4653 University Avenue, San Diego
You never know what you’re eating. Not really. That’s my thought as I dunk my congee/cruller/dja kwai/you tiao/Chinese fried breadstick into my Cambodian/ French coffee (the kind with sweetened condensed milk at the bottom). The dja kwai, as they call the breadstick at this place — because it’s mostly Cambodians who come in here — is basically deep-fried dough. Delicious? You betcha. Healthy? Get back to you on that.
I’m at Trieu Chau, this bright, open, lattice-windowed eatery. It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday morning. I catch voices and laughs coming from the orange room in the back. Truth is, I’ve been dropping in to the Trieu Chau every now and then for the longest time, just to sip ’n’ dip this great combo and, if I’m lucky, get enmeshed with the crowd of Cambodians who come in for morning coffee, loud, raucous conversation, and lots of laffs. Lao, Vietnamese, and Chinese come here too, but this time of day, in the orange-painted room in back, is Khmer (meaning Cambodian) time.
I look, but no room in the room yet, so I sit down up in front, right next to the laughing Buddha. I order up my dja kwai coffay dok ko — fried bread stick with the Cambodian/French coffee — from Jing, the Vietnamese server, and ask if he can heat the dja kwai. Pretty important because the default position is to serve it cold, and it can be kinda clammy and doughy like that.
“Do you know the story of the dja kwai you’re eating?” says Kathy, the Chinese-Cambodian gal who runs the place.
“From the days of the French in Indochina?” I ask. “It looks like two croissants joined at the waist. The French are great bread-in-coffee dippers.”
“Oh, no,” says Kathy. “The Chinese have been making dja kwai since before there was a France. The two sticks of dough represent a boy and a girl who fell in love long ago in China and ran away together after their parents had forbidden it. To punish them, the older people tied them together and threw them in the lake, and they drowned. That’s why it’s two breadsticks joined in the middle. That’s them.”
Wow. I look at my dja kwai in a different light. Feel bad about leaving them tied together or ripping them apart or eating them at all. As Carla says, “Ed, you’re such a sensitive soul.”
While I’m hesitating, I have to order something else. Long day ahead. Nat’ral thing at breakfast time would be to have jork, the famous Chinese breakfast rice soup with chicken ($5.50) or fish ($6). Bit of soy, hot sauce, can’t beat it. But I start looking at the big list on the menu, anyway. Kathy says Cambodian customers go mostly for the lemongrass chicken or beef steak with rice, plus a pork-neck soup on the side ($7), whereas the Lao customers go for the lard na, wide noodles with chicken or, say, tofu, plus broccoli and other veggies, and dousings of sweet soy, fish sauce, and — the part that I think makes it delish — sprinklings of sugar. Kathy says it’s a Chinese dish but one that was first made popular by Chinese settlers in Laos.
Or I could go for char quay teow, pan-fried wide rice noodles with seafood such as shrimp, imitation crab meat, broccoli, and bean curd ($7); or the famous spicy Lao beef salad, larb ($7). Or, just a soup, like wide rice noodle soup with seafood (shrimp, fishballs, squid, $6). The broth’s savory and interesting with the spices of Southeast Asia thrown in.
Then, kinda on a whim, because I haven’t ever had it before, I order up Number 5: duck thigh with egg noodles and salad ($7). Like everything here, it comes quick, before I’ve had a chance to finish my dja kwai. I drop the bread stick and go straight for the duck, to get it hot. I dunk in some sliced peppers in vinegar and splots of Sriracha hot sauce and chomp in. There’s plenty of skin and duck flavor, a bit like turkey but with more attitude. I like it, and the egg noodles are nice and fresh, but, honestly, jork would have been easier to face, this time of day.
I’m about to chomp off the head of my second side of my dja kwai stick when another customer says, “You know who you are eating?” He looks Eurasian. Bookish, businessman, maybe, in a well-used jacket and loose tie. The guy’s eating jork.
“Yeah, I know, one of the two young lovers,” I say.
“No,” he says. “You are eating the oil-fried devil, the oil-fried ghosts of Chin Hui and his wicked wife. This double bread represents them shackled together after they betrayed the national hero, General Yue Fei, and had him executed. Now they are boiled in oil millions of times a day, eaten as punishment by people like you.”
“When was that?” I ask.
“Under the emperor Gaozong. In China. In 1142.”
Wow, 868 years later and they still haven’t forgotten? What’s next? Every burger is Benedict Arnold’s head? I dip Chin Hui’s head in my coffee, then bite it off. At least his ghost’ll know: long as people are hungry, he’ll be famous.
The Place: Trieu Chau, 4653 University Avenue, East San Diego 619-280-4204
Type of Food: Chinese, Southeast Asian
Prices: dja kwai (Chinese fried bread stick) and coffee, $3.50; jork, Chinese breakfast rice soup with chicken ($5.50); with fish ($6); lemongrass chicken or beef steak with rice, pork-neck soup, $7; lard na, wide noodles with chicken, beef, or tofu, broccoli, soy, fish sauce, sugar, $7; pan-fried wide noodles with shrimp, imitation crab meat, broccoli, bean curd ($7); Lao beef salad (larb), $7; wide rice-noodle soup with shrimp, fishballs, squid, $6; duck thigh with egg noodles and salad, $7
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 7, 10
Nearest Bus Stops: 47th and University (7; and westbound 10); University and Euclid (eastbound 10)