Maple Malaysian Cuisine – Vancouver, BC

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Maple Malaysian Cuisine
University Village, Unit B7
5728 University Boulevard
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-221-6138

Discovering the underground food court at the University Village on UBC campus was sort of like finding an unexpected twenty dollar bill in the pocket of a jacket that you haven’t worn since the season last dictated it was appropriate.  It was very much a dungeon-like cavern hidden from the main floor road that I’ve passed by many times.  Stepping inside the doors, I was surprised to find such a busy place during what is essentially off-season for classes, and the myriad of ethnic food options available.  Granted, its very much food court in setup and appearance, with various tenants operating kitchens and table seating to accommodate people to eat right on the spot.  Walking and scanning the scene, there were some Shawarma/Middle Eastern offerings, the requisite pick-your-items Chinese, a sushi shop, Mongolian BBQ, Indian, Korean and Malaysian.  It was this last booth called Maple Malaysian Cuisine that led me here on this day in the first place, as I’d spotted a big banner for it outside from the road, and it raised my curiosity and my eventual discovery of this entire floor.

I know there are plenty well respected and more dine-in appropriate choices for Malaysian cuisine in the city, but finding a cafeteria scenario for a quick take out was a pleasant surprise.  The menu board on the back wall next to the booth itself, featured an array of dishes (noodles, rice, fruit-based, and combo platters) each with a photograph and text description underneath.  Prices appeared to range from about $5.99 (Mee Goreng, Curry Laksa, etc.) to $9.99 (for the chef’s speciality: black pepper king prawns served with rice).  As well, there were several appetizer, dessert and drinks available.

Though I’ve been to Malaysia a few times and enjoy the cuisine, I know I am probably stuck in a rut and tend to order the usual suspects.  I thought since the lineup was just me, that I’d chat up the man working inside and ask what he’d recommend, what’s popular, etc.  He pointed me to the fruit-based dishes section and after a quick chat, I went with one of his recommendations, the Mango Seafood Rice.  Gawd, I miss the fresh mangos in Southeast Asia!  As a second item, selected the Sambal Prawns.  While waiting he offered me a sample of one of the desserts, he called it the Glutinous Rice Dessert, and reminded me of a similar dish (Japanese Adzuki Beans) though not as sweet.

A man seated nearby was digging into what appeared to be some kind of seafood medley wrapped up in banana leaf and served with veggies and coconut rice.  I received my order number tag, and wandered about the floor looking into each kitchen to see up close what else could be had, knowing that I will probably come back for the cheap offerings here and try things out.  The Mongolian place was the most interesting setup, with a mix of meats and veggies laid out, I think you are to select the items you want and its all cooked up for you on the spot somehow.  Nobody was ordering at the time, so could not see how this was actually done, but did grab my attention.  About a 10~15 minute wait, and my meal was ready to go.  The fellow was quite nice in explaining what was in each container so I wouldn’t be confused.  I asked how long he’d been in this location, a year he said, furthering my shock at not knowing about this place until this day.  As I’ve exhausted the nearby takeout options in this block, I am quite certain I would be back, as I headed back to my car, wonderfully smelling back in tow.

The Mango Seafood Rice contained mussels, prawns, fish, squid, carrots, broccoli, mangos, green beans – all coated evenly in a somewhat watery and sweet mango sauce.  I can’t fully describe the flavors in the sauce as I’m not very familiar with Malaysian ingredients, but it was somewhat tomatoe-y in nature and in color, though the mango base made the thing overall sweet, but not overpoweringly so, and went just fine with the white rice.

The Sambal Prawns I think I preferred among the two items I brought back.  It had a nice kick of heat, and deeper seafood flavors in the sauce that was not as liquid-y as the previous dish, and each ingredient (prawns of course, green and red peppers, onions) was again nicely coated.  It would have gone well with a nice cold beer, but alas my fridge was devoid of such.  (Foodosopher, I know what you will say, rookie mistake).

For the pair of choices, it came to about $15 and plenty enough for a meal-for-two.  A nice, simple ethnic takeout option compared to the nearby burger joints in the same block, that was welcome on this night.  Certainly at this price point and setting, you’re not getting the most amazing Malaysian meals that you could, but I’ll be back to sample more from this kitchen for sure, and from the others as well no doubt, when I am lazy and don’t feel like cooking myself.  I hope some of you readers discover similar enjoyable finds in your neighborhoods that you may have overlooked for the longest time.

Maple Malaysian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Pho 99 Vietnamese Noodle House – Richmond, BC

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Pho 99 Vietnamese Noodle House
Venezia Place, #180 – 8611 Alexandra Road
Richmond, BC
Tel: 604-278-6363

So it looks like I may be taking a trip to Vietnam this winter.  Not sure if this is influencing my eating experiences of late, but with two bowls of pho consumed over the past four days, I am beginning to wonder if its somehow subliminal.

My latest outing was at Pho 99 Vietnamese Noodle House, which I spotted randomly while driving by looking for an quick and early lunch, and it was one of the few restaurants that had an open sign up in the area at about 11am (my other bowl this was at the Pho Hoang Vietnamese Restaurant on Main Street, Vancouver).  There was also a sandwich board out front that had text in English, Chinese and Korean, which threw me off before I entered and heard the unique sounding chatter in Vietmanese among the staff.

Luckily, I caught the place just as it was opening.  There’s a free parking lot in the back of the building that is connected to other businesses, as there is no parking allowed on the front street.  Incidentally, Pho 99 is located right across the street from Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine, the place that has received a lot of press this year both from a New York Times reporter and the Vancouver media.  Stepping inside, I was pleasantly surprised to see that things looked pretty new, and most of all clean.  I think either the owners just took over a previous tenant and did some superficial updates or the place has only recently opened for business.  It was brightly lit and the partially white colored walls contributed to it feeling a lot more refreshing than your usual hole-in-the-wall joint that serve pho.  Maybe the weird plastic tree near the booth I was in, wrapped with some more plastic tubing containing some lights, added to the overall glow too. LAUGH!

