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Saturday, 27 February 2010 03:20

Meatman, Beef, & the National Sport of South Korea

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Last spring was a difficult time to find work. My first year living in Victoria I'd earned my daily bread working for the provincial government but an ailing economy meant government work opportunities had shrank faster than a fifteen year old in ice water. Eventually my wife got sick of me staring out the window and making armpit noises so she suggested I take up volunteering again. We had both been volunteers while living here in 2007 and I had also volunteered while abroad in 2008, so I suppose it was the next logical step to take if no work was forthcoming. A few e-mails later I was accepted as door security for the “Island Open Championship”, which I incorrectly interpreted from the website as being a Mixed-Martial Arts competition. When I arrived, not entirely prepared to deal with pot-bellied failures hollering while steroid beasts tenderized one another, I was relieved to learn that the event was actually an all-ages Taekwon-Do competition. That meant the testosterone factor would be a fraction of what I’d expected and I would probably not be vomited upon.

After checking in with the volunteer table I was introduced to the two guys already working security, Meatman & Beef (names altered to protect the uninteresting). They looked like jerky with stubble; Beef’s skin was so tight it appeared as though his neck was holding his Adam’s apple hostage. Meatman decided to take advantage of my appearance and go eat some lunch, probably a whole tunafish or herd of buffalo, and I was left to try and make small talk with the human bicep. My first and last question was whether he was a competitor as well as a volunteer. Beef graced me with a single disdainful glance and said “Uh….no.” My guess is that the niceties of organized martial-arts were a bit beyond him. It was more likely he preferred hammering some poor bastard’s head into a bar-room floor in order to impress women named Amber. Mercifully Meatman's quest for fire didn't last long and I was free to roam the floor until my shift began.

The merchandise table was fascinating; I’d never before attended a function where I could buy both donuts and implements that can break a man’s arm. Certain that at least one of the offered items wasn't actually legal I brought the issue to the vendor, a man who looked like he’d taken up selling martial-arts paraphernalia after his career as a back-alley abortionist hadn’t panned out. He assured me that all was above board and as it is wise not to press a man who has curved blades within arm’s reach I decided not to ask if, even though it was “completely legal” to sell these things to children, was it a very good idea? Subsequent research has yet to yield a satisfactory answer as to the legality of the items in question but I feel justified in saying that if you were to wave them at a passing squad car your night would end poorly.

When the time for my shift came around, instead of a man-shaped protein bar I ended up working with Steve, who had a particular type of alertness about him, constantly scanning the crowd while affecting a posture that said, “Try something. I dare you. Why? Because once you do, me & two of my colleagues will hold you down and cornhole you with our collective authority.” To absolutely no one's surprise Steve turned out to be an officer of the law but easygoing enough and we got on fine. Our main function was to look threatening and check to make sure everyone who entered had wristbands. That someone would try and sneak into a martial arts match where tickets cost five dollars seems pitiful beyond compare but nevertheless it happened and we would pretend it had all been an accident, then direct them to a ticket vendor. These people had no idea how lucky they were that they tried this in the afternoon; who knows what the Tricep Twins had been doing to gatecrashers. I imagine Meatman snapping the interloper’s spine across one steely knee followed by Beef dropping the elbow down from the rafters, blowing their victim's solar plexus out their back.

Once the competitive matches started I was interested to see that losing seemed to most affect the youngest and oldest participants. The middle group took it all in stride; presumably they’ve lost before and though not happy about it, understood that it was part of the game. For the youngest though, some of whom were competing for the first time, a loss was devastating. I suppose they’re just entering the stage of life where you learn that you can still lose no matter how special mom says you are; the age where you either realize that participation ribbons are as useless as the people handing them out or you start collecting them. Older competitors seemed to take it just as hard and I have to wonder if their reasons aren't that dissimilar from those of the kids - sometimes all that hard work and bravado aren’t enough and you have a moment of lucidity when you realize you're not Superman, or even Jean-Claude Van Damme, you’re a middle-manager whose hobby is wearing pyjamas and rolling around a high school gymnasium trying to dominate other men.

Towards the end of the day Stephen directed my attention towards a coach, entirely bald with a silver handlebar mustache, who’d been sitting nearly the entire afternoon. He had an aura of great power at rest, one I normally associate with dormant volcanoes with the exception that if a dormant volcano suddenly exploded down the road you might have time to save yourself. If this man pulled a similar trick your front door would simply explode into splinters and the last sound you’d hear would be the breaking of your own neck. At length he rose to his full, Cyclopean height and for a moment I thought that the students were meant to spar with him next. That was plainly lunacy as the man could simply swallow the children whole like mighty Zeus and then go about using his fists to compose a symphony of pain on the xylophone of a man's ribcage. It turned out he was just presenting medals which was probably better for all involved even if it did seem beneath someone of his presence, like having mighty Thor use Mjolnir to bang out dents in a Pontiac.

By 3:00 the flow of new faces had slowed to a trickle and the volunteer manager said we could leave although we may want to stay to see the black belts fight. We did just that and I have to say that for all the florid lip service given to the grace & fluidity of black belt combat the fight looked like two men in housecoats having a bar brawl. They would approach each other, fling their fists about and then the referee would, presumably out of boredom, say “break”. The combatants would then retire to separate corners, revise their strategy and the flailing would begin anew, as though they’d both seen the same wasp that, because of a shared impairment in depth perception, they couldn’t quite hit. Waking briefly the referee again said “break” and the two fighters would allow the now terrified insect to escape. Boredom and sore feet had overcome me by this point and so I decided to head for my car but I imagine that they continued in this fashion, two epileptics having simultaneous fits, until one of their heads popped off in true Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots style.

On the way home I asked myself if I’d learned anything of real value from my afternoon of Taekwan-Do, maybe even developed a taste for the martial art myself. I’m about as unfit as a person can be, surely this kind of thing would provide me with the desire & means to make more of myself, to push myself to the edge and challenge my own perceptions of what is possible. I could improve my diet, train daily, climb higher and higher on the ladder of personal success until one day I too could be shedding tears of joy as I push it to the limit under the gaze of seventy-five spectators. That great philosopher Beef put it best: “Uh….no.”

