Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tres Carnales Taqueria

My Mexican coworker was appalled that I disliked Mexican food, so I told her it was probably because I've never had good Mexican food. Upon hearing that, she introduced me to Tres Carnales, a place that serves the closest thing to authentic Mexican fare in Edmonton according to her. So one Saturday, we arrived shortly after opening (4 pm) to avoid the long line that she had warned me about. Indeed, the place filled up very quickly and I noticed a lot of people ordering takeout to avoid the hassle. The decor inside seemed to cater to hipsters, with colourful graffiti on the walls, random cultural knickknacks on shelves, a long communal table and other seating options including couches and bar seats. Not exactly a family-friendly ambiance, but definitely unique.

We ordered at the counter and were given an order number to bring back to our table. I decided to try a Mexican drink, and someone recommended guava juice. It tasted very fresh with small bits of guava flesh inside. Perfect with spicy food.

The food arrived quickly, within minutes of our order. I'll list them according to personal ranking.

#1: pescado (fish tacos)
This is a must-try item and what I would call a signature dish. These are the best fish tacos I've ever tasted. The fish was fresh and lightly battered with flakes of tender white flesh inside. A lot of restaurants use low-grade frozen fish for fried dishes, but that was not the case here. Cabbage shreds, radish slices, and a fresh tomato salsa added a refreshing crunch to counter the deep fried fish. A savoury spicy mayo completed this dish perfectly. And the authentic corn tortilla had a unique flavour and texture that was so much more enjoyable than doughy flour tortilla.

#2: pollo (chicken tacos)
I really enjoyed the small sizes these tacos came in. Just like dim sum, this arrangement was perfect for sharing. The chicken tacos were not nearly as tasty as the fish, but the chicken meat was juicier and moister than the other meat options. And all of the chickens served here are apparently locally farmed, a plus for those following the 100-mile diet.

#3: al pastor (pork tacos)
The pork tacos were made with slow-roasted marinated pulled pork shoulder. This sounds very moist and tender, but in fact the meat was on the dry side with little sauce.

#4: chorizo (ground sausage tacos)
The house-made chorizo was my least favourite because of the texture of the ground sausage meat. It was also a little dry, but not as bad as the pork. The deal breaker for me was the spiciness that was well beyond my tolerance level. This dish is probably a good choice for spicy food lovers.

Despite the excellent food, I have a story to share on the condescending service I received on another visit. I brought my parents here to try the food, and my mom and I went in first as my dad parked the car. My mom had assumed it was a "seat yourself" establishment because we had to order at the counter. We were first in line and the place was pretty much empty, so she went to grab a seat as I ordered. The guy behind the counter whistled loudly at her, pointed at her and said, "Hey hey hey hey hey! No no no no no! Come back here!" He then walked over to her and told her she couldn't sit down. He came back to the counter and told me in a very condescending tone, "The way it works here is that you order the food, and WE seat you. Don't worry about grabbing a table, we'll take care of that after." I understand that this is the store policy, but we were not made aware of this policy, and there was no need for the staff to publicly embarrass us. I said ok and proceeded to place my order. Before I could say anything, he asked "How many people are in your party?" I told him there were 3 of us. He asked, "When will the 3rd guest be arriving?" I told him the 3rd person was parking just around the corner and would arrive within one minute. At this time, a group of people came in the door behind me. He told me, "Well I can't take your order until everyone in your party is here. So please stand to the side. Just stay in line, and don't worry about the people behind you." What was even more ridiculous was that, he seated the big group of people behind us right after he told us we could not sit down before ordering. Then he seated yet ANOTHER group behind them. So now everyone who had arrived after me and had not ordered yet were sitting down at a table deciding on their food, while I was still standing there like an idiot with my mom. I wrote to management to tell them of my experience and received a generic apology with no explanation of why I was treated differently from the groups behind me. If this is indeed their store policy, they should at least be consistent about it. So although I love the fish tacos here, I'd rather pop in and out quickly with takeout instead of suffering this kind of service.

Tres Carnales Taqueria on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Bistecca Italian Steakhouse

Bistecca is a casual elegant Italian steakhouse under the Sorrentino's Restaurant Group that also owns the Caffe Sorrentino coffee bar franchise. Although it is a steakhouse, I have actually never tried the steaks here because the pasta dishes are more affordable and they are a main part of the menu.

I found this big slab of cheese near the entrance quite interesting. It showed a diagram of a cow with all its different body parts labelled.

Every meal begins with complimentary bread and a dip of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The bread is served warm with a dense and chewy texture and an oiliness typical of Italian breads. It has a slight hint of sourness which I appreciate, but I don't enjoy the crusty texture and oiliness.