As I mentioned in a previous pho posting, I like my broths light when I eat this dish in the A.M.  Pho 99 did this and was even less salty than other places I’ve visited, which was nice and made it feel even healthier.  I know, most people will say that pho is pho, not much difference from this place to that, and I’ll agree, given that its pretty standard fare in many Asian countries, soup noodles that is, and practically their cultural replacement for ‘fast food’.  Keeping with the lighter fare, I chose the well done flank and brisket toppings.  Again, I know other will vouch for the more fattier, interesting meat choices here, and Pho 99 offers them all, even dividing their menu sections by “For the Beginner”, “Just The Regular” and “For Adventurer’s”, each with more unorthodox cuts and parts of meat.

The non-pho side of the menu offered selections of specialty items, side orders, rice plates, appetizers, egg noodle soups, and Vermicelli bowls.  The entire menu sheet is laminated and double-sided, with the back listing out various drinks, including Vietnamese coffee that our server asked if we were interested in but we stuck with the complimentary tea.

My lunch companion’s seafood noodles.  An even lighter non-beef broth, though the use of frozen seafood ingredients was clear.  Also, broccoli and carrots in the mix.

Pho 99 offers both eat-in and take out options, so another easy place for a quick bowl of pho if you happen to be in the area.  With me, always getting lost on Richmond’s streets and alleys, it was a lucky find that suited my needs on this particular day, as I had an appointment at noon.  Not the kind of place I’d go out of my way to eat at given I’m not in the city often, but if you are nearby, not a bad place to check out…

Pho 99 Vietnamese Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Mucho Burrito – Edmonton, AB

Mucho Burrito
10124 – 109th Street NW
Edmonton, Alberta T5J 1M7
Open 11:00am-9:00pm daily

September 2008 re-visit post here

Original post below:

Baja Fresh. Freebirds. Chipotle. These are not Mexican by any stretch of the imagination, but can be classified as “Fresh Mex“, “Mexican Grill”or any other variety of classifications. What they serve, is a fresh, healthier alternative to the classic Mexican burrito. No lard. Fresh vegetables. That sort of thing. What they lack in authenticity, they make up for in quantity, and price. They serve a lot of food, at a good price point. A large burrito usually comes in the size of your forearm. And then some. I’ll admit, while this stuff isn’t gourmet, everybody has their favorite – and it is pretty tasty. And while healthier usually equates to “not as tasty”, this is one instance where I can honestly say “different, but good”.

Sadly, these franchises have refused to expand north of the border. I even inquired, nine or ten years ago, into getting a Baja Fresh franchise for Alberta. They were looking for development partners who could purchase territories, with a minimum of ten to fifteen million dollars in liquid, unborrowed assets. Needless to say, unless they were willing to accept money from The Game of Life(tm), it wasn’t going to happen. I lamented the fact that I could not get a big, cheap, fresh-mex burrito here, and limited myself to jaunts whenever i headed south of the border. Well, I am pleased to say, we finally have an acceptable alternative here in Alberta.  That option is Mucho Burrito.

Alberta has seen a few aborted attempts. Taco Time tried their Cantina concept. Chico Tecates brought in a salsa bar, but labour issues pushed them out of business. Taco Del Mar tries to do too much. Even Wrapture came out with a burrito campaign, but they were really masters of nothing. Mucho Burrito is the first dedicated Burrito chain – and they have learned their craft well. Right at the hands of Chipotle in fact.

When I first walked into a Mucho Burrito, my first thought was “Chipotle!”. From the decor, to the menu, to the assembly line, the burrito trays, right down to the brown bag they serve the tortilla chips in, everything was eerily similar.  To be honest, this actually does not bother me – copy away, as long as you can produce a similar facsimile to the end product.

The menu for Mucho Burrito is actually pretty basic – and available online, so i’ll leave some mystery to you all. Let’s concentrate on the burritos. They come in three sizes – 10″, 12″, and 14″. Choice of rice, beans, salsa, cheese, guacamole, roasted veggies and a filling. The fillings are basic too – all prepped in the back kitchen, and sitting in chafing dishes to keep warm. Barbacoa, Carnitas, Pollo, and Carne Asada. This is burrito 101.

I order the signature Mucho Burrito dish – the Mucho Burrito(14″) – which allows you to top it anyway you like. Looking to test the limits of their generosity, I load the burrito with any topping i can get my hands on. They comply, and promptly create a monstrosity – a meal for two. Tightly wrapped, I can say with some certainty, and glee, the quantity is definitely there.

Taking a big bite into it, I am thoroughly satisfied. The Carnitas is decent – good flavour, tender. Nothing i would call great, but for Alberta, it is a minor miracle. Everything is fresh. It’s so busy that everything has to stay fresh – none of it sits around that long. They’ve done an excellent job of balancing all the ingredients, and making sure that the burrito ends up as one goopy, flavour-filled mess.

Look, this is not French Laundry or El Bulli. Heck, this is not even Freebird’s. However, when you’ve been starving in the desert for as long as Albertans have, any bit of water is a big sign of hope. Like a good burger, somtimes simple and filling is what the doctor ordered. Is the product perfect? By no means. Would I rather eat real Mexican? Most of the time. But when I am in the mood for something big, sloppy and loaded, a burrito usually hits the spot. And for the first time in my recollection, there’s a fresh mex burrito worth eating in Alberta at Mucho Burrito.

Mucho Burrito on Urbanspoon

Flying Wedge Pizza Co. – Vancouver, BC

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Flying Wedge Pizza Co.
1935 Cornwall Avenue
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-732-8840
Hours: Everyday, 11am-10:30pm (delivery 4:30pm-10pm)

Now with eight locations in Vancouver proper, and seven more in surrounding communities, the Flying Wedge Pizza Co. has probably become very much the “corporate” entity that the founders (three University of British Columbia art students) set out to battle when they opened their first location almost twenty years ago.  Now with multiple locations, a franchising business model, and boasting about all the “awards” they’ve won from mainly local media and publications, it seems to me they have lost touch with their claimed spirit of “celebrating the exceptional, and valuing creative and unconventional experiences”.

Even the big plastic sign that greeted me as I stepped inside the Kerrisdale outlet shouted out “Pizza Hut” to me:  offering up an easy choice of a classic pepperoni or “tropical pig” (call it ham and pinapple will ya!) for $15 for a 12 inch medium size.  Nothing too creative or unconventional there I thought.  Looking further in the glass case selling pizza by the slice, I did spot a few strange sounding names like “Tuscan Garden” and “Rosso Bossa Nova” on plates beside the same two boring staples from the a fore mentioned sign.  As I was standing there checking out the menu, two others came in to pick up their already called-in order.