A close friend of mine once spent most of his time and even more of his money trying to win over the office ice queen, a tall blonde named Annette whose head was as empty as her brassiere was full. Presents, cards & little favors, he punched all the spots on his sucker card trying to win her affections and after a series of chaste dates had gotten absolutely nowhere. It finally ended at the office Christmas party when he found her in the stairwell frantically exchanging DNA with the copier repairman. My friend was crushed and Annette’s explanation didn’t do anything to ease the sting: “His name is Vincent; he has great arms AND a Mustang! I thought you wanted me to be happy?” For him that was the end of the office party and he left, miserable, priapic and bound for home thinking it was the end of his night too. But then a funny thing happened to remind him of a lesson we all forget from time to time: sometimes the things we want most have been right here all along. Her name was Brenda and she lived two doors down. Now and again they had run into each other in the laundry room but until this moment, when they arrived home at the same time and her smile cut through his misery and loneliness, he’d never really seen her. Never noticed the twinkle in her blue eyes, the way she wrinkled her little nose when she laughed, or the curve of her...well, curves. They talked until they didn’t need to anymore and my friend disappeared off the face of the earth for a while. Once he’d come back down from the clouds he invited me out for breakfast at Cup of Joe to tell me the story, to brag more than was strictly necessary and finally, to ask for a favor.

Cup of Joe is on the bottom floor of Parliament Mews at the corner of Simcoe & Menzies streets and you would be forgiven for thinking, “Forget breakfast that looks like a nice dark place to be stabbed.” Once you get down there you see it’s actually a nice location, dark, yes, but without the armed marauders supplied by your imagination. The restaurant itself is larger than you may expect but has a relatively low ceiling and little natural light so it starts to feel cramped when full. On that day we had the place almost to ourselves and as soon as we sat down the waitress, who’s been working there as long as I’ve been going and probably much longer brought us menus and took our coffee order. I never know what to have at Cup of Joe, owing partially to my own indecision and mostly to their frustratingly “clever” menus – do I want the “DiFranco Benny” or the “Hendrix Burger”? How should I know? I hate novelty menus. Having to ask for “Frank Zappa’s Penis” might be funny the first time you want a hot dog but by the third time you’re starting to second guess your own intentions. Back in Revelstoke at the Ol’ Frontier Restaurant I would grit my teeth in impotent rage every time I wanted the spicy chicken burger because no one on staff seemed to know what was on the menu past its name, so if you didn’t order the “Hoot & Holler” all you’d be having for dinner was a puzzled look. The tenured waitress at Cup of Joe is infinitely better informed so when I ordered my vegetarian hash topped with feta cheese I was able to call it that rather than “Ella Fitzgerald’s Patio Set, Winter 1967”.

Cup of Joe has made an interesting choice in decoration – they allow their customers to scrawl names, comments or pithy slogans all over the walls with felt-tip marker and then every couple years they re-paint & provide a fresh canvas. Most of what’s up there is either bland (Marc & Angie 4-EVA!) or risibly inane (Don’t Believe Everything You Think) but it’s a unique look; less polished than John’s Place but still interesting even if it can, at times, feel like you’re in a new age kindergarten. When the restaurant is busy you can expect to wait a while for your food but that day, with only a handful of customers, it didn’t take long at all and we tucked in.

A hash is not a complicated dish; essentially you toss a lot of things into a pile, add cheese and try not to set it on fire. Simple, yes, but some restaurants still manage to produce a dish that tastes only of grease and looks like it’s been worked over with a flaming baseball bat. This particular hash, with tomatoes, broccoli, onions, green peppers & hash browns, wasn’t one of those - the vegetables were properly cooked and there was just enough cheddar cheese to give everything a wonderful oily glow. The feta topping isn’t on the menu but I’m quite happy pay to pay extra – God gave us feta cheese for one reason: he wants us to be happy. I see no reason to question His wisdom, particularly since this is the same reason he had Julianne Moore cast in The End of the Affair. On a subsequent visit I tried the meat hash and though good it’s a bit too much, even for an enthusiastic carnivore like me. The vegetarian option is lighter but unless you’re a big eater you’ll still be bringing some home with you.

I live less than five minutes walk from Cup of Joe and yet always used to forget it was there. The food isn’t Blue Fox-good but it’s a long way from bad and the service is friendly enough but it never used to stick in my mind. That’s changed now, although not because of anything they’ve done but because out of all my favorite breakfast haunts, the Blue Fox, John’s Place & Cabin 12, Cup of Joe is the only one where a close friend has asked me how to fake his own death. Bubbly little Brenda had turned out to be as wild as a tigress and madder than a hatter. It started slowly, with fingernail-width furrows in his back and her gently moaning his name then progressed to her brandishing kitchen knives and screaming a very different name when he went a day without calling. After three weeks (Yes, three weeks. Yes, I know) of wanton carnality and an ever present threat of personal injury my friend had begun to become mentally unseated and very, very tired. He wanted out, and he wanted my help. Being a true friend I thought it prudent to take several minutes in which to laugh at his predicament and once that was finished told him to just call it off. The haunted look in his eyes worried me and after I had a look at the escape plan he’d mapped out on his napkin: “Fake car crash – body?? MANATEE! = New Mexico?” I realized exactly how desperate he was. Everything worked out in the end, I helped him move across town, then again a month later when she found him but now he’s safe and the night sweats have stopped. He says he’s sworn off sex and relationships for the time being but I’ve got that napkin framed on my desk, just in case. That reminds me, I should really go back to Cup of Joe one of these days.

 

For someone who grew up in a town with a population that was, at the time, predominantly Italian, I know very little about "Il Bel Paese." For a long time most of what I knew came from the Godfather films and Friday dinner at Tony's Roma and I naturally assumed most Italians were hirsute, husky-voiced men who knew their way around a kitchen and to whom I should avoid owing money. Even after six years of working in Bocci's, our specialty delicatessen, which at first was aimed toward attracting the town's aging Italian population, I was only able to expand my knowledge of Italy in two areas: cheese, which while invaluable gave me little insight into the country and its people, and finance. It seemed impossible that anyone could owe money to an Italian since it meant the Italian would have to have parted with it in the first place. Every Sunday while we sat around a table laden with pasta, sauce and meatballs, my Italian relatives would speak of the old country's verdant, rolling fields and simple way of life in such loving tones that I assumed it to be an Eden filled with olive groves and young men whose refusal to move out of their mother's home was based on devotion and not at all indicative of serious character flaws.

