Top 11 Dishes of 2011
Hi Everyone. Just wanted to wish you all happy holidays and all the best in the upcoming year.
I know I’ve been absent for quite a while, but i thought i’d throw out a small thank you to anyone from Alberta still reading. It may seem like we are a Vancouver-centric blog, but we started with Albertan roots, and it’s a part of the blog that is still very important to me. To be honest, the evolution, or de-evolution of the blog is more because the non-Vancouver based writers have been negligent in their duties. I wish I had more to offer than that, but I don’t.
With changes in my life, i’m not likely to be back in Alberta anytime soon. This snapshot in time reflects how i feel today – and while it may not stand the test of time, I hope it serves you well in the near future. Please consider this a small offering from me to you – for everything you bring to Foodosophy, and to recognize some of the quiet greatness that exists in the city of Calgary today.
January 1, 2012
List making is a favorite holiday season activity. Christmas lists, New Year’s resolutions, the year in review. “Food critics” often release their version of the holiday list by recapping the top 10 restaurants from the previous year. I hate these. First off, they tell me nothing they havent already said. Secondly, like most things in life, restaurants have strengths and weaknesses. For the sake of brevity, they list their favorite 10, without providing enough context to guide me to an enjoyable experience. I find them to be of little use.
So rather than follow suit, in honour of 2011, I’ve decided to list my 11 favorite dishes in Calgary. Don’t go to these restaurants expecting to order something else and have it be good – it might not be. The service may suck. The place may be dirty. The hours inconsistent. The ownership grouchy. But from my standpoint, these are the 11 best things to eat in Calgary. Period. Are they biased towards my taste? Absolutely. If you think we like similar things, you’ll probably like these.
Please don’t think this was easy – limiting it to just 11 meant a lot of great dishes were left off. Donair versus sandwich. Roti versus mac and cheese. Jerk chicken and patties versus lahori charga or baked rice. Kebab versus peking duck. But as i threw the names into the pot, time and time again, it was the same ones i kept going to. The dish i can never pass up when im at said establishment. The one dish that makes me say “i should try something different, but i can’t. I have to order this one.”
In order of my own personal preference:
11. Great Taste – Steamed Bun/Mantou
123 2 Avenue Southeast
A late entry to the list (bumping out my favorite Peking Duck restaurant), “Great Taste” is formerly known as MBA BBQ Noodle house in Chinatown. New owners, new chef, they’ve taken a decent Chinese institution and are starting to introduce their own, delicious spin on things. While there are as many hits as misses on the menu, the one consistent dish i’ve had that has been exceptional are the steamed buns. Served with a few different dishes, these epitomize everything a great steamed bun should be. Light, fluffy, sweet, with enough substance to hold fatty pork, ground eggplant, or a variety of other kinds of fillings. Outside of Asia, I havent had a steamed bun this good in a long long time.
10. Empanada Queen – Empanada Queso (Frito)
#4 4100 Malborough Drive N.E
(403) 235 0686
Salty, crispy, gooey goodness. There is just something really satisfying about something deep fried with melted cheese. The best example of this was the cube of deep fried mac and cheese I had at Reef in Houston. It just seemed to hit on all the right levels.
In Calgary, we have our own option. Empanada Queen. Their Cheese Empanada, available in small and large (i prefer the small), is rolled fresh, stuffed with queso, and then fried to golden perfection. With a little picante sauce (aji), to break up the richness, this dish satisfies in so many levels. Even though they can be found at many festivals around town all summer, go to the mothership. It’s guaranteed to be fresh, and the oil at the right temperature.
9. Model Milk – Burger
308 17 Ave SW
One of Albertan’s favorite pastimes is comparing whose burgers are best. There is something very primal, and core to the identity of Western Canadians, about burgers. The best one i`ve had in Calgary is at Model Milk.
Justin Leboe`s (formerly of Rush) late night bistro, there`s a lot to like about Model Milk. Open late 7 days a week. Two different menus that are continually rotating, with some real comfort food favorites with a twist. Great space and location. Fantastic service. While the entrees themselves at Model Milk are the model of inconsistency (something I hope improves over time – it should be better than it is), the burger has always been great. Freshly ground beef, cooked to perfection, a wonderful morel ragout, a great bun, and all the right condiments. Even accompanied by fries fried in peanut oil (second favorite after duck fat). Available on both menus, this is the goto late night eat. While a bit hefty at $17, it`s worth every penny.
8. Atlas Specialty Supermarket and Persian Cuisine – Kia Combo
100-1000 9 Avenue SW
There is quite a mixed response to Atlas Persian Cuisine. Many Persian friends of mine poo poo their food. The unauthentic rice pilaf. Bland and uninspired stews. And in many ways, they`re right. I`ve had much much better Persian food.
