Meals in university are often associated with instant noodles, pizza deliveries, and plenty of alcohol, while reminiscing about home cooked meals usually brings up images of Mom’s roast beef. These stereotypes are almost flipped for me. At Western — approximately two hours away from my hometown of Markham, Ontario — I cook every meal. At home, I’m always at a restaurant, or finding my chopsticks reaching for a plastic takeout container filled with beef and broccoli.
This irony is due to many things. One is that at school I eat on my own dime, making a $16-per-week grocery bill significantly more appealing than that $20 Domino’s pizza. Another reason is that takeout and restaurants are how my Hong Kong parents operate; coming from a city that never stops moving, the time spent cooking a meal is worth more than the premium charged by a restaurant.
At this point you might think, “Wow, this guy gets to eat at so many different restaurants,” and this is where you would be horribly wrong. Most of my family dinners are at a cha chan teng, a Hong Kong diner ten minutes away from my Markham home. To say my family goes often is an understatement, to say we go everyday isn’t far from the truth.
The thought of going to the same restaurant all the time may seem nonsense to some — with so much variety and so many options, why stick to one restaurant? But to me, this specific HK diner is my home cooked meal.
The waitresses know my family by name and our orders by heart. The other morning, I deviated slightly from my usual order — an iced milk tea instead of an iced lemon tea, and the 50-year-old, red-haired, Chinese waitress replied with, “Are you sure?” as if she was stunned by what she just heard.
This customer experience (my favourite business school buzzword!) isn’t exclusive to my family at all — most customers at this place are regulars. In fact, I’ve seen everything from a customer venting furiously about his wife to a waitress on her lunch break, to someone asking to borrow a piece of ginger because the grocery store was closed (the owner subsequently went into the kitchen and handed him a whole root — free of charge).
The staff here aren’t your servers, they’re your friends, and they don’t shy away from doing what they want either – whether it’s serving guests while munching an apple or simply kicking someone out for getting on their nerves. This is no fine dining institution.
As for the food, it has truly become my version of a home cooked meal. I never crave what my mom cooks (with the amount of times we eat out, I question whether she still knows how to cook). Instead, I crave this diner’s French toast and baked tomato sauce streak, and ONLY this particular diner’s.
The place is closed on Tuesdays, and I often feel lost and find myself at a different HK diner, only for my family and I to conjure a dozen complaints about this unfamiliar restaurant’s food: the sauce is too watery, the food is too salty, the bread is too dry…
My friends who suffer through my constant Snapchat food pictures know how often I go to this place. “Again?” they ask.
Yes, again. Where else would I go?