Only in the last few years, after briefly visiting the country itself, reading books like Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah and seeing films like Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, did I began to understand that all was not well in the land of cannoli and chest hair. With allegations of systemic government corruption extending back as far as world war two, gathering racial tension, and organizations like the Mafia, 'Ndrangheta & Camorra riddling the power structure at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, the true face of Italy was much swarthier than I'd ever imagined. Luckily if I should want to return to my days of blissful ignorance when 'Ndrangheta could just have been a last-ditch ploy to win a game of Scrabble, or perhaps the Italian word for dragon, I can always count on the food to take me there.
For years I've believed that the only thing available for purchase in a narrow, dimly-lit lane came in red balloons. What do I know? Il Terrazzo looks positively cozy tucked away in Waddington Alley next to Willy's Bakery. Long a mainstay of Victoria's food scene it's been voted as the city's best Italian restaurant for the last fifteen years according to their website, a boast I have no trouble believing. Nicky & I arrived early for our 6:15 reservation and were seated right away towards the back of the restaurant, near the enclosed patio. Fans of Il Terrazzo will be familiar with their subdued lighting and exposed brick walls, but as this was our first visit we were happily taking it all in. There were few tables vacant but the noise level was low, at least at first. Over the course of the evening that would change and by the time we were ready to leave conversation was only possible at a volume appropriate only in Scenes From a Marriage.
There was a small library of menus on the table, including the menu proper, a drinks list, specials menu and a wine list bigger than the Book of Mormon. This is always a difficult admission in polite company but I do not like wine. The only times I have purchased wine for personal consumption it has come in a three-litre jug which afterwards is used as a makeshift musical instrument; the wine itself is combined with cheap scotch to make a shot I have dubbed "The Dirty Hobo". Why "The Dirty Hobo"? Because that is precisely what you smell like after drinking one and after three or four waking up in a gutter is not unlikely.
After some deliberation I decided on 'Agglio arrosto e Cambozola' ($12), a roasted garlic bulb served with rosemary flatbread & a wedge of Cambozola cheese, to start and the Cioppino ($28), a seafood stew with mussels, prawns, scallops, tuna, fennel, chipotle peppers, tomatoes and flatbread, as a main. Nicky had the bruschetta ($8) to start and the 'Carre d'Agnello" ($36), a Dijon-crusted rack of lamb with rosemary & demi-glace for main. My starter was delicious, the two heads of garlic perfectly roasted, the flatbread hot and the Cambozola not too strong. Nicky's bruschetta, with tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and shaved pecorino cheese, was also nice but she found it wanting compared to mine.

When paying thirty dollars for an entrée I've come to expect the portioning to be done with an eye-dropper and have the yawning expanse left on the plate covered up by Rorschach designs in demi-glace. The chef at Il Terrazzo confounded those expectations by generously portioning both entrées and taking the time to make sure the rest of the plate didn't look like an afterthought. Nicky's Dijon-crusted lamb was one of the best she'd had, medium rare, moist and full of flavour. There was a showing of vegetables but she cleverly managed to pretend she hadn't noticed and never registered much of an opinion on the subject. My cioppino was spicy and piled high with forlorn former residents of Neptune's kingdom, all of which managed to take on the stew's flavour while retaining their own and the flatbread was great for scooping up what my spoon missed. I am not a small man, when visiting the doctor he often represents my BMI in pictograms rather than numbers as it's less taxing on his hand, but by the end of the meal I had been incapacitated by food. However, my lovely wife, who weighs all of ninety pounds, managed to comfortably find room for a trio of crème brulée ($8); chocolate, orange and vanilla custard, obviously made from scratch and each better than the last, the orange being best of a good lot.
We left Il Terrazzo satisfied and considerably heavier that night, thrilled to have finally get in on something everyone else has known about for a while. Things back home have changed since the days when "Little Italy" stretched from the Fourth Street tracks all the way to Downie Street. No longer do grammar schools have to close for a week each year because of critical vowel shortages while BC Tel prints our phonebook, and if you're out at the pub you're now more likely to have your girlfriend stolen by an itinerant Australian than you are to be punched in the mouth by a drunken bricklayer.

"Il bel paese" isn't all it's cracked up to be and the town I grew up in is long gone, but as long as I've got Italian food this good a short walk away I don't need nostalgia. I may however need bigger trousers.

 

Tuesday, 20 April 2010 03:56

Rhythm is a (Bus) Dancer

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The experience of public transit is very much like that of life itself; interminable right up until the end at which point it seems to have only just begun. Unless you're very lucky you're likely to face conditions that are crowded and unpleasant and the whole time you'll be forced to endure the company of a great many people you would rather have avoided.

But sometimes, much like life, you meet someone special, someone who makes you rethink your place in the world. Someone who makes you think, “No matter how much of an idiot I am, I will never be him.” On my recent trip to Vancouver I met just such a person. On that trip I met The Bus Dancer.

If you've made the trip from Victoria to Vancouver by transit you're familiar with how busy the bus stop is on the mainland side. Dozens of people will rush the curb, each jockeying for the pole position and each of them carrying backpacks big enough to hold the entire cast of Little People, Big World.

Despite the fare structure being posted in unambiguous English right next to the stop, few of the assembled will have any idea how much to pay the driver and fewer still will have the necessary amount in coin. Others brandish paper money at the driver, some demanding he accept it on the pretext that it is "legal tender". They then stomp off to the departure terminal for change; plotting as they go how, for this, Translink will receive a proper blogging.

Watching all this used to make me boil with impatience but I've now reached a point where I can take it all in with a sort of detached amusement. Instead of being irritated I'm able to admire the patience of the driver, who rarely betrays the fact that every year he asks Santa Claus for an Armalite and a box of ammunition to liven up days like these.

