Soy Chicken and BBQ Pork on Rice with Attitude

I’ve just returned from Toronto where I spent a few days attending MagNet, an industry conference, doing some work, hitting up the latest Literary Death Match (I was a judge at the one in Montreal) and then hosting the National Magazine Awards (I’m President of the NMAF, the body that runs the show; what this means is I get to wear a suit and show off my newest bow tie).

I didn’t eat well, for whatever reason – actually for many reasons, none of which are worth going into – but on Friday I had lunch at Oriental Gourmet House on Temperance St (I’ve always loved that street name – in a city full of streets called King and Queen and Dufferin and all sorts of obvious anglophilia, Temperance feels like the Torontoniest of names ever). I’ve eaten there for years, mostly because the hotels I usually stay at are in the neighborhood.

I want to be clear about something. I don’t go here because of  the food. Oriental Gourmet House is not remotely close to being the best Chinese restaurant in town. It’s not even in the top 100 probably. Some of the food courts nearby serve better food. Everything is over sauced. For no apparent reason other than the limited amount of sauces used on the menu cause the guys at the wok to overcompensate, and its overuse on most dishes, actually keeps things moving along. The over saucing makes the place run more efficiently. More on efficiency in a second.

The lunch time crowd at this place is tremendous. Line ups out the door. A small room, two rooms really, perhaps 20 tables tops. I’m usually by myself and I’m usually sitting at a tiny table for one that sits at the place where the line starts. Meaning some impatient and hungry people are watching me eat. And, like I said, the food barely rates a pass. And if you do any kind of search for this place on line, the reviews are tepid at best.

No, I like this place because of the service.

The service is surly and efficient, and some of the waitresses approach you with a kind of matronly anger that belies some deep past injustice. But they move you along. Man, they move you along quickly. They scream at you, you order, and the food is on your table in minutes. And the kitchen: four men (that I’ve been able to see), two at the woks, one prepping (and I have to imagine there’s a guy chopping as well, so let’s say there’s five guys there) and serving all the ingredients in each order in a bowl to the guys at the woks, and one last guy wearing a ratty t-shirt, scooping out rice. That’s all he does. He’s the Rice Scooper. If this were a movie, his nickname would be Scoop. Or Scoopy. I love this guy. It’s the Rice Scooper, as a bridge between the angry ladies at the counter and the guys sweating at the woks, that kind of brings this place together. And he has attitude. He’s the Rice Scooper. His job is not the kind of thing that demands an apprenticeship.

I like him because whatever he’s saying (there is very little English spoken here, even among the customers, because despite what I’ve said about the food, more than half the customers are Chinese) it’s just as bitter and just as angry and he’s giving it to the angry ladies at the counter. So he’s not just a bridge. He’s like a fulcrum. Scoopy Brings Balance! In a ratty t-shirt.

And this attitude that you get as a customer is not reciprocated. At least not with this lunch time crowd. Not like at a place like Yangtze, an institution in Montreal for at least 50 years, where the customers know what they want, how they want it, and they want it now. No, here on Temperance St. (and let’s for a moment imagine that perhaps a crowd at a Chinese restaurant on a place called Temperance St is not going to dish out attitude but will accept it, somehow, like some kind of penitence, perhaps for having had one too many the night before, and that this penitence brings on something approaching grace, and it is this grace, this exchange, that is the cause of the line ups), the crowd stands in line and waits. To be yelled at and eat passable food.

Sooner or later, I will write a long post about Chinese food (yes, longer than this one – don’t be scared). About my love of it and the levels of meaning I think lurk in almost every bite. But until I do, I highly recommend Jennifer 8. Lee’s (I know, but that’s her middle name) The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book about the Chinese food experience in North America. And every single joke about Jews and Chinese food ever made by Woody Allen (sample: There are three things Jewish people worship—God, Chinese food and wall-to-wall carpeting.) And perhaps, this Q&A I did, recently posted here, about, well, food.


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