On a recent trip to Vancouver in January, I sought to get together with a long-time friend. I have known this man for close to 40 years and think of him as a brother. We have experienced many adventures together, as we both enjoy cycling, running, and quaffing a few brews after a hard day on the road. My friend is married to a wonderful Thai woman, whom I have met many times. Unfortunately, she seldom ventures as far north as Canada because her mother’s medical condition seems to dramatically decline when a trip is being planned, even when they make secret arrangements. As the day approaches, my friend’s mother suddenly becomes stricken with some mortal disease. For this trip she was hospitalized only days before their planned departure, causing my friend to leave his bride, once again, standing at the airport. With his exodus, a recovery was imminent and swift. It seems his departure from Thailand is better than holy water.
Arriving in Vancouver only a few days after us, I contacted my friend and we decided to meet somewhere for a nice dinner and reminisce about our former glory days. He lives in North Vancouver when visiting the West Coast, while we had rented a home in Point Grey, near Kitsilano Beach. However, during the previous several weeks Vancouver had experienced a very unseasonal (for Vancouver) deep-freeze and several snow-falls. Vancouver, being on the west coast of Canada and subject to warm ocean currents from Hawaii, generally hovers around freezing or above during cold spells. It seldom snows but, when it does, the snow is soon rained upon and usually melts away. On this occasion, however, after the snowfall it rained but the nighttime temperatures cooled to the extent that everything froze. Vancouver became one large skating rink. Snow and city-wide skating rinks are very rare in Vancouver and thus the City has only limited resources to facilitate the cleaning of their street. To further complicate matters, few drivers have winter tires, and none of them know how to drive on ice and snow. Vancouver becomes one huge demolition derby. The City usually manages to clean the main thoroughfares within a few days but doesn’t venture anywhere near the side roads. My street, alone, was so covered by ice that there was no visible cement showing on the roads or sidewalks. It was actually safer to drive as there are four skis touching the earth compared to only two when walking.
This is the scenario that my friend and I had encountered as we arrived in Vancouver and foolishly planned to assemble for a meal. I, of course, wanted him to venture from North Vancouver, across the Lions Gate Bridge, through the West End, over the Granville or Burrard Bridge, and meet me in one of the quaint little bistros along 4th Avenue….only walking, or very slow driving, distance from my domicile. This was all to be completed in an antique Honda Accord that my friend proudly informs he purchased new some 25 years ago and which sports tires of a similar vintage. I intended to brave the conditions by walking. He, obviously not thinking of my well-being, suggested a similar strategy for my journey to North Vancouver. We compromised and agreed to meet somewhere in the West End, approximately half way from our respective homes.
This man seldom ventures from North Vancouver when he is in the city and I have not resided in Vancouver for many years, since attending university in the 70s, or a few times while in training with employers over the years. Our experience, however, mattered little as the nature of restaurants and cities in general sees businesses come and go with economic or public variations. We didn’t know where to meet.
With the wonders of the Internet, however, one can search a particular area of a city anywhere in the world, find numerous restaurants in any area, determine what kind of food you may prefer, the prices, a menu, read reviews by previous patrons, and even view a few pictures. I quickly fired up my laptop and Googled Vancouver’s West End. Of course there are numerous eating spots in this region of Vancouver that was once the most densely populated expanse of urbanism in North America. My eye was quickly drawn to a nice sounding Thai restaurant called the Thai Basil. I liked basil, my friend is from Thailand, so he must like Thai food, the price was right, and several reviews claimed the food was excellent. All the boxes were checked. Although never having heard of the place, my friend proclaimed it an “excellent choice” and we would meet later that day. I was pretty pleased with myself.
As the day wore on I realized that the appointed time of our meeting would be exactly in the middle of the World Junior Hockey semi-final meeting between Canada and Sweden. What had I done? A Thai restaurant would certainly not display a Canadian hockey game. Recalling many of our adventures together, I acquiesced and committed myself to this meeting.