Once everyone is loaded the bus usually takes on an ambience not far removed from that of a cattle car and I try to distract myself by watching socially awkward young men strike up doomed conversations with pretty girls. On this occasion I had a particular interest in keeping my mind occupied because otherwise it was going to dwell on the fact that that I was currently crushed up against a heavily built man with what appeared to be knife scars on the back of his head. And then, like a gift from the gods, I saw the Bus Dancer. In faded jeans, a retro t-shirt and white earbud headphones, he looked like your garden-variety hipster. At least until the magic began.

It started with a barely perceptible bobbing of the head as whatever Ibiza jams he was listening to built up steam. As rhythm became a dancer so did he; eyes closed this mad free spirit tossed his head back and forth, the cords of his ear buds flying in the stifling air. There wasn't enough room for anyone to break wind without serious consequences yet The Bus Dancer vibed on, borne away on the wings of song, unaware of the terrestrial world and its discomforts.

Unaware, too, he was of his growing disfavour with the rest of the passengers or, more importantly, the proximity of his wildly bobbing head to the nose of the man with the knife scars. It was this disfavour that caused us all to wait with baited breath until such time as he was murdered. We did this rather than politely tap him on the shoulder and point out that he was, to put it lightly, tripping the light fantastic just short of Death’s antechamber. Then, finally, it happened.

The Bus Dancer's head brushed the nose of Mr. Stabwound Stoneface, who quickly clamped one meaty, calloused hand on the offender’s shoulder. The Bus Dancer’s eyes flew open and his initial reaction of
outrage was the victim of murder most foul when he saw who the intruding mitt belonged to. In an instant the Bus Dancer transformed into The Bus Statue, along the way nearly becoming The Bus Soiler of Pants.
After a hastily squeaked “sorry” The Bus Dancer stood stock still, with the same hollow-eyed look common to those who have stare death in its terrifying, tattooed face and lived to tell the tale.

I felt sorry for him in a way; like so many free spirits The Bus Dancer had been brought back down to earth by life’s harsh realities and while I’d begrudged him his soundless gyrations the world seemed just a little bit less without them. I decided to learn from his mistakes, to develop my own school of thought to help me be an original while picking my spots and keeping me from the emergency room. You’re free to borrow this if you like:

“Dance like no one is watching. Unless you're within headbutting distance of someone who looks like he could feed you your own legs. Then dance like someone who is in very real danger if they don't mind their space bubble. Or you could just not dance at all. Instead tell that pretty young thing standing at your other elbow about the time you performed a bicep curl.”

Update, June 2015:  Five years later, John's Noodle Village is still our favorite Chinese place in town.

In a line-up of the world’s major nations China tends to stand out. Sure, Canada is bigger, meaning we get to swagger around the U.N. locker room proudly drawing attention to our Maritimes but would it topple the American economy if we sold our government bonds as revenge for allowing Kate Gosselin back on television? I think not. Russia is larger still and has an impressive stockpile of enormously powerful weapons that are in no way compensating for anything, but has their cuisine taken the western world by storm? Not unless I missed an episode of The F Word where Gordon Ramsay shows you eighteen different ways to prepare potatoes, vodka and sadness. So that makes China the world’s fourth largest country that has the third by the short hairs with a million-man army to make sure they don’t squirm too much and a government that has managed to keep out Richard Gere since the late nineties. Sounds like a major player on the world stage to me.

All those things considered it’s almost unnecessary to mention their delicious culinary tradition that has become a staple of the North American diet; a good thing too, because Chinese food as we know it isn’t particularly Chinese. Not that it makes a damn bit of difference to me but try talking about chicken chow mein at your next book club meeting and wait for the knowing looks. Intellectuals everywhere delight in explaining that the Chinese food we eat here is completely different than what’s eaten in China, just like the Indian food served in Britain...but usually by this time their victim has nodded off to dreamland where they’re eating Kung Pao Chicken with Christine Hendricks on a sampan in the land of the rising sun.

Unless you’re looking to spend a jolly evening being beat about the head with a pipe you’re unlikely to stumble across John’s Noodle Village on foot, tucked away as it is in the dusky hinterland of Bay Street.
Those among you with a taste for the finer things in life will recognize the address as being part of the same Epicurean edifice that houses the legendary Alzu’s. John’s Noodle Village isn’t much to look at on the outside, or even on the inside for that matter. It’s a very open, very white restaurant decorated in a style that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a Chinese restaurant before. It seems clean enough although the partition next to our table could have done with a wipe-down. Nicky, Max, Dan & I arrived just after five to find the place empty and unnaturally quiet save for a party of three in one corner. We were instructed by the waitress to sit wherever we liked and we ended up on the same side of the restaurant as the other diners, close to the window.

Our host brought us menus and a pot of tea, and then left before we could order anything else to drink. Either she had more important things to do or we all looked like we didn’t need any more processed sugar. Denied our fix, we poured some tea and had a look at the menu. The selection at John’s is large and, for a change, includes vegetarian options that actually sound worth trying. We didn’t order any of them of course, we all firmly believe that food tastes better if it once had a face, but it’s nice to know the option is there. In the end everyone chose a dish and we ended up with spicy ginger beef ($14.50), satay chicken chow mein ($12.95), sizzling hot pan prawns with satay sauce ($15.95) & stir-fry beef with broccoli & fresh mushrooms ($13.95). We tried for drinks again after placing our order but didn’t quite manage before our waitress disappeared.

The food arrived quickly, almost too quickly, I thought, but everything was piping hot and the prawns were sizzling as advertised, so any concerns were unfounded. The ginger beef came as flat, square bits that were lightly breaded rather than thin, over-coated strips and the ginger sauce was light and flavourful with a tiny bit of spice, a nice change from other sludgy ginger beef offerings around town. The satay sauce in the chow mein and prawns was delicious and light as well although completely lacking in spice. The vegetables were surprisingly fresh and crunchy, from the bell peppers in the chow mein to the broccoli in the stir-fry and true to their word, fresh mushrooms were used. Portions were smaller than I’ve become accustomed to in places like Ming’s or Don Mee’s which, given the relative quality of the food would be acceptable if not for high pricing.

