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.