East Meets West Festival

After a trip to the City Centre Market (after a few busy weekends and the Fringe, I think I was going through withdrawal), Mack and I walked over to Chinatown to check out the first East Meets West Festival.

We weren’t sure what to expect – the grassroots committee had put together the festival as a means to promote the Chinatown and Little Italy neighbourhoods – but if anything, we were happy that the event seemed to attract locals that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise set foot in the area.

Lion Dance

We arrived just on time for the opening lion dance, and ended up wandering up 97th Street which had been closed to traffic. As Mack noted, the tables were too spread out and sporadic, and there was a definite lack of food vendors (food smells are half the reason outdoor fairs attract crowds). Still, knowing that this is hopefully the first of many such festivals, I’m sure it will be much improved next year.

97th Street

Handmade Felt Cupcakes and Cookies (too cute!)

Zocalo’s Mobile Flower Cart

99 Supermarket’s Outdoor Market

Pretty lanterns outside of Lucky 97 (standing behind my zodiac animal – cheesy, I know)

We didn’t make it all the way down 97th into Little Italy, but we heard there were also festivities to be seen in Giovanni Caboto Park.

In the end, we chowed down on our own version of “east meets west”:

Mack’s jalepeno-cheddar smokie from Fat Franks and my shredded pork sub from Nhon Hoa 2

Mack’s complete photo set is here.

Off the Beaten Path: Oriental Veggie House

I took it upon myself to accompany a visiting consultant for lunch, and having worked with her over several months, thought I knew her well enough to suggest we try a new place within walking distance of the office. As it was one of those gloriously sunny spring days, I thought the brisk walk would do us both good, a refreshing change from the morning long fluorescent-lit meeting.

On Chowhound, the two most frequent responses to the question, “Where can I get good vegetarian/vegan fare?” is Padmanadi and Oriental Veggie House (both lean heavily on soy and taro root products to create a “meat”-like texture). I had been to the former for their monthly buffet, and was curious to see what the latter had in store.

We reached the restaurant just after noon, and found it empty on a Friday. Though that wasn’t a good sign, the friendly proprietor quickly greeted us and led us to a table. The space was larger than I had expected from the outside, and filled with natural light from a bank of windows. Décor was minimal, and though I pointed out to my dining companion that the vinyl tablecloth was in dire need of replacement, our surroundings were pleasant enough.

The menu, printed in an attractive font and bound on thick cardstock, was a pleasant alternative to the large plastic-encased folders typically found at Asian restaurants. Though the combination for two ($28.50 for the specified soup, appetizer, and two entrees) looked interesting, my companion didn’t like the chosen dishes. So instead, we put together our own meal that included a seaweed and tofu soup ($5.95), shredded veggie tofu wrap ($5.95), country style tofu ($8.95) and rice noodles with veggie seafood ($9.50). We opted not to order rice due to the steep $5 charge.

Menu

Over the course of our meal, two other parties joined us, but for a restaurant in the Chinatown area with free parking, it was much too quiet. The upside to this of course, was quick service. We received our first course soon after putting in our order. As we had ordered the small, I was expecting a portion meant for an individual. Instead, we were confronted by a bowl that yielded each of us three servings, brimming with contrasting textures of crunchy seaweed, silky tofu, and pea poppers. The broth was not overpowered by seaweed flavour though, and I found the mildness to be the perfect way to start off the meal.

Seaweed and Tofu Soup

The intriguing tofu wraps were next – I ordered them purely based on the concept, thinking it would be the healthy equivalent of a spring roll. It turns out tough bean curd was used to enfold shredded carrots and bean sprouts, among other vegetables, then pan-fried. The wraps were actually quite greasy, and without the crunch that I was hoping for.

Shredded Veggie Tofu Wraps

The next two dishes came fast and furious, and we struggled to keep up. The country style tofu was reminiscent of a dish that could be ordered at most Chinese eateries serving more traditional fare. Filled with plump cubes of tofu and vegetables, we both wished we had ordered the rice after all – rice would have been the perfect way to soak up the delicious sweetness of the sauce. The rice noodles in our second entree were moist and cooked well, but I wasn’t too fond of the overly chewy “seafood”.

Country Style Tofu

Rice Noodles with Seafood

Our lunch totalled about $40 (with a $3 pot of tea), definitely not inexpensive when compared with other area establishments. The owner did point out their two chest freezers containing products that customers could take home to prepare themselves. For example, a popular item was their faux chicken.

Oriental Veggie House did provide an interesting alternative to the usual Asian cuisine, and is worth a try if you’re looking for something different.

Oriental Veggie House
10586 100 Street NW
(780) 424-0463

Crumb Explosion: Van Loc

I needed a quick lunch stop en route to Lucky 97 for a few groceries, so decided to take the opportunity to visit Van Loc in Chinatown.

