Edmonton’s Original Green Onion Cake: Noodle Maker

The green onion cake. Savoury, crispy and oh so satisfying, it is one of my favourite indulgences, but only when done right. I’m not a fan of the flat pancake-like versions at the Fringe that many others adore; my preference is for the doughnut-shaped cakes – airy, and really, with even more surface area to absorb hot oil, it’s on a different plane of existence. When I heard about Noodle Maker, opened by the man who is said to have introduced the tasty treat to Edmonton, my curiosity was piqued – what would the “original” green onion cake be like?

On Thursday, another miserably cold day, Kathryn and I made our way to Noodle Maker for lunch. Just past the gates heralding Old Chinatown, it seemed to be a quiet afternoon for the restaurant – only one other customer to be seen during our visit (given how bustling the cafeteria in Canada Place is, I had to wonder how many people know this place exists).

The interior isn’t much to look at, save the artificial cherry tree blooming from the take out counter, and an antique stove in the corner. The dated décor contrasted amusingly with the large flat panel television screen mounted to the wall (tuned to a Chinese news channel), and a shiny new Mac at the till.

The menu features dishes from many Asian cuisines, including Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Thai(take a look here). I opted for a ramen bowl with teriyaki chicken ($8.50), while Kathryn chose the rice stick stir fry ($11). Of course, we also ordered a green onion cake ($3.50) to share.

The green onion cake didn’t look like much, but looks were deceiving! While it was the flat version, pulled apart, there were discernable, flaky layers inside. With a crispy, salty exterior, we had to pull ourselves away to try our entrees. It really was worth venturing out for, and would be something I’d return specifically to order (we both agreed that the name of the restaurant really should celebrate their green onion cake instead).

Noodle Maker

Green onion cake

The entrees were good, but didn’t live up to their green onion cake counterpart. The butter soy broth and ramen were all right – broth not overly salty, and ramen well-cooked, but neither wowed me. I did like the inclusion of vegetables though – bean sprouts, corn, and spinach. The teriyaki chicken was probably the wrong type of meat to order (especially after reading Lillian’s review) – it wasn’t as moist as it could have been. Kathryn enjoyed her stir-fry, noting that the rice cakes were very fresh, but like me, also kept returning to the green onion cakes.

Noodle Maker

Teriyaki chicken ramen

Noodle Maker

Rice stick stir-fry with pork, shiitake mushrooms and su choy

Noodle Maker has started a $7.67 “popular lunch express” feature for either dine-in or take-out, a great deal that includes a vegetable stir fry, a ramen noodle or rice bowl and two toppings (teriyaki chicken, tiger beef, pork ribs, shrimp, basa fish tempura). On January 18, 2011, from 11am-2pm, those that register on their Facebook page will be charged just $5.

There are definitely a few more dishes that I’d be interested in returning to try. And given its proximity to the Arts District, it’d be an interesting choice for pre-show dining. Not that I’d need an excuse to come back for the green onion cakes.

Noodle Maker
9653 102 Avenue
(780) 428-0021
Daily 11am-10pm

Chinatown Addition: Emperor’s Palace

Emperor’s Palace, the newest addition to Chinatown, mirrors Urban China in many ways. Clean and modern, they are both a part of a movement towards the kind of restaurants Vancouver (and Calgary, to some extent) already have down pat. We’re always looking for new dim sum places, so it made sense that my first two meals there were for just that: I checked out the restaurant once during the lunch rush on a weekday before Christmas with Dickson, and again a few weeks later for brunch with Mack and my family to celebrate Felicia’s birthday.

Emperor's Palace

Interior

The restaurant is gorgeous, with bright yellow and red tones. The crystal chandeliers help lend the room a touch of elegance, though what really captured my attention was the stunning floor-to-ceiling glass wine case facing the dining room. As with Indian restaurants such as Origin India trying to encourage diners to pair wine (instead of the requisite beer) with their cuisine, perhaps Emperor’s Palace is trying to do the same with Chinese fare? (something that others are attempting elsewhere in the world.)

Emperor's Palace

Wine case

The high-backed chairs were visually appealing, and comfortable to boot, but unfortunately, did take up a lot of space, which prevented carts from going between some tables. This wasn’t a problem when dining with my family, but at a small table with Dickson at the rear of the restaurant, two tables stood between us and the aisle. As a result, the verbal exchanges between us and the waitress were a bit comical – we were nearly shouting to be heard above the lunchtime din.