Overall we were very impressed with John’s Noodle Village. Take-out options are available but there’s no option for delivery, which means that we’ll still be eating Don Mee’s when we get the craving on lazy days. We did eventually get a round of drinks and our waitress was professional and efficient, if reserved. Really the only thing that I get hung up on is the price; sixty dollars for four people with only one soda on the bill feels high, particularly given the portioning. Of course the portioning would be just the thing for those who feel overfed at some of Chinatown’s more popular restaurants.

I’ve been looking for a regular place to get my Chinese food fix ever since canned mushrooms and soggy vegetables drove me away from the last place I used to frequent. Pricing aside I think John’s Noodle Village fits the bill; their ingredients are fresh, their sauces light and everything is a colour you wouldn’t be disturbed if you came across in nature. This kind of food may be as Chinese as a cowboy hat but as long as it’s done this well I don’t care whether it comes from Beijing or Bowling Green. Tell your book club I said that.

John's Noodle Village on Urbanspoon

John's Noodle Village on Restaurantica

Website for John's Noodle Village

Update, June 2015:  Tom & Jerry's Restaurant is no more.  This is no loss.

There’s something about a greasy spoon diner that speaks to me. I don’t know if it’s the waitress impatiently popping her gum because she’s got places to be or the diners who nurse their coffee for hours because they don’t or if it’s the food that manages to simultaneously take years off my life while provoking awkward stimulation in my marital area. Whatever the reason, I’m forever dragging my friends and family to places like the Grade A Restaurant on Granville, where seven dollars gets you bacon, eggs and hashbrowns, or, if you’re feeling continental, hashbrowns and an Eggo waffle fresh from the toaster. An extra dollar-fifty gets you a mug of coffee with a residual taste of bleach to prove that the tableware is scrupulously clean. When it’s time to go, the chef himself will ask you how you enjoyed your meal - he’s able to do this because he’s also the person handling the cash. Once your transaction is completed you can watch him skip over that handwashing nonsense and immediately return to work scooping handfuls of shredded potatoes onto the grill. With his bare hands.

As a man with a weaker intestinal constitution than a child on immunosuppressants I should be avoiding restaurants where the staff wince after dropping off your food but I don’t. I’m more comfortable in a greasy spoon than I am in the Shark Club or Prime Steakhouse and that is how, again and again, I end up in places like Tom & Jerry’s Restaurant. Nicky & I were in Vancouver for the Alice Cooper/Rob Zombie concert at Pacific Coliseum and had planned on dinner at the Hurricane Grill until we realized it was a Canucks game day. Since there was no way we were going to manage dinner at a crowded sports bar and then make it across town to an early show at the Coliseum we decided to look for something closer to the venue. Our choices were limited and after excluding a handful of contenders for reasons like “It’s probably a mob front” and “the entryway looks like the yawning maw of some awful beast” we ended up at Tom & Jerry’s.

Not pictured: the salt shaker's
imposing prison tattoos.


All but a handful of tables were occupied and the servers had their hands full so we stood and waited with another group angling for seats. No one minded waiting but after being passed several times by servers pointedly avoiding eye contact we started to wonder if we weren’t being given a hint. Finally, a host who realized that we were either too thick or too hungry to consider eating elsewhere came over and told us there were no open tables nor would there be for some time. I have endured awkward silences before, with my stunted social skills you come to expect them, but the one that followed us pointing out three open tables visible from the door was really something special. After a great deal of eye-rolling and shoe gazing we were grudgingly led to a window seat and left with menus.

 

The glass has no comment.


Our server was considerably more personable despite her having to wait on an entire restaurant full of concertgoers, most of them drunk and making as much noise as possible, desperately afraid that no one would notice how outrageous they are. We decided on a trio of appetizers rather than entrees, the potato skins ($7.99), nachos ($10.99) & Cajun shrimp, the price of which I failed to note. After placing our order we took in the restaurant while enduring the primal howls of Canucks fans as they watched mercenary millionaires punch each other and intermittently chase around a puck. Tom & Jerry’s is a lived-in kind of place; some of the tables were scarred, the floors were not particularly clean, the salt & pepper shakers looked like they’d been in a fight and our glasses appeared to have been in service long enough to deny taking money from Karlheinz Schreiber. The food arrived quicker than I expected and once we got a good look I knew why.

We’ll start with the nachos, which, in their defense, were topped with freshly cut bell peppers and pickled jalapenos that had some bite. Everything else was simply awful. The cheese had congealed, the chips were slightly soft and I’m almost certain that the entire package had been cooked in the microwave. I’ll admit that the “Cajun” prawns were a bad idea from the start; ordering sea food in a place that looks like a worn-out Denny’s is as self destructive as snorting vodka but we tried it anyways.

The Burrard Inn, another one
of my bad habits.


Lesson learned then, because the dish looked as though someone had plucked a handful of cocktail shrimp out of a bowl of staff party leftovers and sautéed them with chives and butter. A lot of butter. Finally we come to the potato skins which, in contrast to the previous two dishes, were actually served hot. That is not to say they were cooked all the way through, mind you, only that they were served directly from the oven. I did not know such an item could be served “al-dente”.

The meal’s sole bright spot was our waitress who provided a level of service that, under the circumstances, can only be described as miraculous. If I were forced, like her, to spend an evening catering to a diner full of baying cretins I would fold immediately and flee to the staff bathroom to smoke reefers the size of my forearm in an attempt to render myself insensate.

His stage show may revolve around shock-rock schtick that’s twenty years past its due date and he may dance like an elderly, dignified transvestite but Alice Cooper still knows how to get a crowd on their feet. Most of what I know about the man comes from his radio show and a guest spot on the sitcom Dave in the mid-90s so his standout performance that night was a pleasant surprise - I wish I could say the same for dinner. No one expects a place like Tom & Jerry’s to serve gourmet cuisine; in fact I’d be disappointed if they did, but what came out of the kitchen that night was embarrassing, even for a greasy spoon.

