Sunday, January 1, 2012

In praise of a dying breed: the vintage Chinese restaurant

MONTREAL - Nowadays, with Szechuan peppercorns and Chinese five-spice on the tips of our tongues, it’s easy to forget that just a few decades ago eating honey-garlic spareribs under a dragon statue was considered an exotic culinary experience. General Tao? Never heard of him. Chopsticks? Give me cutlery. Hot pot? Let’s do takeout.

In mid-20th-century Montreal, when pagoda-shaped signs beckoned with the promise of chop suey and egg rolls,

Canadian-Chinese cuisine – let’s call it Can-Chi for short – conjured images of a world that most diners could only imagine. Our culinary mindset has expanded since then, but it’s never too late for a nostalgic look back.

Or is it? While Montreal still has a few vintage Chinese restaurants, they are fewer and fewer between. As I ate my way across town in search of chow mein and pineapple chicken, the refrain from restaurateurs was the same: Can-Chi is disappearing from the city’s foodscape, and with it a page from our cultural history.

For many Montrealers, particularly Jewish Montrealers, the nexus of Can-Chi nostalgia is Yangtze in Côte des Neiges. Opened in 1956, it just might be the longest-running Chinese restaurant in the city outside of Chinatown. The decor hasn’t changed much – mid-century chinoiserie accents meet diner booths under embossed ceiling tiles – and neither has the food or the clientele.

From behind the counter, owner Stanley Poon pulls out a copy of the original 1950s menu. The price of egg rolls back in the day? Twenty-five cents. A full meal for one? A dollar. If prices have gone up, that meal combo is still pretty reasonable at $12.50. And the dishes are pretty much the same – which is to say, still miles from China. That came as a surprise to Poon, originally from Hong Kong, who bought the place four years ago.

“When I first saw the menu, I was like, ‘What’s that? And what’s that?’ I was really curious,” he recalls. “Everything was sweet and sour, everything was battered and fried, tastes that in China we don’t do so much.”

New cooks coming from China had to be taught the fundamentals of Can-Chi cuisine, he says. “Like chicken balls with cherry sauce; you just don’t see this in original Chinese food. It was made for Western people. We prefer steamed and stir-fried foods, and to taste the actual flavour of the ingredients.”

He is proud of Yangtze’s egg rolls, which have been made by the same person for 30 years. Poon presents me with one – a pinched wrapper stuffed with pork and cabbage – and insists I try it, as the regulars do, with hot mustard mixed with plum sauce. The result is strangely evocative of a Reuben sandwich. Two grey-haired men give me an approving nod from their booth as I eat.

I have to ask about the discrepancy between the most popular orders (pork-laced egg rolls, pork-stuffed won ton soup and pork spareribs) and the potentially kosher customer base. Says Poon: “Sometimes they’ll ask what kind of meat it is, and they quickly say, ‘Never mind, don’t tell me!’ ”

It was long rumoured that so much of the Jewish population of western Montreal featured as clientele that the restaurant only did renovations during Passover.

That’s what Rhona Richman Kenneally, chair of Concordia’s department of design and computation arts and organizer of the university’s food-studies research team, tells me later, when I talk to her about her childhood visits to Yangtze – a social occasion that occurred every Sunday. “We didn’t think of it as exotic; it was post-exotic. It was much more like an extension of Jewish food, and it figured as comfort food,” she reminisces.

“My grandmother – who was not very daredevilish when it came to food, and who would not eat Italian and Indian, for example – would go to Yangtze.” The order was always the same, she adds: the No. 4 for two, along with egg rolls in the requisite paper bags. “And somehow the spareribs never identified themselves as pork,” she says.

When his family took over the business, Poon’s plan was to keep things rolling as they had been for 50 years. It wasn’t just a plan – it was an edict, he tells me: “It’s understood that the food at Yangtze cannot change. Nothing can change. My mother wanted to put up some crystal lights over there,” he says, indicating a chandelier in the recessed ceiling. “The customers said, ‘No, don’t change a thing. I grew up with these booths, these lights. You’ve got to keep them. All you have to do is keep the place clean. I’m coming for the memory!’ ”

The same could be said for the waiters, most of them lifers who have aged along with their customers. Poon, too, is attached to his regulars. “They’re always telling me, ‘I was eating here before you were born.’ I see them sitting in a booth, remembering how they used to come here, and bringing their kids now. They talk about the old days, and they start crying.”

Poon is feeling emotional himself these days, having sold the business to new owners on Nov. 1. Whether Yangtze can survive with menu, decor and staff intact remains to be seen. And there’s just less demand for this brand of Can-Chi than there used to be.

On a dark stretch of St. Denis St., not far from the Met, Nouveau King Wah’s vintage sign still brightens the night. Opened in 1969 and still owned by the same family, this Can-Chi address looks much as it did back then. It’s the east-side equivalent of Yangtze, with its own brand of nostalgia. The decor is what you’d call dragon-

forward: gold-brushed mythical beasts are overhead, on the walls and winding around doorways. Customers tread on original tile floors and sidle into upholstered booths for plates of chicken soo guy or chop suey.

