Why do I like Asian food so much? The roots of my obsession lie in early childhood. I grew up in Burnaby in the '60s, when it was still almost as wild as Bowen Island. Back then, the occasional deer could be spotted on our street, as well as the odd pheasant and grouse. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
My mother was never a fabulous cook. Her favourite thing to make for dinner was reservations. A monthly ritual evolved, whereby my mother would put the back of her hand to her forehead, and with her best Scarlett O'Hara sigh, pronounce, "I'm far too tired to cook". We kids soon learned that this was our cue that we would be getting "Chinese" food delivered to our door that night. Yay!
Dad would pick up the phone, and order up chicken chop suey, sweet and sour pork, shrimp egg foo yung, and fried rice in his thick Yorkshire accent that no doubt confused the heck out of the poor fellow on the other end of the line. After an hour or so of excruciating anticipation, the doorbell would ring and damned if there wasn't an actual Chinese person at the door! In the white suburban wilds of Burnaby, it was as exotic as if a herd of elephants had just charged down Halifax Street.
Looking back now, the food was, shall we say, less than optimum. It was neither authentic, nor particularly good. Nevertheless, a lifelong fascination with all things edible and Asian was born. I took my first trip to Asia soon after meeting my wife, Laurel. Together, we explored new culinary horizons that a 10 year old Burnaby boy could not have dreamed of. Dusty, noisy markets redolent of unknown tropical fruit, diesel fumes, and dried seafood that I could not recognize. Chili, garlic, shallot, dried shrimp, all mixed with spice combinations we had never experienced. In Singapore, we wandered into a food court for the first time, unsure as to the wisdom of eating in such a "questionable environment". After my first taste of a clam Laksa, I was instantly hooked, like one of those poor unfortunate teens in that Reefer Madness movie. Instead of one puff, it was one taste. I've been a slave to Malaysian food ever since. Tell your children!
This week I want to share an amazing gem of a place that we found in East Vancouver. It's a nondescript little restaurant on a Hastings Street business/residential block called Bo Laksa King Bubbles and Bits. Don't let the cheesy sign, thrift store furniture, or cash-only policy throw you. This place is the real deal. They make what are in my opinion the finest roti canai in the city. Amazingly fine layers of pastry come steaming to your table with a truly excellent spicy curry chicken gravy for dipping. This is a "must-have" appetizer, and when we make our regular visits, it's always the first thing we order. I've eaten this dish all over, and Bo's roti are better than the ones we have eaten in Malaysia. They are simply the best!
In my last column I mentioned that a laksa is interpreted differently by every cook who makes it. At Bo Laksa King, their version has chunks of chicken done in an interesting marinade, big juicy shrimp, slices of hard boiled egg, tofu puffs, bean sprouts and noodles in a really great coconut chicken broth that has traces of peanut and dried shrimp in it. It's a wonderful thing, and can be ordered in a variety of shades of hot.
Bo Laksa King does an amazing job of the "yams", or salads, that are such a part of the Thai, Malaysian, and Burmese cuisines. As Bo, the owner and chef, is Burmese, there are some interesting things that have crept onto the menu. One of these is a fermented tea leaf salad, which we find to be delicious, but may be for the more adventurous. Our favorites are the green papaya salad and the green mango salad. Lime juice, dried shrimp, chili, onion, peanuts, fish sauce, sugar, and cilantro are mashed into shreds of the unripe fruit with a mortar and pestle to create a brilliantly balanced and nuanced salad that is at once cool and refreshing and spicy hot. It's like vegetable crack, and it's very difficult to stop eating once you start. If you've had something like this at the Banana Leaf, trust me: it doesn't come close to Bo's version. Best in town, hands down.
Other things are on the menu as well, such as the usual beef rendang curry and rice, noodle dishes, and those odd red bean canned drinks that I've never really developed a taste for. To be honest, we never seem to get past our favourites in order to explore other parts of the menu. The roti, laksa, and salads are just so darned good that driving off into the wilderness seems completely unnecessary.
On top of all this yumminess, it must be said that the people who run this place are incredibly nice, and they are glad to help you with menu items you might find unfamiliar. They don't take credit cards, but they do take reservations, which would have pleased my mother greatly. Bo Laksa King is at 2546 East Hastings Street, and it's closed on Mondays. NOTE: The author is not responsible for any addictions that may result from reading this column. And please, don't tell anybody else about it after you visit. I still want to be able to get a table next time I go.