 

 

It's the May long weekend, and that of course means half the city has gone camping. For those of us left there's no shortage of things to do: there's the Steampunk Convention, the Highland games and, of course, my favourite pastime, wondering how, with half the population hiding in the bushes huddled over portable ranges from MEC, there is still a thirty minute wait to get into the Blue Fox. Last year was my third in the city and our first attending the Highland Games at Topaz Park. Under a pitiless sun we drank beer while Nicky and our friend Joline drooled over men that looked and sounded like Shrek. This year we'd planned on checking out the Steampunk Convention but last weekend's walk on the Lochside had left us a bit tanned and thus no longer pale enough to fit in amongst fans of Victorian England, alternate-reality or no.

We arrived at Topaz about noon and made a beeline for the outcropping of concession tents. We had designs on a hamburger from the Lions Club but I was waylaid by a woman selling candied nuts. When I was living in England I would make trips to London as often as I could, frequenting a hostel in Lambeth on the Thames’ south bank. The closest bridge to the Journeys London Eye is Westminster Bridge and during the summer there’s usually at least one vender there selling fresh candied peanuts. Every time I passed I couldn’t help but drop £2 on a steaming paper cone full of delicious sin and once I saw the candied delights on offer today I exhibited the same level of self control. If you’re there tomorrow I suggest you do the same. Try the pecans.

Last year we came away from the Highland Games with impressive sunburns but this afternoon the sun kept disappearing behind bruised clouds that threatened rain so we weren’t sure what to expect. After being fed we made our way through the crowd towards where the hammer throw events were taking place. We got to our seats just as the announcer, who couldn’t have been more Scottish if he had been headbutting an Englishmen, was telling the crowd the history of the hammer toss. I missed the details but assume that it began as a way to stun runaway sheep on the rural Scottish dating circuit. The athletes began warming up, spinning in place with the hammer and I heard a woman behind me say, “It seems like all they do is warm up, how long does it take?”, as though doing the hokie-pokie with sixteen pound weights was something anyone could do so long as they took a deep breath first.

Yes, he's wearing a skirt.
Call him on it, see what happens


I firmly believe that if the throwers had been closer to the stands she wouldn’t have dared make any complaint. Why? Because men who are capable of enormous feats of strength, like throwing around sledgehammers or strapping on harnesses and pulling semi trucks never look like the people in your local gym or pilates class. Instead they look like the people at your local truck stop, the hairy ones ordering another piece of pie and peeking up the waitress’ skirt.

The protein monsters that frequent most gyms specialize in awful noises. Noises that would make a rampaging bull in the next room say, “There’s something serious going on over there.” Those noises are a soft snore compared to the unholy din made by the hammer-toss competitors. One of them, Larry Brock from the U.S.A., made such a tortured sound every time he threw the hammer I worried he would suffer a prolapse. Mind you his first throw went 137 feet, 4 inches, setting a new field record, so maybe there was some kind of scientific theory of sound-wave propulsion behind it all.

 


When the Englishman Scott Rider took to the trig I confess to being a little confused; I didn’t think that the steady English diet of steamed bother and boiled hat could produce men of the dimensions necessary for the Highland Games. True to my expectations Rider was of a smaller stature than his better fed counterparts; part of me worried that when he tried to let go of the hammer the force would detach his torso and send it sailing. It remained attached although his throw probably would have been more impressive if it hadn’t. At the end of the day he wasn’t at the bottom of the scoreboard but I took great delight in pointing out to my English rose that he was far from the top.

As the competitors went through their first round of throws Nicky asked me why the scorekeepers bothered keeping track of the half-inches. Now my wife isn’t naive, but I knew then that she understands nothing about how men think. Just then an American competitor stepped up to the trig and the raucous applause of the people sitting next to us saved me from an awkward explanation that would have ended with me being swatted. When they were done braying they turned to us and explained, at a decibel level only slightly less than that of the average megaphone, “We’re American.” You don’t say?

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advertisement.
Dear Wannawafel: but it could be.


At the end of the hammer toss Larry Brock, Prince Prolapse himself, was the winner with his throw of 137'4". Second was the Scottish Craig Sinclair at 131'6" and third was another American, Harrison Bailey, with 129' 7.5". By then we’d had our fill of testosterone and started to pick our way out of the crowd. The stands were dotted here and there with gym rats trying to puff their chests out in a feeble attempt to retain some masculine pride. They knew as well as I did that if they picked a fight with Larry Brock he would strangle them with their own bulging veins and nothing, not Superman, Iron Man or a binding U.N. resolution could save them, but they tried anyways. Myself, I buried my masculine insecurities in a delicious waffle from Wannawafel. If there is a better way to end an afternoon watching burly men toss I don’t know what it is.

I lay no claim to the title of Outdoorsman. Some people, my good friends Scott & Rose, for example, are at home in the natural world. They run for fun (for fun!) and voluntarily spend time sweating under that awful orange ball in the sky photographing savage, toothy things whereas I am most comfortable somewhere quiet and air-conditioned where the most savage thing I’m likely to encounter is a poorly-made daiquiri.

The most vivid memory I have of the hiking trip Scott & I made in Joshua Tree National Park last spring is the sound of a rattlesnake communicating his displeasure at my proximity. Scott grew up in the desert and so being used to these kinds of things said only, “That’s a big snake”. I am a child of the mountains, where the things that can kill you are much larger and more easily avoided so my response to standing directly over a predator was one that came naturally: bowel-loosening panic.

When I saw on the National Geographic channel that there exists somewhere in the world a spider the size of a dinner plate I knew right away that the next time I needed groceries it would be waiting for me by the schoolyard fence, wearing a torn denim jacket and smoking a cigarette. Just two weeks ago I looked towards my empty fridge and had my coat on to make a run for supplies when I remembered what David Attenborough had said about the Bird Eating Spider’s abilities with a butterfly knife. I ordered a pizza instead. Knowing all this, two weeks ago Nicky still asked me to come out with her for a walk on the Lochside trail: “Your skin looks like crepe paper and if you get any paler light will shine through you. Come on, off the couch.”

 

It's a what? Oh, I get it now.


