Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Where everyone knows your name*

My grandmother is strictly a "mince and tatties" woman who admonishes anything spicy or new. I remember as a kid being treated to pizza while we were there and her sampling it for the first time. She didn't get past the first bite, finding it "too spicy" and telling my dad she didn't eat ethnic foods while she ran for the Tums because what we'd fed her was sure to cause heartburn. I have almost the opposite of my grandmother's taste in food. Anything spicy, ethnic is exactly what I'm looking for. All the better if I can't pronounce it off the menu without asking for help.

I grew up in a small town, and one of the down sides to small town living meant that the diversity of food came from the "Chinese & Canadian" restaurant downtown and that was "ethnic food" for us. It was certainly more diverse than what my dad had grown up with, and my mum is an excellent chef, but ethnic diversity wasn't so great in a town of 15,000 people.

Moving to university in Hamilton introduced me to excessive drinking, a different bar for every night of the week and a love of Indian food - I'd take the bus downtown to restaurants there.

Life in Windsor though really was a step up. It introduced me to a huge diversity of foods from around the world. I know it gets a bad wrap (who hasn't called it the armpit of Ontario?) but it's the fourth most ethnically diverse city in Canada. The range of cuisine there in the world was incredible. Within blocks of each other you can find Italian cuisine and freshly made pasta, Authentic Polish food, Great Arabic and middle eastern restaurants and grocers, Indian restaurants with Tandoori ovens and Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. There was even an Eritrean restaurant with delicious injira and curries. Most often the food was plentiful, authentic, made to order, and perhaps most importantly to a student on a budget, cheap. The decor frequently left lots to desire, and to me that was part of the charm. It was there that I really fell hard for the small hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants and haven't looked back.

At one Thai place in particular I became a regular, bringing friends, family, strings of bad dates and anyone who was visiting. It was a single storey stucco building with plastic table cloths on the tables, with metal chairs that had vinyl covers, some ripped, some not. The blinds were different colours, and the paint on the walls wasn't all one colour. Water was served in rubbermaid containers right from the tap, and the menus were in duotangs. Hardly anything you'd call fancy but I loved it and somehow it wouldn't be the same place if it had palatial surroundings, cloth napkins and elegant decor. Part of its charm was its simplicity.

It was run by a husband and wife team; he spoke enough English to take orders and wait tables, but not much more. She spoke even less, and did most of the cooking in the back, though they always helped each other out.

Sara and I used to go to lunch there for the $5.95 specials (soup, spring roll and entree!) and would often talk to the owners as best we could through our non-existent Thai and their broken English. It got so good that when we came they stopped bringing menus and knew to bring out a pad thai and spicy noodle every time, tofu soup for me and wonton for Sara. We brought our friends and families there.

We were such regulars that one time when two women at the table across the aisle from us ordered the same thing as us and they brought out our dishes at the same time. Ours were piled high and considerably bigger than the women at the other table. They noticed and quietly commented and pointed out that we got so much more than them and we just smiled at each other sand said "we're regulars" and laughed.

When it was clear a garbage collection company was trying to swindle the owner we stepped in, when he got in a fender bender we talked to his insurance company, and heard about their daughters and granddaughter living in Tokyo and Bangkok. I brought my whole family there, and one of my first dates with Dave was there. I missed when I moved from Windsor to Ottawa and had my last meal in town there.

We went back last year at Christmas only to find the little stucco building with yellowed newspaper paper covering the windows. I was so upset that they had closed, disappeared without a trace. I wondered what happened to them. Later that week I realized they hadn't closed but moved to a new place a few blocks away. The new digs were swankier, bigger, and painted with pastel pink walls.

Last week I went back and loved the chance to dine with my brother-in-law and catch up with the owners. They remembered where I was living and asked about me, and heard stories about their daughters and plans to visit them. I'm not convinced they got the difference between "brother-in-law" and "husband" and I'm pretty sure they thought my brother-in-law was my husband but it really doesn't matter.

I was really missing just such a restaurant in the 'shwa until a few weeks ago. I never found an equivalent in Ottawa. A new Thai place opened up on Ritson Road which is absolutely awesome. It's in a tiny old bungalow with the living room turned into a dining room. Dinner specials are $6.95 and the food is authentic, the mango sticky rice is great and mango salad is to die for. English isn't the main language spoken there, and it's run by a family. The decor is awful, but I'd pick going there over just about any other restaurant. I used to enjoy going to chain restaurants but really find it just doesn't cut it anymore. I crave diversity and standardized cheese capelletti just don't cut it anymore.

So now it's your turn... what's your favourite hole-in-the-wall ethnic place? Am I alone in my love of them?

*to be fair I'm pretty sure that at the restaurant I'm thinking of they couldn't tell you my first name if they were offered a million dollars to do so, but somehow I don't think it makes it any less personal.


Anonymous said...

What a great story! I really enjoyed it. I used to love this little Ethiopian restaurant. It moved so many times over the years and finally it just disappeared for good.

The Waghorns said...

That is such a great story! Very well told. Don't you love it when a little mom and pop operation make it in this big scarry world?

Personally, I'm partial to Thai, Japanese and Greek food. I don't know of too many hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurants, mainly because you want your raw fish from somewhere tried and tested!

In Ottawa I lived for the Greek Souvlaki House on Prince of Wales and Sweet Basil Thai on Bank. Here in the DC area it's Thai Pilin on Leesburg Pike and Skorpio's Greek on Maple Street in Vienna.

Coincidences of coincidences, when I was working on Queen street in Ottawa I discovered this little mom and pop (literally) Italian place where the mom and pop made everything themselves. It was called Cafe Zucchero. I would go there a few times a week for lunch and I told Noel that I would go there even when I wasn't in the mood just so the couple would make it.

