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By Michael White
No matter how much the city of Vancouver continues to change beyond the recognition of those who have lived here long enough to have a fixed idea of it, there are some things that, for better or worse, are always exactly as we remember them.
Case in point: International Village Mall.
Opened in 1999 (the year I moved to Vancouver from Ontario), this two-level, 195,000-square-foot shopping centre at the border of “the Stadium District” and Chinatown is — and seemingly forever will be — a defiantly changeless monument to failure. It remains as strange and terrible and depressing a place today as when I first walked through its doors 20-plus years ago. Tenants may come and go, but its occupancy rate holds steadfast below 50 percent. Those tenants reliably appear marked for death from day one: makeshift operations peddling phone accessories, womenswear, home furnishings — most of them bearing brand names you’ve never heard of. Almost no one buys these things, because almost no one who comes here has any money. Right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, International Village’s one reliable draw — a multiplex theatre — is closed, and so everything is quieter, eerier, sadder than ever.
And this is where, upstairs in the food court, where so many patrons aren’t eating or doing much of anything but trying to pass the time, you’ll find Bali Thai Indonesian Cuisine.
I’d been successfully ignoring Bali Thai for years, until Kley — the other half of Jewkarta, who lived for 20 years in his native Indonesia before settling in Vancouver — told me I had to try it. If I hadn’t already been in love with him, my gratitude for his introducing me to this unassuming stall and its ridiculously delicious food would’ve sealed it.
Bali Thai opened at International Village in 2014, after a short tenancy at nearby Harbour Centre. Owners Linda and Tommy (their shared surname is none of our business) took over from its founding proprietors in 2011. Originally Southeast Asian-themed when they acquired it, Linda and Tommy narrowed the menu concept to strictly Indonesian; they kept the name Bali Thai, however, so as not to confuse their already dedicated clientele (and because registering a new name seemed more trouble than it was worth). When Harbour Centre’s management redeveloped the food court and insisted the couple convert their stall into a popular national Thai chain, they decided to move instead. Despite the volatility of International Village’s never-busy corridors (the only food-court tenant I know to have consistently survived is Taco Time), Bali Thai has hung on for more than six years — an apparent testament to Vancouver’s precious few Indonesian dining options and the excellence with which Bali Thai fills the gap. (That said, Linda estimates the pandemic has reduced their business by at least 80 percent.)
I won’t pretend to be an authority about Indonesian cuisine, but as an authority about my own equal-opportunity palate, I can say with absolute authority that Bali Thai’s flavour and texture combinations push more buttons than a 1940s switchboard operator.
Indonesia is home to more than 600 recognized ethnic groups, and each of its indigenous culinary traditions seems to have absorbed some degree of foreign influence, whether Chinese or Middle Eastern or Dutch (the latter the result of centuries of colonization). So, in a single Indonesian dish — say, beef rendang (named “World’s Most Delicious Food” in a 2011 CNN poll) — the symphony in your mouth might seem to play notes of Madras curry, or one of the more memorable Szechuan dishes you’ve had, or a traditional British stew given an ugly-duckling makeover to reveal the hot, brash, head-turning swan that was hiding within. Bali Thai’s rendition of beef rendang honours the dish’s inherent complexity, its falling-apart-tender beef simmered for hours in an immodest amount of coconut milk with the likes of ginger, lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, and however many chilis the cook sees fit. Linda and Tommy elect to make their rendang’s heat level acceptable to their many discerning expat-Indonesian customers, but not so much as to alienate the white and curious.
You can order beef rendang as part of the “Create Your Own” combo plate, the best course of action for discovering as much of the menu as possible for the least outlay. Two proteins and one vegetable dish are yours alongside rice — plain steamed or turmeric-coconut (don’t be an idiot; get the turmeric-coconut) — for $11.95, which, given the portion size, is a price as frozen in the past as International Village. I urge you to also opt for the Balinese chicken, a pleasantly smouldering riot of chilis, garlic, ginger, lime leaf, fish sauce, and whatever else Linda and Tommy have invited to the party. My favourite of the vegetable options is simply grilled Japanese eggplant, imbued with subtle smoke and — should you choose it — a stripe of house-made green chili sauce I’d slather onto everything in sight if I didn’t fear being judged. Vegans won’t feel slighted by fried tempeh or fried tofu, and certainly not by the corn fritters, which are essentially a great bar snack in search of a bar. Should you like, Linda will finish your plate with a scattering of cilantro and fried shallots. Say yes.
Elsewhere on the menu, mee ayam (essentially Indonesia’s answer to cure-all chicken soup; $11.95), satay, nasi goreng (fried rice generously heaped with shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetables, and scrambled egg; $12.50), and the self-explanatory Chicken Nugget Crunch (with the above-mentioned coconut-turmeric rice and tempeh; $12.50) check off a list of Indonesian cuisine’s greatest hits and do all of them justice.
Having been blissfully ignorant of Bali Thai for so long, obviously I don’t have the moral high ground to wag a shaming finger at the countless others who have failed to help make its owners wealthy and in need of additional staff. (If Linda isn’t behind the counter, if Tommy isn’t out back in the kitchen, they aren’t open.) Typical of so many under-the-radar eateries in this and other cities where diners are spoiled for choice, Bali Thai is better than it knows and too modest for its own good. Linda and Tommy should be getting up in your face — in everyone’s face — about how good their unobtrusive little enterprise is. But in all likelihood, this isn’t a part of their skill set and not in their nature. They just make the food.
So, let them just make the food. And just listen to me when I say: Go there.
Bali Thai Indonesian Cuisine
International Village Mall
88 West Pender, 2nd Floor
(no website) / Instagram: @balithaivancouver
Delivery platforms: Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats