I spoke of my envy of current collegiate food options when I wrote a few months ago about the Secret Cookie Service. Apparently, there's more to envy with J&T Thai Street Food (5259 Linda Vista Road) right outside the University of San Diego campus. My friend Erin tipped me to its existence after a discussion about her husband's trip to Singapore. Hainanese chicken and rice is a common dish in Singaporean hawker stalls, and Erin mentioned trying a version at J&T. I know I covered Thai cuisine in my last column, but this dish merits a revisit.
Decent Hainanese chicken and rice in San Diego? For the 14 years I've lived here, my own fix came from home, where my mother sets the bar for the dish. Hainanese chicken and rice has made its way through Southeast Asia, with versions common in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. The Thai version is called khao man gai; look for "steamed chicken rice" under the "Homestyle" section of the J&T menu.
The dish is all about subtleties. In a nutshell, a whole chicken is poached, and the poaching liquid is used to cook the rice. However, the best renditions will have notes of pandan, ginger and garlic in the rice, along with rich flavor from chicken fat in the broth. The chicken will be perfectly tender and served with the skin on. The worst versions will have bland and greasy rice and dry chicken.
It's rare to find a restaurant version that does both the rice and the chicken right, but J&T does it pretty well. The rice could use a little more oomph, but it's not greasy, and the chicken is perfect. It comes with a soy-ginger-garlic dipping sauce that's heavy on the soy, but mix in chili paste to cut the soy flavor.
The rest of the menu consists of curries, noodles, fried rice and appetizers. The pad Thai at J&T is especially good. It was all crisp tofu (meat and seafood are available), toothsome noodles and a slightly tart flavor from tamarind and fish sauce. For those who can't handle heat, specify that you want your dishes mild; I didn't, and all of mine arrived pleasantly spicy.
Noodle-soup lovers will enjoy the chicken-noodle soup, which is simple but served with a layer of fiery chili powder. Go for the noodles or the noodle soups, but avoid the tom kha, which was a bland bowl of hot coconut milk. The simple menu rounds out with appetizers like a serviceable chicken satay and delicious fried tofu (ask for it spicy). Entrées are priced around $7, and the eatery is casual and modern. An application for a liquor license was displayed, but Ballast Point's Home Brew Mart (5401 Linda Vista Road) is very close for a good beer pairing.
I'd love it if J&T added more to its menu. Pad Thai and satay are street food, but it'd be great to see dishes that aren't so readily available here. The chicken and rice is a good start, though, and that's where you should start at J&T.