Pho Xuan – Calgary, AB


Pho Xuan
128-920 36 Street NE
Calgary, AB T2A 6L8
(403) 204-1299

Differences of opinion are healthy. After all, no two people will always agree on the same things. Especially when it comes to taste, we really have no idea if what im tasting is the same thing as what you’re tasting. Maybe a bit too theoretical, but for me, it brings up an interesting point. How important are other people’s opinions when it comes to choosing which restaurants you wish to visit? If we assume that no two people taste things the same, then every visit to a restaurant is an independent trial/statistical event (in the sense that each time two different people go to a restaurant, it’s a new trial), and much like gambling and gamblers fallacy, it could be reasoned that it is only a coincidence that two people have similar interests in restaurants.

I’m obviously digressing, but what brought me to this point is a distinct lack of sleep, and one puzzling issue. I occasionally find a restaurant that is well regarded by a significant percentage of people whose opinions are typically similar to mine, that I just don’t like. I don’t understand why, and it bothers me. Am i missing out on something? One of these restaurants for me is Pho Xuan.

Pho Xuan is located in the heart NE Calgary, where there is definitely a bevy of good ethnic restaurants. While not as richly saturated as Chinatown nor Forest Lawn, the NE has a fair selection of Vietnamese restaurants, including a very decent satay soup at Pho Que Hoang. When critics of Pho Que Hoang started pushing Pho Xuan, I had to give it a try.

In a strip mall across the street from the former Franklin Mall (T&T), Pho Xuan is one of those places that is easy to overlook. Very unassuming from the outside, i found it hard to spot within the diversity of stores in the strip mall, including Roti Hut and LaCay Banh Mi shop. After hearing many people, including two very pho-picky friends of mine rave about it, I had to give it a try. Or several tries, based on how often i eat Pho.

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The decor at Pho Xuan is nothing to speak of, which, in my experience, usually ends up being a good thing. I can’t think of a single good Vietnamese restaurant with a fancy, well-appointed interior. It is clean, usually very busy, with a very straightforward,simple menu that is familiar to the North American diner now. Pho, Pho Sate, Bun of some sort, salad rolls, spring rolls, shakes and smoothies. While someday i’d like to see other kinds of Vietnamese cuisine make more headway, it’s still enough diversity for me on most days.

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I’ve tried the Pho Sate on a couple of occasions – and I have to say it’s pretty bad. It’s their regular Pho with some chili oil, and sa-cha type bbq sauce added. Thin, limp, without depth, it is a not the type of Pho Sate i like. However, I was told that it’s their broth for Pho Tai that is key here. So several more visits were warranted.

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While the ingredients are definitely quite fresh, Pho is about the broth, and it wasn’t really up to my standard. First off, i find it excessively oily – something i don’t usually notice, so it’s quite the exception when i do. I understand it is supposed to be oily, but i found it excessively so. Secondly, there is too much sodium, msg, or both – it’s hard to actually discern which the offending party is. The end result is the same of course, it is excessively salty. Not a lot of rich beef flavour, and not a lot of the secondary flavours that really make a broth stand out – the sweetness of charred onion and ginger, the anise and cloves lurking under the surface. Even though everyone I know loves this broth, I don’t.

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On the other hand, their Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, Vermicelli with grilled pork and spring rolls is excellent. The greasiness of their preparation translates better with the crisp, fresh vegetables, and the firm chewiness of the rice vermicelli. Well seasoned pork and a generous slop of nam pla results in a wonderful spicy-sweet-sour balance. An excellent bowl of Bun.

I’m still a bit perplexed that I don’t like the soup nearly as much as everyone else does. I keep going back hoping it’ll be different, as in the real world, you can’t really measure a restaurant experience with statistical analysis – there are just too many variables involved in the entire experience. However, until the day i finally reach an epiphany, i’ll have to keep saying, I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about with Pho Xuan. The Pho just isnt that good. Maybe Bun Xuan would be a better name! If you try it (and bring cash, as it’s a cash only establishment) and find that it suits your tastes, don’t tell me. I don’t think i need to know yet another person who likes it when im just not getting it.

