By Frank Sabatini Jr.
You’ll be hard-pressed finding massaman curry any tastier and more complex than what’s served at 55 Thai Kitchen.
The highly affordable eatery, founded by a practiced chef from Thailand, has gradually expanded to four San Diego locations, including one that sits a stone’s throw from San Diego State University.
Vijit Pipatkhajonchai began cooking as a young teenager at his family’s restaurant in Bangkok. He would later run several kitchens, emigrate to the U.S., and become co-owner of J&T Thai Street Food in Linda Vista.
But it wasn’t until he launched the original location of 55 Thai Kitchen in the back of a modest grocer in Golden Hill more than two years ago that he began unleashing flavors and recipes inherent to his homeland. Consumers and food critics suddenly began applauding his concise menu while bestowing rousing encores to the chicken massaman curry in particular.
When I spoke to Pipatkhajonchai shortly after he first opened, he emphasized the dark-brown curry is made exactly like it’s done in his native Bangkok, meaning it’s rich in meat stock, brown sugar, cloves, cumin, tamarind, chili paste and a host of other ingredients.
Massaman is paired often to beef or lamb in Thailand, although here it permeates chunks of tender chicken thigh meat, which appear more like pot roast than poultry because of the curry’s deep color. There’s also tenderly cooked potatoes and bell peppers in the mix. And the end result is sensational.
As with most of the curries, stir fries, and rice and noodle dishes served at 55 Thai Kitchen, you’re given a choice of spice level — not from the usual 10-point heat scale, but rather from an uncomplicated selection of “none, mild, medium or hot.”
I chose “medium” for the massaman. It translated easily to a “4” with its slow, steady burn. But it was nothing that a few swigs of house-made limeade couldn’t quell.
My dining companion opted for “mild” when ordering his yellow curry with chicken. After steering my spoon into the sweetish coconut-spiked liquid, and stealing a piece of scalloped breast meat, I can attest the spice level is safe for the wimpiest of palates.
He requested “mild” as well for a bowl of tom kha soup we shared, and skipped over a choice of protein additions (beef, shrimp, chicken and tofu) in lieu of veggies. Despite falling way below my preferred spice level, the soup struck that classic, spellbinding allure of when coconut milk, lemon grass, galanga, kaffir lime and cilantro unite. Floating within the pearly broth were scallions, cabbage, mushrooms and zucchini.
Our only caveat about the meal was the disjointed sequence in which our food came out. The yellow-curry entree preceded the soup. An order of pleasantly crispy spring rolls materialized several minutes later, only to be trailed climactically by the coveted massaman curry.
The garbled timing is a consequence of fast-casual restaurants that have us placing full meal orders at front counters before seizing a table. I’m afraid the days of receiving soups or salads or appetizers first are fast disappearing.
All menu items are served in sturdy cardboard bowls or boxes. The eating utensils are plastic. Though the quality of the food rises to the level of a nice full-service restaurant. Indeed, the lack of porcelain plates and silverware conserves on overhead, and such savings are passed on to customers. For example, egg rolls are 85 cents apiece, and most entrees are priced below $9 for adequate portions.
Pipatkhajonchai should also be commended for his philanthropy. He donates meals and portions of his profits to local schools, first responders, and military personnel. It’s been one of his goals since starting the business, which also involves helping under-privileged children in Thailand.
And if you’re wondering what the “55” in the name represents, we’re told it’s simply a lucky number for Pipatkhajonchai.
In addition to operating in The College Area and Golden Hill, the restaurant’s other locations are in the East Village and Pacific Beach.
55 Thai Kitchen
5157 College Ave.
Prices: Appetizers, 85 cents to $5;
soups and salads, $3.75 to $9; noodles and rice dishes, $8.50 to $9.50; curries and house specialties, $8.50 to $9.50
— 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 email@example.com.