There is a particular block downtown that feels, in my opinion, exactly like a charming, “old downtown” area should feel. It starts at the corner of 50th and 50th and heads one short block west. This section of the street always seems dark; the brightest it gets is shady, and the trees growing up out of the sidewalks add to that effect. The brick-and-stone buildings lining either side of the street appear to be quite tall, especially when a person is on foot, creating the illusion that they are leaning toward one another, over the street, leaving only a narrow strip of sky above. It’s a quaint, homey darkness. Even when the setting sun blazes a brilliant path down the street from the west there is a comforting feeling of being in shadow.
In summertime it is shady and cool there. There is at least one occasion every summer, the Wetaskiwin Festival of Arts and Agriculture, when the city shuts the block down to all but pedestrian traffic and sets up a stage and space for various local vendors and artists. It’s the perfect environment for this type of event, and we’ve gone to the Festival for an afternoon each year it’s been in existence.
It can’t be much more than a year ago that someone started painting one of the storefronts on this block a bold, barn door red. It used to house some sort of cafe but had been sitting empty for I can’t remember how long. I noticed the painting in progress once in passing, but didn’t think much of it until a sign was hung above the door reading “Hong & Sandy’s”, advertising Chinese and (the inevitable) Western Cuisine (I don’t understand why so many of these restaurants feel the need to offer hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches alongside their signature, ethnic dishes. I guess I just assume that most people who go to a Chinese restaurant are planning to eat Chinese food. I’ll move on.). Driving by on another evening I noticed a bright, hissing, neon pink “CAFE” sign hanging out over the sidewalk, clashing brilliantly with the red paint. A crude, bristleboard, hand-“Sharpied” sign was taped in the front window, advertising a brunch schedule and pricing. Despite all these efforts to draw me in, I hardly gave it a second thought. The only item that hung in my mind was the name. I found the mix of exotic and familiar (Hong, and Sandy) to be intriguing enough that it registered in my consciousness each time I drove by, but I was not intrigued enough to stop in.
The difference came last summer when we bought a little house in town, and our generous and helpful realtor (and family friend) offered us a gift certificate for Hong & Sandy’s in celebration of our purchase. I admit I was surprised that she chose this new restaurant, but she made an effort to recommend it highly, noting that at least one of the owners was from Hong Kong, meaning that, in her opinion, the food was better. At that time, we were solid supporters of a different local Chinese place, but with my wife six months pregnant, a toddler underfoot, and a house full of moving boxes, a free meal was nothing to turn up one’s nose at.
A few days later, once we were a bit more settled in, we called in our order and a little while later I headed down to pick it up. As soon as I stepped inside, my suspicions were confirmed: this restaurant was a hole in the wall.
A “hole in the wall,” according to my personal definition, is a tiny, quirky, one-of-a-kind, small town restaurant. It can be a good thing or a bad thing. At first glance, I had a feeling it was going to be a good thing.
Like many Chinese restaurants, the decor was outdated and a little gaudy, but in a charming, familiar way. Most of what I saw was typical, hole in the wall, Chinese restaurant-esque. An empty buffet stood in a back corner; a waving cat and other figurines graced the counter; paintings of plants we don’t have on this side of the ocean hung on the walls. A young woman was obviously taking orders and waiting on tables, while an older man was visible through a small window in a door at the back, toiling methodically in a narrow kitchen. Three generations of Chinese women, presumably from the same family, were represented in the front room. What, to me, was entirely a-typical, was how these ladies were passing their time.
A large, shiny-new flatscreen television hung from the wall above the counter, and all three women were watching what appeared to be an Asian soap opera of sorts, each one varying in their interest, ranging from the casual glances of the waitress to the unflinching gaze of the woman I’ll call Grandma. I’m not sure it ever registered with Grandma that I was in the room, which allowed me the opportunity to observe both herself and her soap with great pleasure.
The scene I took in involved two young people, a man and a woman, both very composed and understated in their actions. They were obviously emotional, but they in no way resembled the outrageous characters I had encountered in past stumbles onto North American soaps. Obviously they spoke a language I don’t understand, and the subtitles charging across the screen below them did nothing for me, displaying the characters of some other Chinese dialect, I suppose.
I was about to lose interest, my mind about to drift to the order I was waiting for, when composure, on the part of the actress, was suddenly and completely exchanged for shrieking and rage. The young man was only slightly ruffled by her rapid change of temperament, and quickly began to match her, shriek for shriek.
I couldn’t help but giggle at this point (what an intelligent response to something culturally different from what I’m used to!), and, turning to the waitress, I said, in the knowing, loaded voice I save for when I have something really witty to say,
“I don’t know what their saying, but they don’t seem very happy.”
My humour (and I’m using that term generously here) was completely lost on this poor woman, who graciously passed it over and proceeded to explain to me the piece of the plot that I was obviously missing. Mercifully, our order was soon ready, preventing me from attempting any more humour. I thanked the waitress, received a good natured smile, and headed home.
If I’m choosing Hong & Sandy’s as the topic for this post, then it goes without saying that we enjoyed excellent food that evening. I won’t go into a lot of detail in regard to specific foods (as this post is already approaching the length of a novel), but I will say that the food was fresh and hot with excellent flavour, and served in large portions at comparable prices to other places in town. It took us two or three sittings to polish off this delicious meal.
The one exception I will make regarding describing food is in the case of the ginger beef, because I take ginger beef very seriously. This was not your bad, hole in the wall ginger beef; not the dregs of the lunch buffet, stuck together, black and sticky, wear-your-jaw-out-from-chewing ginger beef. It was perfect: a pristine combination of crispy and soft, golden brown in colour and the aroma! Inhaling those waves of ginger, I felt like I was growing healthier by the moment.
I am no foodie, and have no qualification to rate this restaurant, except that my experience there – food, service and cultural immersion included – was exceptionally enjoyable. This little cafe is the type of place where a great Canadian novel should be written; where Wednesday night supper could become a long-standing family tradition; where first dates and 20th anniversary suppers should be shared.
So, if you’re in the mood for Chinese, join me in picking up some ginger beef from Hong & Sandy’s (quite possibly tonight, in my case), and reward these good folks for giving us another excellent reason to love this town.