Pho Xuan on Urbanspoon

The Regency Palace – Calgary, AB


Regency Palace Restaurant
328 Centre St SE
Calgary, AB T2G 4X6
(403) 777-2288

Buffet. Hot pot. Dim Sum. Banquets. Most  Chinese restaurants leave no potential profit unturned, and yet somehow, even in their bid to be all things to all people, they usually manage to turn out some pretty decent food. To me, very few chefs can rival the versatility of a Chinese restaurant chef. The sheer scope of the menu they must know inside and out,  the sheer numbers that Chinese banquet facilities are expected to service quickly, and the renown pickiness of Asian diners makes for a very high pressure situation. One where when restaurants fall, they can really collapse badly.

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The Regency Palace is one of the premier banquet facilities in Calgary. Able to accommodate up to 700 people, it is often used for Chinese weddings and other celebrations. Most of the time i’ve been to the Regency has been for such events. And the food is usually quite good.

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On a recent week night, some friends and I decided to partake in their hot pot deal/meal. For $24.95, you get all you can eat (AYCE) hotpot, and buffet. When i arrive at 7:30pm, i wasnt quite prepared for what I saw. A completely empty restaurant, with the exception of one two top, and our own table. It was completely desolate.

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Now i’ve been here before on a weeknight, and while it is never extremely busy, usually there are a decent selection of people. The food we’ve ordered off the menu has been ok, but no where near the quality of their banquet food. I’m not sure if the lesser chefs work on the quiet weeknights, but it’s never as good. This weeknight, with everyone getting the all you can eat hotpot and buffet, we don’t get a chance to order off the menu.

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Hotpot ingredients are taken from a self-service bar. The hotpot “bar” has an extremely wide selection of food, of varying qualities. On the positive side, they put out fairly low quantities and refresh fairly often. Popular items are turned over fairly quickly, resulting in some fairly fresh ingredients. On the downside, due to the vast selection of ingredients, many are left sitting on ice for hours on end. In a quieter location, i generally prefer the Gold Wonton method – they bring out whatever is ordered, rather than self service. With a large selection of ingredients, and sauces, they definitely have a very comprehensive list of ingredients available.

Unfortunately, the Regency Palace has only one kind of broth, which is fairly mediocre. Not a lot of flavour, but it doesnt detract from the ingredients either.  Service is very attentive, though the staff to customer ratio was a bit ridiculous.

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The cooked food bar is something completely different. Something straight out of University memories of Foody Goofy and 7.95 AYCE buffet, the food is poor, much of it deep fried and breaded, and while the selection is vast, the food is barely edible. I choked down a few dishes, hoping without hope that I would not be charged a “waste” charge on my plate for all the uneaten food. Thankfully, I was not.

Overall, for $24.95, even with the extensive variety, this is not a good deal by any stretch of the imagination. The food quality is fairly poor, and the buffet would fit the “avoid at all costs” category for me. It’s unfortunate, as they really do do a decent job of serving banquet food. However, if you’ve been to a wedding at the Regency Palace, and were thinking of trying it out for dinner – don’t. You’re better off trying somewhere else. Neither the menu, nor the hotpot deal are really all that worthwhile.

Regency Palace on Urbanspoon

Brewsters Brewing Company – Beltline – Calgary, AB (chain)


Brewster Brewing Company and Restaurant (Beltline location)
834 11 Avenue S.W.
Calgary, Alberta T2R 0E5
(403) 265-BREW (2739)

Many years ago, I was fascinated with the idea of starting a brew pub. I was sick and tired of sub-standard beer, and the same boring choices. I wanted beer brewed in small lots, with seasonal diversity, in many different styles. Rather than do my market research, I let enthusiasm take hold of me and I immediately started looking for a brewer. Through one of my contacts, I was put in touch with a top notch Canadian brewer. When i presented him with my idea, he says to me “oh, you want to build a Brewsters?”

