Granted, the soft-spoken charmer Thinh (pronounced TEN) Mai (MY), a recent Santa Cruz beach import, inherited the name of the green box at the corner of Ashby and Flores near San Pedro Park from the café’s namesake and former owner — longboarder Jason Weaver, who got busted for growing lots ‘o pot last year `“Thank you for not snitching,” August 16-22, 2006`.
Thinh turned a two-room deli known for its Boar’s Head cold cuts into a cheap, honest, Vietnamese noshery for fans of nori wraps (rice, avocado, cucumber, in a seaweed wrap, $3), vermicelli noodles (with the kind of delicate fish sauce I never seem to have at home, under $6), Boba tea (chew the tapioca before swallowing, under $3), and Putumayo World Music (giving cheery audio color to the mint walls and canopy-painted floors).
The kitchen is maintained by Thinh’s mother, his sister Anh, and another ever-present relative, and the food is good — usually a combination of lemongrass and herbs from the patio garden, carrots, cilantro, chilis, lettuce, vermicelli noodles, and some type of meat or faux-meat substitute (so authentically animal that I’ve seen a vegan take a bite of their vegetable stir-fry and protest the fake pork strips).
“The only time I like tofu is here,” says Bettie, a septuagenarian on a leisurely Saturday visit. “I have no indigestion, ever. There’s no grease. The poor people that eat at McDonalds … ”
Indeed, I’ve found no other place in San Antonio serving spring rolls like I like them — fresh lettuce, cilantro, vermicelli noodles, and shrimp, sealed in rice paper and wrapped like a tube — the kind that cool your mouth rather than coat it with grease. (There’s some dispute about whether spring rolls are raw or fried. Get these in the cooler at the side entrance. Dipping sauce included, for $2.99).
The star of the menu is the lemongrass fish — a meaty tilapia platter with rice and salad for under $6. And for a guy whose name means “prosperity” in Vietnamese to charge under $3 for an 8-inch Vietnamese sandwich (french roll, veggies/meat galore) is an act of goodwill. But what’s really notable about Big Kahuna’s is that the restaurateur has tirelessly hosted Moveon.org anti-war events, Inconvenient Truth and similar heal-the-earth screenings, and provides a space for artists to sell (or even trade) their work weekends under the covered pavilion. Thinh has plans for yoga classes, and there’s open-mic poetry Fridays at 8 p.m.
“What he’s doing here is really remarkable,” Bettie says of Big Kahuna’s brand of folk medicine. “It’s not just a restaurant, it’s a community thing.”
Free WiFi. Mondays through Saturdays Vietnamese menu. Sunday brunch (a guest chef makes crepes!) 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
— Keli Dailey