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One of the many memorable scenes in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood For Love sees Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) at dinner.  There are many such dinners, but this is the first and most important, and the setting is undoubtedly crucial.  The two dine at Goldfinch, one of Hong Kong's oldest steak houses, which still stands to this day in Causeway Bay.  Without getting too much into the plot, you can (somewhat) think of it as a setting for a first date, or a crucial meeting, somewhere you meet someone that you know or hope will be important.  The scene is impeccably stylized: Cheung, in one of her many beautiful qipaos; Leung, in his proto-cool 1960s slim cut suit; both emanate fantastical glamour.

But the lives of their characters are anything but.  The two live typical lower middle-class lives in 1960s Hong Kong, toiling away at respectable service jobs that - together with the income of their respective spouses - earn them enough to rent only bedrooms in other persons' apartments.  Their lifestyle is common, and their meal at Goldfinch is the same.  The steak is an illusion of glamour (the restaurant is not exactly the Peninsula Hotel), an affordable taste of a larger, modern Western life, an acceptable temporary indulgence.    

As important or decadent as that meal might have been, it is still, by all means, a shitty Chinese steak.

In current day Vancouver, one finds a shitty Chinese steak most commonly at HK style cafes.  Each place varies their offering in a plethora of ways, but a common thread runs among them: a small-ish (6 to 10 oz) slab of beef (sometimes sirloin, sometimes ribeye, sometimes just 'steak'), served on a sizzling platter,  typically with broccoli, carrots, zucchini, onion or whatever cheap veg lies around, with a choice of sauce (common options include black pepper, mushroom or garlic/onion; exotic options may go as far as curry).  The sauce is important: the beef itself typically tastes of nothing (except, if unfortunate, baking soda, often used as a tenderizer for sub-quality meats), an odd curiosity where something so tangible can impart no leaning towards any flavour whatsoever.  There is usually a side of carb: fries, rice, spaghetti, or similar, with an extra piece of toast or a dinner roll (nee "bun") and a bowl of today's soup (borscht, Knorr instant cream of whatever, or something not quite Chinese but also not quite anything else).  Not content to stop there, most of the offerors also provide a second choice of protein, which could range anywhere from "European" style weiners to a fried chicken cutlet to battered fish.  The bounty is endless.

Somewhere along the way, then, a shitty Chinese steak ceased to be a simulation of glamour and became an entity in and of itself, emphatic more on 'value' than suggested ideals.  Its quaintness morphed into gluttony, a menu selection for those not content with eating one animal when two or three could be had all at once.  I imagine Chow Mo-Wan and Su Li-Zhen ate at Goldfinch for a touch of a Western lifestyle; we now eat a shitty Chinese steak for the explosive quantity of a Western diet.

So why do it? There is something about certain bad meals that we often yearn for.  Sometimes you just want a cup of bad coffee, fast food fries, processed grilled cheese sandwiches.  It could be a sense of nostalgia, it could be comfort, it could be familiarity.  It most certainly is not about the food itself.  The same could be said with a shitty Chinese steak.  Penny-pinching aside (seriously, at most places, the thing could - should - feed two), I still like to think of that allusion to glamour, those meals-to-impress that still speak of a certain sensibility, the value in those temporary, just temporary, indulgences. Maybe it's misguided, maybe it's naive. Sometimes you just want bad.

Here's a few notes on shitty Chinese steaks along the Cambie Street (and nearby) HK style cafes, which I've ranked according to my own personal, imprecise, totally questionable preference:

1. Copa Cafe (4030 Cambie Street): though the menu is near impossible to figure out (choose two proteins from two separate "A" and "B" categories with varying price combinations: A+A, A+B, B+B, sigh), the steak in and of itself has something approximating flavour, and the boat of black pepper sauce (my own standby) nudges it over.  Copa Cafe offers a variety of cuts of steak, though your choice may see the meal crack that $20 ceiling.  Though the waitress may offer to serve the steak sans sizzling plate, don't wimp out - she'll try and shield you with a napkin when she pours the sauce over the thing anyway.

2. Soho Tea Room (3466 Cambie Street): though the choice is much more limited, the flat price tag ($13 for your choice of two proteins) is a plus.  The fries, however, taste like bomb shelter supply.  For those that prefer garlic toast instead of that cute little bun (who you are, I don't know).

3. Cafe Gloucester (3388 Cambie Street): if anyone aims to please, it's Cafe Gloucester, whose offerings range from daily roasts to actual honest-to-God steaks (i.e. not sizzling plate, no parade of animals, etc.), which is unfortunately where the shitty Chinese steak aficionado may be let down.  Despite all their best intentions, there's not one whiff of kitsch to be had here, and the steak in and of itself is so devoid of flavour that I think it actually sucked any residual flavour I had out of my mouth.