Brewsters is a chain of Brew Pubs located in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Each location brews their own beer, and typically has a tremendous amount of diversity on hand at any given time. From Pilsners, to Barley Wine, to stouts, ales, and lagers, to seasonal beers, their skilled brew masters meticulously craft small lots frequently- making sure that their beers are fresh, and tasty.

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The concept behind Brewsters is pretty simple. Pub/Bistro type fare, microbrewed beer, televisions for sports, comfortable seats and VLT’s. A place for everyone – I often go here to meet friends that come from very diverse food and beverage backgrounds – it isn’t anyone’s favorite, but no one objects either. The food itself is reasonable – more of a crossover between Earl’s and a pub. It is, however, nothing to write home about, but with prices fairly reasonable (entrees from 11-30, mostly in the 12-16 range) and some decent, even healthy alternatives available, the diverse selection makes it a reasonable choice for something to eat when you’re craving a tall schooner of beer, and there’s a group of you that can’t decide on where you want to eat. The menu is one of those eclectic mixes of something for everyone.

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The beer itself is quite good. I find they don’t quite have the same body and depth that other brewpubs seem to have (like Wild Rose, or Wildwood) – everything tastes a bit sterile, like it’s been brewed for the lowest common denominator. However, it is very consistent from one brewery to the next, and they do have a great selection of styles. I’m fairly partial to the Bow Valley Brown ale, Czech Pilsner, and the Heffeweizen.

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Overall, the concept is pretty sound, and based on their 11 locations (and growing), they are obviously striking the right chord with the Alberta and Saskatchewan markets. Good beer, decent food, tv’s may not seem like a unique concept, but when trying to find a place that will appeal to everyone that consistently serves a decent pint and reasonable food, there arent a lot of other choices. Brewsters fits the bill.

Brewsters Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

Pho So 1 – Calgary, AB


Pho So 1
1609 Centre Street NW
Calgary, AB T2E 2S2
(403) 230-7472

Restaurant names are funny things. I’ve always wondered what goes through an owner’s mind when naming a restaurant. Are they trying to be catchy? Unique? Informative? Self-aggrandizing? Descriptive? I’m sure it’s probably a mix, depending on the restaurant. But i find them to be an interesting study. Think of some of your favorite restaurants – do you know why they named their restaurant what they did?

Pho So 1 has always boggled me, as to me, the “1” implies that there is a Pho So 2 somewhere.  But there isn’t. Maybe there were grand plans for expansion that never materialized. Or maybe they meant Pho So #1..the more recently added tag line “#1 vietnamese beef noodle house” seems to imply this. Regardless, at the end of the day, they could call it “raw cow palace” and i’d go, assuming it was tasty.

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Pho So 1 was the first Vietnamese restaurant i went to when i first moved to Calgary. Consequently, it’s tough to measure it’s place in the pantheon of Vietnamese restaurants in Calgary, because i have a tremendous soft spot for the food. However, i will try and objectively present, and distill, hundreds of visits into a fair review.

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My favorite dish, that keeps me coming back to Pho So 1 is the Cha Gio (Fried Spring Rolls). Supremely crispy, the filling is a wonderful balance of pork and shrimp. A judicious use of tree ear, mushroom, and garlic leaves a very pleasant aftertaste yet doesn’t leave one with any one overpowering flavour. I’ve honestly looked for better Cha Gio, but have yet to find any in Calgary that i like more (though Pho Dau Bo is excellent too).

The Pho itself is decent, and I do occassionally indulge in Pho Tai, but my biggest issue is their broth. Too much MSG, making it a bit salty. It’s also not as rich, and balanced as other broths i’ve had. It’s passable, but nothing to excite the senses.