At about 6:00 PM, donning my hardiest outerwear which was less than essential for a frigid night, and my best pair of earth gripping shoes, I precariously set out in my vehicle to locate the Thai Basil. I learned later that my friend had departed his home an hour early in anticipation of frozen streets and traffic chaos. He, subsequently, arrived at a tiny restaurant on a dimly lit back street of the West End, a half hour early as there was so little traffic. He had glided through intersections unmolested and slipped into a nice parking spot directly in front of the Thai Basil. I similarly ventured from trendy Kitsilano and found no traffic in my path. It appears most other Vancouverites were too afraid to leave their homes.
Parking, I could see a nice green florescent sign depicting a basil leaf and visibly displaying the words Thai Basil. I had arrived. I acquired a parking spot directly outside the Thai Basil, right behind an ancient Honda Accord. We were the only cars on the street. As I approached the luminous windows of this tiny restaurant, I could discern a fuzzy gray mop of hair situated between several restaurant patrons in a very short line of tables along one wall. The place was full but my friend had arrived so early that he was able to secure one of the four tables appointed to the entire restaurant. Being a very affable sort, he had made friends with the entirety of the restaurant clientele, and was relaying the gifted life he enjoys as a Thailand resident who golfs five days per week, lives in a veritable paradise, and runs a high tech firm in Vancouver from wherever in the world he so chooses. Where did I go wrong?
As I entered, all eyes descended upon me as it seems he had apparently discussed the person he had waited so long to meet. I hope they weren’t disappointed. I didn’t see fear in their eyes so his summary couldn’t have been too bad. He beckoned towards the only empty chair along one wall. This was a very small restaurant with only four tables and the table by the door was empty because it was directly in the path of a frigid wind, with people constantly coming and going through said door. It appears the Thai Basil was mostly designed for take-out food. To make matters almost unbearable, it was an unlicensed restaurant. There would be no Singha quaffing this night….but we remained, determined to make the best of it.
I was handed a menu, that appeared like a very soiled piece of paper, and informed that there was no waitress and we would be ordering our food at the counter. Quickly scanning the offerings, I identified many dishes that were familiar and we decided upon a course of action. We lined up to put forth our orders while our new friends held our table as seats were visibly very highly prized. There were several people milling around, discernibly eying our table that was directly in the centre of the 12 square feet of floor space. I noted that it was as if we had entered a portal to Thailand. Most of the patrons appeared of Asian descent, and the woman who took my order seemed to know little more English than ‘satay chicken’ and ‘massaman curry’….and I wasn’t even sure what massaman meant. I managed to get my instructions across through numbers and pointing.
Having ordered, we settled in and soon learned that the Thai Basil was not a restaurant where secrets are concealed easily. The tables were so closely aligned that one could not slip between them without asking someone to move. It became apparent why the affable one had so quickly come to know everyone in the restaurant. I soon learned that, to the left was a mother and father of middle age sitting with, possibly, their daughter, likely in her mid-20s. We soon learned that the parents had travelled to Thailand and Cambodia several times although the last time being in 1976. In fact, that is where they met. The daughter, however, had visited Vietnam only two years ago. To our right was a, similarly, middle-aged couple who were visiting Vancouver from the Gulf Islands that was their home. They had recently purchased a little hovel in the West End where they could stay while visiting their children. It seems, however, that the heat didn’t work in their new place and they were warming up on curry and whatever heat they could find in the Thai Basil. The man had also visited Thailand but the last time was 1969. I think things have changed in Thailand since then.
We were one big happy family by the time the food arrived. All of our new friends raved about Thai Basil’s culinary gifts where they had, apparently, dined many times previously. We both ordered Massaman Curry, as we know that to be a safe dish. I ordered mine with brown rice which I inquire about in every Thai restaurant, but seldom receive. Our friends seemed quite impressed, as they had never tried the Massaman and didn’t know one could order brown rice. I was again pleased with myself.
As we were eating, our friends on both sides left, and new ones arrived. These were younger and less friendly but we still blathered on about our worldliness, completely at home in the confines of this mini-Thailand. The food turned out to be as described, very Thai-Canadian and quite delicious. My one complaint would be the lack of availability to Singha beer, but no place is perfect. With bellies full and the streets too cold and treacherous to venture further, we departed to our respective homes, with a promise to meet a few days hence. Another adventure completed.