As with most fine dining restaurants, the lunch menu offers much cheaper prices than the dinner menu for the exact same dishes. Although I have been told that dinner portions are larger, my personal experience has proved otherwise. The first dish I tried at Bistecca was the tagliolini (lunch: $13), egg noodles with chicken and wild mushrooms, topped with shaved parmigiano. The noodles were cooked al dente in true Italian fashion. The mushrooms were tender, unlike the not-so-juicy chicken chunks. The first few bites were pretty good, but the heavy cream sauce was just too much. While the dish looked small, the sauce was very filling and I didn't manage to finish it. After this first experience, I thought the pasta was a notch above chain restaurants like Boston Pizza and The Old Spaghetti Factory, but I felt like something was lacking.

On my second visit, I tried the baked spaghettini (lunch: $10), but this turned out to be a disappointing choice. Just like the tagliolini, I felt like something was off. The spicy flavour was intense, but it was flat and lacked depth. The noodles were also extremely salty, and the cheese on top was dry and hard. And with no meat or veggies or any other accompaniment, this dish quickly became boring.

Another time I came for dinner and found out that dinner portions were indeed no larger than the lunch. I tried two different dishes: the angel hair pasta (left) and the linguine frutti di mare (right). Both dishes cost around $20. I thought the angel hair pasta would be quite bland with only extra virgin olive oil and herbs as seasoning, but it was quite creamy with a nice garlic flavour. On the other hand, the linguine with tomato sauce was a bit too rich and less delicate in flavour.

Since I found the pasta dishes rather lacklustre, I decided to try something new. I discovered the risotto cake ($11), a bed of soft and fluffy rice drenched in cream and topped with tender slices of smoked duck and sweet-tart morello cherry. The combination of flavours and textures worked really well together.

During the annual mushroom harvest promotion in September 2013, I tried a few seasonal creations including more mushrooms "per favore" ($11), a side dish of assorted mushrooms sauteed with garlic lemon butter. As an avid mushroom hater, I have to say the seasoning was done so well that I couldn't discern any grassy mushroom flavours.

The featured dessert, a fig almond tartelette ($12) with honey yogurt gelato and a side of buttery caramelized beech mushrooms, was well worth its price. The so-called tart was more like a warm and moist cake with sweet chunks of fig embedded inside. The gelato had an interesting texture. It broke off readily when I put my fork to it, so I thought it wasn't very creamy, but it melted into a luscious cream when eaten.

Although I like some of Bistecca's dishes, I don't see myself returning too often because of the high prices and slow service.

Bistecca Italian Steakhouse & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Eat Alberta Tickets On Sale Now!

Eat Alberta is an annual food conference with hands-on workshops, tastings, demonstrations and presentations, all with a focus on local and regional foods and products. This year, the theme is "Seed the Possibilities". The event will be held at NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) on Saturday, April 26, 2014 from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.

Highlights include the opportunity to interact with local farmers, chefs, foragers, botanists, bakers, and other enthusiasts to learn about the food industry in our province. There will be 15 presenters and 14 sessions; the schedule is available at http://www.eatalberta.ca/schedule/. Topics of interest include jowl bacon (hands-on), pumpkin ravioli (hands-on), cider-making, local beer tasting, Alberta cheese tasting, and much more.

Tickets are on sale now at $150 each and include the morning keynote, the afternoon session (with short presentations on backyard bees, backyard chickens, and raw milk), 4 workshop sessions, breakfast, lunch, a "Tastes of Alberta" tasting board, and a wine tasting.

If you are interested in finding out more, please visit the Eat Alberta website at http://www.eatalberta.ca.

Don't you want a bite from this tasting board?
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Al Salam Bakery & Restaurant

Al Salam Pita is a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant recommended to me by a coworker. It looks like a family-owned business with a casual atmosphere. Customers can sit where they like in the spacious dining area, and while there is table service, the bill is settled at the counter near the entrance. On my first visit, I opted for a chicken shawarma platter ($12.99). The portions were huge! A large pile of meat lay atop a bed of moist rice pilaf, complemented by a refreshing salad and generous globs of hummus and garlic dip. The meat reminded me of Chinese roast pork belly, except this was cut into thin marbled slices and the texture was not nearly as moist.

Also included with the platter was a giant puffy piece of pita bread, probably one of the best I've had. Freshly baked and served steaming hot, this pita went well with the meat, hummus, and tart garlic dip.

On my second visit, my coworkers ordered hummus and pita as a starter ($6.25). This was a bit redundant, considering hummus and pita are already included with all platter orders.

A Syrian among us introduced us to kibby ($8), a beef meatball made with bulgar (a grain) and spices. The texture was very interesting with a rigid shell and loose bits of savoury minced meat inside. I think the dish is worth trying as a cultural experience, but I probably wouldn't order these meatballs again at almost $3 apiece.

