I just ordered this.
By some fluke of chance, because I’m not usually following Canada Post offerings, I saw a special edition, limited time offered collection featuring the Chinatown Gates in Canada. I must have it! A few weeks elapsed but I ended up remembering and ordered a souvenir sheet ($5) while I would dearly love to have the whole collection in a special folder ($88.88).
The folder, a fantastic gift for someone who is interested, includes the following:
- A numbered and imperforated pane of 8 stamps—exclusive to this set.
- A regular pane of 8 stamps, die cut in the shape of early Chinese coins, complete with centre hole.
- A 200-year-old Qing Dynasty coin and a 1,000-year-old Song Dynasty coin, like the ancient coins embedded in many of the gates.
- A 16-page full colour booklet with a history of the origins of these gates and a description of each Canadian gate in English, French and Chinese.
- A certificate of authenticity.
- A red leather-like folder traditionally embossed with a detailed image of a well-known gate in China.
- Only 8,888 Chinatown Gates Collection were produced—grab yours today!
Images from canadapost.ca.
Books are popping up on my radar and even if I had time, I couldn’t quite keep up. This is quite the good-looking and big crop this year!
(For once, I’m on top of new releases, even quite a bit ahead of some. But will I be reading them hot off the presses? No…! No time!)
Timber Hawkeye’s Buddhist Boot Camp
(February 11, 2013)
I saw this at an airport bookstore and it intrigues me. The notion of applying a bootcamp training mentality to learning and practicing a religion or system of belief strikes me as a bit gimmicky but will it be the right vehicle to guide me? I have this on hold from the library. It is a little bit of a priority of mine to find the time to at least do this kind of reading.
Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement
(November 5, 2013)
An image-only post from Asian American Lit Fans was all I needed to see. Amy Tan is coming out with her first novel in I don’t know how many years. On the major sites (fine, the Amazons) I checked and even on the author website, there is no information. I will keep checking the library to place a hold on it when it does come up.
Amy Tan’s Rules for Virgins
(December 6, 2011)
While looking for more information on The Valley of Amazement, I came across Amy Tan’s most recent work, a short story. At 43 pages, I should be able to get through this!!
Christine Reiko Yano’s Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific
(April 29, 2013)
I purchased and started reading Airborne Dreams: Nisei Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways. The writing is good and accessible but I just never finished it (yet, and Good Reads keeps reminding me of it). From stewardesses to Hello Kitty, Yano is giving Japanese culture its due recognition and treatment and I love her themes, i.e., it seems like fun research!
Kevin Kwans’ Crazy Rich Asians
(June 11, 2013)
I heard of this novel through Lynn Chen who is providing the voices for the audio book. The novel does sound a bit like fluff – perfect for summer its summer release! I’ve got it on hold at the library, hoping to get it on Audible.com on some kind of (read: free) promo.
Kim Wong Keltner’s Tiger Babies Strike Back: How I Was Raised by a Tiger Mom but Could Not Be Turned to the Dark Side
(April 30, 2013)
I think I heard about this book in a Huffington Post post or something and nary did I expect the author to be Kim Wong Keltner. Since I have read her three fiction works, I’m curious how she will treat a topic near and dear to my hear and non-fiction. In other news, are we still talking about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?
erin Khue Ninh’s Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian-American Literature
(March 28, 2011)
Kim Wong Keltner’s latest book reminds me (and so does my “Want to Read” list on Good Reads) of this book I’ve been curious about for several years. It’s not available at libraries but a check on Amazon shows that the Kindle edition is just $10 … I may purchase it then in the near future… not a new one, been on my list, not available in libraries but it’s a $10 Kindle – academic treatment of one of my favourite topics (see the subtitle)
Koonchung Chan’s The Fat Years
(January 10, 2012)
A dystopia set in China? Yes! I signed this out from the library but had too many other books on the go and it kind of started slow and I didn’t get very far before I had to return it and could not renew it. I’ll get back to this one yet.
Paul Yee’s Saltwater City
(April 27, 2006)
I read Chinatown: An illustrated history of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax and it was good. Now, but it’s no rush, it’s time to learn more about the city that will be my home for indefinite number of years.
I first spotted Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 near the cashier at Coles in Commerce Court concourse (Toronto) and made the natural association between the novel’s title and George Orwell’s 1984. Who doesn’t love the utterly creepy world of 1984? 1Q84 had big shoes to fill by making allusion to that dystopian heavyweight and started towards filling those shoes being a hefty 928 pages. I wasn’t carrying this tome around – oh no, I read it entirely on my phone.
Books 1 and 2 were published in 2009 and the final and third volume was published in 2010. The English translation was published in the end of 2011 wherein all three volumes were published together. My head was in the sand as it stands regarding literary events but apparently the English-language publication was the most anticipated literary event of the (2011) year. I only noticed the novel one year later due to its prominent placement at the bookstore and the Japanese author.
I started reading 1Q84 after Christmas last year and found it a little difficult to get into. We are first introduced to Aomame, cold-blooded assassin of terrible men whom she believes have it coming to them and her sad and lonely past are slowly revealed; Tengo is a tutor-writer who, at the bidding of his editor, is rewriting the contest submission for a mysterious high school-aged girl and literary newcomer, Fuka-Eri.
Seventeen-year-old Fuka-Eri – which is hip for Eriko Fukada – is one odd character with some characteristics of being a savant. From all descriptions, she is eerily beautiful and has lovely breasts that makes one worried that 30-year-old Tengo will do something improper. (Oh, he does.) What drove me a little nuts was how perfectly ethereal Fuka-Eri was and how she had the accurate sixth sense that was awfully convenient to share information to Tengo. Also, her speaking in riddles was simply lovely and artistic. As a reader, I can try to surmise that her non-standard upbringing in a cult environment on a commune lends her a different world view. I wish there was more treatment of this, or even if we knew she just “snapped out of it” after her role had been fulfilled.
It is Aomame who first observes the shift in her/the world with a change in police issued equipment that she cannot recall from her daily scouring of the news and she identifies and concludes the shift occurring when she took a certain exit off the highway. She even names the strange world 1Q84: she’s shifted into a different 1984 but carries on life as usual. Tengo, working like a nut on re-writing the novel and then dealing with the press, does not observe the difference.
The novel, Air Chrysalis, has a surreal quality that can only come from it being dictated by a cult-raised girl who is dyslexic and has only listen to books being read to her. It is also a book I wouldn’t read, delving into the fantasy world with a passage like this, “When the Little People finish making the air chrysalis, there are two moons. The girl looks up to find two moons in the sky.”
Aomame’s story gets interesting as she meets a policewoman who, if she allowed her, can fill the void of her best friend who committed suicide to escape her abusive husband. All the evidence points to Aomame being a lonely person although she would swear she is “alone, but not lonely” – a consequence of her religious upbringing and line of work. Aomame is the first to observe the two moons foretold in Air Chrysalis and worlds truly collide when her next assignment is to eliminate the leader of the cult, Leader. But for all her preparation to do battle if a problem arises during her mission, instead they talk and Leader explains in riddles the mysterious ailment that paralyzes him, how he is not technically a grotesque pervert raping pre-menstrual girls (the reason why he is targeted by Aomame’s organization) and persuading Aomame to end his suffering to tip the balance for humankind in the battle against the Little People and to guarantee Tengo’s safety.
So, Aomame and Tengo remember each other for twenty years hence since that afternoon when they were both ten and she reached out and squeezed his hand and stared at something outside and then ran away. Neither Aomame nor Tengo have had meaningful relationships in the intervening time although they definitely have healthy sexual appetites. First we learn that Aomame has been pining for someone (Tengo) then we learn that Tengo can’t shake the memory of ten-year-old Aomame.
I started to see a connection to 1984, perhaps that the Little People are as innocuous and evil as Big Brother. And that leadership is passed from Leader to Tengo, which throws a wrench into Aomame’s desire since she left organized religion and Tengo will henceforth
not have intercourse with pre-pubescent girls. Or I thought Tengo and Aomame would have do battle against the Little People. But no, it meandered towards a love story and I did fall for the thrilling aspect as to whether or not they will be able to jump back into 1984 in time, with the cult in persuit.
While Books 1 and 2 were from Tengo and Aomame’s perspective, Book 3 provided the perspective of grotesquely ugly but highly skilled private investigator Ushikawa. He is able to make connections between Tengo and Aomame that others have missed, fill in the blanks and provide some comic relief. It was comical to read how ugly he was to scare small children, it was even more fun and drew my empathy to follow his lines of deduction, to feel smarter than he is when he battles the haze that is his middle-aged collection of memories to find the nugget of information he needs. I’m not really sure what purpose he really filled.
