It’s no secret Mack and I choose Calgary as our weekend getaway destination. Though it’s challenging to keep up with the Edmonton food scene sometimes, the distance (and perhaps the perception from afar) makes it even more difficult to know all of what’s changed in Calgary since our last visit.
This spring and summer, Mack and I were able to get down to Calgary several times for both work and play. It wasn’t enough to hit up all of the hot spots (though we do our best to fit in as much food as possible, heh), but we landed on some gems.
Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver
Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver is a takeout-focused joint opened by Top Chef Canada alum Nicole Gomes and her sister, Francine Gomes. Although it is their first partnership, everything about Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver is polished. From the bright pink signage and logo to the establishment’s backstory (chef and her chicken farmer sister merge their passions) it feels almost a little too slick. But I want to buy in to a local business that simply wants to do a few things very, very well.
Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver
The footprint of Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver is small – most of the building’s space is dedicated to the kitchen. A stand-up eat-in counter and grab and go cooler makes up the rest of the storefront. It made me wonder if the economic downturn will naturally promote businesses with postage stamp square footage but high volume.
Although rotisserie chicken is available, we ordered the fried chicken. The breading was thick and crunchy, and encased the moist and juicy meat underneath. The accompanying cilantro corn and bean salad didn’t show much evidence of cilantro, but it was still refreshing. My favourite item was the buttermilk biscuit, flaky and rich.
I’m sure many Calgarians have flocked to Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver to pick up summer picnic spreads – just make sure to buy an extra biscuit or two – you won’t regret it!
Mack and I always flirt with the idea of moving to Calgary, usually as an exercise to fantasize with hypothetical neighbourhoods and real estate, HGTV-style. No doubt, one of the areas at the top of our list is the East Village.
Located just east of downtown by the Bow River and within walking distance of a C-Train station, its location and natural beauty make it a desirable neighbourhood in our books. However, while a lot of the pedestrian and park infrastructure is complete, other amenities are still in development. A Loblaws offshoot is in the works, and additional retail would promote convenience for residents. Mack’s favourite feature has already been installed – his third place, in the form of a Phil and Sebastian’s Café.
The Simmons Warehouse, a former mattress facility, has been transformed into a thriving partnership between three complementary local businesses: Charbar (the sister restaurant to the smashing success Charcut), Sidewalk Citizen Bakery (who supplies its fine baked goods to a number of cafes in Calgary) and Phil & Sebastian (whose location in the East Village marks café number 5). The cross-promotion is obvious (Charbar serves desserts by Sidewalk Citizen, coffee flows from Phil & Sebastian’s to its partners, etc.), but the square footage has also allowed each business to enhance their operations – roasting space for Phil’s, a new savoury menu for Sidewalk Citizen, and patio space for Charbar.
The care that was taken in the renovations of the space is evident. The preservation of the wood beams, letting natural light cross into the floors below, and the open flow of one business to another (the café and bar are adjacent to one another) score the partnership as a much deeper one than name only.
Our jaunt to the East Village was too late to catch the bakery during operational hours, but we peeked into the cafe before settling down for a pre-dinner drink at Charbar. They have some great cocktails to choose from, and if we didn’t already have a reservation in the dining room, I would have been fine to enjoy a meal at the very comfortable bar.
We eventually moved into Charbar proper, and seated next to the open kitchen, watched Chef Jessica Pelland expedite dishes all night. The Charbar menu features Argentinian-inspired share plates. The housemade chorizo (served with pickled vegetables and aioli) was fantastic, and our only disappointment was to learn we wouldn’t be able to take any of the chorizo home with us.
Chorizo with pickled vegetables and aioli
The New York steak, served with green chimichurri and aioli was perfectly cooked and appropriately rested. Unadorned, it had a ton of flavour on its own. The beef fat fries were a delightfully indulgent side, but we could have done without the overseasoned broccoli, taken over the top with the addition of grated Grizzly Gouda.
New York steak
It was too cold to enjoy the patio at the time of our visit, something we’ll be sure to rectify in the future.
At the time of our visit, Shiki Menya had the distinction of being the only ramen restaurant in Alberta that produced its own noodles (in Edmonton, you can now visit Nudoru for this). Even then, the incredible lure of the restaurant rested primarily with their limited quantity – Shiki Menya produces roughly 150 bowls per day, and shuts down after selling out. As a result, early birds are rewarded, and half an hour before they opened, we added to a line already ten deep.
We were grateful to be among the first group seated in the small restaurant. Though food made its way to the tables fairly quickly (turnover is key for them), the kitchen probably wasn’t yet firing on all cylinders, as our gyoza arrived shortly after our ramen. They had a nice char from the flattop, but they did need the additional flavour of the chili oil.
I was satisfied with the tonkotsu classic – the broth had great body, and I didn’t find my char siu too fatty. Tokotsu was one of the few options Mack could order because of his peanut allergy, and though it’s not his preferred broth, he really liked the springy noodles.
While I’m not sure our experience matched the hype around Shiki Menya, it’s another great addition to Bridgeland (just down the street from Blue Star Diner, which serves our favourite brunch in Calgary).
Several years ago, when Model Milk was all the rage in Calgary, we weren’t blown away by our visit. But Pigeonhole, Model Milk’s sister restaurant, was named Avenue Calgary’s number one new restaurant this year, so we had to give it a try.
