Save on Meats – Vancouver, BC

Save on Meats
43 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 569-3568

Early adopters, supporters  and enthusiasts of many things in our grande old world are an interesting lot.  Its safe to say they love being in on the ground level, before things really take off and get established in the mainstream.  Often at the cost of being scorned or mocked for their fervent adoration for whatever it may be that strikes their fancy as others cannot yet understand why, and for which they are often stringently dedicated to defending.  Places to eat certainly fall among those categories where fanatics make themselves known, but then when their beloved spot gets popular, they are filled with mixed feelings.  Part glad that their views are vindicated, but also saddened that their special place will now be flooded with those catching the word-of-mouth and covered in public sources of media.

The previous incarnation of Save on Meats and today’s refurbished edition are an interesting pair to compare.  Suffice it to say, the new edition is a lot more “user friendly” to say those folks who are hesitant to venture to this part of downtown east, especially once you get in through the front door.  The decor has a definitively retro slant, complete with adornments such as the old school candy dispenser and juke box situated near the main entrance’s waiting area.  Even the signage has the decades-old look and feel to them, that might remind the older generation of days gone by, but are clearly with the styling of an era that is beyond my early days on this planet earth.

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Fraser Park Restaurant – Burnaby, BC

Fraser Park Restaurant
4663 Byrne Road
Burnaby, BC
(604) 433-7605

I’ve now had five separate meals at this surprisingly popular establishment (considering its location!) and felt it was time to weigh in with a post to join the multitude that exist about it when I look at the listing on Urbanspoon.  Meals during the morning breakfast hours as well as closer to the noon lunch time service have given me a good sense of what can be had here (with a sampling of some photos below).  And to sum it up simply, its a lot!  Portion sizes are truly on the generous size.  Perhaps fitting for the hard labour, blue collar working folks who I see frequenting the establishment often, mixed in with some people who obviously don’t work in the industrial businesses that populate this stretch of Byrne Road but are here simply for a hearty meal.

Through the regular menu items and the daily specials, a few have stood out for me in terms of the excitement upon ordering them, having them brought out in front of me so my eyes could understand what I was in for, and then of course the tasting of each dish.   I’ve sheepishly mentioned this place around to various people in my circles and have even brought some of them with me to eat.  The look on their faces when we pull into the parking lot says it all, its the last place they thought I’d bring them too.  Thankfully the food saves me each and every time.  As I’ve never had any complaints walking out about their disappointment with any of the meals.

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Steveston Cafe – Richmond, BC

Steveston Cafe
12111 3rd Avenue
Richmond, BC
(604) 277-9511

An early morning visit to Steveston village precipitated the need to indulge in that classic weekend jump start – bad coffee and breakie in a greasy spoon – as we were in dire need of some sustenance and were tired of driving and walking around.  Just another random stop resulting in a brief foodosophy posting, I swear if not for the sake of filling up space on this blog, I’d probably never step foot into them. 🙂

Situated across the street from the relic buildings of an old cannery and a museum featuring the same, as well as a pub next door, the Steveston Cafe is a definitive example of a small town breakfast joint.  Nothing extravagant on the outside, and indoors, full of young families, and older folks who are probably on some kind of fixed income support and appreciate the low prices of diners like this.

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Joe’s Atlantic Grill – Port Moody, BC

Joe’s Atlantic Grill
2410 St. John’s Street
Port Moody, BC
(604) 931-8765

Unfamiliar town.  No map.  One main street.

Sounds like a perfect recipe for either a wonderful random discovery or a tremendous let down.  “Wonder what it will be this time” I thought, after we parked the car and did a quick walk along St. John’s Street.  Passing by the Caribbean-flavoured Rehanah’s Roti, spotting the Filipino Rosario and seeing a ubiquitous Japanese restaurant during our stroll, we quickly nixed the ethnic options for something a little more closer to home.

As we came to Joe’s Atlantic Grill that resides in an older building in this part of Port Moody, on what seems to be the major thoroughfare that cuts through this community, we scanned inside as well as the posted menu by their door and figured it couldn’t hurt.  Some late-morning grub/early lunch was what we wanted and it seemed safe enough.

