Jane’s Walk Ottawa, an annual festival of free walking tours held in honour of urban theorist Jane Jacobs, took place last weekend. We got our contributors out on a few of the walks and will be posting their photos and stories here on the site just in case you didn’t get the chance to participate.
“If you wanna keep it going, you gotta keep it small.” These words of the gregarious Mr. So, owner of the So Good Restaurant, summed up the theme of Apt613’s Jane’s Walk through Ottawa’s eclectic little Chinatown: small businesses, community and people who care.
What? People who care – in Chinatown? Isn’t Chinatown just the place where you go for dim sum, where the unspoken agreement is to throw down a 10% tip and get scowled at in return? No wait, that’s Toronto – or, at least, going anywhere with my parents. This is Ottawa. Amongst Canada’s most inclusive, Ottawa’s Chinatown is for everyone: it is a small, tight-knit community of artsy coffee shops that double as nightspots, Asian supermarkets, Chinese restaurants and a legion of similarly named Pho restaurants.
Hovering over it all is the massive Royal Archway on the corner of Bronson and Somerset, our third stop, made in traditional Chinese style in Beijing, donated and opened by the Chinese Embassy in 2010. Ottawa’s archway is unique in that it contains nine separate “little roofs”, the highest number of little roofs on an archway and a sign of honour befitting an emperor, explained Grace Xin, Executive Director of the Somerset Street Chinatown Business Improvement Area. Those Chinese characters on it – the top says “Ottawa” and the bottom says “Chinatown”. Chinatown, we learned, was originally two stores on Bank Street that somehow found their way to Somerset.
As is the case with most of Centretown, a majority of the restaurants there today were residences decades ago and were converted into businesses in the 70s, which was also the time Ottawa’s landmark Chinese restaurant/social venue Shanghai was established. On Saturday evenings, Shanghai hosts karaoke night with local hosted by local icon Chinadoll (aka Ed Kwan), who let us in on the origins of the night… and her name. “Eight years ago, a girl had her bachelorette here, and they wanted me to sing, and I had this wig on, and my brother said go on… and call yourself Chinadoll!” Saturday nights were never the same again. Mild-mannered establishment by day, venue at night. This was another theme of the walk.
While Chinatown technically does not have any bars or clubs, there is no shortage of venues for nights out. We stopped at two relatively new cafés, The Daily Grind and Raw Sugar Cafe. Though they use the word “café” – these joints are more like bar/café/music venue/art gallery/restaurant/community centre, as their offerings go far beyond typical café fare. Together with Umi Café, these three independent cafés form a triangle of community events. Into Tex-Mex and Heavy Metal? Then try the Daily Grind’s Tex-Mex menu, and then stay for the weekly metal party. Into playing board games and listening to beats? Raw Sugar hosts “Beats & Boards” on Tuesdays. Weekly music guests and special events dot Chinatown’s social calendar at these venues.
Our next stop was Zen Kitchen, which opened four years ago, owner David Loan explained, with the guiding philosophy of a place where everyone can dine regardless of dietary restrictions or moral views. Offering a strictly vegan menu, they use no animal products at all – not even honey or dairy products. “If we need something that approximates cream, we’ll make it with cashews.” I wasn’t sure how that would taste – but I want to try. Zen Kitchen supports the “Community Supported Agriculture” model: they give local farmers money to grow stuff, and in return, farmers give them the fresh stuff. This approach seemed to be held in high regard by others in Chinatown, corroborated by Mr. So, owner of So Good Restaurant. “People don’t understand where that extra dollar in the price goes – it goes to the ingredients. And we believe people will pay that extra dollar for something better.”
We also stopped at Highjinx and found out that it isn’t actually a store (as I thought passing it many times) but actually a centre for non-traditional social work. Highjinx owner Karen Neilson told us are more like a community hub for the down trodden, they offer food to the homeless, furnish the homes of the less fortunate – and they do it all by selling antiques that are donated!
But enough about all this feel good community stuff – let’s get down to the real questions: why are there are so many pho restaurants and and why are they are all called PHO BO GA? Pho Bo Ga La, Pho Bo Ga La 2, Pho Bac, Pholicious… the list goes on. The second last stop of the tour was with Pho-guides Don and Jen of Foodieprints. The reason, they speculated, is that Pho entrepreneurs just aren’t that creative. But here’s the basic breakdown: “PHO” is obviously the delicious noodle soup we all know and love, “BO” means beef, and “GA” means chicken. Noodle. Beef. Chicken. Ottawa’s pho is of high quality because like the rest of the venues visited, they actually make the stock and the pho is different in each one. Simple enough – but what about “LA”? I asked. That, they did not know – one of Chinatown’s many mysteries.
Editor’s Note: The trip also stopped by Purple Urchin Soap works and the Bridgehead Roastery, but Jason had to run as the Jane’s Walk was running long. Thanks to the owners for their participation.