Roti relief of biblical portions
An unassuming family restaurant in the North Shore Mountains hits all the right hot-weather sweet spots
The four horsemen cometh. Or so it appears in these days of rampant wildfire, as a smoky haze descends over Vancouver, casting the city in an eerie orange glow.
I won't take the biblical analogies too far because I am definitely a chief among sinners and would no doubt screw them up in ignorance. But even a restaurant critic needs salvation from this heat wave.
Heavy pasta, hulking pork shanks, creamy veal geschnetzeltes – the rich foods I've been eating lately are testing even my typically high tolerance for gluttony. So when I heard about a humble Malaysian hole-in-the-wall that offers heavenly roti canai, I ran for the hills, or in this case, the North Shore Mountains.
The roti canai at John 3:16 Malaysian Delights, opened last year in North Vancouver's Upper Lonsdale, is indeed divine. The tissue-thin flour pancakes are served hot off the griddle, puffed up as flaky and crispy as a croissant. When you rip them apart, a billow of steam escapes, revealing a soft, stretchy-chewy interior. The taste is yeasty, slightly sweet and buttery, yet not greasy. It comes with a small bowl of curry sauce for dipping that is downright ambrosial – succulently plumped with coconut cream, slicked with raindrops of rust-coloured chili oil and headily fragrant with fresh lemongrass and curry leaves.
This roti is fit for gods and I would return for it alone. But it is even better enjoyed on a sweltering summer day, when this unassuming family run restaurant offers a tropical respite, hitting all the right hot-weather sweet spots: thatched palm (over the modestly stocked bar) and spicy curries; beachside sunsets (on the seventies-style wallpaper mural) and shaved ice; bible thumping and fried chicken.
Bible thumping and fried chicken? Sure, that sounds more like the Deep South than Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country. But Malaysia is a country at a crossroads of culture in Southeast Asia. Its cooking, and history, is a boisterous blend of Indonesian, Indian-Muslim and Chinese influences.
As a Chinese Christian, Daniel Chew was definitely a minority in that mix. And in an Islamic country where the rise of racism and religious intolerance has been well documented, he didn't feel "secure" about the future, especially that of his four children and their chances of getting into university.
So in 2009, he closed, sold and gave away his eight restaurants in Penang and moved his family to Vancouver.
It's been a bumpy ride. The family first opened a stall in the Richmond Public Market, then moved to Kamloops and opened two small restaurants there. The town was too small for his kids, so they moved back to Richmond to open the original John 3:16. That restaurant closed last year, after the building was sold to a condominium developer.
So then they moved the restaurant to the North Shore, where the new dining room was inscribed with the restaurant's namesake verse in large lettering on the main wall: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
As Mr. Chew explains, "We were so busy opening restaurants, we had no time for the Lord so we put His name here and thought maybe it would help us share the gospel with our customers."
Don't let the scripture scare you away. That's as far as the preaching goes. And for non-Muslim customers, the restaurant's Christian leanings offer the side benefits of alcohol (a limited selection of beer and wine) and pork.
Glorious "special" pork ribs that are slowly simmered in ginger and star anise, then wok-fried in a thick, densely seasoned soy, sugar and Chinese rice-wine sauce. They arrive at the table glistening with sauce and crisply charred around the edges, ready to slip off the bone and be devoured in a sticky-fingered mess.
I also recommend the pulut panggang, glutinous rice rolls with a centre of dried shrimp sweetened with coconut. They're wrapped in banana leaves that are charred on the grill, imbuing the green bundles with fragrant grassiness and smoke, while softening the rice so it almost melts in the mouth.
And do definitely try the tender kari chicken, a concentrated version of the roti canai coconut curry with more intense notes of chili, lemongrass and ginger. For dessert, the cendol shaved ice, piled high with red beans, creamed corn and radioactive-green grass jelly, makes for a soothing, savoury balm against summertime's usual blitz of iced sugar bombs.
Unfortunately, sweetness does creep up in other dishes, upsetting the desired balance of spice and sour. Beef rendang, although heady with bright kaffir lime leaf, pulls its tamarind punch. Ayam Goreng, flash-fried chicken, is oddly sugary. Cold Hainanese chicken, steamed to a moist, slippery texture, is caked in a gluey soy sauce that lacks sharpness.
Exhaling a deep sigh when we later talk by phone, Mr. Chew agrees that some of his dishes are different than he made them in Malaysia or even Richmond. "They're not authentic," he says, explaining that his new customers in the North Shore complained when he cooked with too much spicy heat or sour tang.
He regrets that he can no longer serve dark chicken on the bone – his customers only want breast meat. Or that he couldn't win any converts to the funky flavours of rojak (a funky fruit salad tossed with a spicy pounded shrimp paste).
Forget the Gospel of John. Mr. Chew's mission in North Vancouver was to broaden local palates and that seems to be a lost cause. So now he's opening a second location in Richmond, where he says the diners are more adventurous and he'll be closer to God, or at least his church, the Richmond Christian Church. The new restaurant opens next month, on No. 3 Road, across from City Hall. Amen.