The Lochside Trail runs thirty kilometres from Vic West to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, providing a peaceful place for addicts to rob passersby and narrow-hipped women wearing spandex and grim expressions to feel morally superior. There is a sign at the trail entrance depicting a man walking which I foolishly took to mean that walking on the path was acceptable. Obviously I misread that entirely because every six seconds the shrill cry of “coming through” would fill the air and a man in dayglo top and unfortunate shorts would pass by, shooting us a look that suggested we had been occupying the entire path instead of tightly hugging the right-side fence like we were chimpanzees hunting for grubs. Several times I demanded to know where these peddling pedants would have us walk but got no reply save for a view that looked very much like two hams tumbling around in a lycra sack.

 

From caterpillar to post. Oh how I
do go on.


These encounters tapered off after a couple kilometres and accompanied only by the serene hum of nature even I had started to relax. The chirp of birds, the buzzing of insects and the sun on my back; maybe the outdoors really were great and the redness of nature’s tooth and claw came from eating punnets of strawberries rather than one another. Before long a noise insinuated itself into my fragile peace, faintly at first but increasing in intensity the further we walked. Neither Nic nor I could identify this unnatural “whooshing” sound until we came upon a break in the shrubbery and saw an elderly man wielding what appeared to be a flamethrower.

Yes, you read that right. I am not flashing back to the time I watched Apocalypse Now on mushrooms. I am not telling what my darling wife calls “porky pies”. This old man had a stick that produced gouts of flame and he looked determined to do whatever the situation required, be it chase Victor Charlie from the trees and reclaim Indochina or revenge himself on the clematis that had killed his brother. I thought about stopping and asking the old man just what exactly he had in mind but his hands didn’t look as steady as I would have liked for someone wielding an instrument of death. I wasn’t interested in getting any closer to the burn ward than necessary so we kept walking and left Don Quixote to torch some windmills.

 

Blenkinsop Trestle


Eventually we reached the Blenkinsop Trestle, 288 metres of wooden bridge that extends over Blenkinsop Lake. We paused here for Nic to take some pictures and I rested against the bridge’s railing. On the surface of the water I could see dragonflies chasing each other amongst the water lilies and ripples of movement beneath the surface that I assumed were fish going about their aquatic business. For the moment nothing was trying to eat me; nothing was trying to inject venom into my legs in a bid to test out my travel insurance, no tigers jumped from the water to avenge their mistreatment at the hands of Siegfried & Roy. In fact the most dangerous, and irritating, thing out there seemed to be man himself.

 

On that same trip to southern California Scott & I hiked into the desert early one morning and on an outcropping of rocks high above the ground enjoyed a can of Tecate beer in the warm silence. I felt this same kind of comfortable stillness then, a sublime sense of belonging in the natural world. Maybe even, as the man said, I felt that that the universe is unfolding as it should. I’m not an outdoorsman and the world is indeed full of fanged creatures that prowl the shadows of night and the halls of Congress but, they’re all just doing what that mysterious workman in the sky decided would come naturally. There was no malice involved, unlike the cyclist who just then whizzed past, nearly knocking me down. Before speeding off, he shot me a look that in no way said, “Sorry, my fault”. And so I found myself again doing that which comes naturally; I flipped him the bird. Mature? No. But satisfying.

Back in 1991, when U2 were still releasing albums worth listening to, Bono wailed on about a young woman who was “even better than the real thing”, which the band said was meant to reflect the 90s obsession with instant gratification. It’s been ten years since I bought my last U2 album and I’m more impressed with the 130 square metre bedroom Bono added to his Dublin home than I am his recent musical output, but I’ve got to admit that the little Irish devil had a point. As it turned out the 90s were only a signpost on the road, ever since then the cultural landscape looks like it has been trampled by the Persian army as led by a metrosexual, yuppie, Xerxes.

Some people believe that chain restaurants like Brown’s Social House, Cactus Club & Earl’s are the culinary offspring of that movement; places that have the sizzle, but not the steak. After three visits to the recently-opened Brown’s Social House I can safely say that while much of the criticism is unwarranted they still have some work to do.

Mainly, today, it rained. I had planned on reviewing Devour, on Broughton Street; they’ve been getting a lot of buzz and I’ve yet to so much as step in the door, but the rain turned out to be stronger than my dedication and while walking past The Falls I stepped into Brown’s instead. The hostess met me at the door and offered me the choice of either a booth or a seat at the bar and I chose the latter. I won’t waste much time describing Brown’s decor; if you’ve been to Cactus Club or Earl’s you have an idea of what to expect: high ceilings, lots of black and grey, sleek surfaces and LCD TVs.

The bartender introduced himself as Matt and took my drink order. The bar sits near the center of the room, with seats on all sides, and as luck would have it the seats near me filled up shortly after my arrival. While I browsed the menu I tried not to hear the buzz of conversation around me, most of which was about money, home renovation or sex. And not the kind of sex had between two people who have spent years mapping out the contours of each other’s bodies or even the frenzied tupenny upright fuelled by too much ecstasy and Basstronaut.

No, the sex being described was more fantastical, born of teenaged imagination and too much time spent watching pornography. You’ve heard it all before, that locker room braggadocio where the penis invariably transforms from an unreliable, flappy bit of dangerously exposed cartilage into something vast and frightening, like a rollercoaster made from the body of the Kraken. The pint of Social Lager that Matt left in front of me did nothing to wash away the foul taste in my mouth.

Luckily for Brown’s their staff makes up for the clientele. On each of my visits the level of service I’ve received from entrance to exit has been superlative. Even during busy times like dinner or lunch rush, meals have always arrived and drinks been refilled in a timely manner. Even more importantly it’s done with a smile and an affability that doesn’t seem forced.

In past I’ve tried the Hickory Burger ($13), Standing Ovation Chicken ($15) and a variety of appetizers, so this time I tried the Almost Famous Blackened Fish Sandwich ($15), with “Pacific halibut, crisp coleslaw and chef’s dressing” and fries. When it arrived I was pleased to see that it was still steaming hot from the kitchen but disappointed that it was being served on the same bun as the burgers. It’s a minor point but when something is advertised as a “sandwich” I expect that it be served on bread, preferably toasted. The first bite, into the corner of the breaded filet, tasted great and had a pleasing crunch. After that initial bite, however, the softness of the bun and ingredients caused everything to blend together and the sandwich became bland. I think having either a toasted bun or, preferably, bread would have helped lend everything some texture; it wasn’t a terrible effort but overall I was underwhelmed.

