Exploring our Backyard: Highway 2 Detours

Mack and I usually end up popping down to Calgary at least a few times a year for a mini-break. Back in August, we did so, but made sure to plan some more unique stops on the way down and back up to Edmonton.

Southbound, we visited Eagle Creek Farms in Bowden, which claims only one of two sunflower mazes in all of Canada.

Bowden Sun Maze

Sunflower Maze

Although the maze wasn’t quite at their full height, it was still a sight to see.

Eagle Creek Farms

Sunflower selfie

It resembled more of a sunflower patch with pathways not as defined as the corn mazes we are more used to, but it was definitely eye-catching and visually stunning, especially with the number of bees buzzing in and around the flowers.

Bowden Sun Maze

The field was abuzz with activity

Eagle Creek also boasts a few other maze options (including corn, hay bale, and tree mazes), in addition to a small u-pick vegetable and flower selection. We were disappointed the strawberry patch wasn’t quite ready yet, but we did take the opportunity to harvest some zucchini, peas, and chard to take home with us.

Bowden Sun Maze

Ready to harvest!

Afterwards we stopped for lunch nearby at the Starlite Diner Car, which we have blown by on Highway 2 countless times. We’re suckers for retro diners, so the classic interior, with bright red booths and a long counter, was right up our alley.

Starlite Diner Car

We love diners

We didn’t expect the alien-themed menu, but all of the classic dishes you’d expect to find were available to order (their milkshakes were on high demand that afternoon). While the food wasn’t exceptional, our monte cristo and hot turkey sandwiches hit the spot. Service was also better than we anticipated.

Starlite Diner Car

Hot turkey sandwich

What did come as a surprise was the fact that one of the fellow diners at the counter had paid our bill! We’ve never experienced a pay-it-forward situation before, but after this, will have to return the favour ourselves.

Onward to Calgary, we had booked an AirBnB in the East Village neighbourhood, an area that would definitely be on our shortlist if we ever moved south. Mack’s favourite amenity is the Phil & Sebastian’s in the Simmons Building (which we took advantage of the next morning), but being within walking distance of Village Ice Cream isn’t bad, either.

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We are all Villagers

The East Village Junction Pop-up was also taking place just across the street from the condo building. The vacant lot had been populated with a dozen shipping containers transformed into retail outlets (some local, some national chains), but also featured a food truck, seating areas, and a programmed stage.

containR EV Junction

East Village Junction Pop-up

It was a neat way to encourage more foot traffic, and an idea that we’ve heard may eventually make its way to some underserved areas in Edmonton.

East Village Junction Pop-up

Mack was right at home

We hadn’t yet been to Studio Bell, so took advantage of our proximity on this visit. The architecture of the building was a draw for us, and we learned that the landscape of the prairies (including the hoodoos), as well as the curvature of musical instruments, was his inspiration for the designs.

National Music Centre

Performance Hall

Like most modern museums, there were lots of open spaces, lookout points, and areas where natural light could filter in.

National Music Centre

Fun with instruments

The museum offered a good variety of interactive exhibits, and we could see how it would appeal to music explorers of all ages. My favourite exhibit was the theatre organ that was used to create a live soundtrack for silent films screened in the 20s and 30s.

National Music Centre

Kimball Theatre Organ

GlobalFest had been on our list for some time, but the timing had never before lined up. A fireworks competition combined with cultural showcases, aspects of GlobalFest reminded us of a scaled down version of Heritage Days.

Calgary GlobalFest

GlobalFest

Over two dozen countries were represented with food, clothing, or cultural artifacts. In addition, multiple stages dotted the grounds, hosting musical and dance performances throughout the evening. I liked the passport idea that the festival had developed as a means of encouraging attendees to visit as many pavilions as possible (in exchange for the chance to enter to win a prize).

Calgary GlobalFest

One of three stages

In every other festival year, the fireworks each night are themed around a country. This year, in honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial, a region of the country was celebrated instead. That evening, the Prairies were in the spotlight.

The theme wasn’t obvious from the fireworks display, as some of the musical choices were outside of artists born on the Prairies. That said, I could appreciate the selection of certain firework varieties and colours that were paired with particular musical interludes – the shimmering fireworks were a great choice to accompany a Chantal Kreviazuk’s ballad. Overall, GlobalFest was a lovely way to spend a summer evening outdoors.

Calgary GlobalFest

Fireworks display

We couldn’t leave Calgary without a visit to one of our favourite restaurants – Blue Star Diner in Bridgeland has become our go-to brunch favourite.