Apparently it is common in Harukami’s work for there to be pop culture references and the one I picked up from being somewhat bludgeoned over the head with was the symphony piece that Aomame hears and discusses with the driver during her fateful cab ride. It is Janacek’s Sinfonetta and is Aomame’s work-out music, the piece Tengo played on timpani and is referenced a few others times. I didn’t like the heavy brass opening, preferring the woodwinds and strings. Still, thank you Harukami for expanding my horizons.
While Aomame calls the alternate world 1Q84, the term on Tengo’s end is “cat town” and there is an accompanying creepy story that is part of the superb excerpt from the novel in the The New Yorker ahead of the novel’s English-language publication. After reading the cat town story, I wanted to read more about it, learn about the original supposedly German story to find out that it was entirely made up by Harukami. That was a really great story.
While it’s a milestone for me to read such a long novel (at a time when I shouldn’ thave time to read!), I come away a little dissatisfied. Instead of a novel truly exploring a different world or cults, it was a tenuous love story. I think that because of Aomame and Tengo’s deep and spiritual attraction all intervening interactions are erased when they find each other, that you can have real life for twenty years but it’s a fairy tale thereafter.
It is frustrating because I wanted more explanation of everything that occuried rather than a sideways explanation of fate and Little People invovlement. The actions and meaning of the Little People and their Air Chrysalis seemed left up in the air to me. What happened to Fuki-Eri? What was the point of nurse Kumi Adachi other than to be weird and speak in riddles on that night she and Tengo were together? Was there anything more to Tengo’s father than a miserable but oddly NHK passionate man – was he really Tengo’s father and did he go about as the ghostly NHK collector appearing to Fuki-Eri, Aomame and Ushikawa on behalf of Tengo? What really happened to Tengo’s older girlfriend who was “irretrievably lost” and I think he owes her an explanation and an apology!
Otherwise, the translation by Jay Rubin had a richness that I haven’t experienced in other translations and I enjoyed the novel like a rollercoaster with high and low points.
For a novel that is generally considered light reading, it took me a while to finish Camy Tang’s Only Uni, the second in her Sushi Series. It’s funny, too, because I enjoyed this installment far more than the first. I am just kind of busy these days…!
Book 1 introduced the four Christian cousins in a large Japanese-Chinese family and I disliked Lex, the “jock” protagonist of the first book, almost the entire time. As if setting up for the next book, “flirt” Trish was having a boyfriend crisis and showed up in really bad shape one morning and was unable to help Lex through a difficult time. Trish’s difficulties piqued my curiosity about the book in which she would be in the spotlight and, thank goodness, it was the very next installment.
Thus, I was interested in the story right away either because I am more like Trish or because I knew the characters already and didn’t mind seeing them again. Sisters and best friends for life living in the same city and around the same age aren’t people I have.
Several aspects of Trish were after my own heart and I am solidly a “Trish” in that “Which character are you?” game:
- She has body image problems and feels inferior to cousin Venus who has self-control (and seems like a man-eating bitch) and cousin Lex who is the supreme athlete
- She makes the same mistakes over and over again and that includes alienating her friends and God for a man
- Her history includes a string of bad men
- She is a senior biologist at a pharmaceutical company and Tang’s short bio at the back of the book provided all the explanation I needed: the author was a biological researcher before becoming a full-time writer
- She prays for the same thing I do, “Please give me the wisdom about what to do now. Please help me not go all crazy about stuff that isn’t important. Oh, and help me have the right attitude.” I am often praying for grace to handle my problems.
- While Lex took up running in a consummate athlete manner, Trish is the kind of runner I am: “Trish only jogged when she felt fat, which was about once a week, which fell on a Monday this time… She checked the time on her computer. Two o’clock. She had a two-hour incubation time, and she would need to stay late tonight to finish the assay. She’d be a good girl and go running now.” I absolutely loved the tie back to the life of a bench scientist.
The love triangle is quickly set up. Kazuo is the artistic and uber-suave Japanese national who refuses to accept his new status as an ex-boyfriend; he has Grandma’s stamp of approval and eerie prodding to pursue Trish. Spenser Wong – “six feet of gorgeousness” – is Trish’s co-worker whom she rebuffs with accusations of being a flirt (!!) and not a Christian. Since the narrative flips to Spenser’s perspective after the initial chapters, then you know who gets the girl in the end but must overcome considerable odds in between. Actually, Spenser is Christian so that problem is already solved but he has wallowed in man-whore, womanizing and sleazeball ways (to be less PG) and needs to find his way back and prove it; meanwhile, Trish has vowed to turn over a new leaf and has a set of Corinthians-inspired Rules to live by.
While the side story of Trish’s father’s infidelity and the escalating tension with the roommate were annoying, once again Tang carried the story a great distance from where it started, putting plenty of obstacles in front of Trish that she can’t be but commended for what she overcame. Just like I didn’t see it coming in the first book, I was completely blindsided in Only Uni.
**** SPOILER alert *********
When it became apparent that Spenser had a secret and was going somewhere right after work every day, I thought it was an ailing elder relative he was caring for. His secret is that Kazuo had an affair with Spenser’s wife leading the married couple to break up. The blindside was that Spenser has a child that Trish first meets unknowingly while leading Sunday School. I should have seen the family angle coming around the corner since then the reader has to cope with Trish having happily ever after as a stepmother ….
As a responsible Christian novel – it seems as if Tricia is the only of the four Christian thirty-somethings cousins to not be a virgin – then the consequences of casual sex (i.e., not with your husband) are addressed first in an HIV scare then pregnancy. I was so surprised with the pregnancy twist that I barreled through the last chapters wondering if it would turn out to be a false alarm and just a lesson, a wake-up call for Trish. But it is the world coming into balance that Spenser comes around and loves Tricia and is not just in it to get back at Kazuo and they form an instant two-child kind of nuclear family. My bet is Trish’s has a girl…
While I found Only Uni a great improvement and more enjoyable to read, I’m still picky and some has to do with the romance-slash-humour genre, to be sure. I found Kazuo to be such a cariacature being so ridiculously sexy, slick as oil, popping up everywhere Trish goes and preceded by his sandalwood scent. I know you weren’t supposed to like him – but it was to the point that I couldn’t see how he captured a biologist like Trish in the first place. I suppose not all biologists need be unfailingly logical. I thought his dialogue was clumsy in the attempt to draw him as a moody artist and I just had to write down one of his near to last lines, “We will be alone again, you and I, in our world of artistic freedom and decadent creativity.”
I also felt like the appearance of Mimi and Grandma would break my suspension of disbelief. Mimi showed up all of once in the novel to wiggle around Spenser while he is on a date with Trish and her calf-length hair is now ankle length? What next, her hair is a train carried by a guy fawning over her? The presence of a character like Mimi and making fun of the Mean Girls at church (“Katy, Katelyn, Kassie”) makes me sad that novels written for women have this catty element.
Two other points on which I’m being picky: I couldn’t believe how naive the characters were allowed to be and Tang’s continued over-use of words like “jabbed”, “stabbed (a manicured finger)” and “skewered”. The latter is self-explanatory and just par for the genre and an author’s style. As for the former, how could a biologist not recognize the danger of living in a house that has the amount of mold the bathroom has? Why did Trish not freak out once she learned she was pregnant about her unborn child’s exposure to mold, reagents at work and hazards of home renovations? I momentarily lose empathy for the character.
Finally, in the first book, Grandma who was only weirdly evil, taking away funding for Lex’s volleyball team to make her granddaughter date seriously followed by publicly lambasting Lex’s personality. In Only Uni, Grandma showed serious delusion pushing Kazuo on Trish rather than allowing the girl to have free will, offering housing to desperate Trish in return for them getting back together. It turns out non-independently wealthy Kazuo is the son of Japanese bank owners and Grandma wants to cement an alliance between her bank and theirs through their marriage and, most catty of all, Kazuo’s family will owe alimony if the marriage is dissolved – win-win. Again, I found the manipulation by the matriarch off-putting and an extreme example of girl vs girl, Christian vs non-believer and young vs old.
But I still thought it was good. Some lightweight scientific humour made me want more such as being “hot as radioactive P-32″ and legs being “weak like electrophoresis gel”. That is weak indeed! Since it was Trish’s narrative, other pop culture references were a little more geeky as well.