For those who are not interested in shawarma, there are also chicken or beef kabob platters ($14.99). I have tried both, and found the beef to be much more tender and juicy. All of these meat options are available as pita wraps ranging in cost from $6.99 to $8.25. Not bad for a quick and cheap meal.

Adjacent to the restaurant is a small grocery section that sells Middle Eastern products. I once picked up some baklava for dessert, but I think the baklava from Byblos Bakery in Calgary (available in Safeway) is much better.

I am most impressed with the value of the platters and wraps. The portions are very generous, and I have never managed to finish one of these platters by myself. And let's not forget the delicious giant pita. Definitely a place that's worth checking out.

Al Salam Bakery Deli & Restaurant on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

MyFries Poutine

Someone I worked with knew I used to be crazy about poutines, so he suggested lunch at a place called MyFries that serves only poutines and nothing else.

The place was small, but it looked clean and bright. Customers could seat themselves at any of the tables and order food at the counter.

I was glad to see that apart from regular soft drinks, there were several Jones Soda flavours available. I picked up a cream soda ($2.25); it was light, fizzy, and refreshing!

Against my better judgement, I didn't take the classic poutine with just gravy and cheese curds. Instead I opted for BBQ pulled pork (reg: $7.99), which I had expected would consist of moist and tender pulled pork and a generous amount of rich brown sauce. What I got was far from that. The pork was not "pulled", but rather in large coarse chunks covered in a thick tomato sauce that tasted like it came out of a can. The sauce did not go well with the pork, and there wasn't even enough to go with the fries on the bottom.

The other dish, a chicken fajita (large: $10.49), did not look that great either. The fries and sauce were not even hot enough to melt the shredded cheese on top. Now I know that real authentic cheese curds are not supposed to melt, but this shredded cheese was obviously mozzarella and cheddar.

The poutines were served lukewarm, and were not impressive by any means. However, the fries are advertised as oven-baked, resulting in low fat and low calories, so there's that for those health-conscious customers who for some reason decide to have poutine as a meal.

myFries Poutinerie on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Crepe Symphony

NOTE: This cafe is temporarily closed due to transition of ownership, so the following observations may no longer be valid after the cafe reopens.

Crepe Symphony is a cafe in downtown that serves mainly savoury and sweet crepes. It's in a convenient location on 100A St and Jasper Ave (right beside Tres Carnales), but parking might be a bit of an issue as metered parking nearby is limited and downtown parkades are quite pricy.

My first impression upon entering the store was that the ambiance was nice and welcoming, and service was prompt and attentive. A young man greeted us immediately and asked us to sit wherever we liked. He asked us what drinks we would like, and when he saw us eying the sample plate on the counter, he wasted no time in telling us to grab a bite of their delicious caprice cake ($4.45/slice). It was a layered coffee cake with cream in between the layers. The flavour was bold and intense, while the texture was a nice balance of rich cream and spongy cake. I enjoyed the taste, but found the cake a bit too sweet. I bought a couple slices to bring home, but I could only finish half a slice at a time due to the sweetness.

One of the drinks on the menu caught my eye: the affogato, described as hazelnut gelato with a shot of espresso. I asked the young man whether it was a cold or hot drink, and he told me it was neither. Although the gelato would be served cold and the espresso served hot, once they were combined in the glass, the drink would be just a bit colder than room temperature. The first sip was strange, but the taste grew on me. I tried a bit of gelato and it was extremely creamy with a rich hazelnut flavour, but there wasn't much of a hazelnut taste after the gelato melted into the drink.

Since I was having lunch, I departed from my usual sweet crepe and chose the savoury smoked salmon with asparagus ($11.90). I received two thin crepes — slightly stuffed, and covered in lots of sauce. I couldn't taste the crepe at all because it was very thin and extremely soggy from the sauce, but the filling was alright. The portion was small for the price, and I was still hungry after finishing this dish.

I decided to share a dessert crepe with my friend, and we settled on plain crepes with lemon juice and sugar ($6.52). We thought this would be a safe choice, but we were sorely disappointed. The lemon juice was from concentrate, and the taste was artificial. The crepes were dry and chewy with no flavour apart from an odd metallic taste. This must be the reason why all of the other crepes are drenched in sauce. At one point, the young man came over to ask us how the plain crepes were, and I told him they were not very good. Instead of asking what was wrong, he said, "Oh you should try another dessert crepe next time then."

On my first visit, I noticed that the portions for savoury and sweet crepes were small, but the breakfast crepes looked bigger and tastier. So when I returned with a Groupon, I decided to try the salmon eggs benedict ($11.81), a breakfast crepe with soft poached eggs, smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, and Hollandaise sauce. This was much better than the smoked salmon with asparagus, and much more filling thanks to the two oozy eggs.

