brown inside, with a long bar on the right and tables outside. Shape’s not much different from when it was Ballpark Pizza, but Mark’s orange tiger on the wall tells you we’re in a new world.
Looking at the menu, I’d say we’re looking at new food, too. Asian fusion. Okay, starters aren’t that unheard of. They range from edamame ($3.75, Japanese, the green soy beans) to fresh spring rolls ($3.75, Vietnamese) and egg rolls ($3.75, Chinese). J. Wok wings ($5.75) are the American contribution. They have four familiar-sounding salads with tofu or chicken ($6.75) or beef or shrimp ($7.75), with peanut or miso or spicy lime-juice dressing. But the rest of the menu’s interesting. It’s divided into “Modern Mix” and “Traditional.”
“Modern Mix” does numbers on traditional items. Like, they put Thai chicken satay into a sandwich ($6.75) and Korean barbecue beef ($7.75) — the smoky, slightly sweet kind Koreans call bulgogi — gets the Philly treatment in a bun, with cheese and all.
The crispy rolls almost get me. You can have yellow-curry chicken, red-curry with beef, chicken, shrimp, or tofu, spicy basil chicken, or kung pao chicken, all as crispy wraps, any for $6.75.
“You can eat these with clean fingers in your car,” says this guy Justin, who turns out to be co-owner with his Thai chef buddy Jit. “Jit came from fine dining in Las Vegas,” he says. “But with the downturn, we decided that we would keep the prices down and the food Asian but easy to eat. That’s why we set up the ‘Modern Mix’ section.”
For a buck more, you get traditional layouts of the same items but with a side (rice or mixed veggies) and a salad with peanut dressing ($7.75). Or fried-rice dishes — with the same chicken or tofu ($6.75) or beef or shrimp ($7.75), or over pad Thai noodles ($7.75 and $8.75).
And that’s it, apart from drinks. A short, simple menu that fits on the back of their business card. Cool.
This is when Niki comes over to take my order. She’s the waitress, originally from Tokyo. “I was their first customer,” she says. “Then I came to work for them.”
I ask for a Thai iced coffee. Spot, too late, that they have chrysanthemum tea, which I’ve always wanted to try. All these “specialty drinks” are $2.75. Then I order a spicy basil chicken with the house fried rice (could have had brown rice or steamed white rice) and salad with the peanut dressing.
I realize, once I start eating, that from here you can see clear down Eighth to Petco Park’s outfield. But I’m more interested in the elegant squarish plate of food in front of me, which takes you clear across the Pacific to that other City of Angels. Bangkok. Sigh. That basil flavor. As basic to Thai eating as ketchup is here. The peanutty salad, way-big pile of fried rice, along with this juicy, spicy-hot chicken go down fine and hotter than I thought they’d dare make it in a fusion place. Lots of red peppers in there.
In addition to the mural, Mark designed the elephant logo. The bent trunk forms the J of “J. Wok.” “This is a partnership of two Asian guys with names that start with J,” says Mark. “Jit is Thai, Justin was born in Ohio. He’s Chinese-American. The menu’s mainly Thai, but with a lot of Chinese dishes. So the logo is an elephant — that’s Thai — and the main mural is the tiger, the Chinese symbol.”
Plus, I’m guessing, the “jaywalk” J-Wok joke in there was part of the plan, too, right?
We get to talking with Justin. “Actually, I’m an attorney,” he says. “I used to work in the DA’s office in Sacramento. But I always wanted to get into business. This is my passion project.”
Jit hears us yakking about eating in Bangkok and brings out a plate of kluay tod, fried bananas ($3.75), for everyone. The ultimate street food. What a great finale. When I get up to pay, Niki charges only $11.63. Sweet deal. Looks as if the kluay tod was on the house.
I’ll remember this place. Guess it’s the elephant in me.
The Place: J. Wok, 744 Market (at Eighth Street), 619-231-1088
Type of Food: Asian fusion
Prices: Edamame, $3.75; fresh spring rolls, $3.75; egg rolls, $3.75; wings, $5.75; salad with tofu or chicken ($6.75), beef or shrimp ($7.75); Thai chicken satay sandwich, $6.75; Korean BBQ beef Philly-style sandwich, $7.75; yellow curry chicken crispy roll, $6.75; red curry with shrimp crispy roll, $6.75; spicy basil chicken, or kung pao chicken entrée with rice or mixed veggies, and salad, $7.75; tofu fried rice, $6.75; pad Thai noodles with beef, $8.75; Thai iced coffee, $2.75
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Sunday–Monday; till midnight, Tuesday–Thursday; till 2:00 a.m., Friday–Saturday
Buses: 3, 11
Nearest Bus Stops: Market at Eighth