David from Bell sold us our Canadian SIM card so that we could suck down data at the rate Team Mago has become accustomed to. Young David wasn’t the sharpest technical tool in the digital shed. His real calling is sketch comedy and he was mildly hilarious, mixing shtick with dumbed down explanations of the SIM card’s capabilities (Patti is simply superb at disguising the fact that she has an MS double E and was burning proms for the military before David was an itch in his daddy’s pantaloons). He assured us that our 500 MB data allowance would last well beyond the ten days we planned to spend in Canada. I asked Patti what she thought of that estimate after we left the Canadian Bell store. She laughed and said “six days max if you are very, very careful.” She was right, of course.
But young David did know his Thai food. I like Thai cuisine so much that I almost never partake of a Siamese eatery in the US. This is because Thai food is like tomatoes; amazing when correctly vine ripened and confined to a tight geographic radius around its origin, but otherwise worse than cardboard that has wintered underneath my pick-up truck. But I have an abiding faith in recommendations from locals, and David was an enthusiastic GIT (that would be gourmand-in-training), once he learned that Gammer and Gaffer were working on a gastro-app for Vancouver (that should have been a clue that we knew our data rates, but whatever).
So on David’s recommendation we found ourselves at Sala Thai at the fag end of happy hour. We sat at the bar (closer to the beer taps) and ordered appies until the last grain of jasmine rice fell through the happy hourglass. The beer and nibbles were quite decent, and the favorable exchange rate really juiced the already VFM half-price offerings (of which there were many more than we could sample in a short amount of time).
Salad rolls: My spousal unit really loves these things, but I usually do not. The typical garden roll, as it is called in US establishments, consists of old cellophane wrapped around half-rotten veggies and served with a peanut-based dipping sauce that is only good for packrat bait. These were just the opposite. The rice-based wrapper was membrane-thin with just the tiniest (and agreeable) hint of elasticity. The stuffing consisted of a crispy, fresh, and flavorful mélange of very recently sliced veggies and, wonder of wonders, meat in the form of air-dried Chinese pork sausage chunks. And no peanuts within a parsec of our plates. Instead, the dipping sauce was a tangy sweet concoction that accented the vegetal sourness and pig candy sweetness flavor duo.
Without prompting, our friendly and professional server brought us “some hot sauce.” What a sad descriptor for the garum-meets-Thai chili concoction that we refilled many, many times over the course of our meal. The underlying fish pickle sauce supplied multiple tart layers of intense funkiness that supported a rising chorus of serious heat. Amazing how one condiment can make a meal.
Crispy squid: This dish earned my grudging admiration because it showed the kitchen’s ability to elevate the mundane into something edible. The problem was the squid. Like squid in so many Thai places, it had been caught long, long ago in an ocean far, far away and then frozen and hung as a decoration in Jaba’s living room for an eon or two. On top of this, the damn thing was a Jules Verne giant (to take the sci-fi analogy way, way too far). But the kitchen fought back by cutting the monstrous body sack into thin julienne strips and then using a light tempura-like batter and a deft hand with the fryolater. The very decent result was further enhanced with that magic hot sauce (although as me Da would say, you could put that stuff on shit and it would taste good).
Floral dumplings: A very tasty gimmick indeed. These turned out to be crimped and steamed pork dumplings with a couple twists. First, the rice wrappers were a stunning purple. Secondly, the kitchen had amped the sugar content of the wrappers along with that culinary die job. They were served sprinkled with edible flower petals and chopped peanuts. With the hot sauce (you are going to get tired of hearing about it, I promise) the damn things really popped: crunchy, soft, sweet, hot, piggy, and purple.
Whole crispy ocean perch in a sweet garlic chili sauce – I was determined not to tempt fate with any more frozen seafood, so after we milked our fifteen minutes of happy hour to the max, I ordered a whole crispy ocean perch in a sweet garlic chili sauce. I was pretty sure that “market price” meant fresh, but I felt (following about four half-priced beers) that I needed to interrogate our server. She, of course thought I was trying to determine the actual cost in loonies, but her semi-apologetic tone vanished into something close to indignation when she realized I was questioning her establishment’s honesty. That was actually just the response I had been hoping to elicit, since it was a much more accurate gauge of the perch’s recent history than the faux fawning I am used to in dodgy establishments regardless of cuisine type.
The fish was indeed the piece de resistance of our meal. The fryolater facilitator again proved faultless, producing perfectly cooked firm but moist flesh and crispy crunchy extremities. My stock with the server went up several notches as I stripped the head of every last juicy sweet and crunchable morsel, precious. The sweet garlic chili sauce was light and tangy as opposed to the usual thick and cloying glop often found in inferior preparations. However, wait for it, the addition of the hot sauce truly elevated the dish.
Mago Tip: Skip lunch and get to Sala Thai at 3 PM for the start of happy hour. That way two diners can sample every ‘tiser on the menu for around 25 loonies total (excluding booze of course, but that is deeply discounted as well).