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By Michael White
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, scores of articles have been published — in the New York Times, Eater, and elsewhere — about the sudden proliferation of ghost kitchens, largely due to restaurateurs who have had to “pivot” (surely an overlooked contender for 2020’s Word of the Year) to a delivery- or takeout-only model, to compensate for dining rooms that were forced to close.
But the ghost-kitchen model is by no means new, and it isn’t exclusively an outgrowth of previously existing eateries (nor of the pandemic). For years, ghost kitchens have provided a solution to the increasingly prohibitive costs of building and operating a restaurant, and to home-based cooks of modest ambition who want nothing more than to share their culinary labours with the public. (See also: underground supper clubs — now, like so much else this past year, a distant memory from Before All This Shit Happened.)
The ghost-kitchen concept has been especially valuable to ethnic populations whose cuisine can’t easily be found at bricks-and-mortar establishments. In Jewkarta’s first review, I pointed out that Bali Thai, in the International Village food court, is one of the only places in Greater Vancouver (if not all of British Columbia) to find classic Indonesian dishes such as beef rendang and nasi goreng. Which is why this region’s small, close-knit Indonesian community has long made a practice of selling its cooking to one another via invitation-only social-media groups and other under-the-radar means. Some of the most pleasurable meals I’ve eaten in the past year have come from private citizens I’ve never met, prepared in houses and apartments whose locations I don’t know.
Bakmie Amei, which launched in November 2020, is very much in the ghost-kitchen mold. But there are some key differences here that distinguish it from the clandestine operations of its Indonesian neighbours. The owners — a husband-and-wife team, originally from Jakarta — share years of experience in the restaurant industry. They sought out and acquired all the legal approvals needed for a domestic kitchen engaged in commercial activity, including FoodSafe Level 1 certification. And, most noteworthy of all, they want everyone — not just fellow Indonesians — to discover them.
And let me tell you: You should. Oh, my god, you should.
The star of Bakmie Amei’s menu is, appropriately, bakmie (also spelled bakmi). Bakmie, if you don’t know (I certainly didn’t until Kley, the Jakarta-born half of Jewkarta, schooled me), is a beloved Indonesian dish in which noodles are topped with meat and vegetables, and accompanied with broth. (So — soup? Sure. But what a soup!) In Muslim-majority Indonesia, chicken is usually the featured protein, in accordance with halal. Historically, “bakmie” — as opposed to simply “mie” — was code for noodles that contain either pork meat or pork grease, but nowadays it merely indicates that the dish’s broth is served on the side for the diner to pour over top at his or her discretion.
Bakmie Amei’s menu is tightly focused, to say the least: four variations of bakmie (each $12 regular; $15 large), plus pangsit, which even I was able to immediately recognize as fried wontons ($5 regular; $8 large). True to its name, pork plays a starring role in each of them, and broth comes alongside. Thanks to the skills they honed while working at a ramen restaurant, Bakmie Amei make all of their noodles by hand, and allows them to rest for one day before serving them to customers. Somehow, they seem to have arrived at a perfect formula for ensuring the noodles remain at optimal texture after travelling to their destination. Ours were exemplary — yielding exactly enough to the bite, and subtly imbued with the flavours of their companions in the sturdy reusable soup bowls in which they were delivered.
Every ingredient in each of the bakmie was the obvious result of great skill and attention to detail. Pork was outstandingly seasoned wherever it appeared, whether in Bakmie Laksa with shrimp, hard-boiled egg and a senses-filling coconut curry broth, or affectionately assaulting your palate with lord knows how many chiles in the showstopping Bakmie Rica-Rica. We could have easily destroyed twice as many of the pangsit — which maintained epic crunch hours after arriving — without blinking. Altogether, this was the sort of meal for which you become nostalgic while it’s still happening, and we’ve been craving more of it regularly throughout the days since. (In fact, right now as I write this.)
The couple behind Bakmie Amei would like to open a storefront eventually, when restaurants in general have ceased to be an unwitting reminder of the all-embracing fucked-upness of life on Planet Earth. In the meantime, the only means of bringing their food to your face is to visit their Instagram or Facebook page, text your order, and arrange a pick-up day and location. (Locations rotate weekly.) Payment is by Interac e-transfer only. Of course this isn’t the most convenient way to acquire sustenance, especially at a time when countless restaurants are bending over backward to deliver directly to you home. But Bakmie Amei is worth going out of your way. This is some of the most wildly delicious food I’ve eaten in recent memory, and it must be pointed out that the prices are far below what quality and quantity justify. This humble ghost kitchen will haunt your appetite in the best possible way from here forward.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)