On Valentine’s Day, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (OK, so it was Burns Lake in the year 1989) Valerie and I had our first date in the premiere Chinese restaurant in our small northern town. China Moon, run by the Lam family was in a shuttered “Mr. Mike’s” location in the Lakeland Mall. The charbroiled burgers may have been gone, but the “Mr Mike’s” logo was still burnt into the heavily epoxied wood tables under fresh “China Moon” stickers.
I recall being kind of nervous, it was a first date after all. And Valentine’s Day at that! But Valerie was sweet of course, and accommodating, and kept extraneous confusion to a minimum by agreeing that we would have the Special Valentine’s Dinner for Two. Only the finest chow mein, sweet and sour chicken and wonton soup for this most momentous of occasions. I think I insisted that I pay the bill. Some things are lost in the mists of time and this is my blog so I don’t have to worry about cancellation for the acts of my sixteen year-old self in less enlightened times.
After dinner, we planned to go to a movie – “1969”, featuring young (weren’t we all?) Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder. When I told Valerie I was going to call the one cab in Burns Lake to take us there, she was surprised. “No, no!” she insisted. Save the money, we could walk over. That was probably my first hint that this amazing girl was also a very astute money manager. Even more dreamy!
It was less a walk and more of a hurried dash through the icy streets. It was minus 20 Celsius, which is about minus 4 Fahrenheit. Plenty cold for a couple of kids in their coolest stepping out duds, including Valerie’s ultra thin dress shoes.
The movie was mostly forgettable, but I really didn’t care. It our first opportunity to be together outside of school, and when I tentatively slid my hand over the armrest, Valerie’s fingers interlaced mine. All was right with the world.
A few years later, we found ourselves at school in Vancouver, which has a plethora of fantastic and authentic Chinese restaurants. But only one in particular was fated to be “ours”. PK Restaurant was a non-descript little restaurant just off campus on West 10th Avenue. It’s location was very convenient (check) and they had a lunch special for $5.50, consisting of an entrée and bowl of wonton soup (at that price – double check!). I can remember that very well because the bill was $11.77 and a broke student tip made $13.00 for two people. Jasmine tea and water were free. The lunch special was limited to a small number of delicious items such as rich brown udon-style Shanghai noodles, golden curried Singapore noodles with miniscule dried shrimp, and eggplant with pork in garlic sauce over rice.
But it wasn’t the friendly servers, or the cheap and delicious food that made the experience, it was the ritual. In the summer and late fall when we were putting our class schedules together, we kept Friday afternoon open. We knew that no matter how crazy the week was, we could look forward to taking a break and connecting with each other. There was a lot of comfort in chatting over cups of jasmine tea, or the oft-repeated scene of Valerie shaking her head as I coughed and rasped after putting too much chili oil on my soup.
Yes, we even split the plates so we would have leftovers the next day. We say “frugal”, you may say “cheap”, but when we returned to Burns Lake after university we were not overwhelmed with debt.
On the 20th anniversary of our first date, we returned to China Moon for lunch. Our server was the ever cheerful Phung Lam, who had served us on our first date. Even though it had been a long time since we were there, she seated us and didn’t hesitate before offering our favourite dishes. Her memory for customer preferences was legendary. So too was her desire to keep up on all family happenings.
“Any kids yet?” she asked.
“Not yet!” we replied.
“What’s the matter, don’t know how?” she queried.
We had a good laugh over that one. Sorry Phung, guess we never did figure it out.
It is no surprise that every time I pass a Chinese restaurant I smile. Not just for the multitude of ways that sauces can transform a small number of ingredients into a fantastic feast, although that is miraculous. I can’t discount the ways these little stolen moments with Valerie helped weave the strands of our relationship together into a tapestry strong enough to resist the wear and tear of life and love.
P.S. Of course if you have read the Curmudgeon’s other pieces you know that we are now vegan. Thanks to our friends Cynda and Tom we have a favorite new Chinese restaurant: “Po Kong” on Kingsway in East Vancouver serves up truly awesome vegan versions of dozens of dishes from hot and sour soup to sweet and sour “pork”, orange chicken, pepper steak and more.