Ok, so this is not the part of town you might turn toward when the mood strikes for dinner out. The neighbourhood is commercial in a way that is not conducive to relaxing while window shopping, and the constant traffic on Douglas Street does not contend as Victoria’s finest outlook. The restaurant, itself, sits in the corner of a parking lot behind the Mr. Lube on the corner of Douglas and Boleskine. Having a parking lot is good.
Ho Tong is open from 11 am to 2 pm, and then from 4 pm to 9 pm every day. But on a Monday noon hour the bright and spacious dining room was full and the line outside was long. Apparently, people know about this place. Not surprising, I’m told.
David, a local friend, joined the Victoria Police Force in 1979 when Ho Tong was located directly across from the station, and then at 625 Fisgard, in the heart of Chinatown. And Ho Tong was already a community fixture at that time, often populated by Victoria officers. Forty-three years later, Ho Tong remains a frequented personal favourite.
Returning for an early dinner, we were seated right away. As we passed through the cramped entrance, I noticed two golden ducks behind glass. Another friend, Frank, a professional chef and restaurateur, who also happens to be Chinese, recommended Ho Tong to me.
“Best Chinese food in Victoria,” he said. “Have the barbecue duck.”
And so I’ve come, and it’s on the menu as an appetizer. There is braised duck under the poultry section of the menu, but what I’ve ordered is not on the menu: a Quarter BBQ Duck ($14.95), chopped through the bones and plated all alone. To balance my meal, I’ve ordered a plate of Gai Lan ($12.95). Had I also added a rice dish, the portions would have easily fed two or even three people. Even without the rice, I will take away some leftovers.
Gai Lan, also called Chinese broccoli, is a substantial vegetable. Lots of stalk and steam-wilted leaves drizzled with oyster sauce (which tastes something like a thickened, sweetened soy sauce). Gai Lan is a challenge to pick up with chopsticks, but I consider myself rather proficient, and won’t easily admit defeat. The duck defeated me. Or rather the duck’s bones did. Duck has a more robust flavour than chicken or turkey, but I don’t find it gamey. The meat is also more dense and a tad drier than chicken. And though this is barbecue, this is Chinese barbecue, not Alabama. It has a beautiful golden skin, as if crisped with honey. The bones are all on one side of the meat, which is helpful, but they are tiny, and require nimble teeth to pull off every speck of meat. Eventually, I had to put down the sticks in favour of fingers (forks are available, but a survey of surrounding tables did not reveal a knife).
Frank couldn’t join me, but I did not dine alone. And but for David, we are all Ho Tong neophytes. But for me, we all ordered more conventionally. David had his favourite, the Crispy Ginger Beef with Chow Fun (flat rice noodles, $14.95), as did one other. Two of us ordered a “Dinner for One” ($14.95), which I put in quotes because this is definitely a dinner for two. (Spring roll, BBQ pork chow mein, beef with broccoli, and sweet and sour lean pork, which is more sour than sweet and certainly not red.)
Consensus among us neophytes? A hearty thank you to Frank and David. Spectacular. Ho Tong is the new personal favourite for four new fans. And we didn’t even notice the traffic.