Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sweet Tooth

Perhaps it is true that no one cares what I had for lunch. But! I care! And I will tell you why.

I like many, many things about our life here in Vancouver better than back in Seattle. You know the drill: health care gay marriage skytrain ethnic neighborhoods spelling colour with a "u" blah de blah de blah. And I think I've even mentioned in braggish passing the wealth of ethnic and just generally wonderful food available just a hop skip and jump down the road here in our un-groovy Nearby Suburban neighborhood: Chinese, Italian, sushi sushi sushi, barbecue Vietnamese, Greek, middle Eastern, even Ethiopian. Yummy. Never more need I bemoan the dearth of cannoli in my life, for I can pick up a box of the stuff any time I like.

BUT. There has been one notable lack here in Vancouver. A flaw, a lacuna, a fly in the rainy ointment.

We have not been able to find any decent, cheap, convenient Thai food.

Now, Thai food in Seattle is like Chinese takeout in New York or sushi in Vancouver: ubiquitous. If there are two restaurants on a Seattle street, chances are that at least one of them is Thai. In our old neighborhood there were, at one point, six--SIX!--Thai restaurants within a five-block radius of our house. The owner of our favorite restaurant knew us and always gave MG special treats when we came in. There were times when we ate Thai food every week, and we always got Tom Kha Gai, the miraculous Thai chicken soup, when we were sick. Even the Mermaid Girl, notorious in our family for her food pickiness and not generally fond of anything without orange cheese or nitrates in it, had two or three Thai dishes that she reliably liked.

Not only that, but at almost every Thai restaurant I ever ate in in Seattle (and I ate in many over the years), the service was quick and unobtrusive, the menu was cheap, and the food was reliably at least decent and often transcendent. Thai food was a staple of my routine. It was hard to imagine life without it.

Then we moved to Vancouver, for a better life. But can a life really be considered better if it doesn't include regular doses of satay and rard nah? We stepped gingerly around that question.

Oh, sure, there were Thai restaurants. In our new neighborhood, even. We tried them. They were...underwhelming. And the service was uneven. And they were expensive. It was hard to get used to Thai meals not being among the cheapest restaurant food going.

So, in the manner of immigrants everywhere, we adapted. We learned to eat the local cuisine (which, luckily for us, encompassed a dozen or more other local cuisines.) We tried to forget about Thai food. And, aside from a few wistful sighs over the bathing rama of yesteryear, we almost succeeded.

Then, today, I stopped at the Sweet Tooth Cafe for lunch.

I've passed by the big blue Sweet Tooth awning dozens of times in the past couple of years. It's right on Hastings, a couple blocks East of Commercial, right on my way from Nearby Suburb to almost everything I need to get to in Vancouver proper. I always wondered about it, and thought I should really go in sometime to see what kind of cookies or pastries they had in store. With a name like the Sweet Tooth, that would be what they had, right? Desserts?

But I was always too busy. Until today.

Today I had a half-hour to spare between one errand in Vancouver and another in the Northern suburbs, and the Sweet Tooth was exactly on the way. So I pulled up the van and approached.

I thought they'd serve, maybe, some sandwiches or something to accompany all the sugary things that must surely lurk within. Imagine my shock to see, prominently listed in the window, "Soups, Salads, Desserts, Sandwiches, THAI FOOD."

Inside, it looked like a bare-bones cafe, not a Thai restaurant. No travel posters, no purple wallpaper, no bronze statues. No ambiance whatsoever, in fact. I demanded of the middle-aged woman behind the counter: "Do you really have Thai food?"

"Oh, sure, we have Thai food," she said, bemused. She pointed to the menu on the wall, where four or five Thai dishes were listed along with some soups and sandwiches. "What do you want? Do you want Pad Thai? I make the best Pad Thai in the city."

Pad Thai is the basic, signature Thai dish, the roast chicken or macaroni and cheese of Thai food, but it is easy to mess up. Even in Seattle, there were places that made amazing fancy Thai food but flubbed the Pad Thai. Here in Vancouver, we'd ordered it at every Thai restaurant we tried, and I'd been disappointed every time.

I ordered the Pad Thai. And a lemonade.

The food cost $7.95, which is about what a Seattle Thai joint would charge for Pad Thai.

She brought it over about five minutes later.

It was fucking fantastic. Not too sweet, not vinegary, not gluey or mushy. The noodles were distinct and the vegetables were crisp and there was a liberal dusting of chopped peanuts and it had a hint of that limey, fishy taste that makes it special. And there was plenty of it. If it hadn't been so incredibly good that I couldn't stop eating, there would've been enough to save a nice bit for leftovers.

I took the empty plate back to the counter. "You're right," I said. "That was amazing Pad Thai."

She nodded, pleased but not surprised. "I learned how to make it from my mom's friend. She'd been making Pad Thai for thirty years, and hers was the best in town. She sold it at a stall, in the market, and then she stopped and only cooked at her house, and people followed her there and came to her house for her Pad Thai.

"Even in Thailand, you know, you can't always find Pad Thai. It's street food. You can't get it at a fancy restaurant. And everyone makes it differently. But her Pad Thai was the best, and I learned from her."

I thanked her again, and promised to be back. And I will be.

This isn't normally a food blog, or a review blog. And I don't usually name specific businesses here, at least not with their real names. But I will today: The Sweet Tooth Cafe. 2404 Hastings East, on the corner of Nanaimo. For Pad Thai like they make it in Seattle, and maybe even better.

Oh, and the lemonade was pretty amazing, too.


Blogger liz said...

Now, dammit, I need to get my passport renewed so that I can come visit you and get some pad thai.

6:59 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Oh please do!

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Arwen said...

Oh! I am intrigued. I fell in love with Thai in possibly one of the underwhelming restaurants, but, like Greek, it's for Fancy Occasions due to price.
But I'll go East for pad thai!

11:51 PM  
Blogger Pamelamama said...

Oh, Els! Your voice always brings me a smile! Glad you found your comfort food! xo

amusing word verification: tagumbs

7:49 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

We were astonished by the lack of Thai food, too. I don't think we had ANY in three years in Philly, but our Chicago neighborhood had five Thai restaurants, and we loved it.

I will just say: I have never seen rice noodles as thick and lovely as we had in the pad lad na or pad see-yew in Chicago. Never found them in Asian grocery stores (well, except in Chicago!) or restaurants. We don't even order those dishes anymore, because the noodles aren't OUR noodles. They were a quarter inch thick and two inches wide, at least. I'm beginning to wonder if they weren't a Chicago innovation - deep-dish rice noodles! - and not something you'd even find in Thailand...

6:24 PM  
Anonymous cheesefairy said...

am glad you named names because I can picture that awning and have always wondered about it.

have never had cheap, good Thai. Have had reasonable, what I think is good Thai.

7:34 PM  

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