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One of their special dishes though, the infrequently seen Bun Cari, used to be one of my favorites, and the first place i went in town for curry soup. Pho Anh Huyen down Centre Street has one too, but on their good days, Pho So 1 does a much better job. A blend of turkey, chicken, and potato, the curry is typically rich, flavourful, and full of thick noodles and a great blend of sweet and heat. However, lately, they’ve been quite inconsistent with this dish. On the day the photo was taken, it was extremely oily, and most of the veg had been overcooked. It was 20 minutes before closing, but i’d expect them to suggest a different dish if it wasnt still up to par.

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My final favorite is the Bun Bo Hue, the special beef noodle soup. This is a adaptation (or, as some Vietnamese friends have said to me, a bastardization) of the popular Central Vietnamese dish that typically features a rich broth made with beef, and pork knuckle, and featuring a lemongrass flavour. The broth does have pork hock in it, making for a richer broth, but has been spiced up tremendously, masking any (if at all) lemongrass flavour. It’s more satay meets rich broth than anything else. But i enjoy the break from Pho with thicker noodles, the richer broth, and a bit of kick. It’s still pretty good stuff.

At the end of the day, Pho So 1 doesn’t manage to standout from their peers. I’d skip the satay, definitely order the spring rolls, and order the Bun Cari and hope for the best it’s a good day. The Bun Bo Hue (23c i believe) is a good alternative as well. I can’t promise that you’ll like it as much as i do, but I do encourage you to give it a try, instead of your regular Pho place. Even if it doesn’t end up as good as your special spot, at least you’ll learn a bit more about your tastes, what you like and don’t like, and more importantly, why you like what you do. And if you ever find who what the “1” stands for, definitely let me know. It’s been bugging me for 8 years!

Pho So 1 on Urbanspoon

Misai Japanese Restaurant – Calgary, AB


Misai Japanese Restaurant
7-1915 32 Avenue NE
Calgary, AB T2E 7C8
(403) 250-1688

Choices – so many choices. In today’s society, we are accustomed to what some might consider an excessive amount of choice. While having more choices is usually better, in the restaurant industry, too much choices can be a very bad thing. A menu with too many choices usually means too much stock, not enough turnover, leading to lower quality. Too many choices generally mean that less care and attention are paid to each individual dish, also resulting in lower overall quality, and more inconsistency. Does it automatically mean the food will be bad? No. But i find it tough to believe a restaurant can perform to their full potential with a wide and extensive menu, unless the menu has been very very carefully planned.

Misai Japanese Restaurant is one of the few choices available in the NE for Japanese food. Located in a small strip mall of a busy commuter avenue, they’ve been around for quite some time – definitely one of the earlier “new entrants” to the Japanese restaurant community. Not a venerable institution like Sushi Hiro, but it has been around for almost a decade. It was, for the longest time, the favorite restaurant of my former room-mate and myself – we’d make the trek once to twice a week, and order the same thing every time. This was back when we had less choice.

The hallmark of the Misai menu is choice. Not only do they serve sushi, sashimi, and the general cooked standby’s – tempura, udon, soba, teriyaki, but they were the first in Calgary to carry a heavy Izakaya-influenced menu – Hamachi cheeks, grilled saba head, Grilled Ika, and a variety of other small plates and dishes. The result is the biggest menu at a Japanese restaurant i’ve ever seen. 8-10 very large pages filled with an infinite variety of dishes.

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This, unfortunately, is also their biggest drawback. From raw fish, to complex raw lobster meals, to a dizzying array of cooked dishes, the quality of the food generally suffers. There are several gems on the menu though.

My favorite dish at Misai is the Salmon Sashimi. Large (usually too large) pieces of firm, tasty salmon. This used to be the most amazing value on the menu, but even with recent price hikes (not exact on the price, but it is now roughly $1.80 a piece), it is still excellent value. The quality of the salmon can vary from day to day, but in general, is very good.

