One wet, windy night last month, the kind of November night that no one in their right mind would venture out in given a choice, I decided to order some take out Chinese food from my go-to delivery spot, Monroe’s.
Much to my surprise, my partner, who has resided in St. John’s for 18 years (much of that downtown), had never tried their food before. Pretty wild, I thought, but I had no idea what was to come.
Foodwise, what came was exactly what we had ordered; pretty standard chicken balls, equally passable but mundane mushroom fried rice, and a simple but delicious deep fried tofu dish with tender bok choy and fresh broccoli in a light sauce.
We ate, we were full, nothing out of the ordinary at all. Then I posted on the internet. “Dave has just tried his first feed of Monroes.” The internet lit up, inspiring more conversation than any single post of mine has since I wrote about the seal hunt last year. There’s a story in this, I realized. Again, I had no idea what was coming.
The story’s main character is not the customers, the owner, or this writer. It is the Monroe’s cheeseburger, so much the stuff of legend that if we had a local Indiana Jones, he would be questing for this long before the Ark; a golden slice of processed cheese glinting beneath the cover of pallid buns like buried treasure beckoning him ever closer. This local burger is loved on a level usually reserved for hockey teams and favourite classic rock artists. Everyone has heard of it, it gets people talking, and sometimes tensions rise.
Very few people will diss the cheeseburger itself. A basic affair with a few classic fixings, it is a solid burger for its easy-to-love price tag of $3.30. Of over 40 Monroe’s cheeseburger anecdotes reported to me, a mere 5 questioned the sanctity of the item, and only 2 of those were really negative. There’s little ground to stand on to dispute the popularity of the Monroe’s cheeseburger.
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever ordered a Monroe’s feed without a burger,” one respondent said. “Loves a cheeseburger platter. With the works. Juicy. Tender. Melt in your mouth. Mmmmonroe’s burgers. Nothing like them. Just like homemade” added another. “A cheesebuger was always an addition to any order of food. Hell, a second cheeseburger was added to a cheeseburger platter,” said a third.
While not exciting people quite as much, there were many good stories about the Chinese food as well. Monroe’s has been in business for ages, and as one friend testifies “for historical context, I can attest that they’ve been solid since at least the 90’s. Many a Saturday working at Healy’s was salvaged by a greasy feed from Monroe’s.” But not everyone loves them so much. The criticism split into 2 main parts; the quality of the food and, more discussed and ultimately more interesting, people’s impressions of the décor and hygiene.
I’d never been to Monroe’s, it’s takeout status being one of its big draws for me, but now I had to go. Was it really unhygienic, as some had suggested? No one had said “don’t eat there,” but several had said “don’t go pick it up yourself or you’ll ruin your appetite.” I found it sparse and in need of some superficial repairs, I will admit, but not dirty.
The woman who brought me my food was friendly and neat as a pin in her almost glamourous old school hair net. The splashes of colour around the door dividing kitchen from customer area were quite pleasing. I could now see why some described it as homey.
In the spirit of due journalistic diligence, I read their Food Premises Inspection Reports back to 2105 while I ate my cheeseburger back at home. There were certainly infractions, but most were fairly ridiculous to me. Storing packaged food in grocery store bags and bins rather then foodsafe bags, no hairnets, unlabeled sanitizer, and failing to close the door between the residence part of the building and the kitchen were, in my opinion, small issues. Hygiene was criticized in some reports (as a non-critical issue though), but any major infractions have been listed as corrected.
The only real warning I will give is that it seems there may be a sagging bathroom subfloor, so watch your step if you need to visit it while picking up your food. Perhaps there are larger issues than I know, or perhaps in our age of glitzy appearances people have confused thrifty with unclean. At $3.30 a burg, how much decoration do you need?
This is where food politics enters the picture. Tired stereotypes about Asian restaurants serving cat meat luckily didn’t come up much, but if you are among the people in St. John’s who still thinks that’s funny, I have news for you. It’s not.
More worrisome for me were the number of mentions of poor hygiene in online reviews I read. Again, it’s not sparkling and scented of bleach, but I’ve eaten in many fast food take outs that were similar who do not seem to experience the same level of critique. In a New York Times article, successful chef Andy Ricker says for some odd reason, people seem to believe white-owned restaurants are cleaner, which impacts on food borne illness rumours. Andrew Simmons writes in Slate that people have a statistically higher incidence of blaming Asian and Mexican restaurants specifically for instances of food poisoning, in which the exact cause of illness has not yet been determined. Not cool.
With the leftovers from my last feed of Monroe’s chilling in the fridge, wondering if I should have bought one of the jaunty hats at the checkout as a souvenir, I feel like I’ve entered a special club. Those who love Monroe’s seem to love it enough to make up for those who don’t. As for my favourite “sit down Chinese restaurant” these days, it’s the Hong Kong specifically for their shredded pork, Chinese mushrooms, and salted cabbage dish , though the Hong Kong fried rice is pretty darn good too.