MONTREAL >> Feigang Fei doesn’t like to boast about the orange beef at his restaurant in downtown Montreal. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t much like it.
“Comparing to our General Tao Chicken, this one is not THAT good,” reads the description on the online menu of his restaurant, Cuisine AuntDai, under a photo of the deep-fried beef. “Anyway, I am not big fan of North American Chinese food and it’s your call.”
He’s no more enthused about the braised pork belly. “This is a very popular dish among the customers who don’t care its greasiness,” the menu says.
And Fei warns against ordering a cold dish called Mouth-Watering Chicken, made with diced chicken cubes, vinegar and Sichuan peppercorn sauce. “We are not 100% satisfied with the flavor now and it will get better really soon,” the menu advises, before quickly adding: “PS: I am surprised that some customers still order this plate.”
In the past, Fei’s unremitting candor has gotten him into trouble. When he worked in information technology and told colleagues that their computer networks weren’t that great, he was advised to be more diplomatic.
But ever since an admiring customer posted AuntDai’s menu on Twitter on Jan. 10, extolling its “extremely honest” owner, he can barely keep up with demand for his takeout meals.
At last count, the tweet had more than 75,000 “likes,” while Fei, who immigrated to Montreal from China 14 years ago, has done print and video interviews with media outlets in Britain, Germany, Israel and Australia, as well as Canada and the United States.
“When I am asked about something I feel ashamed of, I will choose to avoid answering instead of lying,” Fei, 42, said in a FaceTime call from his unassuming restaurant — frequently peppering his sentences with “to tell you the truth.”
Kim Belair, a video game writer in Montreal who posted the original tweet, said Fei’s self-deprecating menu had resonated with people stuck at home in the pandemic and feeling inadequate.
“It’s so refreshing when we are all struggling and Fei’s menu is saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing our best, we’re trying and sometimes we’re not succeeding,’” she said. “A lot of us feel that way these days.” AuntDai’s hot pepper with beef has been a go-to takeout dish for her and her boyfriend, a chef.
Before his menu won renown, AuntDai, like many restaurants around the world, was bleeding cash. Montreal is under lockdown, and on-site dining is forbidden. Even before the pandemic, Fei recalled, he was working 16-hour days, juggling two jobs in an effort to support his wife, Ying, and their 11 year-old daughter, Allison. He has owned three Montreal restaurants, the first of which was destroyed by a fire. After the coronavirus arrived in Canada last year, he was laid off from his IT job.
Since the big tweet, however, orders have been so brisk that Fei, who doesn’t particularly like to cook, spends his days helping cut vegetables, when he isn’t monitoring his busy Twitter feed. “I overcame a lot,” he said.
In addition to its disarming frankness, Fei’s menu tells the story of his life.
The beef-and-potato stew was “one of my favorites in university,” he explains in the description — although he added by phone that he’s “not such a huge fan of the restaurant’s version, to be honest,” preferring the rendition he discovered in the cafeteria at the Tianjin University, when he was a student.
Fei grew up in an impoverished family in a rural area of Jiangsu province, where his parents are farmers. He was the first in his village to attend university, an event the community celebrated with fireworks.
“I grew up happy with very little,” he said. “So I don’t feel the need to exaggerate or show off.”
The menu’s description of a modest house salad raises issues of identity. “The Chinese name of this dish is called ‘tiger’s vegetable,’” it reads. “I don’t know why it’s called that name. A lot of Chinese people know this dish, but I don’t. Maybe I am not so Chinese.”
One of the menu’s running themes is Fei’s skepticism of North American-style Chinese food, which he finds cloying and over reliant on frying. But he acknowledged that North American fast food is one of his guilty pleasures.
The menu’s directness, he said, is calculated to appeal to the squeamish, spice-phobic palates of some Canadians. The hot-and-sour soup description warns: “Spicy and tasty, no meat, drink slowly to avoid hiccups.”
Fei said he drew up the menu several years ago out of frustration with customers who returned dishes because they were too spicy or “not what they expected.”
He named the restaurant after a friend’s mother, a 60-something homemaker who taught him how to make Thousand Layer Bo Bing, which he described as “a sort of Chinese pancake.”
“She taught me that it is better to make something good and simple,” he said. Showstoppers like Peking duck are purposely absent from his menu.
Asked why he doesn’t remove menu items he dislikes, he said he didn’t want to offend his chef, Jianqi Gao. “I try and make improvements over time so he doesn’t snap.”
Gao’s English is limited, and he hasn’t read the online menu, but he said, “It’s good to be honest. No one should be boastful.”
When Fei compliments a dish, customers take notice.
“You almost want to sniff the tasty hot air above this beautiful dish,” he writes with a rare breathlessness about the braised pork belly with sweet potato, one of his bestsellers. “It’s very fatty,” he hastened to add on the phone.
Customers frequently ask Fei what to order, a question that can stump a man with a natural inclination to undersell. Just don’t ask him about the beef with satay sauce.
“I still don’t have chance to taste it,” he writes in the menu. “Looks like I should spend more time eating in my own restaurant.”