Like Charbar, Pigeonhole encourages diners to share small plates. There was a lot of variety to choose from, but the menu as a whole was thoughtful, sophisticated, and refined. While that might leave an impression of pretentiousness, it was perhaps the opposite. Being a game night, some diners were even sporting Flames jerseys.
Service was professional and somewhat distant, but our server did steer us in the right direction. We learned firsthand why their charred cabbage is their runaway bestseller – the char lent a depth that I didn’t know was possible for cabbage, and the addition of some fat (in the form of mimollete cheese and aioli) made it sing. It’s possible this is the dish to be replicated in other forms at competitors – a charred napa cabbage salad can now be found at Charbar, for instance.
The airy ricotta dumplings, well seasoned, was ultimately our favourite dish, but Mack in particular was surprised by how much he enjoyed the creamy salt cod, combined with potato and andouille sausage. I also appreciated the smokiness of the pork stock base beneath layers of edamame, potato and egg.
Dessert was a bit of a miss, as the rice pudding didn’t live up to its name, as it was made up of puffed rice and cream. But it was a small blemish on an otherwise wonderful experience.
We’ve had our eye on The Beltliner for some time, a modern diner situated next to Central Memorial Park. We ended up having lunch there, but realized we would need to return again for brunch, as it was the more interesting menu (they do offer all-day brunch, but neither of us felt like eggs a second time that day).
Mack at The Beltliner
The clear sightlines, made possible with low booths and tables, made The Beltliner feel more open than other diners. They also had a takeout counter, which, considering the nearby residential and commercial tenants, makes sense to maximize their income potential (the nearby Boxwood has a similar model, one that doesn’t exist in the same way in Edmonton).
We both enjoyed our meals well enough – Mack had a chicken club, while I chose their grilled cheese and a side of tomato soup. But we’ll be sure to return to try out some of their classic breakfast items next time.
Made by Marcus
Calgary’s independent ice cream game is strong – not only has Village Ice Cream expanded to three locations, but they’ve been joined by Made by Marcus, a vendor who started out a farmers’ markets but has just opened up a storefront shop on 17 Avenue.
The bench seating outside reminded us of Village Ice Cream’s Victoria Park location, but inside, they haven’t quite evolved yet to the same assembly line system, which to us meant more personalized service.
We shared a scoop of cookies and cream; our initial reaction was that the full fat nature of the Vital Greens cream really came through, delicious in all its indulgent glory. We also loved the chewy texture of the brown butter waffle cone.
Cookies and cream
Made by Marcus is a winner! They also sell ice cream in jars, as well as hand-dipped bars.
At first glance, Himalayan, tucked into a non-descript strip mall, seemed like a hidden gem. That is, until we walked inside and realized every table in the small, family-run Nepalese restaurant was booked solid. We would never have stumbled across it without the recommendation of our friends Dickson and Tammy, who suggested it.
Our server was patient and kind, walking us through the menu and recommending his personal and customer favourites. There are definitely similarities to other South Asian cuisines, but I know we didn’t manage to sample enough of the menu to really learn about some of the distinctions.
We loved the fish tareko, basa filets fried in a tasty chickpea batter. The Nepalese Takari was also a great dish, bathed in a creamy tomato based sauce with spinach, paneer (listed on the menu as cottage cheese) and potatoes. Our group was worried about the medium spice level, but by the end, found the heat to be just right.
It’s a little off the beaten track, but Himalayan is well worth seeking out.
I can’t help but think that Native Tongues is Calgary’s response to Edmonton’s wildly popular duo of Tres Carnales and Rostizado. The menu – a hybrid of tacos and family-style dishes – even seems to be a coincidental mash-up of the two.
The eclectic décor set the tone with its lived-in, distressed look and the prominence of the bar. We ended up seated at a large communal table, rubbing elbows with fellow diners in a way that felt very natural.
We shared the chilaquiles, their version of nachos. While we liked the even distribution of the toppings, the dish would have benefited from thicker chips; the deluge of ingredients soaked them through by the end.
The tacos were probably the highlight for me (they can be ordered individually for your sampling pleasure) – the chorizo was great.
We also split the grilled whole trout, intrigued by the cooking method over charcoal. Unfortunately, the smoky flavour we were hoping for was undetectable, though the fish was cooked very well.
Grilled whole trout
Our food arrived at a good pace throughout the meal, and I can imagine Native Tongues would be a great place to linger with friends over drinks and a continued flow of plates to share. It filled up even on a Monday night, so I can only imagine the line-ups on a weekend.
Ten Foot Henry
Ten Foot Henry might be my new favourite restaurant in Calgary. I managed to visit it twice in the last few months, enticed by their simple but chic decor, attentive service, and interesting share plates.
The name of the restaurant relates to a beloved comic strip character-turned Calgary arts mascot, and yes, you can meet the ten foot replica on your way to the restrooms. Lest you assume the dining room is decked out in comic book fashion – the space flows from the bar to the open kitchen, with subtle touches of greenery and soft lights.
Ten Foot Henry
The salt roasted potatoes were a revelation – seemingly simple, but perfectly executed and extremely addictive.
Salt roasted potatoes
Hangar steak was done equally well, served on a bed of charred romaine, and earlier in the spring, a concoction of whipped feta and fresh tomatoes on grilled toast was simple but delicious.
It’s only a matter of time until we’re back in YYC – until then, I’ll be sure to keep a running tally of other restaurants we’ll need to hit up!