While Lex’s suitor in the first novel was wooden and bland, I found Spenser to be more fully formed, more real with mistakes in his past. And, I cannot deny that when Spenser fell for Trish and was repeatedly dazzled by her smile, it made me feel mushy. If love were so nice and simple – and that’s what these sorts of novels are for.
For me, that is the end of reading the Sushi Series. The next installment focuses on Venus who is tremendously hard on men and runs a game development company but I’m not a Venus nor am I a sensitive Jennifer but those characters may resonate more with other women!
Image from camytang.com
I seemed to have kicked off 2013 in reading with Asian Christian romance/chick lit in Camy Tang’s Sushi for One? Granted, I have been reading some Asian dystopia novels* and they are a challenge compared to my normal fare. I haven’t finished them while this first book in Tang’s Sushi Series was an easy read.
I figured I should give the series a try rather than pan it unfairly. But it’s not such an easy book to find with the Canadian version of online booksellers and the Toronto Public Library did not carry these books. So it had to wait until I was back in Vancouver and Vancouver Public Library carries the series.
Sushi for One? centers on Alexis “Lex” Sakai but also introduces us to her three cousins — Trish, Jennifer and Venus — who are the only Christians in a large Japanese and Chinese family. They have made a pact with each other, vowing to leave their dating lives up to God and not to date desperately. Even if the dubious honour of being OSFC (Oldest Single Female Cousin) starts to fall upon them. Lex is the first of the group to become OSFC.
The stage is set in the first five chapters. At a family party, Grandma Sakai hones in on Lex and threatens to cease funding Lex’s junior high girls’ volleyball team if Lex does not show up to her cousin’s wedding in four months with a guy she is seriously dating. I can see loopholes galore but either I am more sneaky or the girls are truly afraid of their grandmother. In the fifth chapter, the reader meets Aiden who spots Lex at a coffee shop with Trish and he was propositioned by the latter and turned her down. He simply has to meet Lex and jump through some hoops so they will end up happily every after together….
Initially, I was put off by nearly everything. I set a high standard when it comes to chick lit because I wouldn’t normally deign to read it and I am not amused by a lot in that genre. First, there was Lex. We get it – she is tomboy extraordinaire, a sports nut, “one of the boys”, a perfectionist on the volleyball court, with a superior athletic body who doesn’t realize or appreciate how beautiful she really is. I find it difficult to empathize with a clueless character.
Then, there is Grandma who is unhumanly acute and the perfect villain. I wondered how she could get away with the gross social violations she committed — like cruelly joking about Lex’s flat chest at the family gathering and berating Lex’s personality at another. It seemed convenient to the plot but then I remembered from my own experience how when someone has a great deal of money, he or she can rule over the rest of the family and get away with saying anything he or she pleases. Perhaps at the turning point all of the parts of Grandma come to make sense and she becomes a real character but I must be too personally jaded to buy that part.
Lex’s brother, Richard, and her cousin, Mimi, also struck me as caricatures. You’re supposed to be wary of oily Richard and really hate Mimi. Mimi is a character who couldn’t exist in real life with the implausible calf-length hair on a 4’8.75″ frame. Mimi was a tiny, evil and effective siren who turned up everywhere the girls went to spoil all of their plans. You’d think the family lived in a small town and not in LA. I realized that we are seeing these characters the way Lex sees them until finally she sees everything and everyone in the correct light … except for the utterly unredeemable characters.
I heard in a podcast interview that romantic comedy scripts necessarily build up with disaster upon disaster to place the protagonist in the most vulnerable state before redemption or the solution arrives. While this is probably generally true for fiction, I find it very difficult stomach in chick lit. I have nothing but skepticism as Lex’s horrible first date with George unfolds and skip past description of the physical mishaps she gets into that would be “physical comedy” or slapstick if it were a movie. Further, when Tang wrote scathingly about Asian Barbie dolls, the other females at the bridal shower and the church Lex visits, I felt little sympathy for Lex and rooted for the others.
But then, when Lex was really in pain and she was really frustrated, the humour worked better for me and I started to come around. If that is the test, when the protagonist was most vulnerable, I rooted for her a little. And I tried to understand that some people really are that sheltered.
Where does God and faith come into all of this? Like within normal Christian circles, His name is not tossed around in every conversation by far. While Trish was a hypocrite when it came to her faith and how she acted with men, Lex was also a hypocrite, ranking her devotion higher than her cousin’s but charging ahead with her plans throughout the novel without stopping to converse with God. In a Christian novel, this of course, has unpalatable results.
Two thirds of the way through, I was impressed with how the story moved along from where it started. A lot of story took place although it did seem like the timing for everything was just impeccable. All the loose ends were tied up except for the other three cousins’ relationship statuses.
In blurbs, Lex is The Jock, Venus is a Cactus, Jennifer is The Oddball and Trish is The Flirt. The titles make me groan but aren’t supposed to pigeon-hole the characters, except at first. In Sushi for One?, Tang got to tackle the world of sports and she moves on to video game development and catering in subsequent novels. There were no side stories to speak of but Trish had personal troubles at the time that removed her from Lex’s side. (Plus, Trish is a biologist.) I just might be more sympathetic to Trish’s character and it just happens the novel centered on her, Only Uni, is the second novel in the series. So, I’ve already put a hold on it from the library.
Image from camytang.com.
* 1Q84 and The Fat Years
While some would point to the overcast weather, threat of constant rain and cold wet chill in the air as the source of my affinity to hot noodle soup, I would respond that I generally love noodle soup. Bring it on! Even in on a hot summer day!
Duotian Fish Soup Noodles Restaurant [Yelp]
Someone asked me what my first meal back in Vancouver would be. No hesitation, soup noodles and the restaurant in my new ‘hood serving it is Duotian on the top level of the plaza at Renfrew and East 1st Avenue. While Cattle Cafe introduced me to Design Your Own (DYO) noodles, Duotian sealed the deal with repeat visits and introduced me to fish broth. It’s not fishy tasting!
I picked the “Chinese rice spaghetti” noodle in a pepper tofu broth and my toppings included pork liver and barbecue pork. Yes, pork laden. I know the selection of the pork liver is directly the result of not being served any pork liver when I was at hot pot with mum a week before. The noodles were a little overcooked and boiled liver is definitely an acquired taste. It was nonetheless a satisfying and light noodle soup.
Deer Garden Signatures [Yelp]
After I checked into Duotian on Foursquare, Su responded, wondering if it was similar to Deer Garden. I wouldn’t know, never been to Deer Garden Signatures. For some reason, I thought Deer Garden Signatures was in Burnaby where Deer Lake is but as we were driving to Ikea in Richmond, I looked up Deer Garden Signatures and we were just about to pass by the new Fraser location!
Although NPY’s mum had a breakfast of leftovers that NPY’s sister brought home from a Deer Garden Signatures dinner, she was game to go again and it solved the question of “where to go eat?” We were in for a late lunch (after 1 p.m.) and there was a queue for a table but it was just 20 minutes at most.
NPY’s mum ordered a spicy Thai tom yum goong broth with beef brisket and fish tofu so I had to order something non-spicy so NPY could share. There are several choices of fish broth (a couple more than Duotian offers) so I selected the watercress fish broth with Korean potato start noodles and toppings were fish fillets and Vietnamese pork, the latter upon NPY’s mum’s suggestion.
NPY noticed immediately the vastly better quality of Deer Garden Signatures and it was a better broth and care with the noodles that made Duotian look like a cafeteria by comparison. We could seriously return there often and there are constant queues for tables as a testiment to the relatively new restaurant’s popularity. I was trying out the Korean potato starch noodles (kind of like a thicker green bean/glass vermicelli) but would usually order the “Chinese rice spaghetti” which I heard is made fresh in-house.
The One Restaurant [Yelp]
After a most disappointing season opener for the Canucks, we finally had appetite for dinner. All you can eat sushi? Too much. Deer Garden again? Possibly. Cattle Cafe? NPY and I didn’t want to so NPY suggested The One.
The place was still hoppin’ with customers younger and far younger than we. One of these years, I’m not going to want to go to a place like that, despite the food. I’m happy the joint is still going and the slush bubble tea drinks got even taller (the price probably went up, too).
Since I wasn’t inclined to share, I ordered the spicy beef flank noodle soup. It was nice and spicy and the noodles were good but the beef, I thought, was a tad dry.
NPY’s order was a bit like a noodle soup, too. He ordered the slice pork with (sour) cabbage hot pot that came with a bowl of rice but-unadvertised-there is green bean vermicelli in the hot pot. I love the tang the sour cabbage lends the broth.
