My koffai yen, iced milky coffee
2414 San Diego Avenue, San Diego
Came to see my hero.
Antonio Garra faced a firing squad on this spot back in 1852. He fell into his fresh-dug grave right here in Old Town. Campo Santo.
His crime? He yelled, “No taxation without representation!”
Just like the Boston Tea Party patriots.
His problem? He was Cupeño. Native Americans didn’t get to vote, not in 1852.
So, I’m looking at his wooden marker, and then I look up. And right next to Antonio is this old, white, adobe-and-stucco house.
Campo Santo, Antonio Garra’s grave, with D’O Thai Cottage in background
“D’O Thai Cottage,” says the sign.
Thai? In Old Town?
Now that I think about it, a good searing Tom Yum soup might fill the bill. Kill the bile I feel about the deal my friend Antonio got.
Tom Yum’s a hotpot, that hot-and-sour devil’s cauldron of a soup that could dissolve a rusty nail quicker than Coca Cola. Wimps go for the Tom Kah. It’s the same soup, but gentled and sweetened up with coconut milk.
But I’m a little suspicious of this D’O Thai Cottage. Old Town is Tourist Central. Are we gonna get tourist-Thai pabulum here?
Whatever, a couple of minutes later, I’m climbing the steps. It’s an old house with a bunch of rooms and two levels. Upstairs, a sunny room looks out over, well, Antonio Garra’s grave. Thai wooden xylophones play slow, sentimental tunes on the sound system. Pictures of the Thai king and queen look down from the walls. I take a seat.
When the waitress comes by I ask, “Do you have tom yum?” Love the stuff, especially if it’s rated a ten — roasting, spicy hot — to clean out your system. Good things float in the soup, tomato wedges, mushrooms, lemon grass, ginger, along with a lot of mysterious herbs that give it that special flavor.
“Yes, of course,” the waitress says.
“In a hot pot?”
Because a lot of places only serve it to you in a bowl, not in that pot with the flame shooting up a little chimney in the middle.
“Fire pot? Yes,” the waitress says. “Shall I order it for you?”
I take one more look at the menu before I commit.
“Tom Yum,” it says. “Classic Thai hot-and-sour soup with mushrooms, lemon grass, lime juice, and tomato.”
Oh, I see now that you can get it in a bowl or a hot pot. The bowl costs $4.50, while the fire pot “served for 3–4,” is $10.99. ’Course, it’s cheaper to go veggie or with chicken. On the other hand, the bowl is $3.99, and the fire pot’s $8.99. But, no. Need my shrimp. On the other, other hand, a serving for three or four is way too much…
I order it anyway. Something about that charcoal flame shooting up, witches’ brew, hubble bubble. No plain bowl can match that.
The one thing I forget to do is say how much heat I want. So when it comes, it has a good flavor but is tourist-tame. I ask for the little tray of four pots, the ones with fish sauce, dried chili, chili paste, and jalapeño slices in vinegar. Scatter two ceramic spoonsful of the dried chili and add some of the jalapeño vinegar to rev up the heat, even though it isn’t as good as letting the spices soak into the soup as it’s prepared.
Whatever, it is scrumptious, and now, howlingly hot — I’m wiping the back of my neck and my brow more than my mouth. Red chilies line the inside in tidal rings. Like all the best soups, it gets more condensed the lower down in the pot you go. I decide to get a bowl of rice ($1) to bulk it up. Between that and the fat shrimp and the veggies, not to mention the lime leaves I have to spit out, this is one heckuva meal. You don’t need nuttin’ mo’.
Except, oh yeah, I ordered a Singha beer. Kind of acts like the fire brigade, and only two bucks during happy hour. (Happy Hour runs from 3:00–7:00 p.m., Monday–Friday; 11:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Deal.)
Here’s the kicker: they’re doing breakfasts now. Thai-style. Which means — be still my heart — jok. Love that Thai-style Chinese porridge.
Jok is rice porridge with ground chicken or pork added in, plus ginger, green onion, and egg. “Great for hangovers.”
So a couple of days later, late morning, here I am again in this neck o’ the woods. I have to make a beeline through D’O’s door again.
The thing about jok here is it’s $5 a bowl only during breakfast hours. Which end at 11:00 a.m. Half an hour ago.
Dang. Guess the jok’s on me.
Except, this guy Kan — the owner, turns out — says I can still get it, for a price.
“It’s $7.99 now,” he says. “Is that okay?”
Not a problem. I order a koffai yen, iced milky coffee, for $2.99.
Kan says jok is rice porridge with ground chicken or pork added in, plus ginger, green onion, and egg. “Great for hangovers,” he says.
I get the coffee, and they bring a little bowl of soup for me to have while I wait for the jok. Kind of a miso soup, with onions, peas, carrots, tofu, cabbage. Nice.
The jok arrives, and it’s a lot. Bubbling like a hot mud pool in Yellowstone. I add dried chili, jalapeño slices, and some soy and have at it. The pork’s the thing, but green onions and long strips of ginger give it its main flavor. Suddenly, the egg yolk floats to the surface. It’s cooking right now, in front of my eyes. Oh man, this is good.
Difference between jok here and in Thailand? Kan says: “We like organs, stomach lining, and tongue in our jok. All those parts Americans don’t like. But, basically, this is the same taste as home.”
I have to ask, “Get any ghosts wafting up here from the graveyard?”
“I haven’t seen, but some of the staff say they have seen figures floating through the back room at night,” Kan says.
Wonder if one could be my hero, Antonio Garra? I’ll have to come back for a late tom yum and arrange a meeting.
Note: This just in: D’O Thai opens at 11:00 a.m. now, not 10:00. You can still get jok.
- Prices: Jok (Thai breakfast porridge), $7.99; Tom yum soup with shrimp, $4.50 (bowl), $10.99 (fire pot); with chicken, tofu, or veggies, $3.99/$8.99; panang curry with beef, $9.99; massaman curry (mild, with potatoes), $8.99 with vegetables, $13.99 with seafood; larb Lao salad with minced chicken, $7.99
- Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily
- Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
- Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center 4009 Taylor Street
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest trolley stop: Old Town Transit Center