How Andy’s Chinese Food Became the Best in East Central Alberta
Castor, Alberta's local hangout had several proprietors over the years, but for many folks, Andy Wong was behind its glory days.
Once the Vibrant Heart of Our Community
If you were a stranger passing through our town of Castor, Alberta, you would probably dismiss the old grey building at the corner of Prospect Street as just another empty, derelict building in a small town. Though the print is worn and faded, and the lettering is barely distinguishable, the ancient red and silver sign hanging above the front door indicates this was once Jesse’s Café.
My first memories of the place were as a teenager. During my “rebel without a cause” stage in life, I learned to smoke in one of the back booths with my friends. We would feed the jukebox money and it would pound out the wild music of the 1950s, while we drank our pop and smoked our cigarettes. We were cool—the guys with their ducktail haircuts, the gals sporting the latest “Poodle Cut” or “Beehive.” Yes, we were living the dream at what was then called “Bob’s and Louie’s Place.” Though the place was a haze of blue smoke, my friends would inevitably spot my father coming in for his afternoon coffee and warn me to “Butt it—here comes your dad!” This did not help in the cultivation of my cool image.
This café was once the vibrant heart of our community. It was built in the early 1900s and passed through many owners and had many names, until it came to be fondly known as “Andy’s,” after one of the most popular proprietors of all.
New in Town
Andy himself was a quiet sort. The year he arrived in our small town is uncertain, but it seems as though he was always here. He went about life raising his children, unobtrusively living above the café and working hard. Occasionally, when he needed time off, you would see a sign pasted on the outside of the door, saying “SORRY CLOSED.”
If those old walls could talk, they would tell tales of the first time Chinese food came to a growing Prairie town. A change of culinary taste for the meat-and-potatoes crowd! Today, those walls would describe how Andy’s Chinese food soon became the best in East Central Alberta. Among the “westernized” favourites were lemon chicken, ginger beef, dried ribs, egg rolls, fried rice and chow mein, to name a few. Not only was Andy’s “westernized” Chinese food the best, it was the freshest! Andy could be seen daily buying fresh produce to cook with.
Andy was a magician in the kitchen. At noon the local students would invade and Andy would be ready for them. You’d get a hamburger, fries and a pop for $5.00! And this price would remain unchanged until the day the students graduated from school. Paying adult prices at Andy’s was a rite of passage.
Over the years, the decor changed from stools along the counter and booths along the side walls to an array of individual tables. The jukebox vanished. If you were lucky on a cold day, you would get the table nearest to the giant heat register. On rainy days, you had to navigate a maze of plastic sheeting and pails within the café, Andy’s basic countermeasures to cope with a leaky roof.
The ceilings were made of embossed tin, and the walls were unstable to say the least. Local, unconfirmed lore has it that a certain Nobel Prize winner in the making, accompanied by his junior high friends, used to bang on the outside walls until objects on the inside fell off their shelves. An experiment in applied physics, perhaps!
Loved By All
Then there was the coffee crowd. Many business deals were made around those worn-down tables at Andy’s. And politics were argued; hockey wars fought; insults traded—all in good fun. Strangers would stare in alarm if they happened into the café at 10 a.m. or 3:00 p.m., when rowdy “discussions” usually took place to determine whose turn it was to pay for the coffee. More often than not, when the stranger went to leave, he would find that his coffee had already been paid for by one of the coffee regulars.
If you wished to have more than coffee at your birthday party, you could bring your own cake and ice cream, with paper plates and forks. If there was a local tea and bake sale happening, Andy would hint at how nice it would be if one of the regulars were to make a purchase at the sale—and bring some nice home baking to the café.
But, as a patron, you had to stick to Andy’s way. If you came at the wrong time of the day, or failed to order the daily special in favour of something else, Andy would inform you, “Not today.”
Andy was loved by all. When he closed his doors for the final time in 2017, one of the biggest crowds ever to gather in the local community hall came by to say goodbye to Andy Wong.
“SORRY CLOSED” took on a whole new meaning that day.
Next, find out what Prairie life was like during the Great Depression.