My usual banh mi haunt is Nhon Hoa 2 on 97th Street, but after two recent reviews in Vue and the Journal, I was curious to see what Van Loc had to offer, as both pieces noted that the baguettes they used were second to none.

I stopped in just after noon, and it was clear they were in the middle of their lunch rush – customers continuously filtered in for take out orders. The space was definitely larger than either Nhon Hoa or Kim Tuyet, and its predominantly white interior gleamed even brighter with the natural light provided by the bank of windows. I was happy to see there were three tables to allow for eating in, though they probably could use a good scrubbing (the disadvantage of having white furniture).

I looked at the menu briefly, but already knew I wanted my usual variety, the shredded pork banh mi ($3.50). After a brief wait, I received my sandwich in a white paper submarine bag. The sandwich I was given definitely beats their competitors in the size category. The amount of cilantro, pickled carrots and cucumber included also seemed more generous than others I’d received. As for the bread, I actually found it to be the weak link of the sandwich – it had been over-toasted to the point of being too hard, making it a little difficult to eat (and definitely messy; the requisite crumb explosions made me thankful I was eating alone).

Shredded Pork Banh Mi

As the other elements of the sandwich were good, I’d definitely be willing to give Van Loc another try, with perhaps a request to keep the toasting time down to a minimum.

Van Loc
10648 98 Street NW
(780) 413-8887

Not Much of a Reward: Double Greeting Wonton House

After making it through our salsa classes, I figured we deserved a reward of some kind. Logically, we headed to Double Greeting Wonton House.

Exterior

Situated in what Mack referred to as “the ghetto”, the restaurant was just a block away from where our classes were held, so it made sense to make the most of the neighbourhood we were in. The exterior (and the building’s rundown neighbours) weren’t promising, but a few people had told me good things about Double Greeting.

The fluorescent interior was brighter than I had expected to find, and dare I say cleaner as well. Multicolored handwritten signs papered the front counter, while a television tuned to Newsworld maintained the rapt attention of a few older patrons. I liked the wooden fixture that divided the room in half, though Mack couldn’t figure out why.

Yes, they’ve probably never replaced the fabric lining the booths…

We picked a booth near the back of the restaurant and mulled over the menus we were given – the selection was absolutely massive. We both laughed at the front page that read “today’s special”, which, given the laminated nature of the menu, was probably more like “everyday’s special”. That night, I was in the mood for small plates, and decided to choose a few dim sum items to make a meal. Mack said spring rolls were a must ($5.50 for 6), and I added on steamed BBQ pork buns ($3.75 for 2) and pan-fried pork dumplings ($7.50). To round out our dinner, Mack decided he had to try their ginger beef on rice.

The dishes came out at a fairly good pace, and our tea was refilled promptly, so I had no complaints about the service. The quality of the food was another thing, particularly because the prices reflected an amount very similar to other (better situated) Chinese restaurants. The best of the bunch were  the steamed pork buns, and even they weren’t that great – the diced meat wasn’t distinct, and the dough was more crumbly than fluffy. The spring rolls were nothing special, and the dumplings were depressingly tiny (Happy Garden’s dumplings are easily three times that size).

Steamed Pork Buns

Spring Rolls (they always get a thumbs up from Mack)

Pan-fried Pork Dumplings

The ginger beef on rice was the most disappointing of all – overly sticky and artificially sweet, Mack, the supreme lover of ginger beef, couldn’t even finish the plate.

Ginger Beef on Rice (angle inspired by are you gonna eat that)

Based on that visit, I likely wouldn’t return again, particularly when a ten minute walk would yield many more viable eateries in Chinatown proper.

Double Greeting Wonton House
10212 96 Street NW
(780) 424-2486
Sunday-Thursday 10am-12am, Friday-Saturday 10am-1am

Gems are Always Tiny: Boualouang

I had been warned that Boualouang, a Thai and Laos eatery in Chinatown, was tiny, but I wasn’t prepared for a space that likely wasn’t ever meant to be a restaurant. Dickson and I intentionally planned a late meal, and arrived at Boualouang at 1pm in an attempt to avoid the lunch rush, and were lucky enough to snag the last of six tables.

As our table was nudged right up against the door, we were both thankful that it wasn’t –30 outside – as it stands, their heating bill must be astronomical. Of course, having seen evidence of a larger storefront about two blocks down 97th Street, I was assured Boualouang would be relocating soon (perhaps April?), and given the number of parties the waitress had to turn away during our stay, I’m sure the move isn’t soon enough.

Dickson in Boualouang (yes, the restaurant is just three tables deep)

I had heard from others that their curries were a must-try, so decided on the Gaeng-Kiew-Vahn, a green curry and coconut milk with mushrooms, green peppers, sweet basil and chicken ($12.95), and upgraded the steamed rice accompaniment to coconut rice for an additional $1.50. We also had to try our benchmark Thai dish – the pad thai with shrimp ($13.95).

