My partner-of-the-palette, Miriam, and I generally do takeout once a week, and the discovery of a string of Asian joints along and around Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa was a godsend. We've been picking our way down the road, turning into whatever restaurant strikes our fancy.
A couple of weeks ago, we stumbled into Balsaa (4646 Convoy St.), a Vietnamese joint. The restaurant's décor is non-descript-metal-rimmed chairs, wobbly tables, standard Asian art on the walls. But it passed the white-folks test: If you're the only white folks in the restaurant, it's probably pretty good.
At Balsaa, Miriam introduced me to pho, the hearty Vietnamese noodle soup. I asked my server for a suggestion, and she proposed the chicken and shrimp. Miriam went with fish and tomato. Service was efficient and our food was ready to go in less than 10 minutes. Once home, I learned that the pho had been refracted into its components: solids, broth and garnish. We busted out the soup bowls and went to work: In went the fresh chunks of chicken, shrimp and rice noodles. From the garnish bag I selected alfalfa sprouts and basil leaves, leaving the jalapeño peppers and sauce. I poured the broth over the mixture, and-voila!-soup. And pretty damn good soup. The vegetables at Balsaa are fresh and flavorful, and the rice noodles soaked up the well-seasoned chicken broth. Two thumbs up for Balsaa.
A week later, we hit up Balsaa's strip-mall neighbor, Tofu House. Miriam's colleagues recommended the place, and I'm always in for Korean barbecue. The ambience was slightly hipper than Balsaa. Unlike some Korean barbecues, Tofu House doesn't have a grill at each table on which to cook your food. Instead, dishes are served in small stone pots with ingredients layered in. On each table are oblong baskets filled with eight raw eggs. According to our helpful server, you're supposed to break an egg into the soup; the hot soup cooks the egg. We discovered the egg makes the broth richer and more complex. I had the Meat Party, with barbecued pork, beef and chicken, while Miriam had the Tasty Boiled Tofu. The meat was indeed a party-the pork had a tangy barbecue sauce, and the chicken must have been rubbed with something spicy. The layer of sprouts and carrots left something to be desired, but the brown rice at the bottom had absorbed all the flavors dripping down. Miriam enjoyed the fish portion of her boiled tofu, and the whole shrimp didn't put her off at all, not even the tiny antennae sticking up from the broth.
“I enjoy ripping the legs off the tiny shrimps and the crunch of the suckers on the tiny octopodes” she said. Let the reader be informed that she is a marine biologist and perhaps less easily squicked by such completeness in her fish. That said, the tofu itself was squishy and soft and bland. Despite that, we'll be back to try the rest of the menu.
During the recent rain, the craving for pho returned, so we took up Chowhound.com's suggestion of Pho T Cali (7351 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.). Bland interior design and worst of all, it failed the white-folks test-many, many white folks in the place. Still, it was recommended, so we went boldly forward.
The pho came with only beef-rare steak, well-done steak, well-done brisket, tendon and tripe. The char-grilled pork-roll appetizer did well only when dipped in the sweet, tangy sauce that came with it. Otherwise, the pork was chewy, the sprouts filler and the whole thing dry. But it was for the pho that we traveled.
On the broth, A-plus. “Cinamonny goodness,” as Miriam put it, and I concur: A rich brown beef stock suffused with cinnamon and hint of spicy pepper, and the rice noodles absorbed it readily. Unfortunately, though, the hot broth quickly cooked my rare steak, and it turned Miriam's well-done brisket into shoe leather. There were not enough vegetables the to-go bag, either. We might return, just for the tasty broth, but given the choice, Balsaa wins.
As for prices and portions, these Convoy Street places can't be beat. Pho runs about $5, and each order is enough for two meals. The dishes at Tofu House are a bit pricier but still less than $10 each, and we had enough to take home. Service was always friendly and efficient. For Asian-food-aholics and anyone looking for a change of pace, Convoy Street is the place.