Yunnan Cross Bridge Rice Noodle (Crystal Mall)
NPY’s mum was raving about the Yunnan noodles at Crystal Mall food court and, lo and behold, we were there shortly after. Compared to other quick serve restaurants, there is a bit a of a wait at Yunnan Cross Bridge Rice Noodle. You wait to order, then you wait for your food to be cooked in the sequence your order was place. The restaurant is super simple just offering noodles and through a small window to the kitchen you can see claypots with chicken broth lined up on a stove and the cook is adding the ingredients (the same per noodle soup) and noodles as the broth is ready.
It’s a super value with my selection of pork ribs sliding in under $7. Default vegetables to each pot included spinach, enoki, bean sprouts and a quail egg. And no cilantro – how happy am I about that? The noodles, to me, were like the “Chinese rice spaghetti” so how did this dish get such a cute name? Here are a couple of origin stories.
Goodness, there is a lot of good stuff-other noodle shops-in Crystall Mall food court and I will certainly urge that we eat there next time we head to Metrotown.
Congee Noodle House [Yelp]
On a Monday night, we had to take care of our own dinner and the entirety of my belongings is still in a U-Haul crate, still somewhere between Toronto and Vancouver. We wanted a casual and cheap and satisfying dinner and not out of the way of the drive from downtown to home so we made a pit stop at our standby favourite, Congee Noodle House.
We got our “standard order” which is all pictured here: HK-style sampan congee with random and unknown-to-me seafood pieces, a savoury rice “tamale” and-my favourite-BBQ duck rice noodle soup. All for under $20, we were perfectly hapy.
So much food … and for so many days. This bender started off on New Year’s Eve with a quiet dinner (to contrast the chaos I was missing in Halifax) and quickly escalating as if there was no tomorrow. Fun! But tiresome after five days. I didn’t write about these along the way so I left quite a job for myself!
Raijin Ramen [Yelp]
Kinton, Momofuku, Santouka. That is the order in which I have been hitting the new ramen restaurants in town. While I don’t love the pricing of ramen in this city, it is still relatively an economical option.
After work on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t have plans-just the way I like it-but did give nod to the “occasion” by going out for dinner after work. We tried to go to Sansotei as I was “saving” Raijin to go to with mum and Lil Sis but-what do you know?-for the second time I tried to go, they were closed. Closed for the holidays. So we tried Raijin, a few blocks away. I heard Raijin had a lot of space and we scored a table at a counter and it wasn’t too busy so the atmosphere was peaceful.
Like Kinton, Raijin is a Vancouver export and belongs to the group that includes Kingyo and Suika izakayas.
We ordered a small chicken kaarage to nibble on before our bowls of ramen arrived.
I ordered bamboo charcoal miso ramen which is what I get Motomachi Shokudo and it is “healthier” and I recommended my friend order a pork bone broth shio ramen as an initiation. When the server brought the noodle bowls over, I thought the shio with dark oil patches were mine but my broth, as I should have remembered was full-on black. I had a taste of the shio broth and it was crazy rich and creamy. My broth was lighter in flavour and had a hint of Chinese tonic. I recognized the flavour as “sang day” that mum used to often make as potent broth and tell us it was good for our skin – thus I believe the bamboo charcoal soup is also beneficial! The noodles did not stand out in particular and I forgot to notice. I think Raijin wins it on the broth.
Nea Go Hyang Korean Restaurant [Urbanspoon]
As I waited for mum and Lil Sis to meet me at Finch Station after they got in from Halifax and swung by home, I froze without a hat and standing in sub-zero temperature at the Passenger Pick-Up area. I hadn’t decided where to eat and it was nearly 3 p.m. on New Year’s Day but in a frozen brain moment of clarity, recalled that Korean restaurants are plentiful just around the corner and that would warm me up quickly. Specifically, my favourite bowl of tofu soup. I pulled up the list of best Korean restaurants in North York on Urbanspoon and easily picked out which one we hadn’t tried and thankfully they were open on a statutory holiday.
Banchan arrived for us to nibble on-a good assortment-and this is one of those places also serving up a scallion pancake that is complimentary. The pancake was nice and oily and crispy. I don’t like glutinous flour pancakes unless they are thin like this. I did not push for tofu soup since it is a little antisocial of me as I tend not to share. Mum spied another table with kimchi fried rice so we ordered that and Lil Sis selected a spicy noodle soup, her kind of dish.
Kimchi fried rice was good, a little oily, with small pieces of nappy and chicken and pork. The spicy noodle soup was not as spicy as looked and as per my usual policy, I didn’t eat the seafood. The noodles were plentiful, springy and cooked perfectly.
Elegant Chinese Cuisine [Yelp]
My “research” to compile a list of places to try turned up Elegant when I was looking for Hakka food. Mum had mentioned she had Hakka food when she lived in HK and that is one of those cuisines that I definitely do not get to try. And, boy, is it difficult to find. There are many Hakka restaurants in Toronto, but it’s the Indian-Chinese fusion variety and not what mum is interested in. Hakka are nomadic people and their cuisine reflects the region where they have settled for some time while that includes parts of India, they have spent time in regions of China and created some unique dishes that hide in corners of some Chinese restaurants’ menu. Elegant sounded like it had several Hakka dishes but mum claimed not to know what the major dishes were and she shot down the idea of reserving a salt-baked chicken. Too salty, she said.
We rolled into Elegant anyhow and it is an interest space and decor with the ceilings not lowered and pipes exposed by painted dark and an eclectic mixture of refined traditional Chinese art and plants placed everywhere. I pulled up the Yelp page to keep on hand the reviews that listed the Hakka dishes and Mum asked the server which Hakka dishes they had on the menu. Server shrugged and said it was only a pork jowl and didn’t even mention the salt-baked chicken or the glutinous-rice stuff duck. I was getting worried. The chicken was out of consideration anyhow since we did not pre-order one and I was hopeful we could get the duck but it turns out that was out as well. Mum realized just how eager I was to try Hakka food and relented and we ordered the pork jowl with mustard greens. She hadn’t had jowl before and could stand to try that cut of met as well. The server seemed really concerned that we hadn’t ordered any vegetables but we really would have been too full.
Upon seeing it on the menu, mum ordered the jellyfish. It’s kind of funny and it looked odd when it appeared. A little too … dark. And it merely tasted like soya sauce and was crunchy. Mum ordered the hot & sour soup which counts as “research” as we also serve one and it was neither very hot nor sour.
The pork jowl arrived in a non-descript pile and I didn’t mind it so much except it was just not a lot of variety. The light sauce coating the pork was not too salty with sugar added to cut through it and thus I thought it was a little sweet. When we couldn’t order the duck, we freaked out and didn’t know what to replace it with except the tenderloin the hostess recommended, that had been ordered several times that evening. Honey mustard tenderloin, we thought it would be different and Lil Sis would enjoy it. “Tenderloin” was a misnomer. The cut of beef was a loin and it was tender but only artificially with tenderizer. I’m not such a honey mustard fan and the sauce wasn’t so special to blow me away.
Ten-Ichi Japanese Restaurant
Mum remarks upon our “loyalty” to Ten-Ichi and … why ever not? The price is right (there is even a senior’s rate that came in handy) and the variety is good. It was mum’s second time at Ten-Ichi and Lil Sis’ and my fourth time and we went for the first time a year ago, this time in January. We made a reservation and I’m not sure the host really was confirming reservations with his book and how on earth do you organize reservations at an all-you-can-eat restaurant where diner takes between 1.5 to 2.5 hours to enjoy their meal? Tables did turn over at 7:30 for a “second seating” and people claiming to have reservations got the first tables to turn over. Walk-ins were out of luck for a while during the busiest time. Suffice it to say, we don’t expect to get a table at the time we made the reservation if we arrive only at the time of the reservation.