From the pace that the dishes were being delivered to the other tables, we knew we were in for a wait. Given the size of the dining room, we could only guess the size of the kitchen. A half hour after putting in our order, our green curry arrived. It was definitely worth the wait – the heat was balanced perfectly with the tang provided by the kaffir leaves, and the chicken was meltingly tender. Paired with the richness of coconut rice, we would have easily given up the pad thai for a second helping of curry.

Green Curry with Chicken

The pad thai was presented in a nice reflective bowl lined with lettuce and garnished with orange slices. Both of us were surprised at how deep the dish was, but could have done without the slight pool of grease at the bottom of it. I liked the use of a broader noodle than most Thai eateries, and neither of us had anything negative to say about the pad thai as a whole, except that it didn’t wow us like its curry predecessor.

Pad Thai

Though we made it back out through the doors a little later than we had planned, uncovering another gem was well worth it. I will be back to give the rest of the curries a try.

Boualouang
10669 97 Street
(780) 423.4207
Monday – Saturday 11am-9pm

Inexpensive Stopover: Kim Tuyet

I’ve mentioned in the past that an unintended benefit of changing office locations is being able to explore a new culinary neighbourhood. In my current case, that neighbourhood is the nearby Chinatown.

I crossed the street from my usual banh mi place, Nhon Hoa 2 on 97th Street and found myself at Kim Tuyet (10645 97 Street NW), another tiny little Vietnamese sub shop. Unlike Nhon Hoa (and really, more ideal for me, particularly in the winter), Kim Tuyet is equipped with two tables for those wanting to eat in. The glass-topped tables and Ikea-like chairs reminded me of the furnishings at The Dawg Father, though slightly less stable. They did serve their purpose though.

I scrutinized their menu for just a second before deciding on the Beef Sub ($4.25), as they did not have the shredded pork version that I typically order at Nhon Hoa. The friendly lady microwaved a bowl of sliced beef, and layered it, along with pickled carrots, cucumber, and cilantro onto a warmed baguette.

The cucumber unfortunately looked like it had been sitting out for quite some time, but other than that, the sliced sub looked perfectly good to eat. The beef, which had been lovingly slow-roasted, was tender and complemented the fixings quite well. The culmination of flavours – the slightly tangy carrots, savoury beef, and fresh punch of cilantro, was, as usual, satisfyingly tasty.

 

Banh mi with beef

Less than a dollar more than my usual sub at Nhon Hoa, I’d be willing to make the switch, particularly on days when take-out is a less desirable option.

Kim Tuyet
10645 97 Street NW
(780) 990-9600
Monday-Saturday 8:30am-7pm, Sunday 10am-6pm

Mom is Always Right: Nhon Hoa

My officemate was recently asking me about cheap eats in our area. I immediately directed him to the Italian Bakery and Nhon Hoa.

Nhon Hoa (10622 97 Street), with two locations within a stone’s throw of each other, was a frequent stop in my childhood. Not for me (I didn’t learn to appreciate food until I was well into adulthood), but for my Mum, who knew that Vietnamese subs were not only dirt cheap, but darn tasty.

All sandwiches have the same base – toasted French-style baguette, and layers of homemade mayo, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, and (optional) hot peppers. Her favourite variety was (and still is) the combination sub, while I gravitate toward the safer option of shredded, fried pork ($3.25). Freshly put together and wrapped securely in saran wrap, the subs are take-away ready. In my opinion, the fresh cilantro and the homemade sauce are what make the sandwich.

My Banh Mi (menu here)

My only complaint about the Nhon Hoa I patronize is the lack of seating. The counter shares a space with a BBQ meat seller, and every visit, I marvel at the familiarity of the patrons with the shopkeepers – they’re “coffee shop regulars”, but for smoked pork and duck. I would love to hang out and observe the interactions further. And though I’m content to take my food to a nearby park to eat while it’s still warm, this option won’t exist in the winter months.

If you’re looking for a nice lunch that won’t break the bank (and will actually save you enough money so you can pop into the nearby Italian Bakery to pick up something sweet for dessert), head to Nhon Hoa. You won’t be disappointed.

Nhon Hoa 2
10622 97 Street
(780) 425-3257
Daily 10am-7pm, closed Tuesdays

Chinatown: Bakery Favourites

Aside from supermarket treats, another stalwart Chinatown tradition from my youth were trips to Chinese bakeries. For just a few dollars, a box of sweet or savoury pastries could be mixed and matched to your heart’s content.

They have fruit cakes too!

While the giant T & T Supermarket (#2580, 8882 170 Street) in West Edmonton Mall makes it convenient by individually wrapping buns, I have to admit my favourite bakery in the city is Garden Bakery (10019 106 Avenue) because of their self-serve set-up. With a tray in one hand and a pair of small tongs in the other, there’s nothing like having to fight the urge to stack just one more filled pastry on top of your already bursting portion.