They’ve made some minor tweaks to my favourite stuffed French toast dish since our last visit, but I’m happy to report it’s still equally delicious, and the white cheese whiz (in place of hollandaise) was addictive.

Blue Star Diner

Mack’s Bridgeland breakfast bowl from Blue Star Diner

Our the way to Red Deer, we stopped at the infamous Torrington Gopher Museum. It’s been on our bucket list for some time, and we can safely say it’s well worth the half hour detour. Photos really can’t do this bizarre attraction justice.

Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

The hunted or the hunter?

For just $2, visitors can take in the various dioramas that have position stuffed gophers in scenes capturing town life. Most are based around local businesses, but there are a few more politically incorrect ones as well.

Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

Albert GoFur, who made a trip to the Vancouver Olympics

The staff on duty was so obviously proud of the museum, and though she’d likely run through the introduction countless times, was happy to do so with each group entering the facility.

My favourite diorama was Moonlight Romance, featuring a gopher dressed in an adorable poodle skirt (the top visitor’s choice in 2015), while Mack couldn’t resist the church scene with a suspended gopher angel (the top pick in 2014 and 2016).

Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

Gopher wedding

We needed to stretch our legs before dinner, so stopped in Red Deer’s Gaetz Lake Sanctuary first. The 4km trail can be leisurely completed in an hour, even with multiple stops to admire birds on this federally-sanctioned migration route.

Kerry Wood Nature Centre

Gaetz Lake Sanctuary

We were, however, unprepared to witness the tree damage caused by 140km an hour winds earlier in the year. Because of the park’s status as a migration route, staff could only ensure the fallen logs were cleared from the path, but not removed.

Kerry Wood Nature Centre

Tree damage

I can safely say the more time we spend in Red Deer, the more aspects I find to appreciate – it definitely has more to offer than Gasoline Alley would suggest!

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Lookout point

I had my eye on Red Boar Smokery for a while, among a cluster of interesting restaurants and shops in downtown Red Deer. It’s also a good sign when their frequent updates on social media relate to selling out of product!

The interior is casual, with communal picnic table seating, and instead of actual plates, they offer strips of butcher paper. We chose the “barnyard special”, which was an ideal way to sample a variety of their meats and sides.

The pulled pork was the standout, with a great smoky flavour, while the pork belly was also notable, as the fat just melted away in our mouths. The accompanying sauces were fun to sample, with the honey mustard in particular winning our vote.

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Barnyard Special from Red Boar Smokery

Mack was happy we snagged the last bit of mac and cheese, but the apple slaw was actually the better of the sides; the tartness was needed to cut through the richness of the meat.

All told, we had a great time further exploring some attractions in our own backyard – we’re looking forward to what we will discover next!

Calgary Birthday Round-up: The Big Cheese, Model Milk, Blue Star Diner and Una Pizza

Back in June, well-timed with my birthday, Mack and I took a mini-break in Calgary. I relish any opportunity to further explore their culinary scene (something impossible for visitors to keep up with), but I think we made a fair dent that weekend.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

The Big Cheese Poutinerie was voted “best poutine” in Calgary in the recent FFWD poll, so we thought it was worth checking out.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

They had quite a few more options than La Poutine, many with an intense variety of topping options, such as mac and cheese, Scottish curry and corn dogs. We ordered the most basic traditional (just curds and gravy) and the Notorious P.I.G. (Carolina pulled pork, double smoked bacon and
Italian sausage).

We brought our poutine boxes to their adorable backyard patio, fenced in and graced with trees, and dug in.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Mack loves poutine!

The fries weren’t as crispy as we would have liked, and the Quebec curds didn’t squeak, but the Notorious P.I.G. was still darn tasty (and our favourite of the two). I liked the sweetness from the bacon, which helped offset the rest of the meat.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Traditional

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Notorious P.I.G.

Model Milk

We’d heard some great things about Model Milk, which at the time, seemed like Calgary’s “it” restaurant. As a result, we were really looking forward to try their spin on Southern comfort food.

Model Milk

Look for the cow!

We loved the name upon hearing its origins – Model Milk is an homage to the building’s history as Model Dairy. Some of the plant’s fixtures, such as the viewing window into the bottling area, were preserved in the conversion to a restaurant. As a result, the dining room presents as a gorgeous marriage of the industrial with rustic. The pendant lights above were a lovely touch above our table, but the best seat in the house was undoubtedly at the chef’s table beneath a skylight.

