By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I’ve never been to Thailand, but everyone I know who has traveled there raves about the street food, insisting it’s foolproof in terms of flavor and price.
Enter J&T Thai Street Food in Linda Vista. A friend of mine feels the fast-casual eatery encapsulates the basic soul of dishes he buys often from vendors lining the roads of Bangkok — clean, tasty and affordable.
Another friend rates the fare as “an American cliché,” praising only the duck noodle soup for its accurate range of herbs and spices.
My take, based on three visits, is a mixed bag of highs and lows.
Sandwiched within an elongated strip plaza called The Presidio, it’s easy to guess you’re just down the hill from the University of San Diego. Most of the customers are fresh-faced academic types, interspersed occasionally by professors and other faculty poking in for a quick no-frills lunch.
The interior shows off a cool, industrial design of exposed air ducts, cement flooring and brawny wood tables. A back room, which tends to go unnoticed, offers additional seating. Guests place their orders at the front counter, where fresh limes are pressed for making Thai limeade enhanced traditionally with sugar and salt.
Starting with the pleasurable dishes, a generously portioned appetizer of BBQ pork looked like scraps of tire rubber with a fresh sprig of cilantro slung over them.
Yet to my delight, the meat strips were softer than expected, and their dark exteriors proved irresistibly sweet and spicy, due likely to a thick marinade of soy sauce, chili spices and brown sugar that caramelized lusciously when hitting the grill.
An order of five oversized chicken wings stood well on their own without any detectable seasoning, thanks to their super-crispy skins and juicy interiors. The accompanying sweet-and-sour sauce (something I normally push away in Asian restaurants) added a gracious depth of flavor.
My favorite entrees were the spicy basil chicken, and the kao mun gai tod, which translates to crispy chicken.
The former featured ground chicken strewn with wilted basil and grilled bell peppers and onions, much like the chicken larb I’ve come to love a mile up the road at The Original Sab-E-Lee.
I ordered it here at level four and didn’t mind the spice factor verging closer to a six. Gulps of the limeade helped quell the mouth burn.
Included with the dish was a Styrofoam bowl of clear chicken broth aided perhaps by bouillon. Not bad, but I would have preferred it served in an environmentally friendly vessel.
The other chicken dish featured a couple of sliced thighs encased in golden-brown KFC-ish batter that rained its crunchy shards onto a bedding of rice flavored subtly with fresh ginger and chicken broth. Though somewhat greasy, I eagerly polished off the entire plate.
On a more recent visit, I sent back an appetizer of garlic pork riblets that were deep-fried to an impossible, hard texture. When I asked the cashier if they’re normally served this way, he shrugged indifferently, but cordially refunded my purchase.
J&T’s drunken noodles were also disappointing and should be renamed, “peppers and noodles.” In the one time I ordered them here, the chicken became a footnote in the company of countless, undercooked red and green bells. I’d like to think it was made like this in error.
It would take me only a few more visits to try everything on the menu, which by most accounts contains only an abbreviated assortment of the dishes served from Thailand’s market stalls and food carts.
But until I someday embark on a long flight across the Pacific, this hip little joint with its study-hall atmosphere can potentially make do.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.