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Fremont Diner – Sonoma, CA

Fremont Diner (The Fremont)
2660 Fremont Drive
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-7370

For me, the term “diner” conjures up images of neon, white and black checkered tile, red leather stools, wise cracking waitresses, and greasy spoon food of questionable origin. In reality, these days, good food can be found anywhere. Lunch counters, strip malls, and of course, diners.

Fremont Diner is best described as a “slow food” diner. Ingredients all locally sourced. Time, attention, and care is paid to every aspect of every dish. This is not what you would consider your average “diner”.

Located on Highway 12/121 that cuts through Napa Valley and Sonoma, Fremont Diner is actually easy to miss. You could drive by it every day and barely notice the understated sign, the rusting truck out front, and the gas station diner appearance.

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Mon Mom’s Cafe – New Westminster, BC

Mon Mom’s Cafe
821 12th St
New Westminster, BC
(604) 524-2088

On the quick and easy breakfast trail in New Westminster, I chanced upon Mon Mom’s Cafe located along 12st Street. Situated in a wooden building reminiscent of structures popular from an earlier era, it certainly has its charms and nostalgic sidewalk appeal. The slow pace of things on the road outside took a turn as I stepped inside the place which was full of chatter and customers. The sounds and smells of a breakfast diner never fail to disappoint me.

With breakfast plate offerings (eggs, toast, ham/sausage, French toast/pancakes) in the $4 to $4.75 range, and omelets in the $5 to $6 range, great value can be had. Preferring French toast over pancakes, I ordered one of the choices from the top half of the menu and sat back to take in the scene. Families, groups of working class men, single diners taking up the smaller tables near the front window, it was all a regular mix of common folk out for a relaxing morning meal.

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Helen’s Grill & Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Helen’s Grill & Restaurant
4102 Main Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 874-4413

Despite being called “the most important meal of the day”, I often find myself skipping breakfast and making due with a cup or two of coffee in the morning.  I applaud those that make the effort to start their day with a hearty meal instead of doing without, or just wolfing down whatever last night’s dinner leftovers might be lying around.  On weekdays, I just can’t gather the energy to make breakfast, and even on weekends, despite the luxury of more time, its not one of my favorite things to do from a food perspective.

Also, is it just me or is it getting harder and harder to find a local joint that serves up a quality, satisfying breakfast service, AND at a reasonable price?  Just my opinion but I get the sense that too many places are trying to “get with the times” and make this part of the day more “fancy” than is ever needed.  Which in turn, results in one plate breakfasts breaking the ten dollar and over barrier, which is something I can’t fathom.  To me, some eggs, potato hash, bacon/sausage and some toast should (or at least I wish) hover around less than half that.

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Arcade Restaurant – Memphis, TN

Arcade Restaurant
540 South Main Street
Memphis, TN 38103
(901) 526-5757

Food Network. Tourist destination. Foodies declare a “must visit”. It seems every town has one or two of these. Either featured on “Diner’s, Drive-In’s, and Dive’s”, or some other equally “Middle America” kind of show, it is usually an old institution that is still “doing it the old way”, and everyone loves the nostalgia. In Memphis, you have the Peabody Hotel, and you have Arcade Restaurant.

The claim to fame for Arcade Restaurant is that they are the oldest restaurant in Memphis. Located in downtown Memphis, a neighbourhood currently undergoing some “gentrification”, they even claim Elvis as a former regular customer. Considering some of the stories you hear about downtown, Arcade Restaurant resides in a fairly nice part of downtown.

The interior is all old school – I half expected to see Elvis sitting somewhere eating deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches after walking inside. This preserved interior has been the set for many Hollywood films. And they proudly state it. I actually kind of like it. While it doesn’t match my usual preferences for decor, it has character. LOTS of character.

