June 19, 2002


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cheap eats
by dan leone

Déjà vu all over again

SPEAKING OF THAI food, me and Crawdad were driving around looking for Costco one day because we wanted to eat at their cafeteria. I don't remember why, but it doesn't matter because we never found it, and I don't know if they'd let us eat there anyway. We're not members. Do you need to be a member to eat at the Costco cafeteria? Other questions include: Does Costco have a cafeteria? And where is it, anyway? South of Market, right? Harrison, Bryant, 9th, 10th? I've seen it a million times, but, like Chapstick, where is it when you need it? Huh?

Lucky for all of us, this is San Francisco, where you can't drive around looking for Costco cafeterias for very long without seeing about 900,999 safer bets for dinner. Just Thai, to name just one. Howard, between 11th and 12th.

What attracted me to this place over the other 900,998 was a framed review in the window. Even from the street you could see the headline: "Cheap Eats." You could see that it was a Bay Guardian review. Funny thing was I didn't remember ever eating at Just Thai. Not that I'm Memoryman. Nor that I'm necessarily above reviewing a place I never ate at ... In any case, I pulled over and made Crawdad go see who'd written the damn thing.

She got back in the car and said, "Janet Hazen. 1990."

"Let's eat here," I said.

She got back out of the car.

Janet Hazen reviewed restaurants for this rag before me or Paul came along. She was one of those restaurant reviewers that knew what to say about food and what was in what she was eating and how to cook it and everything. Even wrote cookbooks, some of which we have. (But that's not saying much, because me and Crawdad have, between us, almost every cookbook that was ever written. Which is why we eat out so much.)

It doesn't happen as often as I'd like, on account of her tendency to spend as much on one meal as I budget for a month of meals, but I love reviewing places Janet Hazen already reviewed. Not because we have similar tastes, but because I can just say whatever she said and not have to worry about being wrong, for a change.

Unfortunately, I didn't even read her Just Thai review, let alone take notes. I spaced it. Guess I was too hungry going in and too full coming out. So no paraphrases, no direct quotes, no out-and-out steals. This time it's going to have to be all me.

Um ...

Just Thai, 12 years later: ...

Well (20 minutes later), I liked it. It was good. Nice and wooden inside, with bench seats at the window tables and one of those indoor porches, complete with porch lights. Gotta like that.

You don't have to like the bad cheeseball music (KOIT). But that ambientic boo-boo was offset by some of the best-smelling smells I've ever smelled coming from a kitchen.

Some of which must have added up to our meal. There weren't a lot of people there; in fact, nobody but us, at first. Six o'clock on a Saturday. But even at seven, when we left, there were just a couple of tables taken. Where was everyone? Costco?

Our dinner started with some spicy chicken wings ($5.95) – angel wings, they call them. Chickens are angels. It's true. On the other hand, fried wings in a sticky sauce made of hot peppers and ground garlic ... delicious, but devilishly so, might be more like it. (How do they crisp those basil leaves like that, Janet? Do they toast them? Fry them? Fly them up too close to the sun?)

Now, you want to talk heavenliness, let's talk tom kha gai ($5.95). That's what angels eat. You take a soup where roughly half of the ingredients can't even be chewed or swallowed and then consider that it's one of my two or three favorite soups in the whole wide world – and I'm a firm believer in substance and nourishment. Yet at the end of the bowl you've got lemongrass, galanga root, and in this case a kaffir lime leaf lazying about the rim of your saucer. If it's my saucer, they'll be all gnawed on and chewed up like dog toys, because every time I eat tom ka gai I think, This time I'm eating all that stuff, I don't care.

But all that stuff's already done its job. That's why the few parts of the soup you can actually swallow (and I don't eat mushrooms, so that leaves just chicken, coconut milk, and lime juice) taste so good you almost pass out.

One more thing: grapraw ped ($6.95). Roast duck, tomatoes, basil, in a spicy garlic sauce. In a word, googy.

Just Thai.
1532 Howard (at 12th St.), S.F. (415) 431-3113. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sat., 5-9:30 p.m. Takeout available. Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Beer and wine. Wheelchair accessible.
Dan Leone is the author of Eat This, San Francisco (Sasquatch Books), a collection of Cheap Eats restaurant reviews, and The Meaning of Lunch (Mammoth Books).