But there is something to be said for a dish that is so satisfying, you want to finish it even when you`re full. When you crave the taste even when they`ve been closed for hours. When you can`t order anything but. The Kia Combo is a meal that serves 3 skewers of koobideh – minced beef kebab grilled and charred to perfection, served with polo and grilled tomato and onion. It might be easy to make, or it might not be the most authentic. At some point, you have to stop caring about what you think, and concentrate on what you taste. And it is delicious.
7. Pho Anh Huyen – Curry Pho Ga
1403 Centre Street Northwest
Throughout Vietnam, I found the flavour of Pho to be highly regional. With lots of different ingredients, subtle varieties in seasoning and flavour, the consistent key to a great bowl of Pho has always been balance. While I never came across any dishes like Curry Pho, it carries all the same hallmarks as a great bowl – fresh, balanced flavours with tremendous taste.
The Curry Pho at Pho Anh Huyen is available in three varieties – chicken, beef, and beef and chicken. I prefer the chicken for the slightly thicker cut (the heat from the broth doesnt dry it out as much or as quickly as the beef), and because of how well it compliments the curry and coconut milk. Balanced out with some heat and lime, thick rice noodles, and some fresh greens, the dish is a rich, luxurious flavour bomb. Over many visits, i’ve eventually managed to try a couple other dishes on the menu. But 19 times out of 20, it’s always the Curry Pho.
6. Boxwood – Vietnamese Sandwich
340 13 Ave SW
A sandwich is a simple thing isnt it? Bread, meat, condiments. Sadly, it`s one of the poorest executed meals out i can think of in the western world. For the most part, they just arent done well. The best version i’ve had the past year was at Meat & Bread in Vancouver, which seems to have the formula down cold. The collaboration between Charcut, Aviv Fried (Sidewalk Citizen Bakery), and Grant van Gameren (Black Hoof fame) may meet the same kind of elevated status with their Charpop venture, but that`s a 3 day pop up. In the meantime, until someone dethrones them, the best western sandwich in town is at the Boxwood Cafe.
Owned by the same people that run Calgary`s venerable River Cafe, I love pretty much everything about Boxwood. The inner city location in Central Memorial Park, the local emphasis, no reservations, the atmosphere. About the only thing i`d change is the hours, and extend their opening to midnight or 1am.
While there are a variety of things on the menu, my favorite is their Vietnamese-inspired Sandwich. This sandwich starts with fresh bread baked in house (not the best bread i`ve had, but very solid), and then loads up the filling with copious quantity of lamb shoulder, cucumber, pickled carrot, cilantro, and a chipotle aioli. The freshness of all the ingredients combine to form a medley of flavours that continually delights. A great balance of bread, meat, and condiments. At $10, it`s a steal.
5. Sidewalk Citizen Bakery – Cheese sticks
Available Friday’s, Saturdays in the Winter: Wednesday’s, Friday’s, and Saturdays in the Spring, Summer and Fall
5524 1A Street Southwest
Aviv Fried has been quietly baking some of the best baked goods in Calgary for a few years now. I first caught notice of him at Phil and Sebastian when they brought in his scones. I used to dislike scones. A lot. I had associated them with dry, flavour-less concoctions that needed to be warm out of the oven and loaded with butter to be good. The first bite of Aviv’s scones were a revelation – moist, flavourful, delicious. I was hooked.
In the past year, Aviv has been expanding his offerings to include a variety of different things. As the pre-eminent sourdough bread baker in town, it would be easy to point to his Pain au Levain and say that was one of the best things in Calgary – because really, it is. But for my money, the tastiest thing produced from his ovens is his cheese and seed sticks.
Rich. Cheesy. Crunchy. Soft. These things are savoury perfection. Only available Fridays and Saturdays from their bakery during the winter, as well as being at the Wednesday Hillhurst Farmers Market during the summer, for my health, it’s a good thing I can’t get them any day I wanted. Like L’Epicerie’s fresh fried potato chips used to be (long gone), i would likely eat this every day.
4. Phil and Sebastian Coffee Roasters – Cappuccino
Marda Loop Location
2043 33rd Avenue SW
I love coffee. I really do. All kinds of coffee. But as much as i love a shot of espresso, drip coffee, or an americano, nothing reaches the decadence, the richness, and the soul satisfying nature of a cappuccino. And nothing in the city can beat the cappuccino at Phil and Sebastian Coffee Roasters.