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Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe – Vancouver, BC

Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe
2095 W. 4th Ave
Vancouver, BC
(604) 732 6810

Sophie's Cosmic Cafe on Urbanspoon

It seems to me that over the past several years, especially in food-related media, good old fashioned comfort food has achieved a heightened status as a style of cooking. Perhaps its the back-to-basics movement that has taken root in many aspects of our lives amid all the growing interjections of technology, busy work/life schedules, and the sense that the world is becoming too fast too soon for many of us. With the progression of time through generations though, there are always some things that remain constant, and for a lot of people when it comes to food, it is simple, home cooking that reminds us to enjoy our lives to the fullest and try to be happy in the process.  We all have our personal favorites.

This new found respect for comfort food stretches across cultures. I was re-watching a television documentary that followed the journey that Ryori no Tatsujin (Iron Chef) Masaharu Morimoto took before opening his New York outlet of his restaurant “Morimoto”. In the months ahead of their opening, for his prime investor Stephen Starr, Morimoto presented a sampling of some menu items he was planning to put on the menu. Surprising to me, this test run included a version of Nikujaga (literally translated as Meat-Potato) – a sweet broth flavored dish that combines thin slices of beef with rough cut potatoes and other vegetables, and is a common Japanese home cooked meal that differs from household to household (based on the recipe passed down through a family over generations). Whether this incorporation of home cooking into more formal restaurants translates into an actual trend in other high end/fine dining establishments, remains to be seen. It was interesting to hear Morimoto say that he feels this dish will go over well, given its sweet properties, and the history of dishes such as sukiyaki and teriyaki-flavored creations being popular in North America. Some interviews with day one customers confirmed this impression.

For comfort food in Vancouver, a popular spot in Kitsilano is Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe. Celebrating their 20th year of business in 2008, this business managed by the Dikeakos family is located on busy 4th avenue and is well known even for non-Vancouverites when visiting the west coast. On weekends, lineups out the door are commonplace – though I often wonder just who is in that que: devout neighourhood loyalists, curious tourists, or a mix of both? For those that know me, waiting in line is not something that I enjoy doing, so every opportunity that I’ve had to try this place out and its had a wait, I’ve kept walking/driving by. But this winter holiday season, I managed to pick a late afternoon weekday to swing by and get a seat inside without a great deal of waiting (no lineup outside but standing in the entranceway, it still did take a while to get noticed and given a table – more thoughts on the service later). With an interesting decor, I suppose I kept myself interested by scanning the walls of old school sports pendants, lunch box pails, etc. that were strung up on the walls. I don’t get the “cosmic” naming though, as there was nothing really “space-age” about the decorations.

As it was approaching four in the afternoon, I figured at this hour I wasn’t interested in their breakfast items. My dining companion did however give the Spanish Omelette a try. Filled with classic ingredients such as diced bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, the layers of egg were nice and light, and it came out hot. No complaints from the bites of it that I had, and the side potato hash was well seasoned and crispy, though overall it wasn’t that “OMG, this is amazing!” kind of food that you can get with some diners putting out home cooking. Should I come back, I will surely give the breakfast offerings a more thorough investigation, to see if there is anything that I could come back for, time and time again (which I suspect some customers must do).

My own selection of the house Steak Sandwich was less than comforting. Under-seasoned, tough, and cooked all the way through (though I had asked it not to be done as such when I ordered), it was fairly thin as well, and thus overwhelmed by the three times thicker slices of bread it was served on (one side had been garnished with slices of lettuce, tomatoes and red onions). The side salad which I chose was quite poor – the green leafy vegetables felt like they’d been sitting on the kitchen counter all day as they were really dried out, and the dressing just squirts from some Kraft bottle.

In joints like this, I have this stereotype in my head of really robust, fast, engaging staff who are quick to seat you, take your order, make sure you are refilled with coffee without prompting, and a true sense of wanting to make sure you’ve had a satisfying meal. Our waitress was jovial and fast when asked for items (e.g. extra cream, etc.) although the food coming out of the kitchen was slower than I had hoped. Without a really full room, I wondered what happens when its one of those really busy brunch servings with people out the door. Or perhaps that explains the lineups? I’m also thinking that part of the “popularity” arises from really strong competition in the neighborhood for good solid comfort food. Other than Joe’s Grill up the street, I can’t recall any similar establishments, that could steal away customers. Are people buying the long standing tradition, the unique sounding name, thinking that if there is a lineup that it must be good eats? All of these I’ve tossed in my head, as frankly, I was left with a disappointing experience and was glad that I hadn’t lined up outside for this meal…

