Let’s address the obvious question right off the bat. Who’s Bob?
It’s not Tai Keattivanichvily, the friendly owner of Bob Likes Thai Food. “When customers ask me, ”˜Are you Bob?’ I usually tell them, ”˜You just missed him. He went out the back door to get more groceries.’”
The soft-spoken Keattivanichvily laughs in a phone interview with the Straight as he explains how he came up with the restaurant’s name. Everyone, he feels, likes Thai food, and the name is a creative riff on this. “You know, Barenaked Ladies, Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins”¦ Why not Bob Likes Thai Food?”
Bob’s fingerprints are all over the Main Street eatery. A huge, rough painting of a fork, labelled Bob’s Fork, hangs on one wall. Another, labelled Bob’s Spoon, hangs opposite. Keattivanichvily made the art himself on plywood left over from the construction of the front counter. Other than these embellishments, the décor is pretty basic. Colourful tea lights add warmth to a functional room that—thoughtfully—has a sitting area with magazines at the entrance for those waiting on takeout orders. Reggae music plays softly in the background.
Raised in Bangkok, Keattivanichvily came to Vancouver 14 years ago and has been working as an animator in film and television. He opened this, his first restaurant, because he got tired of working a desk job, and because he wanted to create a place that serves the kind of Thai food he makes at home—simple, authentic, everyday dishes.
Keattivanichvily recruited a friend—a Thai chef who has long worked in the Vancouver restaurant industry—and a team of Thai cooks to replicate his favourite dishes. He credits his mother with the recipes, as well as her friend who works in catering in Bangkok.
Bob’s menu is fairly standard for Thai cuisine in Vancouver: green curry chicken, Panang beef curry, tom yum soup, pad Thai, fried rice, and chicken with cashews. Prices are reasonable, with main dishes in the $7.50 to $10 range. Lunch sets are $7.50.
When I visited, two things immediately set the restaurant apart. First, the place settings included just a fork and a spoon. (Thais rarely eat with a knife, using the fork to push food onto the spoon. When I lived in Bangkok, I had to search a bit to even find table knives to buy for my home.) Second, the daily specials featured dishes with roots in northeastern Thailand, including Isan-style pork sausage, and roasted chili dip.
I ordered one of these specials, the roasted duck red curry with cherry tomatoes and bamboo shoots, and it was delicious. Juicy chunks of pineapple and litchi gave it a nice tropical sweetness, cutting the richness of the duck. From the regular menu, my steaming bowl of tom ka gai was also lovely. It’s a good sign when you have to spoon around the fresh, inedible herbs in this chicken soup: chunks of galangal, lime leaves, and chopped lemongrass made it oh-so-fragrant. It was perhaps a little light on the coconut cream, but thoroughly satisfying.
My husband and I gobbled up the laab moo, another daily special that originates from the Isan region. A salad made primarily of ground pork, it had a nice crunch from the roasted rice but would have benefited from more herbs like fresh mint. When it arrived at the table, I was disappointed by the small size of the papaya salad from the regular menu, but at $5.50, what can you expect? Any negative feelings vanished upon first bite. The shredded green papaya was seasoned absolutely perfectly with garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and lime juice: the sour, salty, sweet balance Thai food is known for was spot on.
The pad Thai was similarly well done: a good, solid rendition made properly with tamarind instead of ketchup. It, too, was on the small side—Bob’s portion sizes are more in keeping with Thailand than Canada. But again, it’s hard to find fault because of the price.
The dishes we ordered arrived with just a bit of bite, so specify if you want to turn up the heat. Our server was happy to oblige us with a dish of nam pla prik (chilies in fish sauce).
In a subsequent phone interview, Keattivanichvily explained that he’s conscious of appealing to a broad spectrum of clientele by serving mainstream dishes such as pad Thai. But he hopes people will eventually come to crave the northeastern dishes he grew up with.
Bob does, that’s for sure. With his animator’s creativity, Keattivanichvily is continually building the persona of the everyman that is Bob. “He’s an expat who lived in Thailand and fell in love with Thai food,” Keattivanichvily muses. “Now, he came back home and couldn’t find any of that good food that he ate in Thailand, and that’s why he started it.
“Eventually, he might meet a Jane Likes Thai Food too,” he says, laughing. “The plot continues”¦”