Jonker Street, the former Malaysian restaurant next to the BC Liquor Store on Pacific Boulevard, always reminded me of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.” Yaletown wasn’t – and isn’t – known for its diverse breadth of dining options, and a small restaurant featuring a traditional Malaysian menu just seemed to be a matter of the wrong place at the wrong time. It didn’t help much that everything seemed slightly off about the place (consistency seemed to be its second biggest foe), but beggars, choosers, etc…it was alright with me.
That restaurant was replaced with Fresh Bowl, a re-conceptualization of the place through the eyes of Moeski Consulting (though original co-owner Tommy Ng still remains). The lights are brighter, the décor sleeker, the food faster: though much of the menu is still offered, this is a leaner, newer machine specializing in takeout for a neighbourhood that often demands little else. For all the clichés that get thrown around about Yaletown, here was the embodiment.
And here I find myself back at the beginning, at former Jonker Street co-owner Charles Thong’s new venture, Mamak Café in Gastown. Thong has taken over the kitchen at Pub 340 on Cambie Street, a restaurant inside a bar, as he doesn’t have the capital to open a new standalone place of his own. It’s an unlikely partnership: there are many other things that come to mind other than Malaysian cuisine when one thinks of Pub 340. While it’s more Cheers (at best) than Trees Lounge (at worst), “dive bar” is still the most appropriate description one can give for the place…albeit one serving up sambal, satay and curries.
The menu has largely remained the same despite being in its third reincarnation. Start with the roti canai ($3.50), which sits within the average of those offered elsewhere, though served with a curry sauce that’s delicious. In fact, double up on that sauce – a rich, layering of spices and flavours that, when Thong is firing on all cylinders, can be quite good – with an order of kari ayam ($8.90), a curry chicken that’s unfortunately served with all white meat, when bone-in dark meat could have been transformative. Thong’s assistant offers a sample of their house-made sambal, used for both a prawn and a chicken dish (both $8.90), which is sweeter than it should be.
|Mamak Cafe's Beef Rendang|
Alternatively, choose the beef rendang ($8.90), a dish that most remember fondly from the Jonker Street days. A dry rendang – often described as being ‘curry like’, as it shares the same complexity but exists entirely in its own sphere – owes much of its raison d’etre to coconut, and at Mamak Café there is coconut in spades, with toasted coconut in addition to, among other things, coconut milk, resulting in a sweet and savory sauce that’s got both depth and soul, which the fork-tender beef is slow cooked in. If you’ve never had a reason to visit Pub 340 before, here’s your first.
|Fresh Bowl's Beef Rendang|
And if you can’t see past whatever trepidation you might have about eating in a dark and dank Gastown bar, let’s go back a step. Click through Fresh Bowl’s website and order the same dish ($11) to contrast. Their sleek version is one-note and flat, a coffee-table house remix of the original, served with enough bean sprouts, carrots and peppers to be distracting, reliant on garnish for contrast in its singular dimension. There might be a shiny comfort that Fresh Bowl can offer over Pub 340’s beer-stained tables, but there’s also a real loss in substance that’s disturbing.
Despite Jonker Street’s – and now Mamak Café’s – shortcomings, both had/have a potential that kept you going back to see if they’d ever finally nailed it. People might have given up on Jonker Street, and, if they don’t get past the Pub 340, they might never give Mamak Café a chance. But if, in the end, all we’re left with is Fresh Bowl, then we’ll always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that, frankly, won’t be all right with me.
Mamak Café (inside Pub 340)
340 Cambie Street