It's called the Sweet Tooth Café for ample reasons. The name does not, however, cover all its culinary bases. On even the most monsoonlike days of a Vancouver winter, you will find habitués sitting on the tiny patio, nursing their coffee or tea and a made-from-scratch pumpkin tart or cinnamon bun. There's often a dog or two leashed up to the fence, watching the traffic pass by more avidly than their beleaguered owners do.
The ruler of this little territory on the southeast corner of Hastings at Nanaimo is a sprightly native of Thailand, Ganji Malerba. Malerba has, as they say, seen them come and seen them go. The neighbourhood has a kind of resolute, ungentrified character about it, with Donald's Grocery just down the block, the resurgent Ugo and Joe's Italian Deli right next door, and some of the city's very best honey-glazed doughnuts at a Chinese bakery a little further east.
The Sweet Tooth is a slender volume, four sets of tables for two lined up against the outer wall and two larger tables obviously imported (and just as obviously unwanted) from someone's kitchen renovation a few years back, chairs to roughly match, plus that little patio area. If it was jam-packed, you could count perhaps 25 people.
Malerba began here six years ago: "I lived in Port Moody, and took the bus every day to my job downtown. I kept on looking for a place, because I love coffee shops. I was at home listening to one of those oldies-but-goodies radio stations, and I thought I'd like to have a shop just like one in the '50s. One of my customers downtown was a banker, and when I found this place, he came and looked at it, and then helped me negotiate the lease. So here I am."
There is often a lineup at the register, since the service, though bustling and prompt, is very much a hands-on affair. The soup-and-sandwich special, for example, means the sandwich is assembled on the spot, including slicing the bread and buttering it, should you want butter.
The sweet stuff, including those cinnamon buns, is usually made from scratch too, maybe the odd bit of help for strudel dough or something like that, but there is a pastry mixer, a nice rolling table, and plenty of elbow grease in use for the cookies, muffins, mountain bars, and pies (including a you-have-to-taste-it-to-believe-it pumpkin pie).
The meals…well, you'll have to take a seat and wait a bit for some of those. A simple, excellent stir-fry, a cold chicken (or tofu) and cashew salad, and a marvellous tom yum gai that makes me wonder if Rob Feenie ever came here before creating his Iron Chef dish of the same name. (Okay, Malerba doesn't use the crab.) In a quiet moment, she'll tell you the story; "I cook it in the back, from scratch. That's the only way I can do it. That's the way we did it in Thailand, where I had my first coffee shop, so that's the way I do it here."
Every second year or so, she goes back to Thailand, and in her absence, that cashew salad and the tom yum are, to be blunt, not available. The place keeps humming, though, with faces that regulars seem to depend on for the beverages and the bits of conversation. Many of the regulars are a bit down on their luck, or their ambition, or both-a bit like some of the characters from Tom Waits's Small Change album.
But everyone, from the various office workers who frequent it to the retirees to the odd person who is hungry and waiting for the bus, agrees that there is a great vibe. It comes from the practical-minded proprietor with the good sense of humour, and from the uniformly high quality of all the food, sweet or otherwise, and the high-grade coffee beans they grind, and the premium teas to choose from. "If I don't like it, I won't sell it. I can't sell it. For me, it is a business, but it is a life, too. You know that phrase 'It's not personal, it's business'? Well, I hate that phrase. It's not just business. There are people involved."
The Sweet Tooth Café resembles not so much any other café on any other street in any other neighbourhood or any other town. More than anything what it resembles is your Auntie Jo's next-door neighbour's kitchen, the neighbour with the seven kids who's always on the go, always feeding someone, always talking, always friendly. That's Malerba's place.
THE SWEET TOOTH CAFE 2404 East Hastings Street, 604-255-6997. Open weekdays 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.