The table to our left was overly fussy about the drafty window and relentlessly pestered the staff and actually sent back food because it wasn’t warm. We think they did not eat for days in advance and tucked away a scary amount of food, ordering more hot noodle soup after they had eaten dessert! The table to our right was a bigger group and practically sat on top of our table. For the first time, we had some problems getting what we ordered and had to remind them twice about our short ribs and sirloin cubes, neither of which was difficult to procure as other tables were receiving these in multiples. As coule be expected, there was no ginger creme brulee available (which we had just the first time) and there was no strawberry creme fraiche (which we’ve never had). We love the place, would return another time when we can stomach another all-you-can-eat sushi meal as the food it solid. Just for kicks, here is what we ordered:
* salmon roses
* roses maki
* white tuna sashimi (6pcs)
* salmon sashimi (9pcs)
* herb salmon
* 2 spicy salmon handrolls
* 2 spicy tuna handrolls
* spicy salmon maki
* soft shell crab maki
* kalbi short ribs
* garlic teppanaki sirloin cubes
* tempura shrimp
* tempura eggplant
* spicy salmon sushi pizza
* teppanaki flounder (2 orders)
* chicken yakitori
* grilled (robata) eggplant
* seafood hot pot (2 orders)
* unagi rice (3 orders)
* spicy beef udon
* beef ramen
* scallop cutlets
* deep-fried banana
* green tea ice cream (2 orders)
* mango ice cream
* red bean ice cream
* mango yogurt (3 orders)
* tiramisu (2 orders)
* custard cream (2 orders)
* chocolate mousse (2 orders)
My lunch suggestion with cousin WC was to visit the food court in First Canadian Place, one of the ones near me but I had never before visited. Amaya Express was on the store listing and I know what I will order … ! Butter chicken bowl and lemon rice because the latter is something different. The butter chicken used white meat (a “flaw” resolved with the presence of curry, haha) and the lemon rice was brilliant yellow, just a little tart and lemony.
Grand Ocean Seafood Restaurant [Yelp]
Lil Sis requested squab for dinner and I did not know of a place downtown to recommend to Big Uncle recommended our old standby at Dragon Centre, currently named Grand Ocean. It was not busy in the big restaurant that evening and we heard that they had to order in, with same night/hour delivery the squab.
We were served bitter melon soup and nibbled on the garlic pea shoots to start. Mum told Big Uncle about my Hakka quest and so it was decided to get the braised pork belly with preserved vegetable and I was glad Big Uncle dug in because I did not want to work on it all alone. Unfortunately we didn’t enjoy it so much because the meat was too lean! Where were the layers of fat?? A steamed fish arrived and to not impede anyone’s work, I only took a photo after it was cut up and somewhat re-assembled.
We waited a really long time for the squab and just sat and talked. The servers were overly optimistic and would tell us several times it was coming soon until it was clear it was not true. The squabs were good and two pieces was the right amount. We were served tofu dessert which I found was not silky enough. Tasted too much like tofu and that’s coming from a tofu-lover like me!
Double Ming Chinese Dessert [Yelp]
I only tasted the tofu dessert at Grand Ocean and ate a mini almond cookie so I wasn’t filled up on dessert and Lil Sis looked up and found Double Ming. The place has no aesthetics except round, Chinese-style mahogany and marble tables with matching round stools. Double boiled milk is the specialty so mum and I got that but I asked for mine to be topped with black glutinous rice. Upon my recommendation, Lil Sis ordered sago in coconut milk, my favourite complimentary dessert after banquet dinners. Mum added at the end a order for a tea egg and I followed suit, regrettably.
Mum thought something was terribly wrong with the tea egg while I merely thought she didn’t like the flavouring they used and that the egg had been hard-boiled too long and was really green. The double boiled milk desserts were delicious and slipped down easily. Lil Sis’ sago dessert was perhaps a little too much of the dessert that at banquets we don’t get served too much and mum remarked how it was a really simple dish to prepare.
Casa-Imperial Fine Chinese Cuisine [Yelp]
Fondy, the first organizer of the Joy of Eating Meetup.com group, told me about Casa, a dim sum restaurant in a castle! It’s actually just a mansion located on Steeles Avenue East and mum and Lil Sis went once last time mum was visiting and I was at work. I still wanted to try it and they were game to go again.
In the restaurant that is far longer than it is wide, there are three dining areas. The first area you see is like a beautiful parlour, shaped like a square and with crystal chandeliers overhead. We were ushered to the back of the ground level and we were dining in a darker area that feels like a hallway leading to a landing. It felt like an exclusive club and mum kept remarking how you didn’t hear anything but Cantonese spoken and I find that homogeneity intriguing. There is a dining area on the lower level as well, where the washrooms are. The place used to be a steakhouse or something and the wall art was wonderful country English scenery. The servers were mostly female and they wore very prim black dresses with a bit of ruffle that I thought was quite like what Jane Eyre would wear or, as Lil Sis observed, creepy girls in horror flicks.
It was good last time so we ordered it again – jelly fish with shredded chicken. Unlike the night before, there was elastic-like springiness to this jellyfish, it was fresh and spicy and the thinly sliced chicken was a nice addition. This was a premium dish at a good restaurant. The meal also started out nicely with a colourful and delicious rice rolls dish. The fried tofu was egg tofu and it was a good combination of all the good stuff in a quality rice roll.
I chose two “fusion” dishes that were fun to eat. I really liked the chayote roll with shimeji mushrooms and veggie ham. The broth-like sauce was light and there were also taro sachets to round out the satisfying vegetarian dish. The other fusion dish was odd, just slices of king mushroom, “shrimp paste” (minced shrimp) and pumpkin and a glob of salted egg yolk sauce. The separate ingredients were nice, not sure however if they worked together.
I agreed to the beef brisket dish but it was actually tendon and brisket and when I searched for the brisket pieces, all I came up with was very tendony brisket pieces. Trying to get at the brisket meat meant eating far more tendon than I wanted. It seemed that they forgot about our congee so when we reminded them of it, it came quickly. It was a treat of a congee, arriving in a clay pot bowl and the server stirred it up and removed all the clam shells and then ladled out our first helping. The congee contained clams, gai choy (which is slightly bitter), salted egg yolk and preserved egg yolk. It was terribly funny to see Lil Sis’ reaction from tasting the bitter vegetable to briny egg white. I liked all of the ingredients and they lent a lot of flavour to the congee.
Lil Sis selected the shrimp and peach salad roll which was beautiful and crispy and served with Miracle Whip. I liked the perfectly crispy wrap best of it all. Lil Sis also selected the pancake dessert, an aromatic crepe made with glutinous rice flour and coconut milk enclosed around sugar, crushed nuts and more coconut.
Desserts just kept getting better with the fried sesame ball with salted egg yolk, the runny, creamy kind. Mum and Lil Sis humoured me and I had two of these beautiful balls.
Confucian Restaurant [Yelp]
Mum knew I was looking for different types of Chinese cuisine to try, like Shanxi or Northwestern and it can be awfully fun even when we stick with the “usuals” for the region because it’s all new for us. I was wildly impressed that mum had found, on her smartphone no less, a couple of options. When I learned that she started with Confucian Restaurant from seeing it reviewed on Trendy Zone, I downgrade it to quite impressed. From there, she did find another similar place but given we could confirm the pricing for Confucian, we ended up there. And, Trendy Zone hasn’t really steered us too wrong.
Confucian is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall, lacking in aesthetics but I did not feel uncomfortable there. With a combination of referring to a list mum jotted down from reviews she read and what I also wanted to try, we cobbled together an order that frightfully large for three women!
I ordered the shredded potato salad because that stuff is hard for me to make and so very easy to eat. The dumplings were a splendid deal with a dozen costing just $5. I ordered the regular pork and cabbage variety because we would like it and it turns out there was little bit of soup added to the inside. We had a order at least three skewers but they could be a variety so we ordered lamb, squid and yellow croaker. We were warned the lamb was very spicy but I did not find it so. Squid was okay, flavoured with cumin. And the whole fish was nice and crispy.
Our noodle dish was Beijing-style ja jiang mein and I had no qualms with it. Mum and Lil sis thought it was spicy but they hadn’t seen anything yet. The enormous bowl of fish in spicy broth arrived. I am nervous to order it because of the level of spice but mum had written it down from reviews and wanted to try it. Seriously, she hadn’t heard of it before? Well, it is a wonderous dish. Lil Sis and mum ladled out the white fish with chilis and munched on their first servings and nearly keeled over from the spicy. I made sure to not bring chili flakes with my fish and found the heat quite pleasant.
We ordered braised pork belly with preserved vegetable (again) in some kind of defiant gesture since it was so incorrectly prepared at the last meal but it was not necessary. I was so full and so pork belly/braised meat out I did not enjoy the pork belly and just found the sauce overwhelming. I was looking forward to getting the millet congee as a bland side to the spicy food and marveled at the yellow broth colour. It is yellow from chicken broth? I took a sip and watched for mum’s reaction and it was gold-we hadn’t expected it at all to be a sweet congee! It’s not as sweet as dessert soup and it ended up being a good accompaniment to the salty and spicy dishes we had.