Really hungry and not inclinded to try and decifer each and every strangely labeled option, I eventually settled on the “Wedge Deluxe” (Flying Wedge sweet sauce, mushrooms, green peppers, Italian sausage, onions, dry cured pepperoni, topped with mozarella and cheddar cheese, all on a herb infused dough), which was on their “Extreme Pizzas” sub-menu.  I don’t know about that, nothing too wild as far as the ingredients went I thought but trying to get a balance between meat and veg, this was my best bet.  Twenty of so minutes later, it was ready to go and off I was (there was a bar seating area with four stools, for those waiting or eating by the slice, but this location is not made to consume a whole pie in a relaxed setting, not sure about the other locations).

Opening up the box (incidentally, a predominantly black one, maybe trying to play up their “rebellious” mission) at home, I had mixed initial impressions.  Good coverage throughout of toppings and cheese, and a nice thin crust (that I was looking for one this day), but the aroma was not as powerful as I’d hoped.  Perhaps it was the herb-infused base, but that seemed to take the lead in terms of scent.  The edge crust as well, wasn’t as folded over as thick as I’d hoped, thought thankfully wasn’t burnt.

First bite… the visual of well rounded coverage of toppings was confirmed, as I could get a taste of each ingredient immediately.  Good crispness of the green pepper, the earthy tones of the mushrooms, the bitterness of the onion, the saltiness of the pepperoni and Italian sausage.  The cheese wasn’t thickly layered and gooey, and thus no extended strings came off the pizza as a piece was separated.  I know that means very little except for perhaps the visual, but somehow, I look for that in pizza.

Overall, I’d say it was quite average.  Nothing mindblowing, spectacular by any means here.  One piece and I could have called it a day, but I was hungry so ended up eating three.  It lacked that drawing power to want more and more and more.  Perhaps it was the toppings?  The herb-infused crust that I was having for the first time?  Maybe a thicker base was needed on this day for me (I am a big fan of both thick and thin crust pizza).  Or maybe it was the in-store feeling I got of this place trying to be cool, but falling rather flat.  Perhaps it deserves another chance, with another variation off their menu.  Don’t hold your breathe though, as I am sure there are other better pizza joints in town that I have yet to come across.  As the Foodosopher said in our very first post, “Cheese, meat, dough.  How can you go wrong?”, so you can bet I will be reporting on another pizza offering in the near future.

Finally, I’d love to hear back from readers on what their definition of a really great pizza is…

Flying Wedge Pizza Co. on Urbanspoon

Blue Sea Seafood Restaurant – Coquitlam, BC

[Since this report – the restaurant has closed and replaced with a Japanese restaurant dubbed “Itshoni”]

Blue Sea Seafood Restaurant
#550 – 329 North Road
Coquitlam, BC
Tel: 604-931-8460

Once in a while you get a pleasant surprise that lifts your day.  And when it involves food, all the better…

Located in a U-shaped strip mall which is anchored by the popular Korean supermarket chain called H-Mart, the Blue Sea Seafood Restaurant can be found in the far back corner of the parking lot.  There’s actually a few Korean restaurants in this compound, along side other shops and businesses catering to the largely Korean community that has taken root in this part of Coquitlam.

My foodie experience with Korean-style sashimi (which they call Hwe) began about ten years ago with a trip to a city called Sokch’o, located on the Sea of Japan side of South Korea, which is largely a resort and fishing community.  There, many casual restaurants were lined up near the waterfront areas, offering up fresh seafood for very reasonable prices.  It was there that I first experienced the Korean style of eating raw fish dishes: dipping each slice in a spicy kochujang sauce and taking a leaf and wrapping it up and eating it preferably in one big bite.  It was a mighty big change to the Japanese-style of soy sauce and wasabi, but an interesting variation I thought at the time, as I was building my understanding of Korean cuisine.

Knowing that seafood generally isn’t cheap, I was prepared mentally to shell out a decent amount of coin on a meal and didn’t mind since I was looking for something a little less common than your usual staples of Korean cuisine such as barbeque, hotpots, vegetarian, etc.  Flipping open the menu, the seafood selection was obviously front and centre and I immediately picked up on the $25 per person Hwe offering.  It offered five different types of sashimi.  My dining partner also went along with this idea, so we ordered two of them figuring we might need to order something else just in case quantity-wise it wasn’t enough, as we were both quite hungry.  Would I ever be proven to have underestimated the wonderful power of Blue Sea Seafood Restaurant.

My memory of that trip to Sokch’o came bad in a gushing flood, as the first two simple, fresh appetizers arrived at our table a short while after our order was taken.  I remembered how Hwe does not just mean the raw fish on a platter, but the array of accompanying dishes that comes with it, making it indeed a full course meal.  A narrow plate with some small piles of lightly seasoned kelp, marinated cucumber and octopus all covered in a refreshing and light vinegar-based dressing was our first dish.  Certainly a pleasant way to get your taste buds activated, and I especially liked the one on the left (the name escapes me at the moment) as it had a stringier, texture that required more effort to chew.

Next came some temaki of Julienned cucumber and daikon, topped with some masago, all standing up nicely in an ice cream cone serving device.  Once again, very light flavors and nice crispness of the matchsticks of veg inside each cone.  I am usually not a huge fan of non-seafood creations like this, but I think in the future I will indulge a bit more after seeing how much I enjoyed these ones.

Some hot food dishes followed.  A simple green onion chijimi, the size of a mini pizza.  I usually like my chijimi loaded with a lot more ingredients, but as this was far from being a main dish, I let it slide, and besides it has a nice chewy texture to it and finally some long awaited heat.  Then a plate of some deep fried fish balls, served very much Chinese-style with a sweet, sticky sauce.  With it being the first arrival of some actual seafood to our table, I was just getting warmed up.

