Eating Like the Locals

One thing we were hoping to accomplish on our recent anniversary trip to Canada was eating some real, live (well, hopefully not live) Canadian food.

But what is real Canadian food, anyway? Google gave me conflicting answers, and I even got on a Fodor’s travel forum message board, and people spent pages and pages arguing over what “real” Canadian food is.

I had this strange notion that Canadians would be somewhat like Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf, wanting to pour maple syrup on spaghetti noodles and everything else, and just in general be big syrup fanatics. Turns out they are pretty big on maple syrup and they do love stamping the maple leaf symbol onto EVERYTHING, but I didn’t see any inappropriate uses of syrup, which was a little disappointing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we even got to Canada, we decided to stop for lunch in Buffalo, New York and experience some REAL buffalo wings. One of our dear friends who has been to Buffalo on quite a few family trips recommended a place called La Nova, which turned out to be perfect. They’ve got an interesting history, great atmosphere (I heard at least three different guys call out, “How you doin?” in their New York accents while we were there), and apparently, world famous wings. The coolest thing about La Nova is that they claim they can ship their wings anywhere in the nation overnight, if you really have a long-distance craving. I’d hate to see that delivery charge, though.

Makes you want to belt "New Yoooooork!" in an Alicia Keys voice, doesn't it?

Makes you want to belt “New Yoooooork!” in an Alicia Keys voice, doesn’t it?

I tried their wings and a slice of their pepperoni pizza, and it was top notch!

I tried their wings and a slice of their pepperoni pizza, and it was top notch!

One intrinsically Canadian dish that everyone did seem to agree on was poutine, which seems to be a glorified version of chili cheese fries. Justin and I tried a barbecue restaurant just down the street from the place we were staying. I ordered traditional poutine, and Justin ordered pulled pork barbecue poutine. They delivered us two plates full of fries, sprinkled with cheese curds, and drizzled with chicken gravy. It sounds kind of gross, but it was delicious! The pulled pork piled on top of Justin’s poutine was also delicious, and added a nice barbecue flavor to the dish. Justin and I both give poutine our stamp of approval!

Mmmm...delicious greasiness.

Mmmm…delicious greasiness.

Toronto, as it turns out, is a very international city. As we walked down the street, we kept bumping into people from all over the world, hearing bits and pieces of conversations being held in so many different languages. We found out that Toronto has a pretty sizeable Chinatown, so we knew we had to visit. It’s officially been one year since we’ve returned to the U.S. after living in China, and I’m surprised to say that even though I’m glad to be home, I catch myself missing it from time to time. I especially miss the food–America’s version of Chinese food just isn’t the same, and my attempts at cooking it have been mediocre at best.

We had a packed schedule while we were in Toronto, so we didn’t venture into Chinatown until around 9:30, after catching a Blue Jays baseball game. I was a little disappointed because many shops and restaurants were already closed for the night. We promised that we would try to return again the next day (but we ended up running out of time). Nevertheless, after trekking through several blocks of street-side vegetable stands and happy cats waving in store windows, it was easy to believe that we were back in China. Most of the other pedestrians we passed on the street were Chinese, and even the street signs were printed in Mandarin! We finally found a restaurant that still had the neon open sign blazing in the window.

When we walked in, I felt a little bad for intruding because a family was gathered around a table eating a late, family-style supper. Even so, one of the ladies jumped up out of her chair to come seat us and take our orders, leaving her meal behind. It was so much like being in China I had to pinch myself! Justin and I had a hard time deciding what to order. In the end, we ended up ordering three dishes (which was actually a little too much food)–eggplant, cabbage, and spicy cubed chicken with peanuts and peppers.

I started scarfing down the food and I forgot to take a picture, but sauteed Chinese eggplant looks something like this. (

I started scarfing down the food and I forgot to take a picture, but sauteed Chinese eggplant looks something like this. (