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Their bento boxes are also pretty reasonable. A selection of Nigiri, sashimi, tempura, rice, miso, salad, and tsukemono make for a large amount of variety at a reasonable price. The rice for the nigiri is pretty mediocre, but the tempura is often reasonable – not overbattered like many other establishments in town. Salad is lightly dressed, fish is reasonably fresh, the overall verdict on the bento is pretty good.

Out of their other dishes, I would definitely skip the lobster feast. Their grilled squid, and other grilled fish parts are usually frozen, which results in a noticeable decrease in quality, particularly in texture. Freezing fish cheeks and other delicate pieces that lack the fat and structure to stand up to freezing has it’s impact. They aren’t bad, but you can definitely get better.

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With the influx of Japanese restaurants into Calgary over the past 5 or 6 years, we now have an unprecedented amount of choice. Misai Japanese Restaurant, which used to be one of the best Japanese restaurants in town, is now just one of many acceptable places that are reasonable to eat at, but nothing very exciting. I would not measure them on par with Wa’s, Blowfish, or Zipang, but for NE Calgary, which has few choices to begin with, they are definitely the best of the lot. I really wish they would concentrate on just trying to do fewer things more consistently and better, but if you go, choose your dishes wisely – it’ll likely be the difference between an average meal, and a good one.

Misai Japanese on Urbanspoon

Oodle Noodle Wok Box – Edmonton, AB


Oodle Noodle Wok Box
10803 – 82nd Avenue
Edmonton, AB
(780) 988-7808

The wok. An Asian cooking utensil typically used for stir frying at high temperatures. The heat and the technique are the keys for making a great stir fry. When done well, you get a crisp, flavourful, non-greasy blend of meat, vegetables, and starch. When done poorly, the end result is an oily, slightly charred, coagulated mess of food. As simple as stir fries look to be, properly using a wok isnt that simple.

Oodle Noodle Wok Box, not to be confused with the local Edmonton chain “Wok Box”, is a small eatery that focuses primarily on wok-fried takeout. Broken down, the name actually makes a lot of sense. They provide a lot of noodle dishes (“oodles of noodles”), cooked in a “wok”, served in one of the classic chinese takeout containers- a “box” – first brought to the Canadian conciousness in movies and television shows set in New York.

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A former Mr Sub located on Whyte Avenue, Oodle Noodle Wok Box first opened shop in 2005, the first of the wok-fried stir fry locations to open up in Edmonton. Wok and Roll, Wok Box, and assorted other places opened soon afterwards. The location is nothing fancy – retaining a lot of the old fixtures from it’s previous incarnation. However, the counter does provide a good view of the kitchen – several employees dancing, singing, and stir frying in intense heat. Their enthusiasm is kind of catchy.

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The selection of foods is pretty diverse – much like a culinary tour around Asia. From Japan, Mongolia, and China, to the flavours of SE Asia (Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia) and even including India, they provide simple wok dishes of chicken, beef, and shrimp, stir fried with differnt noodles, different veggies, and different sauces. A very basic concept, but by allowing you to switch certain choices, providing you with infinite variety.

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The best part of the Oodle Noodle Experience? The price. $6.99 for chicken and beef. $7.99 for shrimp. They provide you with a very large serving of steaming hot food. The veggies are generally very fresh, and crisp. In general, each dish has some wonderful balance. Good acidity, spice, and sweetness. Nice texture contrasts of crisp and soft. The biggest issue is the whole dish is usually a bit oily, the result of inexperienced wok technique, and sometimes the sauce can be a bit overwhelming. Good flavour, but too much sauce leaves you with nothing but that taste in your mouth. Of all the dishes available, my favorite dish is the Jungle Curry Cambogee. I order this two times out of three.

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Ok, so the boxes are cute. And the dancing is catchy. And the food is pretty good. That pretty much covers it all. Great value – definitely the best food, and value, of all the wok places in town. And with some great opening hours (open till 10pm weekdays, 11pm Fri-Sat), they are pretty much available whenever i have a craving for some hot, filling, satisfying food at one of the best prices left in town. Kind of makes me want to dance the next time im in line – and that’s something no one needs to see!