Dish five was a small-ish bowl of a whipped up egg white mixture, flavored with some fish stock of some sort.  Very airy and light and easy to scoup up with a spoon.  Along with that came a salted, whole grilled mackerel.  Unfortunately it came out not-gutted, which I really dislike, as it leaves all those bitter innards.  I find mackerel or other smaller fish cooked a lot this way in south east Asia, Mediterranean and Italian dishes, and each time I wished the chef would just take the time to clean out the fish.  Plus, this one was overdone on the grill making it a bit too dried out, the first negative dish of the lot to this point in my meal.

The seventh dish, a take on yakitori, only done with grilled fish and sweeter vegetables.  The sauce was similar to the one used in the earlier deep fried fish dish.

Item number eight was a pair of deep fried prawns, head on.  I know a lot of folks might cringe at what I am about to write, but I just eat these things whole, shell and head together.  I find the flavors of most crustaceans are in the head, so I am always the first to be chomping, slurping, etc. anything off of or inside the brains of shrimp, crabs, etc.

Our server could see how much we were enjoying our meal and brought out a free plate (‘on the house’ she said) of some grilled fish head and neck portions (sorry, I dug right into this before I realized I needed to snap a photo, so no image here), that were probably used to make our fresh fish plate that was forthcoming.  I never thought these portions of cooked Red Snapper could taste so good, but it was amazing!  I was craving a bowl of rice at that moment, but knew I had to hold back as the best was yet to come.

Last (or should I say second last) came the huge plate of Hwe.  The picture here does not do it full justice, as there are abundant slices on the sides and also the back side of this plate that are not showing.  In total there must have been forty or so nice thick slices of red snapper, tuna, salmon, yellowtail and bonito; all piled upon huge mounds of crisp cool daikon – which I enjoy eating together with the Hwe.  Surprisingly though, the expected Korean sides of kochujang sauce and leaves did not appear.  I didn’t mind terribly, as I could have eaten it either way, so just went with the soy sauce/wasabi combo on this day.  Honestly, the volume of this plate alone of fresh fish was worth the $25 price tag, not to mention all the other dishes that had come before it.

Traditionally, seafood meals are wrapped up with Maeuntang – a large pot of fish stew/soup that that made from all of the leftover pieces of a fish such as the bones, with stock, spicy kochujang paste and lots of vegetables.  Pieces of actual fish are also cooked inside as well.  Its eaten with steamed white rice, and I’ve had it in some places where the rice is actually added into the pot after the majority of the soup has reduced, making an almost risotto-like dish to wrap up a huge feast.

Wow, I think I got tired just recalling this meal and typing it all out for the fabulous readers of Foodosophy.  But hope you enjoyed the account and if you can, I would definitely recommend you try Blue Sea Seafood Restaurant as the raw fish is very fresh, portions are generous and the quality is up there with any of the better quality Japanese sushi places I’ve tried in Vancouver thus far.  And for this price, you can certainly not go wrong at all.  Its a little off the beaten path from Vancouver, but if you are shopping at the nearby supermarket and are hungry, this is a solid option for an excellent Korean-style seafood meal. And if you can make sure to bring a designated driver with you, I’d advise you to enjoy your meal with a bottle (or two) of Korean Soju, just to make the experience a bit more authentic…

Blue Sea Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

New York Bagel Cafe – Edmonton, AB

New York Bagel Cafe
8430 Gateway Blvd NW
Edmonton, AB  T6E 4B4
(780) 432-2003
Open Sun, Mon 9:00am-4:30pm, Tue-Sat 9am-9:30pm

September 2008 re-visit post here

Original post below:

Brunch is one of those love/hate relationships for me. On the one hand, I would generally prefer to eat lunch and dinner foods at any time of day. Give me a nice bowl of Pho, a slice of cold pizza, or a great big burrito instead of bacon, eggs and toast any day.  On the other hand, im a real sucker for Eggs Benedict, and hash browns. What this means for me is the occasional foray out for Brunch. And it typically means im ordering the Eggs Benny.

New York Bagel Cafe existed in Edmonton at the corner of Whyte Avenue and Calgary Trail for many years. That was, until a tragic fire took out the Alberts, Pet store, and other establishments it shared a building with. They had a small but loyal following, and yet, were now homeless.

Down the street, a few blocks down, was a small mother-daughter sandwich shop that served up organic, sustainable foods, fresh local ingredients in the forms of sandwiches, salads and soups. Twig N Berries was an idea that was too early – before its time. It’s neighbour, the venerable Edmonton institution “Club Malibu”, did not attract the same kinds of crowds they were looking to target. Sadly, they closed their doors as well. This space, once vacated, became the new home to New York Bagel Cafe. The new space was twice as large, and some concern about their ability to reproduce their success from their previous location existed. Maybe the positive vibes that TNB started would be passed onto the NY Bagel Cafe.

Like a Phoenix fresh from the fire, New York Bagel Cafe came back as good as ever. First off, they have the best eggs benedict in town. Period. Start with a great selection of fixed benedicts – utilizing creative flavour combinations, combined with some seasonal variations. The base for the benedict is your choice of toasted bagel – a more hearty, and solid choice over the traditional english muffin. The eggs are perfectly poached. The hollandaise? Freshly made, stable and no where close to breaking. These large portions are served with the best hash browns, broiled, pan fried, seasoned potatoes that have the perfect combination of toothy and crunch. They are salty, but i like them that way. Lastly, comes an array of exotic fruits. Seasonal berries. Kiwi. Orange. Melon. Dragonfruit. Starfruit. The varieties are endless. And they are always fresh.

What else do they have? Omelettes and frittatas. Eggs and Bacon. Platters. The Montreal Smoked Meat platter is a particular favorite among many patrons. Eggs. Bagel. Smoked meat. Hash Browns. Fruit. Hard to go wrong with that, especially when you wake up two advil short of a lesser hangover.

The new location is not without issues however. Food of this quality is made fresh to order. Resulting in painfully long waiting times – typically 60-70 minutes from the moment you order, to the moment you get your food. NY Bagel Cafe is also not much of a secret among the brunch crowd – there can be hour long lineups on weekends, just to get a table. Especially if you show up during the prime hours of 10:30am-1:00pm. They also do not have refillable coffee – making a European latte their “house coffee”. Lastly, they are not cheap. But these days, what is? If these are my biggest concerns regarding a breakfast establishment, I believe we have a winner.