The only other notable occurrence with regards to service happened with my family – a server leaned into our table, and in Cantonese, offered us a plate of fried shrimp wontons – “a dish that white people like.”

Emperor's Palace

Shrimp wontons

The food was a mixed bag on both occasions, with portion sizes far from generous. The shrimp dumplings were all right, but they had paper-thin skins; my preference is a thicker shell. The pork dumplings, another dim sum staple, were disappointing – too chewy. The BBQ pork buns were perfectly shaped and browned, but the bread was dry and unappealing.

Emperor's Palace

Shrimp dumplings

Emperor's Palace

Pork dumplings

Emperor's Palace

BBQ pork buns

The temperature of the dishes also varied (albeit better at brunch than at lunch) – the rice wrap with BBQ pork, for example,  was served to us lukewarm.

Emperor's Palace

Rice wrap

But we were surprised by other dishes – the spring rolls, for example, contained no filler, only shrimp. Hot and crispy, the skin was decidedly light in colour, and not the deep brown characteristic of a bath of old oil. A dumpling with pork, peanuts and chives had great texture. Rolls made of dough and sticky rice were new to me, delightfully garnished with what we took to be greens and egg. I also thoroughly enjoyed their custard tarts – but then again, I’m a sucker for warm custard tarts!

Emperor's Palace

More dumplings

Emperor's Palace

Pretty rolls

Emperor's Palace

Custard tarts

My sister and I both have a bit of a Chinese restaurant restroom fetish, but I’m sure I’m not alone in having a negative connotation of dive-bar restrooms in association with Chinese restaurants. Emperor’s Palace joins Urban China on the short list of nice washrooms, with lovely azure bowl sinks.

Emperor's Palace

Women’s restroom

As a whole, though the décor is fabulous, the dim sum was only average. That said, flipping through their dinner menu (a huge, cardboard book), I think it would be worth a try, with options like squab and geoduck available.

Emperor's Palace

Dinner menu

So go for the decor, but as far as dim sum is concerned, don’t expect to be blown away.

Emperor’s Palace
10638 100 Street
(780) 757-2288

Location, Location: Viet Huong Noodle House

In September, I noticed that Viet Huong Noodle House would be moving a few blocks east into the Chinatown space that had been vacated by Hoang Long. Knowing a makeover of their restaurant on 107 Avenue was in dire need, it seemed a move into a more modern and frequented street would do them well. After a lunch date with Jill and Swamy at the new Viet Huong last week, I’m happy to say the change was definitely for the better!

The walls, a deep, autumnal yellow, were left untouched from the previous tenants, as was the furniture, and both were a definite improvement over the dated interior of their former location. Both the flat screen television and fish tank of blood parrots migrated here, and the bright tank in particular looked very much at home in a space bathed in natural light.

The restaurant was also notably half-full, but it didn’t drastically affect our wait time. The pho was good – the broth was the same – solid, but not spectacular – and the serving was as generous as I remembered. Of course, food somehow always tastes better with good company, and this instance was no exception!

Viet Huong

Beef noodle soup with beef balls

Viet Huong

Spicy seafood noodle soup

Viet Huong

Chicken with cashews over rice

It’s always nice to have more options in Chinatown, especially because of the unpredictable hours of some restaurants nearby like Pho Tau Bay. I’ll be back!

Just Not Memorable: Pho Anh Dao

At the rate we’re going, Dickson and I will be sampling pho restaurants into the next decade. With new establishments popping up all the time (such as Pho King on Alberta Avenue and Phonatics in the north end), old favourites yet to sample (like Pho & Bun), and restaurants changing hands, it’s guaranteed pho lovers will always have another place to compare to their stalwart choice.

We ended up at Pho Anh Dao two weeks ago, which was previously Le Family Vietnamese. As with many restaurants in Chinatown, a coherent “décor” was non existent, though there was a sizable television screen set up at the rear of the restaurant.

Interior

As soon as we walked inside, eager staff greeted us and set us up with menus and tea (we were only one of two tables during our visit). We ordered our usual bowls (special for Dickson, $7.95/large and medium beef and flank, $6.95/small, for me), as well as spring roll appetizers.

