Rest easy: assuming that Jeffrey Dahmer’s first cousin isn’t on dish-pit duty, the chances of you becoming the special of the day are pretty much slim to none. And with the menu weighted toward good, old-fashioned hand-ground beef burgers, it’s highly unlikely you’ll end up sitting there going, “Well, I’d sure like to know what the hell this is I’m chewing. Well I said, ‘Holy fuck! It’s another human!’ ”
Savvy students of ancient punk-rock history will totally get the above lyrical references. They come from S.N.F.U.’s “Cannibal Cafe”, a classic 1985 thrash-punk ode to a folks-who-eat-other-folks eatery where singer Chi Pig suggests discerning diners “Don’t dare order the leper’s foot.”
Take one step into the Cannibal Café on Commercial Drive, and it’s obvious that owner Matt Thompson is a fan not only of the Vancouver-via-Edmonton hardcore legends, but of everything fast, loud, and local. The walls are plastered with literally hundreds of old gig posters from Vancouver’s punk-rock past, and not just for S.N.F.U. Take a look around and you’ll see handbills advertising everything from an acoustic D.O.A. at the Arts Club to the Scramblers at the Town Pump.
Don’t have a clue who half those acts are? Don’t worry, it’s not like you’ll be judged for showing up at the Cannibal Café in something other than a crusty-punk leather jacket and a multicoloured Exploited Mohawk. The overall vibe here is classic burgers-and-fries diner, from the black-and-white-checkered floor to the giant wood counter with stools at the front of the room. It’s also friendly and inclusive.
“I wanted to build a cool burger joint, like a diner, but something that had a little more edge to it,” Thompson told the Straight in a phone interview. “I had this poster idea for a long time, and I know poster guys in Vancouver, so I was like, ‘Do you have old punk, vintage posters?’ And he did. There’s nothing new in the restaurant—they are all ’90s and older.”
Thompson, whose other Lotusland ventures include the Five Point on Main Street and the Charlatan on the Drive, also had a clear vision on the food side of things.
“As a restaurant owner over the past 15 or 20 years, every time people would come in they’d always have a burger,” he said. “When I was younger, it would piss me off, like, ‘Why won’t they try something else that we make?’ Over the years, I finally started to think, ‘Well, why don’t we do what we do really well.’ My idea was, if I’m going to open up a burger joint, it’s got to be the best in the city.”
When we stopped by on a recent Saturday, the restaurant was packed with everyone from East Van bohos to young families to screaming hockey fans watching the return of the Canucks on the big-screen TVs.
Consider this a heads up that you aren’t getting fine dining at the Cannibal Café. The appetizers were the hit of our visit. We started with seared kimchi albacore tuna, which delivered a satisfying amount of Korean-style zap, offset by a pleasingly understated sesame dressing.
Best in show went to the crispy onion rings. This was partly because they came stacked like miniature whitewall tires in their own impossibly cute mini deep-fryer basket, and partly because the beer-batter coating was so light you could almost convince yourself you weren’t doing irreparable damage to your arteries. More, please, even if the accompanying lemon aioli seemed like someone forgot to add the lemons.
Moving on to the mains, the Korean BBQ Burger and the Farmhouse Turkey Burger (both $13.95) looked great enough to make you wonder if you were really in a burger joint on the city’s gritty east side. Think vertical and loaded with toppings, each presented like a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa and topped by a crunchy pickle spear. First-place honours went to the Farmhouse, a cranberry-relish dollop hitting the right blend of tart and sweet, the applewood-smoked bacon making a wonderful case that Vincent Vega knew what he was talking about when he sang the praises
of cured pork belly in Pulp Fiction.
There was nothing really wrong with the slightly overdone Korean BBQ but nothing about it that would make Jeffrey Steingarten do cartwheels on Iron Chef America. I’ll take part of the blame for that—due to a tactical error in approaching the burger, the first few bites were nothing but plain beef and bun, things improving only mildly after my discovery that the curiously tame sriracha chili mayonnaise and kalbi barbecue sauce had squirted out the side undetected.
As far as the cocktails go, the Weekend at Bernies (Sailor Jerry’s and butterscotch schnapps shaken with fresh lemon and ginger syrup) tasted suspiciously like the LL Cool Gin (gin plus muddled cucumber and lime shaken with ginger syrup) with a splash of what may or may not have been pickle juice. Balancing that disappointment was the strawberry-powered Vanilla Sky (vanilla vodka, Cuervo, and triple sec shaken with fresh lime and strawberries). A thick chocolate shake compensated for the fact that there are no desserts on the menu.
The great thing about the Cannibal Café is that it’s not going to break the bank (the bill for three people, including two cocktails, was $85 before tax and tip), even if you happen to be a career punk rocker who’s been stuck on welfare since the ’80s. Well, that and the fact that you won’t have to sit there staring at menu items like “The Ass of the Farmer’s Wife”, which, as Chi Pig once sagely observed, is typically “very tender, not too juicy—heavy on the cellulite”.