At the end of the day, in most cases, I’d still prefer lunch and dinner foods over breakfast foods. But at any time before dinner, I will take an order of Eggs Benedict from New York Bagel Cafe. They are that good. And for those who know me, that is saying quite a lot.

New York Bagel Cafe on Urbanspoon

Flatlands Cafe – Calgary, AB

Flatlands Cafe
100-550 11th Avenue SW
Calgary, AB  T2R 1M7
(403) 265-7144
Open Mon-Thu 7:00am-3:00pm, Fri 7:00am-2:00pm

I have to be honest – I have a serious issue with a Calgary food reviewer. Everything I value in a restaurant reviewer is ignored – integrity, humble, discrete, and most importantly, visually anonymous. Instead, developing a cult of personality, and some form of local hero worship seems to be their key MO. They disrespect the food in favour of celebrity. You are never certain if the review is such because the food was divine, or because they were treated that way. There is no bigger crime in my mind.

The Flatlands Cafe is one of their highly rated lunch spots, and I’ve tried to avoid it at all costs. After all, the crowds of hero worshippers – what could they possibly know? I was content in my smugness. One day, we found ourselves in the area, and with my favorite restaurant full, we had to find alternative places. This soup and sandwich shop stood a half block away, and beckoned.

Flatlands does a few very simple things. Sandwiches. Soups. Salads. Baked goods. They are friendly. They have a lot of regulars. They efficiently deliver their food to the hordes of customers who wait on them, in a crush, every lunch hour.

The soup that day was Chicken Chipotle – one of my favorite flavours. Expecting powdered stock, canned chicken, and some adobo sauce dumped in, i was pleasantly surprised to find a flavourful stock, chock full of real chicken, with a great blend of flavours.

The bun that accompanied the soup was fresh. Crispy, sesame exterior, with a soft, tender interior. Great bread. The same applied to their sandwiches. Nothing fancy – just good solid meat, vegetables, and bread. Good selections of each. Didnt try a salad – but im sure they fit the same MO.

So I learned something that fateful day, when I stepped out of my box, and joined the throng. I learned that Flatlands Cafe produces good lunch food. And they manage all this with the blessings of the Calgary populist food reviewer. My ideals, my philosophy, my ego – are really all irrelevant. Inspite of who is schlocking it, good food is still good food.

Flatlands Cafe on Urbanspoon

Dio Deka – Los Gatos, CA

Dio Deka
210 E. Main St.
Los Gatos, CA 95030
Open 11:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-10pm Mon-Fri. 5pm-10pm Sat. 10:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-9pm Sun.

As a 15 year old (more years in the past than I’d like to admit), I went to Greece as part of a high school trip. While I had travelled abroad a number of times before, this was my first visit to Europe and the history, people and food (yes, even then), perhaps predictably, made a lasting impression. While I’ve done quite a bit more travelling since then, I’m not sure I’ll have such a strong memory of Europe as the first night at our hotel on Parthenonos street, with the namesake monument lit up and viewed perfectly from our room’s balcony like a floating home for the gods. Our late dinner comprised of rather exotic fare for a young Canadian lad – moussaka (delicious!) and baklava – helping to take some of the sting out of a long and delayed trip.

Fast forward to a recent trip to Dio Deka, a rather well-received, modern and pricey Greek restaurant in upscale Los Gatos, CA. Instead of the sloppy, primally satisfying street food served nightly in the Plaka, the owners wanted a place where Greek cuisine could be experienced through a highly refined lens. The tzatziki appetizer resembles not so much Monet – broad-brush impressionist tzatziki such as that I make at home (a handful of this, a pinch of that) – and much more Ansel Adams, made with great clarity, executed with precision, and carefully calculated to hit doubles (if not home runs) with American diners.

The aforementioned tzatziki had clearly been made with yogurt painstakingly squeezed of all water, leaving behind a very thick spread that more than slightly reminded me of herbed cream cheese. It was very tasty, but was clearly lacking garlic (as the foodosopher pointed out about two milliseconds after it hit his taste buds) and the normal yogurt tang that one would otherwise expect. The popular lamb meatball appetizer, each skewered on a small stick of rosemary, were similarly well-executed, though the sauce was a bit non-descript.

The terrific grilled calamari salad, produced from the mesquite grill which constantly belched smoke into the large ventilation system, had beautiful char marks while being impressively tender.

This same grill produces the famous Dio Deka lamb chops, three to a plate and cooked, after some negotiation, to a tip-top perfect medium-rare (which required asking for it rare-to-medium-rare). Some have criticized these lamb chops for lacking “flavor”, by which I think they mean that characteristic lambiness that causes some to shy away. I’m not in that camp, as I prefer it when the meat expresses its origin sotto voce, rather than yelling in my ear, so I found the subtle flavor rather delicious. The double-thick Berkshire pork chop was similarly flawlessly executed – it was cooked exactly to the knife edge between underdone and overdone that is often so elusive with pork. The accompaniments with these dishes were exactly that: no more, no less. One entree, a braised lamb shank with orzo, didn’t come from the grill. The meat itself was braised lovingly to falling-apartness, but the orzo was far too rich with butter and cheese that made the meat seem lean (not an easy task). We did not opt for any desserts, but they certainly looked to be great crowd-pleasers. The “Greek beignets” seemed to appear at every table, although I’m not so sure they would be ten percent as popular if the menu read “Greek doughnut” instead. The wine list was quite strong, even by Bay Area standards. There are a good two to three dozen wines available by the glass, with a handful of interesting wines interspersed among the sea of populist choices.

The owners have succeeded – wildly, by all appearances – in their quest to bring updated Greek cuisine to the well-to-do masses. However, this success comes at the expense of the Greek-ness of the whole experience. If one wanted to be cynical, one might even claim that Dio Deka is really an American steakhouse with a definite but carefully-measured Greek twist. The menu seemingly explores a rather small fraction of Greek cuisine in order to ensure that the food retains a familiarity for American palates (although further visits might be needed to fully confirm this – the restaurant for some reason has taken the menu off their website, at least from what I can tell). This populist path means that it is a very useful place for parties with less-adventurous eaters who nevertheless want to experience something different. The noise level was a bit high, though, so don’t take the grandparents from Iowa unless you’re sure they’re up for it. The strength of the restaurant are the dishes from the grill station which were all executed with GPS precision and are the reason to go back. It won’t replace in my heart my first late-night lamb souvlaki, however imperfect it was, but not for a lack of trying. It’s not so much food that has been dumbed-down as food calibrated perfectly by their shrewd business plan.