However, our highly anticipated dinner fizzled out pretty quickly. For one thing, I tried to be a hotshot and eat the spicy peppers included in our chicken dish (not the bell peppers, but the long skinny red ones). I ate two, and I was fine. Whew! A little spicier than I remembered them being, but I could handle a third, right? The third pepper just about killed me. I don’t know why it was different from the others…maybe I ate the little seeds inside of it? I drank half a glass of water to no avail. My mouth was on fire! Any other food I tried to eat just added gasoline to the flame. I kept discreetly wiping at my running nose and watering eyes, hoping that the Chinese family wouldn’t see me miserably failing to conquer their spicy dish. Eventually, the cabbage seemed to help douse the fire a little bit, but I was definitely put off my appetite after that. My mouth wasn’t burning anymore, but my chest was. It was like instant heartburn/acid reflux. What was I thinking eating those peppers? I can’t believe I used to just snack on them like popcorn when we lived in China. They must have been a different kind of pepper…

The other problem was that customers kept wandering into the restaurant (it being one of the last restaurants still open in the neighborhood), and the ladies kept getting up from the dinner table and shooing them away. It was like the Soup Nazi situation on Seinfeld–one lady asked what the man wanted to order, and then told him that dish would take too long to cook. He tried to change his mind and order something else, but it was too late. She all but pushed him out of the restaurant, him holding up his hands in surrender saying, “Okay, maybe some other time, then!” Another guy came in and claimed to be absolutely starving. This time, the ladies sent their teenage boy to deal with the customer. The guy claimed he was so hungry, he’d be willing to eat anything. “Just something quick and light!” he promised. The boy said, “Well, we have leftovers of this dish,” and pointed to something on the menu. The man looked at the menu in disgust and said, “No! I can’t eat that! Isn’t there anything else?” Wrong question!–he was pushed out of the door as well.

Our waitresses were very friendly to us in English, offering us more water and making sure we were enjoying our food. However, in Chinese (according to Justin, my translator), they were bad-mouthing us, talking about how slow we were eating our food. They regretted ever letting us in and taking our order, because it was getting late and they wanted to close. I tried to pick up the pace and get out of their way, but the faster I tried to eat, the more I dropped with my chopsticks. I saw one of the ladies looking at me and shaking her head, making the tsk-tsk sound. I suddenly missed the real China very much. No one would rush a foreigner out the door in real China.

The final straw was a problem with the credit card machine. We used our card as much as we could to pay for things, since exchanging to Canadian money (and trying to figure out all of those strange coins!) can be a pain. But the transaction just wouldn’t go through. A problem with the machine, I’m sure, but the lady swiping the card glared at us as if it was our fault. Justin had to run down the street to an ATM while I stayed at the table, enduring the hate waves coming from the ladies cleaning up the restaurant and counting out their profits from the cash register.

I had planned on proudly saying, “Xie xie” to thanks the ladies as we were leaving the restaurant, but they hadn’t been impressed when Justin ordered his food in Chinese, and I don’t think they’d be impressed with me now that we ruined their evening. So when Justin returned, he quickly paid (the lady uttered a quiet curse as he handed her the money–were we supposed to tip? Chinese people don’t tip, but Canadians do! Gah!), and we went back to our room and I chewed several Tums.

So much for Chinatown. 😦

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Eating Like the Locals

  1. Oh sad day! Sounds like your Chinatown experience was such a let down. It’s terrible that they were bad mouthing you. 😦 I understand missing REAL Chinese food. I haven’t found anywhere in Memphis that has real authentic Chinese food. Hopefully I’ll find a place eventually. Anyway, on a happier note – it sounds like your Buffalo wings were a winner!

    • I haven’t found any authentic Chinese food here in Pittsburgh, either. But I keep thinking that there must be a few places that serve it because so many of the students at Carnegie Mellon are Chinese. We do have a real KTV place in Pittsburgh (though it’s a little pricier on this side of the globe). I always wonder if there’s a way to order food that’s not on the menu…you KNOW Chinese people are cooking authentic Chinese food for themselves and their families! There’s got to be a way to get in on the “off the record” dinner specials.

  2. Mmm, the poutine sounds delcious!! I really want to try that.

    The experience in Chinatown – not so good. That’s really sad. You’re right – that would not happen in China. Everyone I met when I lived there was so nice and friendly (except for this one taxi driver in Shanghai who said something nasty that included “mei guo” and refused to let us into his cab – how he knew we were American from looking at us, I don’t know).

    That eggplant dish looks like one of my favorites from the East though – so I hope the food was good (short of the peppers of course).

    • The food was good, at least. And I know that western eaters tend to take their time and draw out the dining experience while Chinese eaters raise the rice bowl to their lips and use the chopsticks to shovel it down as quickly as possible. I just didn’t like feeling rushed…

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