Eating & Drinking

DesBrisay Dines: Ben Ben

I squeezed in under the wire: 2:45pm — still time to snag Ben Ben’s 11 to 3pm luncheon special. I think it had been 20 years since I’d done anything other than walk by this 32-year-old institution. I suppose it was enough to see it still kicking, still in its Somerset spot, its sign unchanged, while I investigated newer spots.

But lately I’ve been thinking about old haunts; about restaurants that have stood the test of time; and that continue to give, to feed, to serve, even though nobody writes about them anymore.

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What do I remember about Ben Ben? A date with my now husband (in 1984, good grief!) back when Ben Ben and I were both fairly new to Ottawa. I remember its long menu of Cantonese and Szechuan dishes, some items in English, the more interesting looking items destined for other tables, in Chinese. I remember the big portions and the remarkably fair prices, and I remember it was all pretty tasty stuff. None of that has changed.

And as I looked at my server, I wondered if I recognized her too. So I asked her — Linda was her name — “How long have you been here?”

“Forever,” she giggled. “Since the beginning. Thirty-two years. So has the chef.”

Which likely explains the static menu… though bolstered with daily specials on the white board. But we were here for the lunch special, written on a table card beneath Plexiglass. Two courses for under a tenner: choice of soup or a spring roll, then one of 10 dishes, three of Szechuan persuasion (marked on the menu with a chili pepper symbol), the balance Cantonese.

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Ben Ben’s cod in black bean sauce

The hot and sour soup was admirable for all the things it was not (and so often is at other establishments): lukewarm, tasteless and shiny-gloopy. This one was balanced, the sour and sweet and chili-heat in harmony, plump with tofu and bamboo shoots, scallions and wood ears. The spring roll was also good. It was loosely packed, fragrant of five spice powder and just greasy enough. We tried a dish of shaved pork in a Szechwan-fired garlic sauce, and a better dish of cod, dredged and seasoned, fried and juicy, in a black bean sauce. Both dishes came with rice. Both dishes came home with us in take-away bags.

The portion size hasn’t changed either.