Vancouver Food Diary: Hong Kong Café’s Apple Tarts

The Cantonese villagers who moved to Vancouver in the 1900s populated Chinatown and opened up Chinese businesses. One of them was the ‘Hong Kong Cafe’ which apparently was located at the Chinese Theatre on Pender Street from the 1930s and then settled in the 1940s to 149 East Pender Street run by Victor Lum where it became famous for its apple tarts and oxtail soup. Victor’s grandson, Brian McBay, mentions it here.

I have memories of when my father took me here, at an age that I can barely remember. It was a wonderful combination of a North American diner, and something Chinese, from my heritage, village Chinese and immigrant Chinese and bustling commerce. They’d serve coffee, apparently terrible, from huge boiling vats, carboys of coffee. And would serve a delightful mix of Chinese and North American food. I remember, distinctly, my first Boston Cream Pie: a perfect tiny round of gelatinous red, that looked like a half of a maraschino cherry but was just jelly, on top of a combination of mostly cream, and a little cake, perhaps. I don’t remember the details exactly but at such a young age found it absolutely magical.

Apple tarts seem to have been their most famous legacy. My brother remembers the apple tarts as being two for 35 cents. They are a kind of flaky pastry, round, with an apple filling, that tastes of real apples, perhaps like a spoonful of apple pie. The layers are light around it, almost like a donut. The flaky coating, a sugar crust, is similar to a nice French pastry. It is certainly not particularly Chinese, but probably found nowhere else in North America, so is an original Vancouver Chinese-Canadian creation.

When the Hong Kong Café closed, it was known that the Lums decided that the recipe would not go to anyone else and that the apple tart would DIE with their closure. But a cook who’d made them defected to the Newtown Bakery across the street and started making them. and now, versions of them are available at Newtown Bakery and their other locations (including a similarly named bakery, the Original New Town Bakery, which is not officially associated with the New Town chain) and apparently the Bao Bakery near the Joyce Skytrain station has started making them too.

I think they’re pretty marvelous, but it’s impossible for me to separate the taste of them (pretty good) with the memories (priceless) of father bringing home a box of apple tarts to our family, presented with pride and probably some nostalgia of his own.

If you’re a foodie, and so inclined, why not hunt one down?

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