Sandbar – Vancouver, BC


Sandbar Seafood Restaurant
1535 Johnston Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 669-9030

Much like an undercover agent infiltrating a tightly closed society, there are times when I deliberately jump right into the most touristy spots I can think of to try and get a sense of what drives non-locals to visit such eating establishments.  More often than not, these kind of places are always touted and raved about by the native city’s mainstream media and publications, that surprisingly have far reaching audiences.  Chalk it up to the incredibly connected and digital world we live in.  In the past twelve years,  I’ve had the pleasure of setting up a home base in four major cities now and in each one, I’ve conducted a similar exercise just for fun.  Here in Vancouver, The Sandbar rated high on my list of tourist traps.

However this time, I had some out of town visitors in tow with me as I guided them around the markets at Granville Island and rather than bother with making a long stroll back to the vehicle we came in, I popped inside up and up the stairs to see if we could get a table on short notice.  Being that it was a beautiful summer day, I had my doubts we could get one on the outdoor patio and that ended up being the case.  Instead we were seated just inside, but the view of the water below was pretty much obscured.  For visitors, provided you get a good stroll around the Island ahead of dinner, I think you can pretty much picture the view you could have if seated on the rail on the patio.

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Sciue Italian Bakery – Vancouver, BC


Sciue Italian Bakery
800 W Pender St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 602-7263

A spacious and bright space benefiting from the fantastic natural lighting that floods through the large glass walls, Sciue Italian Bakery is perhaps best known for two items.  The first being the Pane Romano, described to me as a crispy flat bread/pizza like slice adorned with various Mediterranean-influenced toppings.  The other is the Paninoteca, traditional Italian sandwiches.  I’ve seen many a public transit rider carrying one of this place’s branded to-go cups of hot or cold liquids as well over the years.

Several types of the Roman-style pizza were laid out on the counter ready-made.  I wasn’t sure if they were to be re-heated slightly upon ordering but apparently mine was not.  You can essentially dictate how much you want as a serving, asking the server to cut off as small or as large a piece as you desire.  Prices were calculated by weight.  Despite the seemingly heavy layering of toppings covering the slices I chose, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they did not soak into the base layer, thus keeping the bottom intact.

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Mexico Lindo – Edmonton, AB


Mexico Lindo
16604-109 Av NW
Tue-Wed,Sun 11am-6pm; Thu-Sat 11am-9pm

In the west end of Edmonton there’s a strip mall. Next to the Mayfield Inn, long ago, there was a Mexican restaurant out here before Mexican restaurants existed. It was my first experience with Mexican food that wasn’t fast food, and it was delicious. A whole different world of flavours. I loved eating there. Unfortunately, the owner, tired of Edmonton winters, retired, and went back to Mexico.

Years later, word came out that there was a new Mexican restaurant open in the same strip mall. I was hoping some of the magic had rubbed off on the new establisment: Mexico Lindo.

Clean and a bit spartan, there’s a bit of an odd feel about it. However, the service is friendly and warm. I’ll take service over atmosphere any day.

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Twisted Yogurt – Edmonton, AB


Twisted Yogurt
#650-3803 Calgary Trail
Edmonton, AB
(780) 440-4955

New concepts, especially in the do-it-yourself kind seem to be sprouting out all over the place these days.  Perhaps its a way to cut labor costs, but having customers/diners do all the heavy lifting and giving them countless choices to suit their every need and desire, seems to be partly (in my opinion) due to the ever burgeoning something-unique-for-everyone ethos that has arisen from the Starbucks business model (“super venti mochachino with quarter-whole, quarter-skim, and make the rest half & half, decaf with a few shavings of nutmeg”” anyone?).  No single item will do, you get as much leeway as you want.  Kind of a steroid-driven upgrade on the old “have it your way” style of one of the major fast food burger chains.

I wouldn’t even try to come up with all the permutations of configurations you can get with your Twisted Yogurt dessert.  Rather than try to come up with something both accurate and witty, I’ll let the marketing gurus of the operation themselves tell you how they would give their elevator pitch:

“Twisted Yogurt is all about exploring your creative side, because you get to create your own frozen masterpiece. You start by choosing one of our eight flavours of fresh, natural non fat frozen yogurt and then add on as many of our over 50 toppings as you can load into your bowl.”

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Hugo’s – Houston, TX


Hugo’s
1600 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX
(713) 524-7744

People will argue that Mexican food gets better the closer you get to Mexico. While this makes sense in theory, it doesn’t always work in practice. Texas, for example, is right across the border but has adapted Mexican food and made it their own – the birth of Tex-Mex pretty much means that real Mexican is difficult to find. Great Mexican? Even more difficult.

In the Westheimer area in Houston, Hugo’s Restaurant is trying to change that perception. Serving high quality Mexican cuisine that represents the best of all regional cuisines, I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical. Places that try to represent too many different cuisines  have a tendency to be good at all, but master of none.

From the large gated doors to the vaulted ceilings and chandeliers, the space is 1925 traditional with elements of contemporary. I don’t see the supposed elements of “chic” they are aiming for, but it’s a reasonably nice atmosphere characterized mostly by the slightly uncomfortably large gaps of space between tables.

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MRKT (Market) Restaurant – Edmonton, AB


MRKT (Market) Restaurant
10542 Jasper Ave NW
Edmonton, AB
(780) 757-6758

My poor camera was dropped at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and the lens no longer retracts. I loved that camera – but after extensive research, im back in the game with a new camera! Happy to do my first post with pics from my new baby.

On a rainy dreary day, we head down the “ugly” part of Jasper Avenue to try the new restaurant by Carla Alexander of Soul Soup and Sal Di Maio who owns the gastropub downstairs, Red Star. MRKT Market is simply that – a “fresh market” concept restaurant where the limited menu provides you with a few choices in terms of sandwiches, soups, and specials. 3 sandwiches, 3 soups, one special the day we were there.

The interior feels like a wooden airplane fuselage. I’ve heard canoe,  and upscale log cabin (rather generous i’d say), it is nonetheless hip, while managing some warmth. The most prominent feature of MRKT market is the long table that allows many diners to share a meal.

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Ristorante Avanti – Santa Cruz, CA


Ristorante Avanti
1711 Mission Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

(831) 427-0135

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.

I recall that the brilliant food writer Jonathan Gold once wrote that he’s been to Campanile in Los Angeles hundreds of times.  When I read that maybe 10 or 15 years ago, I couldn’t even fathom such a concept.  But now the combination of steady employment and living in one place for a good chunk of time has conspired to generate a small handful of places that I’ve been to so many times and with which I have such a relationship that it’s less a business and more an annex of my own home.  One of them is Ristorante Avanti, owned and run by Cindy and Paul Geise for over twenty years and still going strong.

What leads me and the many other regulars to return so often? I suspect it’s the combination of well-executed food with a menu that has both dishes that I know will be available when I’m in need of something tried, true and delicious, and a rotating list of daily specials that ensures there’s always something new and exciting to try.

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