The Bowl Kee Restaurant [Yelp]
We didn’t know what to eat after trying to go to Shiso Tree for Japanese-style pasta and they were closed for the week (how ironic, when mum closed our restaurant for the week to visit Toronto) so we fought through all the reds and arrived at Peachtree just to peruse the selection and pick a dinner spot based on signage and/or business. We would have had to wait for a while for a table at hoppin’ Top Choice so across the plaza, I saw the sign for Bowl Kee and suggested it. I had nothing else go on except the name.
The place specializes in clay pot rice with six choices that you can order in 2-6 person sizes. They also have a big selection of hot pot dishes from which we chose the Buddha’s feast. Mum glanced over at the next table and asked about the chicken and while they had received it with their three-dish dinner, we could also order a half chicken. I love the tender Chinese chicken that came accompanied with a creamy ginger sauce instead of the usual oily scallion-ginger one. The clay pot rice was good but not the best and the vegetables of the Buddha’s Feast were about the most unfabulous variety I have ever seen. I didn’t (quite) mean to rub it in but my favourite Buddha’s Feast is at this place in Vancouver … Still, it was vegetable content and we had a decent dinner.
If we return, now that it is in on mum’s radar, we would order a three-dish dinner and get the complimentary chicken starter and a dessert.
Pastel Creperie & Dessert House
Where to go for dessert now … ? That I was getting dropped off at Finch Station to head back downtown suggested that we revisit Pastel. The small shop was busy and we did not get booth spot but a table by the counter instead. Mum ordered a matcha white hot chocolate to up her calcium intake (we hope) and it was a beautiful green colour.
Then Lil Sis and I ordered opposites in our desserts which we split with each other and mum. She ordered the shortcake waffle that was warm and had strawberry ice cream, shortcake cubes and mixed berries, drizzled with chocolate and with a side of whipped cream. I just had a taste of the waffle and it was good. I ordered the black sesame crepe within which was ground sesame seed in a sugar mixture, more shortcake cubes and a smattering of whipped cream. I would have a bite of black sesame ice cream with a bit of crepe and my plate ended up this ghastly brown and ash colour. But it was so good!
Yang’s Fine Chinese Cuisine [Yelp]
While I had suggested congee for lunch on mum’s last day in town, mum went ahead and suggested getting dim sum “across from the Maxim on Bayview.” It turns out we were returning to Yang’s. Last time, we had really late dim sum and it seem good and very high end. We were back to pick at more of their selection and dare not make it larger group because our Toronto relatives might be shocked we’d visit such a pricey place.
I’m a little wiped out by dim sum lunches and let mum and Lil Sis do much of the ordering and as such I did not know what to expect. As usual, there was a high rice rolls to diners ratio and mum and Lil Sis ordered two types. The plain rice rolls were so utterly plain and we were expected to jazz them up with hoisin sauce, peanut sauce and soya sauce provided. They were not exceptional in flavour to me. I helped mum decide between spinach rice rolls with barbecue pork or scallops rice roll. I always prefer rice roll with barbecue pork and was pleasantly surprised the rice rolls themselves were green. Other than that, they were not hot when they arrived at the table and the cut of pork was so-so, a little fatty and that is a lot coming from me!
Mum ordered “seafood” pancake which was also made with glutinous rice flour and she was disappointed that dried shrimp was one of the seafood items. I helped order the foie gras mango rolls and they were clumsily executed as flat pastries with too much mayo. My bad. And they were very expensive!
Mum ordered the plain white congee with fried dough sticks and the congee was indeed very plain. The dough sticks were hot and freshly fried but they did not taste very fresh. The typical pork dumplings (siu mai) were okay.
The glutinous rice wrapped in steamed bun was something I can fathom although have not ordered before. The glutinous rice was a little dry and the bun was not fluffy. Beef tenderloin buns were kind of tasty. The cashew pumpkin pastry and – very cute – shaped like miniature pumpkins. The interior filling appeared to be pumpkin custard which was just too much by that point in the meal!
Rolling Pot [Yelp]
Before we even got to lunch and while we were waiting for a table, mum was already looking for a spot for dinner! She came up with iCook Buffet, a Taiwanese place, but upon reading further reviews that outlined an unhygienic feature, we decided on Rolling Pot near Pacific Mall that I had seen before and noted as a place to try. Like iCook, at Rolling Pot everyone gets their own hot pot. Unlike iCook with a buffet table from which you get your items to cook, Rolling Pot is just the way I’m used to in that you place an order. At Rolling Pot, you serve yourself drinks from an assortment of cold Chinese drinks from fountain machines and Coke from 2L bottles. You also create your own sauce and mum and MY mixed two sauces each while I made one boring one with soya sauce, garlic and sesame oil.
I ordered the tom yum soup based for $2 extra while mum and Lil sis had basic broths included in the price. My favourite items of the evening included watercress, nappa cabbage, long mangrove noodles, tofu, Spam and lamb. Although you are responsible for all in your pot, you still can’t tell how much you are eating until you feel positively ill … which is the point we reached.
A coworker asked me, out of the blue, if I wanted to have lunch. Sure! Later, she only needed to tell me Ninki in Scotia Plaza and I’m game. I’ve passed by the restaurant so many times when walking north or south from my office and Eaton Centre but never went in. We arrived for lunch after 1 p.m. and were seated on a Monday with no problem. If there was a lunch menu, it was over and we selected from two bento box options priced at $13 and $15. I barely had to check what the items were include – it’s just what you order for lunch. I simply decided between chicken, salmon and beef teriyaki.
The salad was overdressed, but I like it that way. Miso soup and California rolls were okay. In the large box that arrived, everything was present in an impressive amount. The three dumplings were tight nuggets of pork and pepper and vermicelli. There were many more pieces of tempura than I would have expected, amongst them one piece of shrimp. The salmon was not the smoothest fillet but a good amount as well. Most importantly, the service was efficient and the food arrived quickly which is perhaps the largest criteria for a sit-down restaurant in the PATH concourse.
Banh Mi Boys
Okay, so I did plan running my errands around checking out Banh Mi Boys – finally. Just one more place to check off on my Toronto list (which was by no means a comprehensive list). The spot is bright and modern, long and narrow with one row of seating in the front and a long ordering and kitchen counter. I ordered the grilled pork banh mi, the first choice listed on the menu and veggie kimchi fries as the carnivore version of the latter was loaded with pulled pork (yech). The banh mi are a decent deal for the location (Queen Street West at Spadina) but twice the price than if you went to a restaurant farther from the city. But at Banh Mi Boys, if you ask for a customization (for me, no cilantro) you can be confident that it will be executed. The kimchi fries were an awesome mixture of picked spiciness, creamy mayo and peppery dried tofu and hand-cut fries.
Bonnie Tsui’s American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods has been on my radar and list of books so read since its publication in August 2009. But it took completing the Canadian “counterpart” in Paul Yee’s Chinatown and US travel this fall to finally read this volume.
Tsui is a travel writer just a year older than I am who speaks only Cantonese. Thus the book is written in plain language (i.e., not scholarly) and the transliteration of Chinese was to the pronunciation I am familiar with.
As it turns out, I have technically been to every Chinatown covered in the book. That is, I have a good feeling that when I went to San Francisco when I was seven or so it was very likely that I was taken to Chinatown. I went to LA in 2005, NY in 2009 and November 2011 and Honolulu and Las Vegas within a month of each other this fall. Trips to the last two cities really put the push on me to finally read this book!
As when I reviewed Paul Yee’s Chinatown, there are no real spoilers and I just wanted to share my impressions of the information imparted. Here are the Chinatowns, in the order that I read about them.
- San Francisco: To start things off, Tsui went to San Francisco, the oldest. I didn’t know what was so remarkable about these chapters afterall. It was interesting how Tsui described her father’s impression of Chinatown when he arrived in America. He thought it look “old”, older than parts of Hong Kong’s historic Kowloon District at the time and you’d think an American Chinatown would be ultra modern and clean by comparison. Instead, Chinatown had “Chinese” flourishes that hadn’t been used in China for decades. Like many a Chinatown story, the San Francisco Chinatown had occasion to rebuild and at that point, a conscientious decision is made by architects and planners to sell a fake China to tourists who wouldn’t know better. The original Chinatown buildings before the 1906 earthquake were Western in style, made of brick with Victorian facades and balconies. In actual fact, and it is true for many Chinatowns, it is a “gilded ghetto”–tourists visit and spend money and it seems shiny and possibly rich to them but poverty lies beneath the surface.
