Although Chinese-Canadian fare hasn’t died out entirely, we are a long way from chop suey.
PETER HUM – Ottawa Citizen
On Oct. 27, 1945, the typewritten menu at the Ontario Cafe at 66 Rideau St. listed such temptations as breaded halibut steak for 40 cents, grilled milk-fed veal chops for 45 cents, and, perhaps most surprisingly 75 years later, several chop suey dishes including chicken mushroom chop suey for 75 cents.
Those Chinese-Canadian items likely dated back to the early days of the eatery that stood where the Rideau Centre is now. My grandfather, James Hum, opened the Ontario Cafe with several partners in the early 1920s, having emigrated from southern China to Ottawa in the mid-1910s.
One of the first Chinese immigrants who settled in Ottawa, my grandfather died here in 1934. The Ontario Cafe, which thrived when farmers sold their wares at the nearby ByWard Market, remained in my family for some years, although perhaps not into the mid-1940s. But two of my grandfather’s sons, my uncle, Tom, and my father, Joe, went on to open restaurants in Ottawa, too.
I did not take over the family restaurant when I had the chance to, decades ago, and I was never asked to. Instead, I now have the privilege of dining at restaurants considerably more frequently than my pay grade should allow, as long as I write about those meals.
Chinese food and my family are on my mind this week. Chinese New Year, which begins Saturday, encompasses many traditions and superstitions, and perhaps above all, it is a time for families to come together, honour ancestors and feast.
But even if your ancestry isn’t Chinese, you too might feel like celebrating soon with a Chinese meal. Analysis released this month by the website chefspencil.com found that the top “ethnic” cuisine in Canada was Chinese, followed by Italian, Thai, Indian and Mexican.
The international food website generated its rankings through Google Trends analyses. Drilling down into the results, you do find that input from B.C. contributed heavily to Chinese cuisine coming out on top. Still, when I asked Chef’s Pencil for data exclusive to Ottawa, Chinese food again topped the list, followed by Indian, Thai, Italian and Mexican. For all of Quebec, Chinese food was again No. 1, according to the website.
That kind of popularity is reason enough to ponder what’s meant by Chinese food in 2020, particularly in Ottawa.
Although Chinese-Canadian fare hasn’t died out entirely, we are a long way from chop suey. Waves of immigration from China have brought a succession of new, diverse dishes, served not just to fellow expats but to non-Chinese with curious taste buds.
Regional specialties such as Yunnanese “Crossing the Bridge” soup, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, the street-food crepes called jianbing and more are now served in Ottawa, the latest arrivals in a century-long evolution of Chinese food that in Ottawa began downtown, moved to Somerset Street West by the 1980s, and appears now in our suburbs.
From the Ontario Cafe, my relatives made their entrepreneurial move to Centretown. My uncle Tom held shares in the Arcadia Grill at 249 Bank St. and the Ho Ho Cafe at 248 Albert St. My father, who died in 2005, wrote in his diary of reminiscences that during the Second World War years, the Arcadia Grill “was extremely busy because it had an attractive store front and was the only restaurant to have air conditioning.”
By the early 1960s, my father and his brother-in-law were running the Marco Polo Tavern Restaurant on Bank Street near Heron Road. “There was a lot of construction going on in Alta Vista and we catered to the working class,” my father wrote. The Marco Polo served Canadian and Chinese-Canadian dishes galore — hot turkey sandwiches and chicken fried rice, grilled baby beef liver and garlic spare ribs. Now, the Thai restaurant Sweet Basil stands where the Marco Polo was.
Among the restaurant pioneers of Ottawa’s Chinatown was the Shanghai, opened by Alan Kwan in 1971. His children continue to run the restaurant, which they transformed into a hip, new-generation haunt. Still, Alan’s son Edward, known widely in Ottawa as drag queen China Doll, has posted on Facebook that the Shanghai could well close in 2021 when it turns 50.
In the mid-1980s, entrepreneurial immigrants from Hong Kong opened the massive, cornerstone Chinatown restaurants Fuliwah (now Oriental Chu Shing Restaurant) and the Yangtze. Cart-service dim sum likely touched down in Ottawa at these two competing neighbours on Somerset Street West.
By the early 1990s, modest restaurants such as Jadeland, Ben Ben and Cafe Orient, all still open, brought more casual Hong Kong-style fare to Ottawa. They remain popular with Hong Kong expats, says Grace Xin, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area.
“Chinatown is the place that really gives you the feeling of home,” says Xin, who came to Ottawa from southern China about 20 years ago.
A particular Chinatown success story is So Good Restaurant, which Peter So opened in 1994. So retired in 2018, selling the restaurant to one of his chefs, who has even gone on to open a second location on Springfield Road in New Edinburgh. Although in new hands, So Good retains its original, staggeringly long and diverse menu, which So says was such a hit because it offered so many vegetarian options.
This week, So and I chatted at Cafe Orient, a tiny Chinatown eatery that opened in 1993. The humble place is naturally a little tired-looking, but we enjoyed small dishes and snacks that Xin told me are true tastes of Hong Kong. Fried bread was lightly sweet and milk tea was creamy and satisfying. Chiu chow dumplings were plump and fresh. Morsels of steamed rice roll were basic but irresistible, swathed in hoisin and peanut sauces. Shrimp wontons were tender and chunky of filling.
I still do think that Hung Sum, the à la carte dim sum specialist across from Plant Recreation Centre, serves Ottawa’s best dim sum. But Cafe Orient’s no-fuss dishes definitely hit the spot.
