From the Sea to the Streets: La Mar Food Truck

It’s daunting to open a new business at any time, but to do so during an economic downturn is even more difficult. So it’s been heartening to see local restaurants supporting budding businesses who need a leg up to get going or to test out ideas. Recent examples including Dovetail Deli (RIP) hosting pop-ups for Northern Chicken and Honest Dumplings. Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen opened up their doors this weekend to La Mar, a forthcoming food truck hoping to hit the streets this month.

La Mar is the brainchild of Larissa Martinez and Chef Victor Hugo. Offering up the flavours of Mexico, this seafood-forward truck has developed a menu that differentiates itself from other local vendors. Mack and I were invited to a menu tasting at Alberta Hotel on Sunday to taste what La Mar has to offer.

La Mar Food Truck Pop-Up

Larissa and Victor of La Mar

The historic bar inside the Alberta Hotel wasn’t perhaps the most congruent space for a tasting of Mexican street food, but we didn’t come for the surroundings. We were told that no item on the menu would be more than $7, which is a competitive price point to start with, especially if the actual serving portions match the size of the dishes we were provided that day.

The Vallarta shrimp tostada layered creamy avocado, tomatoes, shrimp, chilies, and their house “chimichile” sauce over a crispy tortilla. The fried base was balanced by the freshness of the shrimp, tomatoes and citrus. Our only complaint was that it would be very difficult to eat as a take-out item, and would fare better as a street eat if converted to a dish comprised of dips and chips.

La Mar Food Truck Pop-Up

Vallarta shrimp tostada

The chicken Itza taco was easily our favourite plate. The shredded chicken retained its moisture and absorbed the flavours of the marinade. Unadorned with the exception of pickled onions, it allowed the chicken to remain the star of the show – but really, if allowed, I would have eaten the chicken up with a spoon.

La Mar Food Truck Pop-Up

Chicken Itza taco

Our third and final taste featured the fish taco. The battered and fried fish was topped with tomatoes, cabbage, and their house “chimichile” sauce. The textures spoke for themselves, crisp and light.

La Mar Food Truck Pop-Up

Fish tacos

Chef Hugo was in his element, hamming it up for the camera between the kitchen and the dining room. It’s clear he’s passionate about his food, and I can’t help but think the food truck will be the perfect stage for someone with his energy and enthusiasm.

La Mar Food Truck Pop-Up

Chef Hugo

There are still a few hurdles for La Mar to clear before they can officially join the fleet of food trucks in Edmonton, but I look forward to the day when La Mar is out on the street! If you’re hoping for an early taste of La Mar, Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen is hosting a Cinco de Mayo and patio launch party on May 5, 2016 which will feature Chef Hugo’s menu.

Thanks again to Larissa and Victor for the invitation and hospitality!

Follow La Mar on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updates.

New and Old for Downtown Dining Week: Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen and Hardware Grill

It’s really too bad Edmonton’s only prix fixe dining festival (RIP Fork Fest) isn’t city-wide like Calgary’s Big Taste, or twice a year, like Toronto’s Summer and Winterlicious. But Downtown Dining Week, now in its thirteenth year, has provided a consistent opportunity for Edmontonians to sample the cuisine of the core.

I’m not sure if it is the current state of the economy, or whether people were just taking advantage of the promotion, but this year’s Downtown Dining Week seemed busier than previous festivals. After perusing the menus, I made two reservations: one at a fairly new addition to the neighbourhood, and a second at a tried-and-true establishment.

I was one among many who mourned the loss of Tavern 1903 at the end of 2014. Mack and I found ourselves there often, swayed by their combination of fantastic cocktails and inventive small plates. Thankfully, the vacated space in the historic Alberta Hotel did not stay empty for long – Chef Spencer Thompson (formerly of Toast Fine Catering, based at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market) moved in less than a year later, when Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen opened. I hadn’t yet had a chance to visit the restaurant, and there was no better opportunity than Downtown Dining Week to do so, all while catching up with some girlfriends.

The interior of Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen (an unfortunate mouthful of a name) hasn’t changed much from its predecessor, retaining the vintage bar and polished dining room, right down to the furnishings. The only difference that we could discern was a more cramped seating area – our table and the party next to us were wedged uncomfortably in the corner. And though it’s difficult to manage sound, given the open flow between the two rooms, the 80s pop music emanating from the bar seemed more suitable for a diner than a dining room laden with white table cloths.

No doubt, the $28 three course menu was a great deal. It seemed many others found it an equally big draw, as our server indicated that on the Monday of the same week, they served 300 patrons, tripling their usual covers that night. It was so successful that they decided to continue the fixed $28 three course offerings every Monday even after the close of Downtown Dining Week.

Even though we had the choice between two appetizers and two mains, all three of us ended up with identical meals. The bone marrow agnolotti was tasty, layered with brown butter and mushrooms, but I would have preferred the pasta to have been cooked a touch more.

Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen

Bone marrow agnolotti

The grilled swordfish main, served with a caper, red currant and pine nut beurre blanc was overdone, but the standout aspect of the dish was the creamy side of Gold Forest Grains farro.

Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen

Grilled swordfish with farro

The dessert, a chocolate fondant with warm caramel and graham cracker streusel was a bit inconsistent at the table. I found mine on the molten side, but the banana ice cream served alongside more than made up for it with its intense, concentrated flavour. When the pastry chef Kai Wong moves to her own bakery, I hope the ice cream will be on the menu in some form.

Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

Chocolate fondant with banana ice cream

While our meal at Alberta Hotel was somewhat inconsistent, we did enjoy the overall experience. Our server was friendly and attentive, and the dishes were enticing enough to warrant future visits.

My second Downtown Dining Week reservation had to be at the Hardware Grill. Some of those dishes and drinks we loved at Tavern 1903 migrated to its established sibling, and it was about time for us to reacquaint ourselves with them.

One of my long lost loves was the Desert Shrub cocktail, a delicious combination of prosecco, grapefruit juice and tequila.

Hardware Grill

It’s been too long

Though the city’s love affair with cauliflower seems to have ended, the Korean fried cauliflower dish is classic, and perfectly made every time.

Hardware Grill

Korean fried cauliflower

Those drinks and dishes were in addition to the $48 three-course prix fixe menu, so the upsell worked on us. Hardware has had an ongoing $50 three-course promotion, called a "before sunset" menu for some time, but it has since expanded it from early seatings on Mondays to Thursdays to include all seatings on Mondays to Thursdays plus early seatings on Friday and Saturday. One has to assume the restaurant’s reputation as a special occasion restaurant has to hurt it more than others in an economy like this.

But like the consistency of the kitchen, Hardware Grill always delivers on service. We’re always impressed by the professional but easygoing nature of the servers – they always manage to ease the formality of the restaurant with humour and grace, and are easily the best team in the city.

We had far exceeded our 1.5 hour stay (as mentioned on the Downtown Dining Week menu), but we were never rushed. We felt bad, however, when leaving and realizing that there were a number of parties waiting for a table in the lobby.

While I will still hold out hope for a resurrection of Tavern 1903 in some form or another in the future, it’s nice to know that I can still satisfy my cravings at Hardware Grill.