- Honolulu: While Chinese people went to California during the gold rush, some ended up in Hawaii to work on sugar and pineapple plantations. In Hawaii, Chinese people were allowed to own land earlier than they were on the mainland–they attained affluence earlier and thus left Chinatown earlier. It was a social center before it was a GI red light district and now revitalization is taking place and it is an arts district with a successful monthly arts night. Tsui visited Fong Chan who has an art shop. Hawaii is a culturally diverse place with a good deal of integration and Tsui posits that that is reflected in Chinatown.
Personally, I wasn’t impressed with Chinatown in the least in Honolulu and was quite saddened by it. It was dotted with some of those art shops and it felt like a ghost town at lunch time on a weekday. I was only most impressed by the wet market that we cut through Mauna Kea Marketplace in search of the archives. There is no wet market in Vancouver or Toronto. I, coming from a place with no Chinatown am still curious (if disappointed) in Honolulu’s Chinatown. NPY, who comes from a place with a real Chinatown, didn’t think it qualified as a Chinatown.
- Las Vegas: Las Vegas has a Chinatown?! Yes, Las Vegas has a Chinatown, completely manufactured like the rest of the modern Strip. While the Chinese population in Las Vegas is not insignificant, it took Taiwanese American developer James Chen to come along and create “Chinatown” in Las Vegas. The first all-Asian plaza, Chinatown Plaza, unabashedly adorned with pagoda roofs opened in 1995, which is around the time Pacific Mall mall opened in Toronto. Chen had quite a bit to live up to but the native population, Chinese tourists seeking authentic Chinese food and all other tourists provide a sufficient base. An additional plaza, several more on the horizon and four years later, the Spring Mountain Road area 1.4 miles off the Strip was officially designated as Chinatown. In 2002, the first and only Miss Chinatown Las Vegas was crowned. I had to laugh at the strategic motivation to promote a pageant. A beautiful and eloquent pageant queen was good for promoting Chinatown, better than old businessmen! Tsui also visited a gambling school at which many Chinese new to Las Vegas learn the skills to land jobs in the casinos–it sounded like a fun part of the research.
Since we went to Las Vegas shortly after Hawaii, NPY was skeptical when I wanted to visit Chinatown in Las Vegas. He hadn’t heard of it before but his parents quickly approved of going off-Strip for meals in Chinatown. They go all of the time when they are not getting cheap Chinese food at the Rio and Gold Coast. We were returning from a visit to Zion National Park and in the mood for solid Chinese/Asian food and drove down Spring Mountain Road. I was utterly gleeful to see the big plazas with pagoda roofs and not knowing exactly how many there were, happy to see one after the other. Chinatown Plaza, the original, was the one with all of its roofs lit up. We were spoiled for choices ended up eating there twice. Definitely impressed. I was also impressed that when you exit Chinatown Plaza, you wait to cross the intersection of Spring Mountain Road and Wynn Road. And straight ahead of you are the two towers of Wynn and Encore. For me, that was quite the moment.
- New York: New York. It is the biggest, a city within a big city. The fascinating part was how Chinatown supported the New York fashion industry so integrally in the past. From imagining New York in a grittier and more industrial time and how Chinatown is largely ignored in the mainstream media at the time to Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation novel that takes place in a sweat shop, I was a bit swept away at the notion. Like Chinese immigrants fulfilling the patriotic dreams of American designers. Yet the amount of money they made was based on the number of pieces they finished. The crazy part was how the workers were not privy to which fashion house the clothes went to because there would be a rebellion if they knew exactly how much it sold for!
- Los Angeles: When you’ve already covered San Francisco, the oldest, the original, why bother with LA even? As the seat of Hollywood and origin of American pop culture, LA’s Chinatown played a special part. If a production needed an “exotic location”, Chinatown could easily stand in for China. The classic film conflict is between good and evil and if Free America was good, then Communist China was easily the bad guy and we know how many movies of the 60s and later surrounded exactly that. It seemed like back in the heyday, any old bloke in Chinatown could get a part as an extra in many a Hollywood show or film. These days, it’s not so cool (or diplomatic or savvy) to make China out to be the bad guy. What I kept thinking about is how difficult it is for Asian-American actors to get good roles and the stereotypical roles that are often available to them. A casualty of previously acquiescing to Hollywood?
Throughout the visits to all the Chinatowns, a similar question was posed: what does Chinatown mean? The modern Chinatown (which now isn’t the “modern” Chinatown that is a new plaza in the suburbs, but the inner city one), is decorated to attract tourists and sells low-quality souvenirs. The Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American can see through it all but still find value. In any of the large cities, Chinatown is a cheaper place to live and a familiar environment for new immigrants with rocky English skills. Those who can get out do but a new generation born in America returns because there is something inherently familiar despite the fakeness. They find the real part and, short of a visit to China, that is how they connect with their culture. Chinatown and its essence have successfully replicated in American cities such that a Chinese-American can travel from American city to the next one and know what to expect. To some degree, that still holds true even in a very different country.
My own collection of American Chinatown images:
Chinatownland sign in LA is actually an art installation marrying Chinatown and Hollywood, the latter of which so often used Chinatown to stand in for a Chinese city.
Chinatown gate in Portland, Oregon.
New York City Chinatown (not the most representative images, I know)
Wo Fat Building in Honolulu Chinatown
My sad attempt at a panorama of the Chinatown Plaza in Las Vegas at night
One day, while cutting through Union Station, Lil Sis pointed out the Sushi Shop and asked me if I would try out their offering. “Never!” was my answer, scoffing at the idea. A sushi joint in grubby Union Station!?
Shortly after, I would laugh to myself as I browsed the beautiful menu that landed in my mailbox and gleefully plotted out a few meals that would take advantage of the coupons along the edge of the menu offering a free roll with a minimum order and the like.
The Sushi Shop has tens of locations in Montreal and throughout the province of Quebec but just a handful in Ontario so far with five of them in Toronto. Besides being one of the closest locations, the Union Station location is the only one open on the weekends. In the case of independent shops, you might not want to get sushi on the weekend because fish market days are Sundays and Mondays so weekend fish is the least fresh. The Telus Tower location is just as close to me as Union Station and stays open until 7:00 p.m. on weekdays.
While waiting for your order at a Sushi Shop location, you will quickly learn they are part of the MTY Rewards program (free to join, it seems) where you earn points each time you dine at 20 participating merchants (at a rate of earning 3.6 points per pre-tax dollar, it would take $1,334 to earn 4,800 points required to redeem $10). The rewards program also offers free menu item vouchers based on your purchasing patterns and frequency. One can hope those vouchers are easier to come by and coincide with items you would order.
I stopped by the Union Station location on my way home after yoga for my inaugural visit and it was to try their Sirocco Hako sushi that coincidentally is the posterchild for this month’s menu. Because it’s beautiful. Hako is a mold into which rice and the fish and other ingredients are pressed, in other words, “pressed sushi”.
The salmon was chopped and then reconstituted with sesame seeds and crunchy tempura such that it was hard to really get its flavour. I would have wanted more avocado in the avocado-mango mixture and the bed of rice was flatter than I would like. Still, an impressive sushi and I was eager to try more and make my next order.
My next order was half a week later, at the Telus Tower location with some time to spare even after I got work late. My planned order was the Red Tiger roll, seared salmon nigiri, a novel dessert roll and the Inferno roll that was free with a minimum $15 order. Since they did not have a required ingredient for the dessert roll, I ordered the seared tilapia instead. This was one crazy “bento” box.
The Red Tiger roll was one that I had identified I wanted to try with a great fusion that introduced smoky steak sauce. It was a meaty roll that was lovely in its smokiness and creaminess. The shrimp was fresh and crunchy.
Since going to Miku in Vancouver, I have been searching for seared sushi that doesn’t cost $4/piece. The principle is the same in that searing the fish brings out some natural flavours otherwise locked into the raw fish and Sushi Shop is the right price at under $4 for two pieces, about how much I would pay for nigiri from a good restaurant. The salmon and tilapia were cut generously and lightly seared. I thought the tilapia tasted entirely cooked and the salmon was well-balanced.
The Inferno roll is from their Crunchy Sushi series and had intrigued me with the use of sun-dried tomato pesto but I will ignore any sushi with cream cheese listed as a component. The roll did a good job of packing in crunch and heat, so much that I didn’t taste a hint of the pesto. Perhaps the cream cheese tempered the heat a little and it was a fun roll.
Despite having my order all planned out, I couldn’t order again because a main reason for my third order was to try their dessert roll but twice within September, contrary to advertised in their September take-out menu, they did not have a component they needed to make the dessert roll.