Model Milk

Interior

Model Milk

Chef’s table

Q Water (a water filtration system sold as an alternative to imported bottled water) seems to be all the rage, but the administration of it (i.e., the cost) varies greatly between restaurants, to the point where it’s entirely up to the diner to clarify. I was reminded of this at Model Milk, when we accidentally ended up with pricey Q Water because I didn’t ask when given the choice between “sparkling” and “still”. The tab? $3 a person for water.

Model Milk

Q Water

Their menus had similar numbered iterations to what we were familiar with at Three Boars, and similarly, although there were a few vegetarian options to choose from, the chefs appeared to like all incarnations of meat.

The veal croquette starters ($12) were crispy without being oily, and we loved the texture and the interplay of sweet and spicy in the apple chili glaze.

Model Milk

Veal croquettes

My dish, named pig ($28), was quite the showstopper. Aptly put, tenderloin was wrapped in sausage then wrapped in bacon, and presented so moist and tender that it literally fell to pieces when sliced. Even more a compliment to the chef, it didn’t leave me with a fatty mouth feel. I also enjoyed the refreshing sides of crushed edamame and mint and a pea, celery and apple salad.

Model Milk

Pig

Mack liked his halibut cheeks ($27), prepared with a crunchy potato crust and a creamy tartar sauce. The underlay of potatoes were a bit of a hit and miss – some were well cooked, while others were hard and glassy.

Model Milk

Halibut

Given the menu changes so frequently, I’d be hard pressed to say what’s for dinner at Model Milk today, but based on our experience, I’d love to be surprised on our next visit!

Blue Star Diner

Opened by the same folks behind Dairy Lane, we knew we would be in good hands at Blue Star Diner, a relatively new restaurant in the quaint community of Bridgeland.

The crowd outside told us we were in the right place, and though it was a cold and drizzly out, we didn’t mind the half hour wait, tempered by the offer of hot coffee to sip.

Blue Star Diner

A typical Calgary brunch line-up

Once inside, we marvelled at the charming interior – baby blue paint, crisp glass display shelves, funky chalkboard walls, and perhaps my favourite accent – framed photos of the farmers Dairy Lane sources from.

Blue Star Diner

Interior

Local was definitely all over the menu as well – I really appreciated that the names of producers were highlighted prominently. The newest producer to join the ranks, Broek Farms, was even profiled on a tabletop card.

The servers were friendly and efficient, though Mack’s one small complaint was that the coffee refills petered out after our plates were delivered (his litmus test for brunch service). But in a way, the food more than made up for that minor misstep. My order of stuffed French toast ($12.75) was one of the best brunch dishes I had in recent memory, an irresistible combination of Sylvan Star gruyere, mushrooms, herbs and hollandaise.

Blue Star Diner

Stuffed French toast

Mack’s Broek pulled pork eggs benedict ($15) featured perfectly soft poached eggs, and pork that kicked back and complemented the tangy hollandaise.

Blue Star Diner

Pulled pork eggs benedict

Though I have quite a few diner favourites in Calgary, Blue Star Diner is now hovering near the top. It most definitely deserves another visit the next time we’re in the city.

Una Pizza + Wine

We had enjoyed our meal at Ox & Angela earlier this year, so wanted to try its brother establishment with an equally good reputation, Una Pizza.

At 5:30pm on a Sunday, it was already hopping, and we snagged just about the last of the open seats. We elected to sit outside to drink in the rays, given it was the only sunny break that entire weekend. With its vantage of 17 Avenue however, it also made a great people watching spot.

Una Pizza & Wine

On the patio

Una Pizza is actually open until 1am every day, quite a feat and commitment by the owners to ensure quality late night dining exists in Calgary. The menu offered quite a range of non-pizza dishes, many with a Spanish flair, but we stuck with the pizza side of things.

Una Pizza & Wine

Two-tiered pizza

I chose the mushroom pizza ($20), layered with roasted criminis, smoked mozzarella, truffle oil and arugula. I could taste the time taken to cook down the mushrooms, and the flavour combination was good enough to inspire me to replicate it at home.

Una Pizza & Wine

Mushroom pizza

Mack’s red pizza to my white featured san marzano tomato sauce, prosciutto, provolone and arugula ($18). He noted the crust was much different than Edmonton’s go-to independent pizza joint, Famoso, firmer, crispier and not wood fired. That day, it really hit the spot.

Una Pizza & Wine

Prosciutto pizza

We loved the vibe of Una – fun and vibrant, it reminded us of Tres Carnales. Though the food took a little longer than expected (we had ordered just after the small party next to us, but by the time our food arrived, they had already finished their meal), Una is the type of place where you linger over a glass of wine and catch up. We’ll be back.

A much belated thanks to Mack for a great birthday weekend!