[Apologies for the poor picture quality with this post – all images taken with a mobile phone in really bad lighting]

Sophie's Cosmic Cafe on Urbanspoon

Belmont Diner – Calgary, AB

Belmont Diner
1-2008 33 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T2T 1Z4
(403) 242-6782
Open 7am-3pm Daily

Typically, when one thinks greasy spoon, vivid imagery comes to mind. From television to movies, the idea of the greasy spoon is well ingrained in the collective conciousness of your average North American. Endless coffee, wisecracking waitress, long counter with stools, heaping mounds of greasy food, juke boxes, a slice of pie. Sadly, in this day and age, the greasy spoon is mostly a thing of the past. With the exception of a few nostalgic places (Blackfoot Truck Stop, Kane’s Harley Diner), breakfast places have undergone some form of gentrification. They are fancy, and upscale. They hold many of the same values, but they somehow seem “respectable”. In Calgary, places like the Belmont Diner lead this charge.

Now don’t get me wrong – i’m not strictly a traditionalist. There are certain advantages to the new-fangled diner. Food is often of better quality. The place is generally cleaner. There is no risk of finding some half-chewed gum in your hash browns.  And let’s be honest, the Belmont Diner, sister restaurant to the Beltline’s Galaxie Diner, has all of these advantages and then some. Located in Marda Loop, just outside the downtown core, the Belmont Diner attracts many of the areas diverse citizens – and offers all day breakfast, with a few lunch items on the menu for those not jones’ing for eggs, or hash. All day breakfast meaning all the traditional – eggs and bacon, eggs benedict, pancakes, omelettes, and most things in between, all cooked on a giant flattop grill behind the counter.

I go with my breakfast standard – Eggs Benedict. I usually prefer to use this for comparison’s sake because so many things can go wrong. A bad hollandaise, over poached egg, lack of crispy base. At the Belmont Diner, the Eggs Benedict are served with a twist – on a croissant, with either smoked salmon (my choice), or ham. All meals comes with the trademark all-you-can-eat hash browns.

One dining companion goes with a more traditional order – bacon, eggs, toast, with the aforementioned hashbrowns.

Overall, the food is pretty good. The hollandaise is a bit tart for my liking, but has a nice consistency and good flavour. The eggs are well poached. The smoked salmon is decent, and i like the buttery base of the croissant. The hash browns, are crispy, seasoned and good. A second round is in order. Im asked about thirds, but she wasnt smacking her gum loudly enough. I decline.

The bacon is cooked crispy, and enjoyed by all. Im a bit disappointed with the scrambled eggs, which are fluffy, but either had really sad yolks, or were poured out of a carton. They were pretty flat in flavour, and color. Toast is good and well buttered, my only requirement for toast, and i’ve covered the hash browns ad naseum.

Sadly, there isnt really much else to say. The Belmont Diner is clean, fairly tasty, and serves up a decent breakfast. It has a great diner-like atmosphere, but with a gentrified feeling and prices to match their young, affluent clientele. I’d chastise them for high prices (especially for something as simple as breakfast), but that is sadly the norm these days in Calgary. They are not out of line with other restaurants in town. If you’re looking for your own personal Happy Days experience, this isnt the place for you. But if you want a decent all day breakfast, or are craving all you can eat hash browns, then the Belmont Diner is the place for you. Just be warned of the lineup on weekends – it’s almost enough to create a second hangover while you wait!

Belmont Diner on Urbanspoon

Top’s Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Top’s Restaurant
2790 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 437 5610

Word association.  The electrical charges that ignite in one’s brain when a word crosses your lips or an image appears before your eyes, are very intriguing.  For each of us, its different.  Often the result of past experiences, memories, and external influences, many of which that might not have seemed significant at the time.  Much like ghosts, they haunt us.  In the case of food, which relies so heavily on all of our five senses to process, it can be an interesting exercise in examining one’s own psyche.

Take for example, the word pancakes.