Dio Deka on Urbanspoon

Mac Falafel – Vancouver, BC

[Normally I’d encourage viewers to click on the image to get a closeup of a great creation, but this time, do it for the laughs.  Go on.  I promise I won’t tell.]

Mac Falafel
3685 10th Avenue West
Vancouver, BC

Had to be done.

Introducing, the World’s Most Pathetic Beef Donair.

– processed meat slices out of a warming bin
– dry, stale pita (actually 1.5 pitas, half of another was torn to make this strange contraption)
– limp lettuce
– some dab of a tzatziki sauce in there someplace

This is a “large” with the “works”.  All yours for $4.99 plus tax.

Welcome to Mac Falafel.

Avoid at all costs…

Mac Falafel on Urbanspoon

X-talk: Makanai Ryori

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Returning to the tiny subfolder here that the Foodosopher has dubbed “X-talk”, for anything that is off the usual path of restaurant reviews, I thought I would touch on a topic that is known as “makanai ryori” (Japanese in origin).

Literally translating the characters for this word, it means “to make due”, “to cover off”.  It also has a connotation of “providing” (as in a supplier) but in this case it refers more to the former definition.  Simple stated, “makanai ryori (cuisine)” are dishes that are made by those working in the kitchen for their own consumption while on the job, using ingredients or materials that would be considered “waste”, not worthy of being used for preparations for actual paying customers, or whatever might be left over in the refrigerator (to clear it out).  This could entail things like the hard core of a head of cabbage, the lower quality ends bits off the end of a rack of pork ribs, the remnants of a braising liquid, etc.  It might not sound like much, but in essence, this is a little known training exercise for apprentice chefs looking to improve their culinary skills and/or impress their bosses in the kitchen to give them a bigger role during service.

Traditionally, it is the younger cooks who are tasked with making these meals for the rest of the kitchen crew.  It’s their chance to show what they’ve learned, especially in those kitchen environments where nothing is formally taught, and any newbie must keep his eyes and ears open to take in any technique or bit of knowledge more senior members of the kitchen may be wielding.  In Japanese, this is called “minarai“, literally “learn by watching”.  So things are taken quite seriously when their turns comes up to prepare for the whole entourage of their peers in the kitchen.

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The Flying Tiger – Vancouver, BC

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The Flying Tiger
2958 West 4th Avenue
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-737-7529
Hours: Mon-Wed, 5:30pm-11pm; Thu-Sat, 5:30pm-12am; Sun, 5:30pm-10pm

Driving along W 4th Ave, I’d spotted the sign for The Flying Tiger on more than a few occassions, and most of the time I just thought it was a tattoo parlour (from its interesting logo) or some kind of store selling Asian-themed goods or something.  But this day upon closer inspection, I discovered that it was actually an eating establishment, and thus decided to check it out with some friends.  The menu dubbed itself as being “modern Asian street food”, which kind of raised some concerns in the back of my mind as whenever the word “fushion” pops out, I tend to run for cover.  Thankfully though, I was pleasantly surprised with most of the dining experience here, so let me go into some detail…

The menu consisted of about twenty items that were broken down into headings labelled “smaller” and “larger”, with a few “sides listed as well.  Apparently the food is meant for sharing, which ended up being ideal so we could all sample bits and pieces of each dish.  Obviously, the menu was trying to cater to the entire Asian continent with its liberal naming of items and tagging on the country where the inspiration was drawn from be it Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Japan, Korea, India, Vietnam, etc.

Began my meal with a refreshing cocktail called an Indian Summer, made up of Bombay Sapphire, ginger liqueur, berries, lime, and pineapple juice.  Then the food began to arrive at our table one at a time, with long breaks of time in between (we’d gotten there early, so the place wasn’t yet busy but once it was full, the time between dishes took even longer, I’d say at least thirty minutes).  It seemed like a very popular place from about 8pm onwards and reservations are a must as I saw many people getting turned away at the door (coincidentally, we had no reservation but got seated at the one table that was free at that time).  Inside, it was quite dark, especially towards the back of the room.  Music was playing at a good level though once the room filled up and conversations started everywhere, it got difficult to hear people sitting at your very own table.  Very much a lounge-like atmosphere though quite laid back in terms of atmosphere and no attitude from servers (who also took time to explain each component of each dish as it arrived at our table, something that I appreciate).

Our first dish was the Crispy Thai Squid, which were crispy panko crusted slices of fresh squid, with a dip of sambal ($9).  The breading was nice and light and not oily at all, and the squid was very well done, not that rubbery mess that you often find with frozen squid product.  It came served in a simple white cup with some paper to absorb any excess oil.  I’d recommend this item off the “smaller” side of the menu as a good appetizer to start your meal.

Next up came the Pulled Duck Confit Crepes ($16), served with a jicama and cucumber salad with Vietnamese coriander to add to your self-serve crepes.  The aromatic hints of mint and basil in the confit contrasted well with the tender meat mixture.  The bowl of duck confit had more than enough for the six crepes on the plate, but you could order more on their own, which we did as this dish was quite delicious.  How can you go wrong with a flavorful protein cooked in its own fat?

Looking for some more substance, our next dish was the Humba Style Braised Pork Belly, a Filipino-style preparation which was braised in a sweet marinade which tasted like it contained some soy sauce, acid from some vinegar, bay leaf, garlic (not too strong though) and the obvious taste of star anise.  On the side was a leaf wrapped up like a Japanese sushi maki, that was filled with some garlic fried rice (now this was very garlicky).  The pork belly was again very tender as one would hope, and the rich flavors worked well with the more plain tasting fried rice (which was too dry on its own to eat).  It wasn’t as easy to eat as the a fore mentioned duck confit.