I also tried a different dessert crepe on this occasion: banana-strawberry (special: $6 with cappuccino; reg $9.81 for 2 pieces) with dulce de leche and chocolate sauce. This was also much better than the plain crepes because the fruit filling and sauces completely masked the bland, dry and chewy crepes.

While I enjoyed the ambiance, and service was decent overall, I thought the food was too expensive for what it was. I would only recommend the breakfast crepes, because the portions for the other crepes are not enough for the average appetite. Also I would like to mention that we were charged for hot water and lemon ($1), but this cost was never mentioned to us when we ordered, and we only found out when we got the bill.

Crepe Symphony Cafe on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Cally's Teas

On my perpetual hunt for afternoon tea in Edmonton, I came to know of a quaint little store on Whyte Ave run by a sweet lady named Cally. Cally's Teas sells a variety of loose leaf teas in addition to English dishes like beans on toast and Welsh rarebit. And of course there is traditional afternoon tea service with pots of tea, savouries and sweets. The interior decor is intimate with warm and cheerful colours; the space feels more like a cozy living room than a restaurant. In fact, the way Cally interacts with each customer is as if she were entertaining guests in her own home.

Along one side of the wall are tiers of glass jars filled with an impressive collection of loose leaf teas. Since we ordered the afternoon tea set, we could have our pick from amongst the vast selection. The person in the picture below was part of a group of young people, quietly studying and hanging out in the store. Cally told us they were English students who could write us a poem on any topic we specified, and we could take the poem home with us as a keepsake.

I noticed some paper lanterns in the store, and asked for a poem with that theme. This is what I got:

Choosing a tea from the wall was no easy feat. In the end, I settled for a dark and mellow pu-erh tuocha. Tuocha refers to a mini nest of compressed pu-erh tea leaves. "There is a rosebud hidden inside!" I was told by Cally. I couldn't taste the floral flavour of the rosebud, but the earthy aromatic pu-erh was good enough for me.

I've heard that beans on toast ($7 in Aug 2013; now $12.50) is a common English dish, but I've never actually tried it before. According to the menu, the beans are the only thing not made in house. Canned beans on toast doesn't sound very appetizing, but it was much better than expected. The beans were so warm and satisfying that I can see this as the English equivalent of mac and cheese — the perfect comfort food.

The afternoon tea set ($20 in Aug 2013; now $25) was a good portion for lunch.

The bottom tier consisted of only one type of sandwich: cucumber with lemon zest. It was definitely a refreshing twist to plain old cucumber, but I thought the lack of variety was a bit disappointing. Then there were homemade crackers with goat cheese and radish. The crunchy-creamy combination complemented the bland crackers well. Last but not least on this tier, there was the shortbread with embedded tea leaves that lent a hint of aroma to the buttery biscuit.

Classic English scones with cream and jam made up the middle tier. These were quite possibly the largest scones I've seen. The texture was less refined than the scones I'm used to, but there was a country charm about them. The exterior was crispy, while the interior was soft with coarse crumbs and a delicate aroma of butter. Cally told us there is an ongoing debate about whether cream or jam should be spread on first. The current practice in Devon is to put cream on first, followed by jam; in Cornwall, it's the opposite. Interesting anecdote to go with the scones.

Desserts included chocolate raspberry cake squares and mini lemon tarts. The cake was light and spongy with a sweet-tart topping, but I didn't find it too memorable. The lemon tart had a very nice shortbread crust that wasn't too sweet.

On my second visit, I decided to forgo the afternoon tea set and try some English dishes instead. Dippy eggs with toasted soldiers ($9.50) was an interesting name that caught my eye, and I asked one of the servers what it was. Apparently "dippy eggs" refers to soft-boiled eggs and "soldiers" are strips of toasted bread used for dipping into the semi-runny yolk. Although the eggs we got were not at all runny, they were still very tasty with the bread.

I was told that Welsh rarebit ($13.99) is a cheese mixture served over toast, so I had pictured something soft, warm and gooey, and maybe even a bit stringy like melted cheese on pizza. But this cheese mixture was hardened and not at all soft or gooey. The texture wasn't too pleasing — a bit reminiscent of leftover pizza — but the flavour was rich and full-bodied. I also enjoyed the side salad with fresh pomegranate seeds and dried blueberries. However with a price tag of $14, I would choose the beans on toast over this dish.

Although the food at Cally's is definitely decent, I think the reason people come back is because of the personal and intimate experience. As I mentioned before, sitting and eating in the store feels like I'm enjoying a spot of tea and snacks at Cally's house, and not so much like I'm dining out. Cally truly makes customers feel welcome and at ease.

Cally's Teas on Urbanspoon
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