Just like Americans aren’t walking around with steak and apple pie hanging out of their mouths, Thai people aren’t filling up three times a day on drunken noodles and yellow curry. Not to say these dishes aren’t tasty and don’t deserve respect; after all, these flavors and textures are a gateway to the more exotic stuff.
In one of the final scenes of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” Thailand episode, a hung over Anthony Bourdain swoons over a bowl of coconut curry soup, the ubiquitous northern Thai specialty, khao soi. The episode (streaming on Netflix) is a must if you’re interested in learning more about the regional flavors of Thailand. And then, the most fun part of all: researching the names of particular dishes and where you can find them in San Diego.
When you’re ready to wean off the peanut sauce, Chaba Thai Kitchen, located in a strip mall in Kearny Mesa, is a good place to start. The house specialty is khao soi, and between my two visits, nary a table appeared to be missing a large bowl of the dramatic egg noodle soup. I had to order it both times myself.
Not as thin as a soup nor as thick as a curry, the aromatic coconut broth - an orange yellow color, from fresh turmeric - is a powerful mix of flavors, containing the bold likes of lemongrass, kaffir lime, cardamom and shrimp paste, to name a few. The luxurious liquid is perfectly complimented by egg noodles prepared two ways: boiled inside the soup, and on top, a heap of fried ones.
Whatever you do, don’t get gutsy with spice levels at Chaba Thai. First off, the kitchen warns that you can’t send back a dish due to your lapse in judgment; if it’s too hot to handle, you shouldn’t have ordered it that way. Taking this message, which is printed across the menu, as a precursor for scorching food to come, I went with 4 the first time, and then kicked it down a notch to 3 on visit number two. Though I enjoy spicy food, four teetered on too much pain. My boyfriend and I pondered what a 10 must be like and came to the same conclusion: unfathomable.
Fresh-squeezed lime, generous amounts of chopped cilantro and thinly sliced green onion all seemed to tone down the bowl’s fiery contents; pickled mustard greens, served on the side, also had a calming effect. It also came with some shallots and one deadly looking spoonful of more red stuff, like the already raging inferno could use more.
Besides the khao soi, more standouts at Chaba Thai are Chinese broccoli with crispy pork - like a cross between pork lardon and chicharron - in a savory, brown sauce; very good homemade pastry stuffed with curried potatoes (“curry puff” on the menu); and the crispy basil chicken - sweet, sour, spicy - with deep fried basil leaves topping off the golden-fried chunks of white meat. There’s even papaya salad prepared in Thai and Laos styles.
Service is friendly and prompt, and Thai people seem to dig the place, too, making up a large part of the crowd on a recent Saturday night. Chaba Thai is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. with lunch specials available Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 810 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Kearny Mesa. (858) 503-7777, Chabathaikitchen.com
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org