The other meals I’ve tried on previous occasions have been of a generally higher standard, with the exception of the Hickory Burger which was a bit small and overcooked. The Standing Ovation Chicken with almond rice & broccolini is great, even if the name Broccolini sounds more like one of Scaramanga’s henchmen than it does a vegetable. Appetizers like General Tao’s Chicken ($12), Salt & Pepper Dry Ribs ($10) & the Classic Hot Wings ($10.50) are all recommendable but the Calamari Milazzo ($11) is not. The combination of calamari with tomato sauce didn’t work for me at all.

American Idol has been churning out bland pop sensations year after year to an adoring public for so long now that even Simon Cowell is bored, yet the show marches on. So, too, will the endless parade of chain restaurants that “have the jam, but not the bread” and Brown’s will have to walk a thin line to ensure it doesn’t fall into that category. Some of the regulars have less taste than a John Waters film, the prices are high and the food is of a solid, in some cases great, quality, all of which renders Brown’s fairly unremarkable. What sets it apart is the quality of service and while it won’t change the mind of anyone opposed to chain restaurants on principle, it does make for a pleasant evening out. Provided you’re not sat next to the Trouser Carnival.

The English language is in trouble, dear reader. Not grammar - that arcane set of incomprehensible rules governing the architecture of speech is just as disregarded now as it has ever been. The foul odour of corruption is wafting to us from the building blocks of the language itself: words. Made up solely of Latin, German and things Marlon Brando said in his sleep, English was, for years, as comforting and rigid as religion, with the dictionary as its bible. Just like that good book, once upon a time the dictionary was seen as the final word; if Merriam and/or Webster said that something was so then it could be used anywhere, be it in Scrabble or the blazing put-down of another man's mother. For a brief, shining season the glory of the word was like devouring fire on the top of the mount. Then we began to stray; popular usage superseded common sense and soon the peasantry thought they could just make up words without the help of Heintje, Caesar or Marlon.

What happened once these illiterate Prometheans were allowed to dabble in the art of language? Did the democratization of the word result in beautiful creations that tasted sweet in the mouth? Of course not. We created vicious Chimeras like "assclown", “baggravation” and "quadrilogy". As a movie fan, the latter word is what first drew my attention to this rottenness. “Quadrilogy” was coined in 2003 by the fiends at Fox Studios to promote the upcoming release of the Alien series in a single DVD box set, and when first announced it caught in my throat like a chicken bone. Quadrilogy? Hadn’t poor Ripley suffered enough? I frothed, I raged, I blogged. Oh how I blogged. All for naught, because, thanks to the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood, seven years later the pernicious little Quisling lives on and is being used to describe other series that should have ended after three films. Then recently, while creeping through Vancouver in search of a memorable breakfast, another misshapen Golem lurched into my field of vision. This word? “Omelettery”

I've taken to using the Urbanspoon app on my iPhone to hunt for restaurants when I’m in Vancouver. Yes, I know exactly how yuppie that sounds but there you have it. My usual haunts, up to about the 1100 block of Granville street hadn’t brought me any luck in finding a hearty breakfast worth revisiting, so on this trip I looked little further afield and came up with Paul’s Place Omelettery. The name itself, as I said, was an immediate issue. I don’t care how much they specialize in omelettes; if you want to identify your establishment with a certain product you need to be a little more creative than adding “ery” to the end of things. I don’t call my office the “Stale Jokery”. Instead I call it “Two and a Half Men”.

Would you know, Paul's is the first breakfast I’ve had in Vancouver worth going back to. When I first walked into the restaurant I was taken aback; it looked much more upscale than I had anticipated. The walls were a bright white, the tables sleekly black and the bar near the center of the room had a raft of hanging glasses; I felt a bit out of place in my shorts and T-shirt. But then I noticed that the rest of the customers were dressed like American tourists and in one all-too-bright corner a young couple in dreadlocks were testing the limits of public decency, and suddenly I felt a bit more at home.

A waitress came over and brought me to a table, then furnished me with a menu and cup of coffee. It was pleasantly quiet in there, with only the soft murmur of conversation and light 50s pop playing in the background. The menu had a wide variety of choices but since omelettes were such a hot topic around the place I decided to try one of them, the Conundrum, “chicken, salsa & fresh basil” ($8.95) with a side of pan fries ($1.50).

While I waited for my meal I listened to Lesley Gore cry her way through another party and, from the corner of my eye, watched Mr. & Mrs. Liplock defy the human body’s natural craving for oxygen. By the time breakfast came up about ten minutes later I had come to the conclusion that the duo must, in fact, be a single entity known as “Tonguelung”, a beast which required no oxygen. No two people could survive for that long without air. I was hesitant to turn my back on the creature but breakfast was getting cold.

Paul’s Place has more than managed the omelette; they’ve come fairly close to perfecting it. The egg was light, and soft, like Julianne Moore asleep in your bed with her leg draped across your middle. The mix of cheddar, Edam and cream cheese was melted all the way through and the salsa was refreshingly spicy. The pan fries were average, enough to warrant the extra $1.50 (for $8.95 you get the omelette and toast only) but not outstanding. In fact if not for the bottle of habanero hot sauce the waitress brought with breakfast they would have been completely unnecessary. The service was friendly but not overly so, at one point my coffee was drained and the waitress nowhere in sight. A few minutes later one of the other staff came over and mentioned something about “not knowing where [my] server had gone” and while I understood why she felt the need to explain it came across as unprofessional.

Because they know their away around breakfast I decided to give Paul’s Place a pass on “omelettery” although I will never use the term in referring to the establishment. But, this isolated incident aside, the English language needs us. It is a helpless child wandering the shopping mall of our culture, naively buying into the promises of candy made by passing degenerates who then lead it by the hand into the men’s room.

You may not know this but we are warriors, you and I; strong of heart and broad of chest. In times past we rode elephants with Hannibal on the way to see Clarice; like Clark Gable we ran silent and we ran deep, but with better moustaches. We fought the good fight to protect the weak, innocent and heavily bosomed. Now, the time has come again to pick up our swords and protect that which cannot protect itself. But first, breakfast. How about Paul’s Place?

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