“Szechuan” food first appeared in Ottawa in the 1980s. But they were just rough approximations, usually made by Cantonese chefs and restaurateurs keen to jump on a trend. True Sichuanese dishes, many brimming with dried chilies and liberal doses of numbing Sichuan pepper, only arrived in Ottawa in the past five or six years, at a few restaurants that have since closed and the still-open Full House on Carling Avenue. Meanwhile, the Dalhousie Street restaurant Spicy House serves chili-heavy fare from different parts of China.
What’s the core market for these new businesses? The 2016 census tallied more than 46,000 Chinese people in Ottawa, among an East and Southeast Asian population of more than 76,000. Perhaps the most crucial customers are thousands of homesick and hungry international Asian students attending Ottawa’s post-secondary institutions. A casual glance inside many of the new and affordable Chinese restaurants seems like instant confirmation.
Entrepreneurs have also proven in recent years that Asian night market festivals on Somerset Street West and elsewhere could draw crowds of as many as 25,000 — Asian expats and Canadian-born foodies — for everything from skewers of lamb, squid or potato to stinky tofu.
Two franchises of Chinese-based hot pot restaurants have opened in Ottawa — Liuyishou Hotpot Ottawa on Merivale Road and the more spacious, fancier Morals Village on Riverside Drive. Both provide sumptuous, fondue-like experiences grounded in a range of piping hot broths.
Crossing the Bridge noodles arrived stealthily in Ottawa a few years ago at the modest Vanier restaurant Yunnan Fusion. The dish, which originated in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, has an elaborate back story. Legend says a wife who brought lunch to her husband, a studying scholar, split up broth and soup ingredients so they would degrade less during her trip that involved crossing a bridge.
Apocryphal or not, the tale lines up with how the soup is served at Yunnan Fusion, in homespun fashion, and at the franchise operations Dagu Rice Noodle on Riverside Drive and Yunshang Rice Noodle, which opened last year in Centretown.
In particular, the soups at Yunshang, a four-year-old Toronto-based business that also has locations in Vancouver, Montreal and New York, impressed me a lot. Appealing broths, authentic or otherwise, range from the original pork-y based one that’s like a more brusque tonkotsu ramen broth, to a Thai-style curry broth to broths made puckeringly sour by pickled vegetables or scorchingly hot by chilies. Trays of accompaniments and optional add-ons won us over, while popcorn chicken and spicy tofu appetizers were also solidly made.
But as far as Chinese noodles go, I’m most beguiled by the Guilin noodles served at Sula Wok on Main Street. Xin-Hui Su, best known by her nickname Sula, sells a lot of fusion dishes — think Asian tacos. But I crave her Guilin rice noodles, the most popular dish in the region of southern China from where she hails. Slippery noodles mingle with the alternating sournesses of pickled daikon and mustard greens and the pop of fried soybeans. The sauce that Sula makes for her noodles — made with 50 dried herbs and spices and cooked for more than a day — is truly compelling.
My preferred Chinese dumplings come from a Centrepointe mall eatery that opened nearly two years ago. At Dumpling? Dumpling!, pork, beef, chicken and shrimp dumplings were made with quality ingredients and contained big, clean flavours, while funky Chinese mushrooms, asparagus, coriander, fennel and curry spoke clearly too in preparations. We’ve preferred our orders pan-fried, to achieve a nice, crisp sear on one side.
Many of these restaurants are essentially specialists. Indeed, paring down menus does require less of a kitchen. So, when I’m asked for my favourite Chinese restaurant in Ottawa, one with a broad menu and not just efficiency and expertise in serving soup or street foods, I respond: Harbin Restaurant, located in a March Road strip mall in Kanata.
Harbin takes its name from northeastern China’s second largest city, and was opened in the fall of 2018 by Harbin native Hang Yu. He and his wife moved to Ottawa in 2012 to study engineering at the graduate level. But Yu, now 31 and a Kanata resident, went instead into the restaurant business, as hard as he says it is. “I just want to share my hometown’s food,” he says.
Yu says he always wanted to be a chef and has relatives who run restaurants in Harbin and Beijing. His restaurant’s chef is from Shanghai, but can cook Harbin specialties including a range of casseroles, other Northern Chinese dishes, authentically fiery and complex Sichuanese dishes and more.
In my experience, whatever he cooks, he cooks well, from scrumptiously spicy Sichuan-style chicken wings to Harbin casseroles of tender meatballs, spinach and vermicelli to punchily flavoured stir-fries of eggplant or beef.
About 80 per cent of Harbin’s customers are Chinese expats, Yu says, before adding: “Chinese, after staying in Canada a couple of years, their taste actually changes. You eat more sweet stuff, you eat more sugar.” Harbin’s recipes have been tweaked ever so slightly as a result, he says.
“We actually teach lots of Canadian people to eat Chinese food,” Yu continues. Family-style dining still seems novel to some of his guests, he says. And yet, sharing dishes at the table has been a convention of Chinese dining in Ottawa since at least the days of the Marco Polo Tavern Restaurant.
Yu, who plans to open another Harbin later this year on Merivale Road, makes me think that in a century, Chinese food in Ottawa has travelled very far from Rideau Street to Centretown to Alta Vista to Somerset Street West to March Road. It has changed radically, too, as have its purveyors. But at least two constants — deliciousness and a coming together of cultures through food — have endured.
Selected Chinese restaurants in Ottawa
808 Somerset St. W.
261 Centrepointe Dr., facebook.com/dumplingdumplingca
591 March Rd., harbinrestaurant.com
939 Somerset St. W., facebook.com/HungSumRestaurant
Morals Village Hot Pot
3987 Riverside Dr., Unit 1
So Good Restaurant
717 Somerset St. W., sogoodfo.w12.wh-2.com
184 Main St., facebook.com/sulawok
Yunshang Rice Noodle
275 Bank St., Unit 101, yunshang.ca