Amid the fantasy of Eastern Orientalism, a Molson Ex clock places the restaurant firmly in Quebec. Maurice Richard used to dine here, and scenes from the 2005 film The Rocket, about Quebec’s famed hockey player, were shot here – ideal, since it already looks like a movie set.

The menu hasn’t changed in 40 years, head waiter Alex Tam tells me. (He won’t disclose how long he has worked here, except to say he’s part of the furniture.) The prices are in a time warp, too: on weekdays, the buffet is $6.95 at lunch, $9.95 at supper. Tam brings me a plate of Cantonese chow mein: noodles tossed with broccoli, water chestnuts, bamboo, onion, shrimp, chicken and topped with barbecue pork – the equivalent of all dressed.

“Chow” means the action of pan-frying, he explains; “mein” means noodles. “When I asked for Cantonese chow mein in Toronto in the 1970s, people just looked at me,” Tam recalls, noting that while more common now, it was once very much a Montreal term. “Same with dry garlic spareribs, and shrimp with lobster sauce. I would say these dishes were invented here in Montreal.”

Owner Don Yee takes a seat across from me and surveys the room where he spent so much of his childhood. When his father opened the first King Wah, named for a famous Hong Kong restaurant, on Henri Bourassa Blvd. in 1955, people told him he was crazy. “But it was a gold mine. Soon there were more places opening – Wing Wah and China King,” Yee notes. “After Expo 67, it was an era when everyone was busy.”

Next, his father and uncle built Nouveau King Wah on a vacant St. Denis St. lot. Nearby movie theatres (now all closed) ensured a stream of exotic-minded diners, and business was booming so much that the restaurant expanded into the space next door.

These days, King Wah’s party room sits empty. Delivery helps keep the business afloat, but most customers are elderly. Sometimes three generations of a family come in together for a meal to remember the old days.

“Back then, your choices were Chinese food, French food or Italian food when you went out to a restaurant. That’s changed. Now it’s Thai, Lebanese, anything you want,” Yee muses, before reeling off a list of restaurants that have closed or been turned into condos. “No one opens places like this anymore; you just won’t find them. It’s fading already. Even all the big buffets are closing now.”

At the other end of the city, upscale Mahjongg Bistro de Chine is not the first place you’d expect to find Can-Chi cooking. But for the Mah family, which also owns Le Piment Rouge and launched Mahjongg in 2006 in the Ruby Foo complex – the Décarie Blvd. location where the original Ruby Foo’s restaurant once stood – keeping a few Cantonese-Canadian dishes was an important nod to cultural heritage. “It’s a part of history that should be captured; it’s about the immigrant struggle,” Hazel Mah points out. “And it’s a type of cooking that is almost totally disappearing now.”

The menu’s page of Cantonese dishes – popular from the ’40s through the ’70s, originally designed for a North American crowd – is in part an homage to Ruby Foo herself, widely considered to be the first Chinese businesswoman in North America, who opened her inaugural restaurant in Boston in 1927, starting a franchise that catered to a non-Chinese clientele.

For many years, Montreal’s Ruby Foo’s – started by the Shapiro family in 1945, and later run by another Jewish Montreal family, the Leopolds – was a jewel in the crown of the local dining scene. It seated more than 1,000, had cigarette girls, a rolling roast beef trolley, and a doorman who expected 10 bucks to let you in (no small amount in the ’60s).

Mahjongg’s retro dishes include items like the Pu Pu platter, an assortment of little treasures: honey garlic spareribs, fried won tons, butterflied fantail shrimp and egg rolls that can be singed on the open flame in the centre of the dish. Other classics of Montreal’s vintage Chinese scene include pineapple chicken (the poultry is not deep-fried as it is in some versions, and the crimson sauce here gets its colour from ketchup), beef steak kew (filet mignon, bell peppers, onion and soy bean sauce) and shrimp with lobster sauce (a local creation; in traditional southern Chinese cooking, you wouldn’t find black beans with seafood).

There’s also a personal connection to Canadian-Chinese cuisine, says Clarence Mah (Hazel’s son), noting that his great-grandfather operated the Star Café in small-town Saskatchewan. Most western Canadian towns, even whistle stops in the Prairies, historically had a lone ambassador of the Orient – and these Canadian-Chinese cafés were the country’s first ethnic restaurants. “They served burgers, grilled cheese and french fries along with what people perceived to be Chinese food at that time,” Mah says. “There was soy sauce in the burgers, and hoisin on the steaks.”

Many Canadian-Chinese food emporiums have closed in the last decade. The curious or the nostalgic can still get a taste of Chinese Montreal history at restaurants including Mahjongg Bistro de Chine (7655 Décarie Blvd., 514-735-8868,, Nouveau King Wah (8339 St. Denis St., 514-384-3890) and Yangtze (4645 Van Horne Ave., 514-733-7171).

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