It’s been a couple years now, and it’s still hard to believe. The A1 Restaurant closed and we’re left to mourn the loss of it’s legendary ginger beef. A dish not easily prepared, and more difficult to master. Sweet, salty, spicy, crispy and chewy…but not tough.
My first memory of the eatery in the heart of Lacombe, then known as the A1 Café, was dropping in for lunch with my Dad and brother in the early 70’s. It was an old school café with the counter running the length of the building. It was crowded and we got counter seats. We decided what we wanted, then Dad decided what we’d have. My brother and I got hot hamburger sandwiches served with fries and ice water. Dad apparently wasn’t hungry, as all he got was coffee. We knifed and forked our way through the gravy soaked sandwiches while swatting Dad’s hand away from our fries and giggling. It was a fun lunch until Dad paid the bill with a handful of carefully counted change, and we got back to to the car. Dad had forgotten his wallet, couldn’t afford a third lunch and it was decades before it was funny again.
I remembered the story after moving to Lacombe years later and the A1 was suggested for lunch. After a quick ride downtown three hungry lads marched through the first door to the right, up a couple steps to a second door with a bell. Most of the lunch counter was gone except near the front with the cash register. The tables, chairs and most everything looked original, except for two large round tables near the front decorated with explanations of the Chinese zodiac trapped under glass. A seven act play to be repeated several times in years to come was about to begin. Act 1: The greeting, the seating, the offer of buffet or a la cart and drink order. Act 2: the wait for drinks and instructions to proceed, or sprint to the lineup before round-tablers descended. Act 3: the first assault, a sampling of all to determine what to come back for and then trying to remember where we sat. Act 4: realizing you’d taken to much, and heeding warnings to finish all or be charged double. Act 5: quashing the urge to rest and digest and be first over the top for a second assault. Act 6: picking and choosing before taking only ginger beef, cherry jello, and vanilla stuffed cookies. Act 7: arguing whose turn it was to pay, skirting past the loser at the till for a breath of fresh air, and then arguing if it was really necessary to drop by the drivers house to let his dog out to pee.
Hearty appetites turned to blubber. We couldn’t sustain the assault. Apparently our army of three couldn’t save the A1 amidst influx of trendy eateries and resistance to modernize. The memory of your ginger beef will forever resonate on our tongues as will the sight of the black felt written bright yellow sign in your front window: Buffet $12.95 without tip or beverage.