4. iCafe (2525 Heather Street): if baking soda wasn't enough, iCafe pounds the shit out of a shitty steak to the point of mush.  Even that cute dinner bun can't save it.

Joe.

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Folks, we've got a giveaway for tickets to a special screening of The Lunchbox at 7pm on March 12, 2014 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas (2110 Burrard Street, Vancouver, BC).

The film, set in Mumbai, follows Ila, a middle-class housewife striving for the attention of her husband. She sneaks a note into his lunchbox, which ends up being delivered by accident to her husband's co-worker, Saajan, a lonely near-retirement gentlemen, who sends notes back to Ila in the empty containers.  The two begin an unlikely friendship, and each discovers something a little new about themselves.  

Here's the trailer:

If you would like a pair of tickets to the screening, please leave your e-mail address in the comments. (If you don't leave your e-mail address or some way for us to get a hold of you, there's no way we can inform you if you won or not).  Enter no later than noon (Vancouver time) on March 11, 2014.

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UPDATED

Joe and I are excited to be a part of the organizing committee for this amazing event.  We have been working hard every night with a team of dedicated individuals to make this event amazing and I promise you it will be amazing.  Please help us raise our goal of $10,000 for the relief effort in the Philippines.  See you there.

Follow
Instragram - @IslandStrong2013
Twitter - Island_Strong
Facebook Event Page

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DUFFIN'S DONUTS
When it comes to those ghetto sandwich and fries spots, I have two favourites.  Bob's Submarine Sandwiches in Richmond and Duffin's Donuts in Vancouver.   Let's talk about Duffin's Donuts for a second.  

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We are back at it again for our monthly jam sessions.   This time we are playing at The Bottleneck on Granville Street.  Come down and join us for some good music and great slop.  DJ Needle Kineval has joined the Slop crew and he will be playing music with us from 9 - 2 am.  Also expect DJ Sage to make a guest appearance.

Vancouver Slop x The Bottleneck
November 9, 2013
9 - 2 am

870 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC


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The fourth annual dish'ED event occurs on Saturday, November 9, 2013, to benefit the good folks o'er at imagine1day, which has helped to support education initiatives in Ethiopia through the years. 
 
The dinner sees a crew of professional chefs (this year: Andrea Carlson from Burdock & Co, Merri Schwartz from East Van Roasters, Brooke Pillay from Cocolico, and more) pairing up with aspiring amateur cooks to prepare a fabulous meal, with wines from local producers to pair (Nichol, Clean Slate, Blue Mountain and Cellars).  It's a fabulous (and inspiring) effort, and we wanted to help spread the word.
 
The event will be held at Lost & Found Cafe (33 West Hastings Street), and tickets are
$95 per person.  More info about the first two dish'ED dinners can be found here, and tickets can be purchased here.

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Listen, Tobias. You really rocked me. I cannot get that kind of scald at home.


This glorious golden goodness is the fried chicken main at Mamie Taylor's, a Chinatown newcomer and purveyor of self-described "Modern American" food. My friend Jody and I went and shared a little bit of everything.

Styled like a gentleman's club of yore, that particular 1860s shade of dark green on the walls, exposed brick and a handful of vintage taxidermied animals ranging from ducks to bobcats, I love the look but feared an unfriendly hipster lair. However it is charmingly run by friendly dudes who couldn't wait to seat us and prop my friend's broken and casted leg on a chair, and then sign it. You gotta love a place that will sign your cast.

My grandparents were from the prairies, and anyone from there knows about that crystal dish with three compartments that's set out every single solitary time you have guests with pearl onions, gherkins and olives. I'm pleased to report that Mamie's offers a high-end version of this on just-low-end enough plates to take me back home. We started with blue-cheese stuffed and fried olives and deviled eggs, a more complexly flavoured and textured version of the kind grandma took to church. Who says you can't go home again.


A rich, smoky terrine of fois gras was our second dish. A little goes a long way for this one, take your time and eat slowly while sipping your cocktail. And speaking of cocktails, they are like the food, a bit of a modern edge but still using the tried and true.


The crown jewel was the aforementioned fried chicken, which is prepared sous vide, breaded twice and served with chunky watermelon fries and honeyed corn bread. I can't pick up the mixture of the breading, but there is strong notes of oregano and crunch enough to make you hope it will never end. Which it did. After I ate my share and Jody's too. I would get some before I eat it all, if I were you.

