It was on the waiter’s suggestion that we got the Garden Fish — eyeballs and all.
3025 University Avenue, San Diego
The waiter at Street Side Thai Kitchen set the Garden Fish ($19.95) down in the middle of the table. A crispy orb peeked from beneath a fringe of cilantro. Freshly sliced tomatoes lined one side of the fish’s body, from its gaping mouth to its tail; cucumber rounds fanned down the other side. Blanketing the scales was a quilt of lettuce, mint, basil, carrots, red peppers, purple onions, and whole peanuts. Scents of citrus and garlic wafted as Karen, one of my dinner companions, lifted her fork to filet the fish.
After Karen peeled off the ribcage, I found myself vying to grab a chunk of the spicy flesh. A disclaimer here: while I love raw fish, whether sushi, poke, or ceviche, the texture of cooked fish gives me pause unless it’s very fresh and in the salmon or tuna categories. Several years ago, in early pregnancy, I spit a bite of grilled shark across the dinner table in my husband’s direction — not at him, of course — because I couldn’t bring myself to chew and swallow it. So to be crossing forks over the carcass of a whole fish, eyeballs and all, was a surprise.
But this fish — trout? snapper? the menu doesn’t specify and we forgot to ask — was drenched in a zesty citrus-and-rice-wine-vinegar-based marinade, then deep-fried, leaving the exterior crisp and full of flavor. The white flesh was moist and flaky. Breaking off a piece of cheek to chew on, I decided I could stand to be more adventurous.
Street Side Thai Kitchen is part of the thriving restaurant and bar scene surrounding 30th and University in North Park. It’s around the corner from Ray Street, west of the much fancier and mobbed pan-Asian Wang’s. This is a quiet space from which to view the neighborhood’s goings on out a large picture window. There’s a flat-screen TV in the back corner, but the dining room is mellow and intimate.
I was there that night with folks who’d been called in to help a friend, Zelda, move into a new house. To celebrate, she’d brought us up the street to her local Thai place. When our group descended, the waitstaff was gracious. They showed us to our table and brought drinks without delay. The waiter guided us through ordering; it was on his suggestion that we got the Garden Fish.
We ordered a range of other dishes, family-style, since not everyone at the table could handle spicy. We started with shrimp and tofu Fab Rolls ($6.95). These were typical spring rolls, though the veggies and rice noodles tasted extra fresh. Two sauces came with the rolls: a bright peanut sauce that could have used more heat and a creamy white sauce, too sweet for my taste, though others appreciated its tartar-sauce-like consistency.
For entrées, we stuck to standard noodle, vegetable, and curry dishes. While the fish was the star of the show, the Pad Kee-Mau (Drunken Noodles, $10.95), ordered with shrimp, and Pad Thai with tofu ($8.95) were both products of a well-seasoned wok, with smoky flavors and noodles with the right amount of bite. The Sweet Basil and Eggplant, also ordered with tofu ($8.95), was served with crisp carrots, onions, red peppers, and stalks of whole basil in a lightly spiced sauce. In all three dishes, the vegetables were crisp, and there was a fine balance between spices and herbs.
I doled out steamed jasmine rice from a metal pot.
After sampling the noodle dishes and the eggplant, I took a sip of icy Singha, a light lager from Thailand that pairs well with spicy foods. The last dish we tried was Yellow Curry with chicken ($8.95). I doled out steamed jasmine rice from a metal pot. We opted for white rice, but Street Side Thai Kitchen also offers brown rice for $1 more; it’s a healthy option. The curry ladled over my rice had a tropical aroma of warmed coconut milk, and flavorful chunks of chicken breast paired nicely with the mild curry, carrots, onions, and potatoes. Yellow curry can be complex and tasty, while robust red curry has heat. The Pumpkin Curry ($8.95) sounded intriguing, but we didn’t order it; next time.
Our table lingered after the leftovers had been boxed up. Bustling University Avenue beckoned outside the window. But the restaurant was warm, and there were beers to finish and the last bits of conversation to enjoy. ■
Street Side Thai Kitchen
3025 University Avenue (between 30th and Ray Street), North Park, 619-228-9208; streetsidethaikitchen.com
Vibe: Oasis of calm with a window on the epicenter of North Park
Fare: Thai snacks; curries; spicy noodle dishes; seafood
Seating: ten tables
Must Try: Garden Fish; Sweet Basil Eggplant with Tofu; Pad Kee-Mau (Drunken Noodles) with Shrimp