It wasn’t until December when I remembered I could try again to order the dessert roll and it was available! Happily, I put together an order that exceeded $10 so I could get a free California roll.
Trilogie, one of their crispy rolls, was my main roll. Salmon, tuna, and a lot of tilapia made it a meaty roll lightly fragranced with the green onion. Although it was not still hot, the roll exterior was really crunchy and I really liked the combination. The California rolls were also solid with plenty of the three ingredients.
Paradiso, the dessert roll I waited so long to try, was unfortunately my least favourite piece and it wrapped the meal. It is served cold, of course, and even when I tried to dunk it in the chocolate sauce, it did not stick very well. I did not enjoy the cold rice and colder rice paper that was an unpleasant skin. The rolle would have done just as well, I think, without the rice paper. The three fruits–strawberry, mango and clementine–are good on their own but didn’t make the best combination with the rice.
That was truly a fun tour of the Sushi Shop menu!
Of the 10 meals recapped below at Asian joints that we hit up during seven days in Honolulu, only four of them were planned. We discovered other great restaurants that don’t top the list on Urbanspoon but were well the visit. 10 Asian meals! And there’s a whole other blog post for the food during that week that wasn’t strictly Asian!
Izakaya Tako-No-Ki [Yelp]
After ascertaining that our room was acceptable, we walked around the neighbourhood on a Friday night at 10:00 looking for food. Bars and clubs were certainly open but I was a little confuzzled by the options and we went with Japanese and a izakaya on the second floor on the same street as our hotel.
The ramen was cheap but plainly adorned but the noodles were good. I ordered my first poke of the visit and enjoyed every bit of it down to the sweet onions and branch-like seaweed.
I made an 8 pm reservation at Nobu Waikiki but really just wanted to enjoy some drinks and their “foursome” deal of three appies and a dessert for a fixed price. We never got a chance since they weren’t seating anyone after the tsunami warning as issued and thereafter we found they weren’t conveniently located in a cool area and didn’t return.
The idea of a Japanese food court inside a Japanese department store inside a Western mall sounded cool but it was actually quite low key. I picked up pre-packed containers of sushi from the musubi kiosk and paid for them at central cashiers.
It was the only musubi I would have and it was mediocre. The presence of Spam was a novelty and the seasons onigiri was tasty but we aren’t used to so much rice in our sushi.
Marukame Udon [Facebook]
Marukame Udon is apparently some chain in Japan with over a hundred stores and a must-do in Honolulu. The line out the door looks long but it moves quickly because its a very casual eatery and I marveled how with out intervention by a host everyone seemed to get seated even though people got food faster than people are their food.
The menu seemed big and the description accompanying pictures were frustrating, like “Noodle in hot broth” or “Noodle in sauce”. Then when you see it being “prepared” you see how simple it all is. The appropriate size portion of mostly cooked noodle is dumped in a bowl and quickly reheat in a basket in hot water. Another server pours in hot broth or sauce and tops it with an egg or beef and green onion and tempura bits. We pick up our own sides from trays just before the cashier who assesses your tray’s value and charges you.
The noodle tasted fresh and had the required chewiness and the broth was light while the sauce was a little sweet. It was dirt cheap with one large noodle, one small noodle and two sides coming to $14. It’s nothing gourmet or astoundingly good but a fun and satisfying dinner.
Genius Lounge Sake Bar & Grill
NPY turned up this hidden gem and we aimed to visit at 6 pm when happy hour started and would last two hours. It was on the third level of a Hawaiian-style (i.e., stucco) house and did not sound busy so we visited Genius Outfitters on the ground level and freshened up in our room and returned at 7. It was still not busy but we were hungry.
Drinks were half price which meant a glass of housemade sangria was merely $2.50, sake cocktails were $4 and 150 mL of sake was $5.
I ordered a pokedon so we’d have rice and NPY ordered the pasta vongole to have noodle. We also ordered the rock shrimp tartar to not ignore the happy hour food menu entirely.
NPY really liked the tuna pokedon which was made with Genius’ “secret” miso sauce and the rice was also drizzles with some sauce also umami. We like the pasta that was tapas size in portion. There was no description for the rock shrimp tartar which.I thought meant tartare but misspelled but could have meant tartar, the dipping sauce for fish and chips. Fried shrimp with a fluffy and thin batter? Loved it.
Little Village Noodle House
Well, Chinatown was vastly underwhelming and the most fascinating thing was the closest thing to a wet market which I didn’t dare bring NPY into in Hong Kong but I dragged him through the Mauna Kea Marketplace to get to the museum which I didn’t end up visiting.
For Chinese food in Honolulu, Little Village tops the ranks and I can see why. The menu looks catered to tourists and Westerners but we ordered noodles as did also an Asian woman who was dining by herself.
I only tried NPY’s wonton mein broth which I though tasted a little funky and one wonton that was a little spoiled by the shrimp and a little salty. I enjoyed my dan dan mein that had chewy Northern noodle and a slightly thin but appropriately nutty and spicy sauce.
Good grief, did I go to Hawaii and eat at PF Chang’s?! In our defense, we’ve never been to one before despite our many trips stateside and they had patio tables available when we really wanted a place to sit and watched costumed Halloween revelers walk by. An additional bonus was that the service and food was slow to come and we could longer longer.
The server showed us PF Chang’s special sauce which is mixed from your favourite ratio of soy sauce with wine vinegar, mustard and chili paste. It wasn’t my favourite taste.
Since the time I wanted to try PF Chang’s the item I wanted to have, despite whatever is their best dish, was their mapo tofu. And by sheer happy coincidence, or perhaps similar taste, NPY chose the Buddha’s feast, also vegetarian and containing tofu. I was really excited! The mapo tofu was the oddest one I’ve had yet. Sweet, barely spicy. The nest of broccoli was steamed which was just fine but I used the opportunity to dip into my PF Chang’s sauce. The Buddha’s feast also present more broccoli and the sauce was oddly sweet as well. It was a decent medley of vegetables but I found that some of the pressed and baked tofu tasted off, not very fresh.
Matsumoto Shave Ice
Who knew that a morning of driving and hopping in and out of the car to take pictures at scenic points would help us work up an appetite? After a few hours of driving, we had Giovanni’s shrimp and after watching green sea turtles crawl ashore, we were ready for dessert.
There was a friendly crowd around the store standing around and enjoying their shaved ice concoctions. At a counter in the middle of the store, we place our orders which were written in code on the bowl then given to behind the counter for preparation. The most basic shave ice is small size with three flavours. I did that basic creation a few better by ordering it on a bed of vanilla ice cream and azuki beans, selecting three “exotic” flavours in mango, lychee and pineapple, and topping off the whole thing with condensed milk. That was a lot of condensed milk and everything tied together so very well. The price for DIY shave ice was just fabulous.
Mikawon Korean Restaurant [Yelp]
I planned the whole island day trip and had nothing lined up for dinner. Thankfully NPY stepped up and used Yelp to find Mikawon in a passageway not far from the hotel. It is a dive restaurant so I was careful to stay balanced on my toes and not touch too much. That’s why I like to order scorching hot food at Korean dive restaurants.
The banchan we were presented with was really great and we liked all the dishes save for the spicy ones, I because I don’t like the sour pickled spice (kind of odd for me). When we were partway through our meal, we were offered a refill of the banchan we wanted and got more bean sprouts and potato which was potato salad, they having run out of the marinated potato.
I ordered tofu stew which at mild was very spicy. NPY ordered a bibimbap with a great assortment of shredded vegetables and meat and it was just the best way to wrap an action-packed day of touring and eating.
Ramen Nakamura [Yelp]
The last day was a little difficult. I hadn’t lined up any restaurant in particular and we had hit up pretty much all the big ones I wanted to. Still, I’m always game for ramen so after we decided we weren’t feeling happy hour at a Japanese lounge again, we stopped at Ramen Nakamura on Kalakaua which I read a review rating it to have the best noodles of eight Honolulu ramen shops.
As per usual, we got one ramen combo so NPY can have rice and noodle and I could have a gyoza and we got contrasting broths and, it turns out, contrasting noodles. I dug into the tonkatsu ramen first which has rich broth, a slice of cha siu, plenty of mustard vegetables and chili-marinated bamboo shoots. I should have picked out the ginger but otherwise it was good with chewy noodles. I tried the Tokyo ramen which has a clear and refreshing broth and a soft egg-like noodle. That is what NPY liked so we did not share too much our noodles for once.