A few of my family’s picks:

Chopstick Doughnuts, deep fried until they’re crispy on the outside but still soft and chewy on the inside, are great served with congee.

Mini Pork Dumplings, also deep fried, are best eaten on the same day they’re purchased. Felicia’s favourite, they’re also a popular item served at dim sum.

 

Sesame Red Bean Balls are death, if not only because I can never seem to stop after eating one. The creamy, sweet red bean paste in the centre is complimented by the savoury crispness of the exterior.

Amanda’s favourite Swiss Rolls are individually packaged to preserve the fresh sponge cake separating layers of light cream. The cake is also sold in larger rolls.

Mini Cocktail Buns are my Dad’s favourite because of their smooth coconut filling.

Mini Cream Buns, filled with a rich, illustrious pastry cream then dusted with coconut, are always a showstopper.

Steamed BBQ Pork Buns, shown here in a cooler and ready to be heated, are a dim sum favourite of mine. But should you not have time to sit down for a meal, are available at the bakery to grab-and-go.

 

Last but certainly not least – Egg Tarts. The creamy custard is worth a trip to the bakery alone.

Given that my office is just a few minutes away from the bakery, it’ll be too tempting not to just pop in now and then for an immediately satisfying treat.

Go Elsewhere for Pho: Thanh Thanh Oriental Noodle House

Having learned from experience not to attempt to have lunch at Thanh Thanh Oriental Noodle House (10718 101 Street) during their peak midday hour, I met Dickson there at 1pm on a weekday. We hit the tail end of the rush, and were seated fairly quickly as the crowd started to disperse.

Making good on an earlier promise to try our their pho menu, I headed straight for that page and picked out the Soup Lover’s Delight with medium-rare beef ($7.45), while Dickson opted for the Northern Vietnamese Soup ($7.95) with thin slices of chicken, well done and medium rare beef.

As it was still fairly busy, I was surprised that our dishes arrived as fast as they did. We were both sad to see that the large-bowl standard of Pagolac and Hoang Long hadn’t rubbed off on Thanh Thanh’s serving size though. I found the broth oily with no depth of flavour, while Dickson commented that the pho in general wasn’t that hot. As well, the meat was sliced too thick for my liking, and really, by the time the bowl had been brought to the table, could have been considered well done.

As their other dishes aren’t bad, Thanh Thanh isn’t a complete write-off – just go elsewhere for pho.

Soup Lover’s Delight with Medium-Rare Beef

Northern Vietnamese Soup

Chinatown: Treats from my Childhood

Besides easy access to reliably inexpensive eats, my newfound proximity to Chinatown also allows me to relive my childhood. Through food, that is.

While the growing diversity of Edmonton’s population means ethnic products are readily available at some major supermarkets, nothing beats the selection and one-stop-shopping convenience at an Asian grocer.

I ended up at 99 Supermarket (10768 99 Street) on a random weekday recently, and was amazed with all of the treats I stumbled upon that I used to consume voraciously as a child.

I always find such colorful displays missing from Western supermarkets

The incredibly tempting cookie aisle – death for dieters to visit

I once handed out Pocky, thin chocolate (or strawberry, or vanilla, or…)-coated cookie sticks to my coworkers one Christmas. Though most of them hadn’t heard of Pocky before, I think the friendly packages are capable of bringing a smile to anyone’s face!

 

Nearly everyone in my elementary school class had one (or two) of these savoury cookie packages in their lunch kits every day. Satisfyingly salty, crunchy, and light, they’re like a Chinese equivalent to a rice cake. Asian producers definitely had the pre-sized snacks down pat ages ago.

 

Death to those with a peanut allergy, these caramel-coated pieces are a sweet, filling alternative to the more prolific sesame cookies. Made with peanuts, they also taste more substantial.

And who could forget the chip selection?

 

Our receptionist once stashed a family-sized bag of these shrimp crackers at her desk. Needless to say, they were gone within the day.

 

More oily and less crunchy than shrimp crackers, cuttlefish snacks just magically melt on your tongue. You’ll just have to try it and see for yourself.

Of course, relatively healthy snacks exist at the supermarket as well. One example are the packages of preserved mandarin peel. My sisters used to love to chew on these tangy bits of fruit – a bag can be head for just 69 cents!

Preserved Mandarin peel

Lastly, in the drinks aisle, I came across Milk Tea. Separated into individual, one-glass servings, the dry mix contains coffee, sugar, and milk powder. Iced, the sweet drink is perfect to be sipped out on a patio on a warm summer evening.

Milk Tea

Now that I know what is available just a few minutes away, it will be awfully difficult not to simply run over to one of the supermarkets every time I have a craving for a treat from my childhood.