Last came the Hawker Street Noodles ($14), made up of egg noodles, shiitake mushrooms, prawns, peas, and bok choy, that was stir fried in a sweet oyster-based sauce.  Upon looking at it, it didn’t look too bad, but I was disappointed in the overall taste.  The sauce was just too gluey and pulling the noodles out of the bowl was a challenge, as it ended up being this great big gooey clump of noodles.  We didn’t end up finishing this at all, and perhaps it was one dish too many, or just a bad dish that was the wrong call.

So I can say that I was glad that I discovered what this establishment was all about, and was a nice venue to catch up with folks I hadn’t seen in a while.  No big push from servers for you to leave after your meal and the bigger gaps in time before each dish arrived actually helped stretch out the evening and have a good long conversation over an interesting and for the most part, a good tasting meal.

Apologies for the lack of quality in the images this time around, the darkness of the room made it a real challenge to get any decent lighting (and I refuse to use a flash).

P.S. The Flying Tiger boasts that it is proud to offer natural, free-range meats, organic produce and wild, sustainable seafood and locally sourced (when available), so if you are into these food conscious aspects it should have some appeal.

Flying Tiger on Urbanspoon

Golden Phoenix – Vancouver, BC

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Golden Phoenix Chinese Seafood Restaurant
2425 Nanaimo Street
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-253-9717 & 604-253-6183
Hours: Sun-Thu, 9am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 9am-1am

Popularized in western culture, dim sum is a style of Cantonese cuisine that revolves around an array of small dishes that are eaten with Chinese tea, and typically in the morning hours.  The act of drinking Chinese tea (yum cha) plays a key role in this type of dining, and its roots go back to the long ago times of teahouses where people would gather, socialize and share some simple meals.  There was an older Chinese gentleman sitting nearby who took this to heart, as I watched him drink tea constantly, and then occasionally taking a bit of some dish he had ordered, and this continued in ten minute bursts.  Personally for me, I think its a great combination as despite that fact that many dim sum dishes are steamed, and thus have the image of being healthy, a lot are fatty, oily and darnright salty, so the refreshing Chinese tea does aid in digesting it all.

The addition of the word “seafood” in this restaurant’s title is a bit deceiving, as checking out the menu, there is indeed a section for seafood but its just 14 items on a full menu that boasts a total of 106 dishes.  My main intent on this day was to check out their dim sum offerings, which still get delivered to your table by staff pushing around carts or carrying them around by hand.  There is a narrow yellow sheet of paper that tallies up your choices that ends up being totaled up to generate your final bill.  Items ranged from $2.95 to $4.25.  The randomness of it all is part of the appeal to me of going to these old-school dim sum places like at Golden Phoenix.  Its always a game to discover what is indeed under those little lids and sometimes it takes a tearing apart of the food itself to know what is contained inside.  Sure there are the staple beef, chicken, pork, prawn and vegetable offerings that I’ve gotten familiar with over the years, but sometimes there are many unknowns out there that raise my curiousity level.

At the Golden Phoenix, I felt that the servers were a bit pushy with trying to get your to try just about all the dishes that came around.  Everything was “very delicious” according to the staff, who must have seen that the overcrowded table could not possibly accept any more plates or steamed baskets.  I think I took more than was needed, and some I regretted: the lo mai gai (glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf) is one of my favorites and it contained some chunks of chicken and mushrooms and was very flavorful; deep fried and coated in black bean sauce chicken feet – not my cup of tea; shaomai (steamed pork dumplings) were good, though you can’t get anymore basic than this for dim sum; something that resembled har gow (a large shrimp inside topped with a layer of scallop) was probably my favorite on this day, the shrimp was big and tender; and then some sweets whose names I can’t recall (one was a ginger flavored sweet potato mixture inside).

The Golden Phoenix is a mid-sized restaurant, with round tables scattered about and tight seating, which made it impossible for some of the carts to navigate around the room without bumping into someone or something.  Its brightly lit, with some simple faux-wood paneling on the walls and the tables were all clean.  Its a little out of the way for those who don’t live on the east side of Vancouver, and there are many other choices for dim sum in the downtown core or out in Richmond, but the Golden Phoenix should meet your dim sum craving should you be in the neighborhood and want to avoid the monsterous and busy caverns elsewhere where dim sum is served.  And this way, you can better enjoy your Chinese tea and not feel rushed.

Golden Phoenix Chinese Seafood on Urbanspoon

Little Italy Cafe – Calgary, AB

Little Italy Cafe
1935 – 27 Avenue NE
Calgary, AB T2E 7E4
(403) 291-5654
Open 9:00am-4:00pm-ish, M-F; Closed Sat, Sun and Holidays

September 2008 re-visit post here

Original post below:

If you’ve ever worked in an industrial park, you can attest to how difficult it is to find good food. Small sandwich shops, offering the always odd assortment of sandwiches, soup (usually Wonton!), french fries, samosas, and burgers, dot the landscape – trying to capture as much of the local pedestrian traffic as possible. Every once in a while though, you come across a good find that is worth patronizing. Little Italy Cafe is one of these finds.

Little Italy Cafe is not really located in an industrial park – but on a commuter road sandwiched between several industrial parks in NE Calgary. Fancy doesnt work here. Good solid, gut warming meals are the order of the day. They focus on some standard Italian sandwiches, cold cuts, meatballs, and veal cutlet, as well as a few daily hot specials. A baked pasta, a regular pasta, and often times sausage, chicken, or other assorted meat. And they do so at an extremely affordable price.

The restaurant is owned by the affable Piero Perrotta – an extremely friendly, outgoing Italian gentleman who is a bit forgetful. So the ladies in the kitchen always complain about anyway, as they yell at him to “fix this order, pick up this order, hurry this up!”. Service is quite slow, typically as he takes a minute out of his day to chat with each customer. However, i kind of like it. It reminds me a bit of Italy – a stark contrast of high speed, while maintaining priority for things that matter, like socialization.

The food itself is made by a few Noni’s in the back. The kind i wish still made lunch for me every day. The sandwiches, which are ok, are not what i would recommend here.  The bread, after all, is that tasteless 12″ roll. Pasta – in massive quantities, is the order of the day. At $7.95, you get a very large serving of whatever pasta they decided to make that day. Usually there is a baked, and a regular dried pasta topped with gravy, and some form of meat. My favorite are their meatballs – wonderful, large, hand-rolled meatballs that are the typical Italian soft and crumbly consistency. Throw some roasted peppers on there, some “gun powder” chili flakes, and you have a tasty. very filling homemade meal. Things are not the perfect al dente, but it doesn’t matter. My mom never got pasta a perfect al dente either.  

