Sure, I love the high life. But I'm kind of a sucker for the hole-in-the-wall, too. In fact, it's really just the middling places--the Golden Corral's of the world--that bug me. It's the Groucho Marx effect.
You know: "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member."
Anyway, in search of good, cheap Thai food and banking on the chance that there'd be something for a vegan there, I ventured recently to Toy's Café on Lemmon, a 20-year-old (who knew?) bona fide hole-in-the-wall squeezed in between a Laundromat and a place that advertises "good Indian food" on one side and a seedy-looking flower shop on the other.
Did I just write seedy flower shop? Geez.
It was 2 p.m.--a short half-hour before Toy's stops serving lunch (and believe me, they WILL NOT let you in at 2:30; we've tried)--and uncrowded, but the hostess greeted me enthusiastically and took some time to chat about the menu. Graciously, she enumerated the ingredients of the brown sauce (lemon juice, sugar, red curry, basil, soy) and the peanut sauce (mostly just peanut butter and coconut milk, from what I understood), and then explained that for $7.95 I could get a lunch special with a meal of my choice (noodles or a stir fry), brown rice, a fried roll and a salad or soup of the day. Today's was coconut (tom-kha), so I chose the salad and asked her which of the vegetable stir fries (there are 12; most of the noodle dishes come with eggs, but you can order them without) was best.
"You like spicy?" she asked. I nodded.
"Oh, Number 5," she said, without hesitation. "You want the Spicy Vegetables."
I agreed to it, and she motioned me to sit at a small wooden bench directly in front of the restaurant's central kitchen, where a very focused cook with a lime-green bandanna tied around her head, Rambo-style, flipped things around on a grill. I watched, fascinated, as my ten minutes of waiting time flew by; before I knew it, the food came out hot and securely wrapped in a plastic bag. This is clearly a place that knows its office lunch crowd.
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To the meal, then, without further ado: The tofu satay was nice, with artistic grill marks and still just soft enough inside, but I found the peanut sauce bland and uninspired. The salad was unremarkable, a small pile of tasteless iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato--which is forgivable, since I don't exactly go to hole-in-the-wall Thai places for the salad--and was dressed in something that tasted suspiciously like the peanut dipping sauce that had come with the satay. What really stood out was the main dish.
The vegetables--an impressive mix including squash, cauliflower, carrots, bok choy, bean sprouts, broccoli, snow peas, bell peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, celery and fresh Thai basil (have I left out anything?)--were spiced just enough to give the dish a kick, and the brown sauce was the ideal balance: savory with just a hint of sweetness.
In summary, Toy's was everything I look for in a Monday lunch: fast, cheap, low-maintenance and decent. It's no York Street, but these days it's cooler to be a recessionista than a conspicuous consumer.
4422 Lemmon Ave., #B