Mea (“Mother”) Kwan’s restaurant in old Chula Vista
230 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
Don’t know why I expect things to be cheaper just because they’re in Chula Vista. Guess I think rents must be lower than, say, downtown. Or uptown. But when I check the prices at Mea Kwan, they’re much of a muchness with the last Thai place I chowed at, Hillcrest’s Amarin. Mea Kwan’s a charmer, too: stone frontage with half-timbers like you see on Elizabethan houses, plus flower-filled window boxes and a big Victorian clock jutting out from the roof. Think afternoon tea, clotted cream, British accents.
Inside, though, it’s anything but. A Thai gal, Lala, wearing a beautiful red tunic and dress, leads me to a green vinyl booth beneath a sloped roof. The place is filled with Thai art and sculptures. The gold-spangled red tablecloth sits under glass, and a red linen napkin waits for you to flick it open.
The menu is pretty much what you’d expect. Starters like spring rolls (five of them, with mixed veggies and chicken) go for $6.95. Four pork or chicken satay skewers (with peanut sauce and cucumber relish) cost $8.95. But the starter that tempts me most is the kung slong ($9.95): six shrimp (kung) marinated in a peppercorn-and-garlic wine sauce, “dressed” in egg noodles, and fried. “Undress the secret of this Thai appetizer,” the menu says, and I want to.
The main soups are tom yum and tom kha. The tom yum’s my favorite because if it’s spicy enough, it clears out your system, lickety-split. It’s made sour with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and galangal (which some folks call Siamese ginger) mixed with roasted chili paste. Tom kha is great, too. It has the same basic make-up but is much easier on the taste buds, with coconut milk as its main liquid. I’m tempted by salads that come from northeast Thailand’s Lao population, like larb ($9.95), which is ground beef (or chicken or pork) sitting in a lettuce leaf with roasted rice powder, onion, mint, cilantro, ground chili, and spicy lime dressing — it can be muy picante. So can som tum ($7.95): papaya salad with shaved green papaya, a mixture of green beans, tomatoes, garlic, chili, and ground peanuts in lime dressing, with dried shrimp or salty preserved crab. Yum talay ($12.95), seafood tossed in a lime dressing and Thai chili, is also delicious.
The house specialties, like ho mok talay (mixed seafood steamed in banana leaves with Thai chili and coconut milk, $15.95), are beyond the buying power of the Jackson in my pocket, and the Thai rib-eye steak runs $18.95. Though, yes, garlic-and-pepper pork spare ribs are only $10.95.
Green curry and free soup, $7.95 lunch special
I can’t help sneaking a look at the last page, the lunch specials. Here we go. Green curry with tofu is only $5.95, with pork, $7.95. Pad Thai noodles, panang, house fried rice — they’re all the same price.
I ask Lala for a pot of green tea ($1.50) and the bowl of veggie tom yum soup ($4.95) while I work out the rest. I might like the large, charcoal-flaming hotpot version of tom yum for $8.95, or even better, the shrimp version, $10.95. But I still can’t decide.
“How spicy you want the soup, on a scale of ten?” Lala asks.
“Eight…and a half,” I say. I’m a little worried about going over the top, in terms of heat, but more worried they’ll underpower it. At that point it’s too late to zip it up — adding heat at the end isn’t the same, all burn instead of flavor. But when the soup comes, it’s just right. Hairs tweak at the back of my neck, but it’s not so hot you can’t taste the kaffir lime and lemongrass. Everything steams away, all orange and green and black, in a square white bowl stacked with veggies — from pea pods to big mushrooms.
I play it safe and order a green curry with eggplant, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, and basil. I know I’ll like it. Prices go from $8.95 for veggies or tofu to $12.95 for mixed seafood. I get the pork ($9.95).
And it’s good. As good as the mighty Amarin, far as my taste buds can judge. The curry’s fine, with plenty of eggplant to mix down the flavors.
I resist the sticky rice and mango dessert ($5.50). I ask Lala for the check, then ask, “How come the place is called ‘Mea Kwan’?”
“It means ‘Mother Kwan,’” she says. “She opened up five years ago.”
Has it been a success?
“Oh, my goodness, yes,” says Lala. “Every lunchtime we’re very crowded. Maybe because we’re the only Thai restaurant in downtown Chula Vista.”
Traditional Thai music plays on the sound system. I take a slurp of green tea and go with the flow of the phinai horn, which sounds a bit like a sax. It seems to bring all the Buddhas and dancing figures around the walls to life. I come away wishing I’d been a bit more adventurous, foodwise. Next time I’m gonna undress that kung slong. ■
Karla and Oscar share a tofu soup hotpot.
The Place: Mea Kwan Thai Cuisine, 230 Third Avenue, Chula Vista, 619-426-5172
Type of Food: Thai
Prices: Spring roll starters, $6.95; pork or chicken satay skewers, $8.95; tom yum soup, $4.95 (bowl with veggies or tofu); in hotpot, $8.95, or $12.95 with seafood; larb salad, $9.95; som tum (papaya salad), $7.95; yum talay (spicy seafood salad), $12.95; ho mok talay (mixed seafood with Thai chili, coconut milk), $15.95; lunch specials (Monday–Friday), e.g. panang curry with tofu, $5.95, with pork, $7.95; pad Thai noodles, with veggies, $5.95; sticky rice and mango dessert, $5.50
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m.–9.30 p.m., Monday–Friday; 12:00–9:30 p.m., Saturday–Sunday
Buses: 701, 704, 705, 929
Nearest Bus Stop: 3rd and E (705, 929); 4th and E (704); 3rd and F (701)