Oodle Noodle Wok Box on Urbanspoon

Sobaten Japanese Noodle House – Calgary, AB


[CLOSED NOW SINCE THIS POST WAS INITIALLY PUBLISHED]

Sobaten Japanese Noodle House
550 11 Ave SW
Calgary, AB
Tel: (403) 265 2664

I’m sure most of you have experienced an unexpected change in lunch plans that necessitated a sudden shift to an unknown location.  On this day, it was more of a disappointment given that I was looking forward to the original spot, but alas we can’t always get what we want.  Sobaten filled in during this pinch, and with less than an hour to go before I needed to head out of town, it sufficed in terms of geographic ease of access and we had already parked the car.

I’m fairly opened minded when it comes to a new eating location.  Though first impressions can certainly set things in motion, as it took a while before any wait staff could spot us waiting at the entrance.  There was a lunch buffet on, and some people were bustling around the feeding station that further added to the confusion and tested my patience.  Eventually we were seated in the more empty side of the restaurant, after we informed the (friendly) server that we would be ordering off the menu.  At the table, there was another sign that things were not going to go well.  Call me a stickler, and I know some people say the same thing about washroom facilities at restaurants, but I expect tables to be clean and anything on them to be fully presentable to customers, and use this as a guide to how the food will be.  In this case what caught my ire was the messy and unfilled bottle of soy sauce.  It had formed some crusty layer on the outside of the bottle and obviously had not been rinsed out prior to any re-fill since it was first used in this place.

To start our meal and to get a barometer reading of how the food is here, a starter plate of a few pieces of nigiri were ordered.  In Canada, as generic as it may sound, shake (salmon) is probably your safest bet in terms of quality.  Unfortunately, the slices that we received here were pretty dismal.  Obviously cut from a poor section that could have used the benefit of a sharper knife and a more skilled hand holding it, the rough jagged edges showed that the “chef” could use some tutelage in proper knife techniques.  Throw in some misplaced sesame seeds that were sticking to the surface and a weakly shaped nigiri, it just added up to a sad combination.  My hotate (scallop) was only slightly better, although it was still a little frozen in the middle and needed more de-thawing.  Most importantly for both, the sushi rice was not very tasty at all, too mushy and sweeter than would be normally acceptable.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I have this belief that if a place claims to specialize in something, they had better do a really good job with it.  In this case, it was soba.  The Tenzaru set was ordered in a half portion, but when it was brought to the table, it sure did look to be a good enough quantity for a full order.  The soba was horrible – undercooked and had not been properly rinsed resulting in a sticky mess of noodles.  Some finely chopped green onions were provided to add to the sobatsuyu, but was missing the daikon oroshi.

The accompanying tempura was no improvement either in terms of quality or taste.  Cooked in too hot an oil bath (a common problem), in oil that appears to either be in need of a change and/or had been used to cook tonkatsu (Foodosopher picked up the pork scent on the tempura), it was a poor performance by the kitchen.  I had my suspicions that they were cooking these en masse for the buffet perhaps and sitting under a heat lamp, but did not visually check out that counter as after my meal I simply wanted to get the heck out of Dodge.

What surprises me most about places like this, is that customers seem to like it and come back – probably the buffet has something to do with it.  When it comes to some cuisine, in particular Japanese, I would never fathom that a buffet offering of it would be of any respectable quality, as this food is simply not cut out for long periods of sitting in water baths/under direct heat lights to keep it warm or in non-cool/refrigerated environments in the case of sushi.  As Foodosopher and I departed for my journey out of Calgary, we both shook our heads at the travesty we just endured and tried to rationalize how this kind of food can be deemed acceptable by some people.  Either they have no taste buds or just don’t know better.  As we drove to the airport so that I could put as much distance between me and this pathetic last meal in Calgary, I began to think it was a combination of both, as sad as that is.

Sobaten Japanese Noodle House on Urbanspoon