In the early 60s, a family trip downtown was a journey into a pulsating neon wonderland, and on a rainy night the reflections on the slick, wet road from such iconic signs as “Helen’s Fashions,” “Balmoral Hotel”, and the “Smilin’ Buddha” captured my imagination. Flickering red and green lit the path all the way to Chinatown, where the rough and tumble bars frequented by longshoremen, loggers, junkies, and other colourful characters still had neon signs that said “Men” and another for “Ladies and Escorts.”
Mom made it clear that she was a “real lady,” and would not be caught dead in one of those places. We believed most of the stuff she said. We were young.
Once in a while, Mom and Dad would load us all into the car to make this journey from Burnaby to Chinatown for a chop suey buffet smorgasbord dinner at the Ho Ho, or if Dad was feeling particularly flush, a whole Dungeness crab at long-gone restaurants like Wayen or Yen Lock.
Chinatown had not yet migrated to Richmond, and every back alley was filled with mysterious smells, overflowing bins, and tired-looking men in their stained aprons, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.
Sidewalks overflowed with fermented dried things, all unrecognizable ingredients, including the ubiquitous “lizard on a stick.” I still have no clue what that’s for. It’s probably a man thing. “Makes you strong!”
In all that time, our family never went to a real noodle house, and it’s a shame. Perhaps it was the sight of whole head-on BBQ ducks hanging in the steam-covered window that put my mother off. Maybe it was the fat-dripping slabs of roast and BBQ pork slowly oozing beside them. The tiny roast quail that looked like chickens that had shrunk in the dryer. Decent people couldn’t possibly eat there. Couldn’t possibly be clean and yummy, right? Or… Could it?
An old girlfriend introduced me to the classic Hong Kong-style noodle house when I was in my 20s. Eating at one of these places was a great way to fill up and have a meal out on a meager musician’s budget. Back then, my favourite place to go was Hon’s, on Main Street, near Pender.
Back then, they kept the front door open, even in winter, which meant that a coat was needed even inside.
Fortunately, the hot tea and steaming bowls of wonton noodle soup kept the chill at bay.
Going to use the washroom at the old location was also an adventure, as it was located far in the back, and could only be reached by navigating a labyrinth of old boxes, stacked supplies, and more tired-looking men in stained aprons, all smoking furiously. Asking for directions to the toilet using sign language always added to the adventure, as there was never any guarantee of safe return.
Fast-forward several girlfriends and several years, and now I drag my own family to Chinatown regularly to shop for some of those dried fermented things. I love hearing the clack of mah-jong tiles and loud conversation coming from the mysterious private clubs on the second stories of some of these old buildings.
My favourite area is the stretch between Gore and Main Street on Keefer and Pender Streets.
On Gore, you can buy fantastic live seafood (lobster, crab, clams, frog, and eel), dried shrimp, and mushrooms.
On Pender there is the Dollar Meat Store, with all kinds of fresh and BBQ pork, jellyfish, and dried flattened ducks hanging on the wall.
On Keefer, there is the Chinatown Supermarket, where you can get great fresh vegetables, frozen cuttlefish and prawns, and pretty much every part of a pig. Every part. Best of all, right across the street on Keefer is the “new” location of Hon’s Noodle House. They moved locations in the ‘80s, and this location is a testament to that decade. Despite the glass and brass motif, it’s still a great place to bring the family to eat well and inexpensively.
The good thing about Hon’s is that it’s dependable. Sure, there’s “better” restaurants, but Hon’s always delivers. Actually, they really do deliver. Free. Bowen Island is a little out of their range though. I love the fact that Anna, the head waitress, still doesn’t recognize me even though I’ve been going at least twice a month for 30 years. “Chopsticks okay?”
Yes, we know how to use them…
Hon’s is the place to go for soup. My boys are fond of BBQ pork with fish balls with wide Shanghai noodles in soup. Laurel likes the congee (rice porridge) with seafood. I like the BBQ duck with sui kau, which are pork and shrimp dumplings similar to wontons, but… better. We almost always get a side dish of Gai Lan (Chinese broccoli) with oyster sauce and a dozen pan-fried potstickers (pork dumplings) to go with.
Every table has a bottle of soy sauce, a shaker of white pepper, black vinegar, and a big jar of chili oil, so you can custom-make your protein dipping sauce. Hon’s also has some great specials that we occasionally get as well. If you see the sign for deep-fried whole smelt in spicy salt (five bucks), order them! Fantastic whole little fish, stuffed with roe. And then there’s the jellyfish. Seriously. Order the jellyfish. It will change your life. Cool and refreshing, with a little sesame oil, it makes a great counterpoint to the rest of the meal.
At Hon’s you can feed the whole family of four for less than 40 bucks, and nobody will be hungry an hour later. Hon’s also sells BBQ meats for take home, bags of frozen potstickers, wun tuns, dim sum items, and fresh rice noodles. It’s fast food Cantonese-style, and not a golden arch in sight.
Hon’s Wun Tun House is at 268 Keefer St in Vancouver. There’s another location on Robson (with a pure vegetarian kitchen), but we found our last visit there disappointing. Stick to the classic in Chinatown!