(This post will be incorporated into the new HSBC Chinese Restaurant Awards site on launch tomorrow, September 28. This is a preview.)
As a kid growing up in the Vancouver of the seventies, your family, if it had a certain suburban worldly sophistication needed to declare their affiliation. Were you a Ho Ho family, or did you cross Pender to the Ho Inn? Sure the Ho Ho had a better signage, but are you there to eat, or gawk at neon? We were Ho Inn people. The balance of our extended family favoured the (to my mind at least) inferior Ho Ho. We thought they were savages and they thought us barbarians. Neon lights, worn banquets and a cuisine never seen before by anyone that had actually grown up in China. Fusion before fusion was even a word.
We had standbys, things that would not be varied upon. Green peppers with beef in black bean, lemon chicken, and my favourite dish, curry beef and potatoes. No the food was not anything a 2010 version of a Vancouverite would recognize as being Cantonese, but thirty years ago it was exotic and delicious. Everyone at the table was allowed to pick one dish, I formulated a strategy whereby I’d select my second favourite dish, leaving curry beef and potatoes, my actual favourite dish for someone else to select. Someone always did, a trip to the Ho Inn was inconceivable without this Sino-Canadian hybrid classic.
As the seventies came to a close, so too did regular trips to the Ho Inn. My parents started dining alone as my brother and I were old enough to be left home alone on a Saturday, they began frequenting the new Chinese hot spot, which was then Mings. Food was considerably more Chinese, far closer to what we eat today, rather than the pseudo-Chinese of earlier decades. Vancouver was on the edge of the east west migration that transformed our city and is still ongoing and culinary norms changed also. However to my early teen aged mind, wood ear mushroom and snow fungus were poor substitutes for sliced potatoes deep fried and covered in a curry gravy.
If the loved food of our youth turns into the comfort food of our later years, then I’ve been the victim of a cruel karmic trick. The Chinese food of my childhood literally does not exist in Vancouver anymore. It’s gone. The Ho Inn burned down, there was a post fire rumour that prohibition era machine guns were hidden in the walls by a gangster rum runner, a fitting Raymond Chandler-esque twist I’d say. The Ho Ho (now Foo’s Ho Ho) still struggles along, the sole remnant of an earlier age. I’ve been remiss in not giving it a kick, maybe because I’m afraid of what I might find. The last time I was there was the evening before my wedding, it was the last time my family trooped to Chinatown for a “traditional” Chinese dinner, or at least traditional to those of us that grew up in the seventies. That was almost twenty years ago.
I’ve tried to find an equivalent, it’s not possible in new millennium Vancouver. Part of the problem is nothing is ever going to taste like what you remember food from your youth tasting like, and our ingredients are too sophisticated, real Chinese vegetables and supplies are now available in every supermarket. The closest simulacrum is Caucasian mall food court Cantonese. It’s a terrible substitute. Greasy and always bland, it bears about as much resemblance to the Chinese of my youth as it does to the Chinese of my present. Everything old is new again, and I’d love to see a committed restaurateur recreate a space serving the food of pre-immigration boom Vancouver. Done with honesty and integrity, relying on local ingredients cooked with Chinese techniques for local pallettes trying to recapture previous times. If they included the jukeboxes at every table and red vinyls booths like at the Ho Inn, that’d be good too.