A few friends and I needed a place to grab a bite before a Rod Stewart concert (don't judge, please-the tickets were free) at Cox Arena, so we met up at Sala Thai on El Cajon Boulevard, one of the few spots to get a good meal near the college.
I'm forever indebted to my friend Jen for introducing me to Sala Thai because-I have to admit it-Thai food is probably the least represented Asian cuisine in my gastronomic repertoire. I eat Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese food at least once a week, but a Thai meal is only occasionally thrown into the mix. I'm not sure why that is, because the harmony of flavors in Thai cuisine is amazing, with ingredients like spicy chilies and salty fish sauce tempered with sweet coconut milk and brightened by pucker-inducing lime juice. I think I might overlook the genre mostly because I haven't had great luck with Thai places in this city, at least at spots I can afford on a regular basis, so I've chosen to go without rather than be disappointed. But after just a couple of meals at Sala Thai, I'm ready to add it to my regular schedule.
Tucked into the back corner of a plain-looking strip mall-where a lot of delicious food seems to live-Sala Thai is a small family-owned-and-operated restaurant. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the space inside is soothing and pretty. It's nice enough for a date or dinner with the folks.
For our pre-concert dinner, we ordered a whole heap of dishes. The menu features an exhaustive list of curries, noodles and rice, wok-fried dishes and more. I don't know if we were being greedy or the table was just too small, but there were plates stacked on top of plates once all the food arrived. Some of us were trying to get over colds, so we thought eating spicy dishes might help. But, really, we all just love sinus-clearing foods, so we chose menu items with two to three little chili-pepper icons next to them. Two peppers is medium spicy, and three peppers equals a pleasurable tongue-numbing just this side of pain. I'd try a dish with a four- or five-chili rating, but I'd be afraid of deadening my taste buds.
The hit of the night was a dish our server recommended, a meaty catfish filet fried to crunchy perfection, topped with a light but flavor-packed hot, sweet and tangy green chili sauce and showered with crispy fried basil leaves that shattered in the mouth like delicate herb chips. I'm also a new devotee of kra prow, a fiery dish of ground meat. We selected chicken for the meat portion, which came stir-fried with onions, basil and chilies. I managed to polish off a bowl and a half of white rice with this dish alone. Also tasty were wide, flat rice noodles tossed with spicy chili sauce, squid, whole shrimp and chicken and the eggplant delight, a host of sautéed veggies in a hot bean sauce. Sala Thai also offers tofu as a protein substitute for most dishes or wheat-gluten innovations such as mock duck or chicken.
All the spicy food had us sniffling and sweating, so we ordered plenty of Thai Singha beer to mellow the heat. Our dessert helped cool things down, too, and we were all crossing spoons to get at luscious bites of the sweet banana spring rolls and sublime coconut ice cream. We would have lingered longer over dinner, but we had that concert to get to. I'm not a huge Rod Stewart fan, but I felt a bit like a kid on my way to see the circus. Thankfully, the memory of those Thai spices and tastes at Sala will linger long after I'm able to get the disco-synth sounds of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" out of my head.
Sala Thai is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and for dinner from 3 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
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