One day I met up with Noel there for lunch and when he walked in he was stunned. The Mom and Pop were his godfather's brother and his wife. Totally stunned that these were the mom and pop I had been raving about for months!

sunshine scribe said...

I loved reading this. I especially love hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants. Yummy!

TB said...

I'm with you. I love good, cheap ethnic food and it seems the more hole in the wall the place, the more authentic it is.

I'm missing a lot of that here in southwest Florida, have found a great sushi place, but still looking for Thai, Indian and middle eastern.

Of course there are some kick ass central american/spanish mexican places and taco stands are everywhere. This makes me happy.

wordgirl said...

Well...this is Texas so you can get Mexican just about anywhere. There's a great Egyptian place that serves a yummy/spicy hummus. King Tut's. Charming and cheap.

Kristin said...

Great story... made me think of all the great places I have eaten in over the years!

We eat a lot of Thai, Japanese, and Indian... but, here in Laguna, everything is either posh or a dump... more often than not, we opt for the dump!!

Anonymous said...

Ritson and what? This new Thai place is a mystery to me. Be warned though, ethnic places don't last long here in the 'shwa. If it's not pizza or "chinese" then the rednecks don't want it. Please tell us where it is so i can go before it closes down.

Heather said...

Izzymom: oh how I love Ethiopian food, and it's one of the harder restaurants to find!

the waghorns: I absolutely do love it when the little mom and pops make it - it's all so much better than Swiss Pidgon. I lived in Ottawa and I'm pretty sure I missed out on both of the ones you mentioned, but I liked the green mango Thai place.

Sunshine scribe: me too!

TB: I find the better the decor in the ethnic places, the less authentic it often is. I loved being able to go over to Mexcicantown in Detroit for real Mexican food.

Kristin: I vote dump all the way.

Anonymous: You live in the 'shwa? Hmm interesting - I had no idea anyone from this area was reading. Do I know you? The new place is Thai 2 Go (but they do have a couple of tables in there). They're at Ritson and Toronto Rd (just North of the 401) on the East side in a little bungalow. There are a couple of Thai places downtown but I like Thai 2 Go better - Golden Thai on King and Oshawa Thai Cuisine on Bond if you're looking for more. I'll heed the warning about not getting too attached but I think I'm single-handedly keeping them in business for now. Thanks for stopping by in any event!

Nancy said...

I grew up with a dad who loved very bland, straightforward American cuisine (hamburgers, pizza, steak, fish on Fridays) and a mom whose most exotic cooking involved casseroles. So I had a similar experience to yours -- college opened my eyes to all sorts of new foods. I tried Chinese food first when I was in college! (before that I thought that canned Chicken Chow Mein crap was Chinese food!) ;-)

Now I love all ethnic foods and can hardly get enough of spicy stuff. Indian and Thai are my favorites.

We frequent a local Vietnamese place here -- pretty much a mom and pop business. We also hit the small Thai and multicultural restaurants (one with Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Jamaican cuisine). We had a favorite mom-and-pop Italian place before we moved to the DC area -- we still go out of our way to stop there when we're traveling in southeastern VA.

Jay said...

Ohmigod, do you have any idea of the intense cravings you are inducing right now?

megan said...

I also went to school in Windsor and there is a place called the Mini on University that serves the best BBQ chicken and noodles. It is very popular now, but back in 1988 it was a little hole in the wall where you could only get take out or sit in the three chairs lining the window. Back then you could get a combo lunch plate for $3.50. My parents live in Oshawa and I grew up there and visit, not often but regularly. Please save me from the Hogans Chicken (North Oshawa on Simcoe, my folks love it) and tell me the name of the place on Ritson!
BTW Tai seems to have really taken off there, I noticed 3 places on King St last time I was home. Are they any good?

megan said...

OH Crap!!! I just read your comments and realize that you already answered my question. Sorry!

Heather said...

Megan: The Mini is still there but it's a bit more upscale now (on account of it having actual cloth linens, no paper or plastic). I love their mushroom congee and crave it every time I get sick.

Mrs. Chicky said...

Unfortunately, living in suburbia has left me with little choice in restaurants. But when my husband and I get a hankering for barbecue we drive into Boston (well, the Boston area) and get our fix of pulled pork and corn bread from places that have metal tables and folding chairs and plastic checkered table clothes. Funny enough, these restaurants also have their walls lined with pictures of all the celebrities that have visited there looking for "authentic" barbecue. Good stuff. Ugh, now I'm hungry.

Quiet Soul said...

I was surfing and came across your blog. :) Your post rings home to me as within walking distance of my flat I have the choice of Indian, Thai, Greek, Italian, Mexican, Chinese,Vietnamese, Japanese, Dessert restaurants, Pub Food, Variety restaurants, cafes, fish and chip shops and so much more. I love it because alot of the places we have found are hidden. :) My favourite Thai restaurant is one of them. It's a little more expensive, but I don't mind because the food is awesome, the service is fanastic and they really look after their regulars. :)
Mind you, I have put on some kg's since moving here a year ago! :)

Ortizzle said...

Nice story. For cheap and cheerful, I like Cuquita's. Much more authentic than the plastic Mexican chain restaurants, and they serve the best homemade corn tortillas ever.

Heather said...

Nancy: I think I'd have to say Thai and Indian are my favourite too.

Jay: mea culpa

Mrs. Chicky: Sounds good!

Quiet Soul: thanks for stopping by! Your flat sounds like it's in the perfect location!

Ortizzle: Chain restaurants have so often disappointed me. I used to live near Detroit and would go over to Mexicantown regularly.