Start with coffee they purchase directly from farmers. Their coffee is purchased on a seasonal rotation from around the world to ensure that only the freshest coffee is being used. Add in an uncompromising eye for detail, talented roasters, great equipment, highly trained staff, and just as importantly, the best milk in the city, and you have one of the best 11 things in the city. A sweet, silky smooth, delicious cappuccino.
3. Southern Spice – Madras Masala Dosa
4655 54 Ave NE
To me, our food culture today is defined by one key word – choice. More than ever, people have unprecedented choice in terms of where they choose to spend their dining dollars. Some people want to support local business. Slow food and locally produced are important to some. Ethnic diversity, or consistency are important to others. Atmosphere. Then you have the dietary choices (involuntary or otherwise) as well – gluten intolerant, vegan, vegetarian, ovo-lacto, pescetarian, msg intolerant, processed sugar intolerance, there are a million factors that go into choosing where to eat. A restaurant that has tasty food that can accommodate a variety of these choices ends up being the equivalent of dining gold. In Calgary, that place is Southern Spice.
Buried in a Westwinds industrial park near the Mosque in NE Calgary, Southern Spice serves a variety of South Indian dishes. With chefs from Sri Lanka, there is an oddly eclectic yet comforting mix of Tamil, and South Indian dishes on the menu. My favorite one is their dosa.
Catering to the gluten intolerant, vegan, vegetarian ovo-lacto, pescetarian, msg intolerant, processed sugar intolerant crowd, there hasnt been anyone I’ve met that can’t eat one of the various dosas on the menu. It’s inexpensive, tasty, fresh made, and more importantly, crowd pleasing. Their dosa is a thing of beauty for today’s complicated dining decisions.
The Madras Masala Dosa on Masala Dosa Day (6.95 on Wed and Thur) are amazingly good, tasty deals. For a list that isnt about choice, the Madras Masala Dosa offers you some – something that works regardless of who you are.
2. Pho Dau Bo – Bun Bo Hue
Available Friday, Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays. If you’re making a special trip, call first
4909 17 Avenue Southeast
As i wandered around the city of Hue in central Vietnam, i kept looking for the pre-eminent version of their regional dish, Bun Bo Hue (Bun Bo) to use as a benchmark. A soup that is often mistaken as a version of Pho, the ingredients and nuance are different enough to make it a very different experience. From the predominant lemongrass flavour, to the combination of pork and beef, fermented shrimp sauce for depth, sugar for balance, spicy chili oil for kick, and pigs blood and a variety of other condiments make it a unique experience from Pho. And while I found some excellent versions in Hue, better than all of them is the version at Pho Dau Bo in Calgary.
Available on Friday’s, Saturday’s, and if not sold out, Sunday’s, the Bun Bo Hue at Pho Dau Bo is mind-blowingly good. Clean, balanced, dynamic, and fresh, it is cleaner tasting, without the heavy oil that characterized a lot of the ones i had in Hue, and without the over-use of fermented shrimp that leave you with a slight seafood funk aftertaste. My only complaint with the dish is the lack of banana blossom, whose unique crunch and texture adds a very pleasing element to the dish. But seeing as fresh banana blossom is all but impossible to find in Canada, this is completely understandable.
I know Pho Dau Bo is lauded for the best Pho Satay in the city, but you’re missing out on a supreme treat if you don’t try the Bun Bo Hue. With the exception of one place in San Jose, CA, I don’t think i’ve ever had better.
1. Longview Steakhouse – Ribeye
102 Morrison Rd
Perhaps the only subject more openly debated than the best burgers in Calgary is where the best steak is. I don’t know about you readers, but in my experience, the question comes up quite often in groups of people discussing food, but usually without resolution. The thing is, there is no consensus. For the most part, a single person can’t even decide where the best place is for themselves. I’d put money down that the most common answer is “at home on my BBQ”. Let me remove the mystery for you. There is a definitive best steak in Calgary. And it lies an hour south on the Cowboy trail in Longview Alberta. It’s the Longview Steakhouse.
Start with good local Alberta beef. Add in their own dry aging to develop the right flavour and tenderness. Cut and trimmed in house. Finish with one of the most consistent chefs i’ve ever had the pleasure of dining with. Cooked perfectly, rested perfectly. Their ribeye is a marvel. Leave the cooking of the steak in their hands and you will find a ribeye that has the right amount of crust, perfectly rendered interstitial fat, and amazing tenderness and flavour.
Turning out one perfect steak, while a feat, is not something that makes a great steakhouse. The ability to turn out thousands of perfect steaks, day in and day out, is the hallmark of greatness. Add in a ridiculously inexpensive price, I can comfortably argue and defend that there is a definitive place for steak in Calgary. Longview has the ingredients, the consistency, and the value that make their Ribeye my favorite dish for 2011.