Little Italy Cafe is not fine dining. No one will mistake this for Capo, Il Sogno, or other high end Italian restaurants in Calgary that do “fine” Italian Cuisine. What Little Italy does well is comfort food – homestyle Italian cooking. The kind your Noni would make – if you were Italian, and you had a Noni. And when your other choices are another grilled cheese and Wonton soup combo, it is, on many a day, comforting indeed.

Little Italy Cafe on Urbanspoon

Transcend Coffee – Edmonton, AB

Transcend Coffee
9869 – 62nd Avenue
Edmonton, AB T6E 0E4
(780) 430-9198
Open 7:30am-5:30pm, M-F; 9:30am-5:00pm Sat; Closed Sundays and Holidays

September 2008 re-visit post below

Original post below:

Unlike food, I don’t get coffee. Not yet anyway. But someday soon, i hope to. You see, many years ago, back in my University days (where i met Shokutsu), I drank coffee for stimulation – typically to keep me awake through a combo of too little sleep, and boring boring classes. This was rocket fuel – sludge loaded with sugar and cream to make it palatable. It didnt taste good, but this was the way coffee was supposed to taste. Coffee was cool. An easy date. And a necessity. And i could learn to like it.

Fast forward several years, and we have the proliferation of Starbucks. Expensive, catchy drinks with a lingo all its own. The drinks taste better than rocket fuel, but that’s because of the skinny, vanilla, extra hot, half and half, venti, whatever else is in the cup that makes it a coffee beverage. This tastes better than sludge, so im happy. But it doesnt taste like coffee. It tastes like sugar. And vanilla. But it’s good!

Today, there is a proliferation of “good” coffee – single origin, the concept of terroir, roasted dates, tasting notes. There is proper temperature and steeping time, fancy grinders and tampers. The complexity of coffee is endless. In the end, none of these things really matter. This coffee tastes better – that’s what matters.

The bottom line is simple: Transcend Coffee produces great coffee. They are passionate about coffee. And they love to educate people about coffee. Running a small roasterie in an industrial area of SW Edmonton, they have added a small retail cafe to a thriving roasting business. Their prices are cheap – relative to the expertise and the quality of their product. They have experienced baristas, who compete at a high level, to produce your espresso drinks. These have the fancy art, and the really nice full flavour. The good crema on top of your espresso, and the great textured foam. They also have a Clover Machine – an automated french press that is able to reproduce a near perfect cup of coffee each time, bringing out wonderful flavours like chocolate, citrus, grass, honey out of the coffee. Coffee is surprisingly complex – more than wine, and similar to food. The flavours you can taste will surprise you. Drink it black. Bitter, rancid coffee doesnt happen here. It’s how you taste the good stuff.

I feel particularly comfortable at Transcend. The room itself is warm and comfortable.  The people are nice. The service is friendly. They have a small selection of food (in house baked goods, outsourced baked goods, sandwiches, and chocolate bars from Chocophilia). More importantly, they are happy to discuss their #1 passion – coffee. And they put up with all my questions, no matter how inane, or oft repeated they are.

There is a slow growing movement towards “great” coffee – and Transcend definitely are helping lead the charge in Alberta. If you’re open-minded to trying it yourself, put down that cup of Starbucks and give it a shot. Like me, you may learn something new, and even enjoy it! Because afterall, at the end of the day, coffee, like food is about enjoyment.  Consume what you enjoy. And if you get something more out of it, all the power to you.  Maybe someday, i’ll get coffee. I’ll keep trying anyway. And in the meantime, i’ll keep going to Transcend Coffee, and learning a bit more about coffee sip by sip.

Transcend Coffee on Urbanspoon

Hon’s Wun-Tun House – Vancouver, BC

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Hon’s Wun-Tun House
268 Keefer Street
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-688-0871‎

Looking for a quick and easy bite to eat, after passing through the downtown core that is being hit hard with a power outage the past two days, I stepped inside the well known and touristy Hon’s Wun-Tun House after finding it one of the business still open on this night.  In business now for over thirty-five years, this staple of Chinatown is a Cantonese cafeteria-style restaurant probably with its reputation built on its potstickers and noodle dish offerings.  Expanded now to five locations in the GVA, its name has certainly spread and one usually finds it listed among the Chinese listings on any of the run of the mill restaurant guides and magazines found in the city.

For cheap eats, Hon’s is up there in terms of bang for the buck and for quickness.  Taste wise, not overwhelmingly good but adequate for what you are expecting and most of all paying.  Armed with these PDA devices, waitresses all dressed in these bright yellow, Hon’s-branded T-shirts relay your order to the kitchen, where it usually comes out at a quick pace, even on those days when its quite full.  The clientele is a unique mix of locals and tourists, Asians and non-Asians, so you can see it has wide ranging appeal.  Now whether that translates to an authentic offering or one that has been ‘adjusted’ to local tastes, that I will leave up to you.

When I get tired of Vietamese pho or Japanese ramen, wun-tun noodles generally comes to mind and in Vancouver, you can find a bowl of Chinese noodles pretty easily.  Its especially an excellent choice on those cold, rainy days in wintertime.  But come summer, not really my favorite.  Rather, I’ll opt for a pretty standard combination of some potstickers and a simple bowl of steam rice, and maybe a side of some veggies.  Or throw in some barbeque duck or pork, another popular item on the menu here.

The potstickers, funny how they add the “TM” mark on their menu, like they own the term or something, come in four types: pork, beef, chicken, vegetarian.  Also, you can choose to have them pan-fried, steamed or in a broth.  Prices, $6 for twelve pieces or $3.25 for six.  I’d rank the pan-fried and steamed as a toss-up, though do tend to find the pan-fried ones sometimes a bit sketchy in terms of the doneness of the meat inside.  Though given how thinly they are stuffed, I don’t think its that big a deal, as the wrapping has a nice golden crust to it and easily handled in one bite.

Hon's Wun Tun House on Urbanspoon