Mamie Taylor's
251 E. Georgia Street


Jessica

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Spaghetei Japanese Style Spaghetti

Japanese pasta rules!!!!  I got flack from my travelling companions for wanting pasta in Japan but at the end of the night I was the hero.  Many who visit the izakayas have seen or tried mentaiko (cod roe) udon, but think about these Japanese pasta dishes,  Sea Urchin carbonara or Japanese Mushroom pasta or Salmon Cream Pasta or Ketchup spaghetti.   Ok, the Ketchup joint doesn't sound that mind blowing but if you ever can get your hands on sea urchin pasta sauce you will lose your mind.  

Spagheti is a Japanese -Italian restaurant located in the West end where Benkei Ramen used to be and I am in love with it.   Ok, the meal maybe kinda niche cause not everyone craves a fishy tasting pasta but the dish is awesome.    For those who frequent the HK restaurants it is not that unusual, as they all have some weird remix of italian food on their menu.   

I have been twice in about a weeks time, and I stoked about this spot.  My favourite is the mentaiko in white sauce.   The dish is $13 dollars but you can get the large size for a dollar more, for those that are on a portion control diet you can down size and save a dollar.    The sauce makes me want to fist pump in the air like a kid at a rave, cause it has just that odd flavour of cream and fish eggs that makes me smile and add in a handful of mushrooms, perfectly cooked spaghettini and three shrimp and it will make my day.  I will gladly put this head to head with any Italian restaurant in the same price range.   



The meat sauce, which is a Japanese bolognese has chopped up boiled egg on top and impressed even my true Italian friend.   Soccer and Italian food are two European things that the Japanese can do well so go check this spot out for something different and if you aren't super lactose intolerant you can order a bowl of shaved milk for dessert.





Spagheti
1741 Robson Street
Vancouver BC

Matt

Spaghetei すぱげっ亭 on Urbanspoon

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From September 13 to 15, Yin Yeung Express celebrates the cuisine of Hong Kong's  'dai pai dong' open air stalls, and the ubiquitous Hong Kong style cafe.  Hosted by In the House Festival, Ken Tsui (Chinatown Night Market) and Kevin Chong (My Year of the Racehorse), the event pairs up with story-telling by Ricepaper Magazine (September 13), Raincity Chronicles (September 14), and Kevin Chong himself (September 15).  We caught up with Kevin to discuss.
  
Hong Kong style cafes are difficult to explain to anyone that didn't grow up with them. The dishes often sound terrible on paper (eg. spam and macaroni soup), the decor often bare bones...and yet they are institutions in their own right. Why do you think they enjoy the popularity they do?

When we started dreaming up this event, one of the things we talked about is a scene in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love in which the two married characters, who develop an unconsummated attachment after they suspect that their spouses are having affair, have an initial conversation at a Western-style diner while drinking yin-yeung (coffee-tea):


There's another scene in which they eat steak with borscht. I love the formality and stiffness of those scenes, and how these western-style eateries seemed so smart (as in stylish) at the time.

For some people who like this food, it's about nostalgia. You went to these places as a kid. Macaroni in soup never felt weird to me growing up. It was only later, with my non-Chinese friends, that it's oddness, or in-authenticity, was impressed on me. Personally, this event is partly about trying to reconcile my own complicated nostalgia with my more newfound appreciation for fine dining that challenges the idea of authentic cooking.

Don't get me wrong: not everyone eats to remember. I live in Riley Park, only a few blocks from more upscale versions of the diners I went to as a kid. These places are nicer than Goldstones or New Town Bakery. For a lot of Hong Kong Chinese, I think the informality and variety of the cooking is what's appealing. You have dishes that are "Western" and pan-Asian like curry beef and Singapore noodles (which you can't really get in Singapore), but your palate doesn't need to be that adventurous.

Where does the Hong Kong style cafe sit in the larger Vancouver experience?

They're still a fixture in Chinatown and other parts of the city with Chinese populations and have been for decades, but I don't think many non-Chinese really know about them. Chinese food is dim sum at Sun Sui Wah or a banquet meal at Floata. We also live in a city that boasts JapaDog and Vij's, but is very suspect of Chinese food that isn't made for and by recent immigrants from Asia. This kind of food shows you that "fusion" cooking isn't necessarily a yuppie marketing tool.

Take us through your typical Hong Kong style cafe experience. What do you order? What's the occasion? 

 I must admit that I don't get out to Hong Kong diner food too often. I usually eat it as leftover take-out when I'm visiting my parents' house. Sometimes I make my own version at home. As a teenager, my mom would make ramen with a fried egg and slice of Spam, so now I do that for lunch (without the pre-drinking). I'm proud to say I introduced Spam into the diet of my partner's nine-year-old.

Tickets to Yin Yeung Express ($55) are available here, and get you 4 courses, stories, and good times.