I ate food from an illegal restaurant this week. I knew it was going to be good before I got there. The Cambodian's aunt had been insisting on taking us for weeks. And, when it comes to food, she doesn't mess around.
Still, I didn't quite know what to expect. It's not like I have made a habit out of frequenting illegal restaurants. Especially ones that are run by a Vietnamese couple out of their suburban home. The over-sanitized Canadian in me has always imagined black market eateries to be greasy cesspits run by food hygiene course dropouts.
To get to this place, we drove 40 minutes across town to a part of Auckland that, politely put, is a tad rough. When we got to a stoplight, the Cambodian's aunt mentioned, rather casually, that, in this part of the city, she only carried her personal items in a shopping bag to make herself look less robable.
After briefly getting lost, we pulled into the mini parking lot of an average looking suburban home. The windows were covered by what some people may call curtains, or by what others may describe as cardboard. We made our way down a dark, narrow alley and up to the rickety door of a shuddered back sun room. When we knocked, we heard some shuffling coming from a window above our heads.
It is fair to say, that, at that point, having taken into account my current surrounds and the drive by which we got to them, my hopes of eating something delicious dwindled slightly. It seemed more likely to me that I was going to be introduced to the friendly proprietors of the neighbourhood meth-lab. Once the door was opened though, my worries dissipated rather quickly.
The woman who answered the door was a middle aged Vietnamese lady. She was wearing a two-piece faux silk pink pajama ensemble. Just behind her we could see her husband sitting on a stool making handmade rice noodles stuffed with pork. My initial thought was this: if a woman is confident enough to run a black market eatery out of her house, wearing nothing but shiny pink night wear and slippers, there is no way her food is going to be bad.
If this couple knew English, they didn't show it. But they were pleasant enough. And after some brief chit chat with the Cambodian's aunt, the back alley caterers took some of our money in exchange for a few plastic containers full of rice noodles, herbs, fried shallots and nuoc nam, that delicious fish sauce condiment that Vietnamese seem to pour on everything.
Needless to say, when we finally got to eat it, the food ended up being delicious. I doubt places like this would exist if they weren't offering something very special. I felt lucky to have been taken there. And the experience led me to wonder about all the amazing dodgy suburban eating spots I have missed out on in Toronto and Vancouver. That thought is impetus enough for me to start learning a variety of south east Asian languages. Because, of course, you can't find these type of places without a linguistic "in" to recent immigrant communities.Thank god the Cambodian and her family have introduced me to this new world. It feels like I have been reborn.