I’m not too sure about this Bob guy, but I’m really quite smitten with his namesake restaurant, Bob Likes Thai Food.
What’s not to like about quality pad Thai made with freshly squeezed tamarind water or succulent pork sausages stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, rice and minced long green beans?
This isn’t typical Thai takeaway, mind you. At least not for the most part. Sure, there is cashew chicken on the menu and other safe standbys, if you must. Me? I’m gobsmacked by the daily special menu because it’s so rare to find this type of regional cuisine – Isan-style from the northeastern provinces – outside of Thailand or Los Angeles (the so-called 76th Thai province).
“Wow, that’s adventurous,” says the server, when I attempt to order all four daily specials. Adventurous, perhaps, but not the wisest way to eat. Three of the four specials are cold salads, she kindly explains, steering us to a more balanced meal.
She recommends the above-mentioned pork sausage ($8.50), an unbelievably tender, cleanly fragrant, skinny single link, which isn’t always available – so be sure to order it if you see it. The stuffing inside the casing is finely puréed to the consistency of a milky torchon, yet loosely packed so the flavours have room to mingle. It’s served with moist matchsticks of fresh ginger (skin on), grape tomatoes, cabbage and serrated cucumber on the side.
Also from the daily menu, we order laab moo ($10), a very typical Isan-style meat salad made with minced pork and roasted rice. The first bite tastes of sour fish sauce. The second bite hits you with herbaceous wallops of mint and kaffir leaf lime. But by the third bite, an unfamiliar flavour full of soft nuttiness sneaks up behind the palate and rounds out the whole dish into an addictive plate of lusciousness.
Bai yanang, I later discover, is the green herb that makes this incredible salad so delicious. And if the crunchy rice hadn’t bothered my sensitive upper molar in need of a root canal, I could easily have devoured three servings.
If you’re one of those people who believe that the best Chinese restaurants are the ones filled with Chinese customers, you’ll appreciate that Bob Likes Thai Food attracts a large Thai clientele – along with Indian and Malaysian families, Main Street hipsters, Chinese food bloggers and Vietnamese wedding planners. And that’s just the crowd I observed (and eavesdropped upon) over two nights.
The restaurant is not fancy by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a strange little sink in the middle of the dining room, the kind you’d find in a kindergarten classroom. To get to the bathroom, you have to detour through the kitchen. And the lights are blaringly bright.
But the tables are (rhetorically) set with tea candles in gilt glasses. It’s child friendly, with Dr. Seuss books in the take-out sitting area and crayons behind the cashier counter. The debit/credit card machine should be up and running by next week. (For now, it’s cash only.) Reggae hums in the background. There are whimsical wood-plank drawings of Bob’s fork and spoon on opposite walls. And the owners, who are in the process of getting a liquor licence, are unbelievably friendly.
“It beats a desk job,” says Tai Keattivanichvily, a computer animator who works in the film and television industry, and has kept “moonlighting” for the Cartoon Network since opening the restaurant four months ago. He’s a lovely man who puffs with pride when you ask why his pad Thai tastes so good and perfectly balanced (no ketchup) and tell him that his taro root custard ($2.50) with crisply fried shallots is one of the most wonderfully savoury desserts you’ve ever tried in your life.
Born in Phetchanbun province and raised in Bangkok, Mr. Keattivanichvily credits his mother for teaching him everything he knows about cooking. As the youngest in a large family, he spent his childhood at his mother’s side as she shopped at the market every day and cooked for all 40-odd workers in her husband’s electrical contracting company.
After living in Vancouver for 14 years, he says he couldn’t find any Thai restaurants that served the type of homestyle meals he craved. So he opened his own shop, and hired Thai cooks from other restaurants around town to replicate his favourite dishes. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The cooks, set in their Westernized ways, told him he was crazy for spending three days soaking tamarind pulp for his pad Thai.
The roasted duck red curry ($13.50), an Isan specialty that has migrated to the regular menu thanks to popular demand, is not a dish that cuts corners. The fatty meat, marinated in Chinese spices, is almost surgically penetrated with sweet pineapple and lychee to balance the richness.
Tom yum koong ($5 for a small bowl, $9 for large) is a beautiful prawn and mushroom soup that strikes a holistic balance of spicy, salty, sour and sweet flavours, none of which dominate or stand out awkwardly. Papaya salad is uncompromisingly astringent with just the right amount of chili heat.
Not everything is great. Panang beef ($10.50) turns out to be soupy coconut curry, though it should be dry and thick. I can barely taste the peanuts. The red-curry base tastes awfully similar to the choo chi pla ($12), another not-so-dry curry with fried fish.
Mr. Keattivanichvily, talking later by phone, admits (not happily) that he’s had to pander to the Westernized expectations of customers who don’t understand why his pad Thai isn’t ketchupy red, or don’t understand that a papaya salad needs to be spicy to counteract the sour elements properly.
Too bad. I wish Bob would tell him to stick to his guns.