What does that conjure up for you?  The warming scent of a buttermilk and flour mixture cooking over a grill?   The sweet taste of a thick drop of maple syrup?  The dreary state of your body as you struggle to wake up on a cold winter Sunday morning?  Or perhaps the sound of your family chattering around a breakfast table?

For me, I associate pancakes with Jason.  Huh?  No, not that white goalie mask wearing psychopath.  Actually, its two Jason’s.  Let me explain.

Growing up, I had a good friend named Jason who I hung around with at his home after school until just before their family dinner on many days.  And every night, his stay-at-home mother would call him from upstairs to inform him that dinner was ready.  So we’d climb up the stairs and he’d see me to the backdoor, passing through the kitchen along the way.  And on many nights, I would glance over at the table that was being set up and see pancakes as the main course.  I found this so odd.  To me, pancakes was something you had for breakfast and certainly not something you would want to eat more than once a week.  But at his house, I can vividly recall that was not the case on many occasions.  I’d ride my bike home, feeling sorry for my friend having to endure another breakfast-like dinner.  A funny ending to this particular anecdote is that as an adult, he ended up becoming a line cook in a restaurant for about ten years.  With him having a disinterested cook for a mother, I found this amused me to no end.

Part II.  Fresh out of school, in my first real job, one of my colleagues was named Jason.  Since the eating quarters of our building were nothing to write home about, and neither of us a big bring-something-from-home-for-lunch person, we’d jump in a car and head out to the surrounding area to have our lunches.  We had a wide array of choices, as we were never afraid to venture farther out and spend more time on our allocated sixty minute break really allowed us, but as two fresh-faced kids out of college, we had no fear, even though our immediate boss was a real dragon lady.  It really was the first time I had a decent amount of cash in my wallet through a full time job, so I think this really was the start of my interest in exploring all there was to eat out in this bold world of ours.  Returning to the narrative, one of this Jason’s favorite choices was a country western-themed joint.  His goal at this place was to eat, you guessed it, the all-day breakfast.  Of course, he would go with the stacks of pancakes here every time.  What is it with Jason’s and their pancakes?

So this past weekend, I’d received word that this second Jason that I knew, had moved recently to where I am currently based most of the time.  I have not seen him in about six years.  We arranged to meet up on a major thoroughfare, to make it easy on him being new to the city.  Driving along, I spotted a big sign that seemed to be for a casual and open 24 hours restaurant.  Immediately, I though diner and all-day breakfast.  Giving him the directions, I waited inside for him, drinking my coffee and reading the day’s newspaper.  Scanning the plastic encased menu booklet at Top’s Restaurant, I knew he’d be happy, seeing all the breakfast items and of course his favorite flapjacks and waffles.

On first glance, Top’s seems to be a popular hangout for locals and/or for those fans of this place who have been coming here for years.  The elderly white haired gentleman who appeared to either be the owner or at least the floor manager, would welcome many people inside and it was clear he knew many of them personally.  It was a fairly big floor space, with comfortable enough looking booths scattered about.  I could see this place being more busy late in the evening and early morning hours, filled with drunken revelers coming back from the downtown bars before heading home to the ‘burbs.  Once my friend arrived, I had already knew what I would try on the menu.  Going right by the pancakes section, I settled on a more hearty egg omelet combination.  There were several standard choices available, but I thought I’d get adventurous and select the corned beef and cheddar cheese omelet.  It came with a good helping of sliced potato hash that was nice and crispy on the outside but still soft on the inside.  Two slices of plain white toast that was buttered completed my plate.

A few bites in and I knew I’d made a bad call with the flavor package in the omelet.  Corned beef I like from time to time in sandwiches, but in egg, its no good.  For some reason, I was picking up some sour hints from the meat, and the cheese as well.  It just didn’t work.  And I could barely finish half of it before resigning myself to just eating all the carbohydrates left on the plate.  The endless refill coffee service was timely and pleasant.  They certainly came around often enough, most times in diners that’s not always the case.  I’d sum up Top’s as just another been-there-seen-that type of greasy spoon.  Perhaps next time I will have the pancakes.  My friend certainly enjoyed them…

Top's Restaurant (24 Hours) on Urbanspoon