Sunday, July 9, 2017

HON'S on Keefer Street (Vancouver Chinatown)

As immature brats fresh out of high school, my pal John and I had nicknamed our server Pringle. Each and every Thursday night, our cylindrically shaped saviour would deliver two bowls of wonton noodle soup, two plates of twelve pan fried chicken potstickers, and two dishes of gai lan w/ oyster sauce from the hot and steamy kitchen at Hon's on Keefer Street in Vancouver's Chinatown for us to scarf down. Cokes were served on the side in glasses halfway filled with crushed ice, but back to the man. Pringle appeared to be in his mid-to-late-sixties w/ a full head of jet black hair parted to the side and a reserved demeanor. Even after years of patronage, our relationship remained strictly business. We were hungry and he was working. Occasionally, I’d see him out of the restaurant, walking around downtown. I always wondered about his life outside of work, his family, hobbies, and interests. My father had turned me on to Hon’s in the early 1990s at their New Westminster location and it quickly became a favourite. I'd bring friends when possible and spread the word at each and every opportunity. As the years progressed so did my ordering style, from the aforementioned soup to a serving of Szechuan pork juliennes on egg noodles. By the new millennium, I must have eaten this dish over a hundred times, the slightly spicy sweet sauce and dry noodles mixed together with a bowl of simple broth with thinly sliced green onions for flavour and texture. Chopsticks were always used even when forks were offered. The frequent trips to the Chinatown Hon’s became almost religious in nature, a final stop before heading back to Coquitlam on the 151 bus. Prior to our meal, John and I would spend time perusing the bins and racks of the many record shops that lined Seymour Street between Pender and Dunsmuir. There was Sam the Record Man, A&B Sound, Track Records, Odyssey Imports, and Collectors RPM. After spending most of what little money we had, we'd walk down Pender past the massive vacant lot where the International Village Mall (previously known as Tinseltown) now stands. The road was dark and edgy at night, a different bag than our suburban scenes. But it was the food that made us venture into Chinatown at night, an area that I’d been visiting w/ my family since the early 1980s. Hon’s was a revelation and always a fun place to hang. People of all backgrounds would eat there, enjoying good company and the restaurant’s famous Cantonese creations. When I moved back to Toronto in 2007 after not having lived there since 1991, Hon’s was one of the places that I missed the most. On return visits to the west coast, a family meal, often at the Robson street branch, was mandatory. The hot tea was always free and flowing. Fortune cookies rounded out the meal and often provided an insight or a cheap laugh. Dad liked to order the spicy squid w/ rock salt and their Shanghai noodles w/ XO sauce would be devoured within minutes of its arrival. Upon returning to live in Vancouver in 2010, Hon’s once again became a part of the restaurant rotation. By then, they had expanded to Coquitlam and I would often stop there while visiting friends or hitting up the local thrift and record stores. One day, I ordered my classic Szechuan pork juliennes on egg noodles, settled up at the cashier, and proceeded to get my first ever migraine. I had never felt such pressure and discomfort before and barely made it to my dad’s apartment only a few blocks away before curling up into the fetal position until the pain subsided. Was it something that I had eaten? A reaction to MSG? A sodium overdose? I wasn’t keen for an encore. Still, the lure of my favourite dish eventually brought me back followed by another monumental brain buster. What the heck was going on? Had they changed their ingredients? Were they cutting corners? Either thick or not wanting to take the hint, it took one more crippling Hon's headache to stop going altogether. I'm glad to report that I haven’t had a migraine since. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to walk up and down the streets of Chinatown, to catch the vibe in the midst of heavy development and a shifting dynamic. Despite being closed for the evening, I walked up to the large Hon’s window and paused for a minute to reflect on the many hours that I'd spent inside in my younger days. The restaurant was vacant and dimly lit by the adjoining mini mall. I thought of the man we called Pringle and the dozens upon dozens of meals eaten there, the jokes as well as the love shared. I took a few quick snaps on my iPhone and proceeded to walk up Main Street up to Mount Pleasant. Early last week, I caught wind that the Keefer Street Hon’s location had closed. Though I wouldn't have returned for one final nostalgic meal, it did make me sad to think of yet another casualty in the neighbourhood and the temporality of once dear friendships. Thanks for the memories... PEACE

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