northern ontario (chinese) food: treeplanting (pt. II)

You may recall how I raved about the food at our camp this past contract. Well, treeplanting didn't have us always eating in the bush - in fact, we function in shifts of 4-6 days, with a night/day off. Typically, the last day of a planting shift will be an early one, so we're planting until 2 or 3 (instead of 6 or 7). We almost always head straight to town from the block (the land that we plant), meaning we show up with dirt on our faces (and everywhere else) in our smelly sweat ridden and blood stained work clothes (which were probably the same ones worn yesterday, the day before, and the day before that). Once in town, planters are responsible for feeding themselves. That night's dinner, and the next day's food (though we head back to camp on that next day, we're not fed).

With our 7 or 8 days off this contract, the first two were spent in Timmins, and the others (with an exception of one night in Hearst) were in Kapuskasing. Having grown up in Toronto, and lived in Montreal for the past 4 years, I wasn't really expecting much in the way of food, way up there. A little bit of a stuck up city mentality, I suppose.

Over the last several years, the boy had become familiar with Timmins, as he frequented this town on days off of previous contracts. Both nights we were in town included Chinese food at the Cozy Corner (24 Mountjoy St S). Just next to the Days Inn at which we stayed, the restaurant is owned and operated by a speaker of Cantonese (I suspect he's an immigrant from Hong Kong). The boy has been returning for years, but hasn't had a chance to order off the back menu until now. I was amused - during our first day off, I had to convince the two young women working in the front that I wanted to speak with their chef/owner for dinner. They may not have known what to do with a Cantonese speaking girl still in dirty dirty clothes. Not bad, actually! Just priced twice as much as Toronto: rice noodles with beef, along with Shanghainese bok choi with garlic and spring rolls. The second time we were there, we decided to eat in, ordering a seafood concoction off the menu. Scallops were way over cooked, although the shrimp were still okay. Dinner was even costlier this time (as expected, with the seafood), at over 40$ for two. (Costly, you say? Why yes! compared to dining in Toronto for Chinese food - if you find the right places, you can be paying as little as 15, 20$ for two).

During our one night in Hearst, we had dinner at King's Cafe (824 George St.), where Robert Munch declared they made the best chicken balls, ever. Though we didn't end up trying to aforementioned deep fried spheres, we found out that the bean sprout chop suey dishes comes with... toast! Yes, a stack of buttered and toasted white bread. The things you learn about Canadian-Chinese cuisine, I suppose. I must confess that I didn't even know what an 'authentic' chop suey dish was supposed to contain until that night: 'chop suey doesn't exist as a dish in China'. I think the waitress at King's was amused that the boy decided to chopstick the toast. And one of the cooks was surprised by the appearance of a Cantonese speaking girl, still in unlaundered work clothes.

We found ourselves in Kapuskasing for the remaining days off, where we had a chance to try two of their Chinese-Canadian restaurants. To be honest, the two restaurants tasted the same to me, with their standard over-cornstartched sauces. Not to say that the food was bad, of course! It's just that I'm not sure I'll ever be used to "Chinese" food that's been catered to the Caucasian crowd. I was actually quite surprised at the frequency of Chinese Canadian restaurants in Northern Ontario - all of the ones we ended up going to were all Asian-operated, too. Of course, there's a serious lacking of many Chinese staples (such as the various "speciality" vegetables found easily in the city), and I understand from the owner of Hong's Take-Out (48 Queen Street) that shipments from Toronto are only monthly. As just mentioned, their fare was pretty similar to the food at Thong La's (16 Riverside Drive, Kap). In other words, all the noodle dishes featured the same ingredients, switching up the meat and sauce to exponentially expand the menu. Not quite a taste of home, but my expectations were surprisingly exceeded (according to the boy, the sweet and sour soup at Thong La's was pretty good, too). I definitely would go back for their Singapore fried noodles though - authentic to the tee, and not at all frugal with their ingredients. Chicken! Shrimp! BBQ Pork! Bean sprouts!

The boy is currently planting in northern Manitoba, and I understand from him that there are various Canadian Chinese restaurants up there, too. Perhaps I'll have to snag myself a contract on province over next year, and find out for myself. Until then, I'm more than satisfied with the Asian eats of the city.

1 comment:

Stone Spoon said...

It's really not every day that I'll come across any mention of Thong La's or even Kapuskasing from that matter. I'm from Kapuskasing, born and raised, and actually grew up with the family who owns that restaurant. We all used to laugh at all of you tree-planters coming into town and showering in our fountain in the circle...haha...
If you're looking for a reason why there's so many Chinese-Canadian restaurants it's because back in the day Chinese people who'd worked on the railroads and other such projects had one of two options: open a laundromat or a restaurant. That's why you'll find "Chinese" food in the middle of nowhere.
I do agree that it's not very authentic. I guess it really is Canadian food that happens to be cooked by a Chinese cook. If ever you go back to Thong La's, speak to Tan (the owner) or his brothers or wife in the kitchen. They usually have authentic Chinese food stashed away for their own midnight supper.