Dickson was quite impressed with the spring rolls (he can be considered a connoisseur of the deep-fried starters), and while they were crispy and well-prepared, I am biased to thinking that my Mum’s spring rolls are the best in town.

Spring rolls

As for the pho itself, while the broth was well-seasoned, it lacked depth. The flank was luxuriously fatty (which some may find disconcerting, but I just lap it up), while the medium beef was anything but – tough and chewy, it was difficult to finish the serving.

Medium rare beef and beef flank noodle soup

Special noodle soup

In the end, Pho Anh Dao didn’t provide us with a terrible experience, but it wasn’t a particularly memorable one either. While I’d be willing to give them another shot, Pho Tau Bay will continue to be my go-to pho destination.

Pho Anh Dao
10548 97 Street
(780) 426-7774
Open 10am-9pm everyday except Wednesday (open 10am-4pm)

An Unexpected Discovery: Urban China

A few weeks ago, my Dad asked me for my opinion on two new-ish Chinese restaurants downtown, looking for an evening venue: Bird’s Nest of Beijing (10425 100 Avenue) and Urban China. I haven’t yet been to Bird’s Nest (though I had heard that their dim sum was fairly reasonably priced), and though my only experience at Urban China was a mixed one, some people have enjoyed their dinner menu. As the occasion would include some family friends in from Vancouver, I thought it would be a great opportunity to show them a restaurant that showcases the new wave of Chinese establishments in Edmonton.

With about ten tables full at the dinner hour on a Friday night, it was busier than I expected it to be. I still love the decor, all dark furniture, clean lines and red accents. And how could I forget the aquariums?

Amanda finds fish tanks shocking

My parents decided on a twelve-course set menu, which, at Urban China, will set you back over $200.00. For the most part, our group enjoyed the meal, though my Dad thought that the portions offered were on the small side. Standout dishes for me included the spicy fish (still crispy on the outside, but flaky on the inside) and the Chongqing style beef with spices (no lie, the tender pieces of beef set my mouth on fire, but it was worth it). Amanda and my Mom loved the steamed tofu dish with olives and ground meat.

Spicy fish (we have no idea what it is actually called – darn the food blogger who doesn’t write things down)

Chongqing style beef with spices

 Steamed tofu with olives and ground meat

Malaysian sizzling pork neck

Famous Chaozhou duck

XO sauce with green beans and salted meat

Haka stirfry

Service was steady throughout the night – it seemed someone was always on hand to refill our empty tea pot, or take away dirty dishes. However, the best part of the visit had nothing to do with the food or the staff – it was our discovery of the tiny televisions set into the mirrors in the bathroom. Urban China really should have been included in the Journal’s recent list of “upscale” restrooms.

Hockey night in a restroom?

I’d recommend Urban China if you’re looking for authentic Chinese food in a clean, modern setting. Just don’t forget to check out the restrooms, too.

Urban China
10604 101 Street
(780) 758-1888

Chinatown Resurgence: Samurai Bistro

I can usually find a pretty good excuse to try out new restaurants. On Monday, that excuse was the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts. We’ve been attending the annual arts awards and recognition evening for three years (sadly, there was no on-stage closing dance number this time), and needed to have a pre-show meal. Samurai Bistro, open just two weeks, fit the bill perfectly.

I remember visiting Chinatown practically every weekend when I was younger, a stop for Asian groceries a necessary errand. At the time, the empty storefronts were fewer, and the traffic was heavier – mainstream grocery stores at the time didn’t carry as diverse an aisle of ethnic products, and T & T Supermarket didn’t exist. Even though Samurai Bistro and Basil Leaf make up what I would consider the western edge of Chinatown, it’s still nice to see some new development and revamped buildings anywhere in Chinatown.

Samurai Bistro is a tiny 30-seater restaurant, focusing on ramen and noodle bowls. The staff, who were friendly and attentive, did say that their dozen-item menu would be expanded in the next week, and would include daily seafood features. They also seemed sincere in their request for feedback after our meal, stating that they were a new business looking for any ways they could improve – it’s not something I’ve experienced a lot of, and though I didn’t have anything constructive to say, was a welcome inquiry.

The long and narrow restaurant was equipped with a refreshing open kitchen, lined with seats so patrons have the option of watching their food be prepared. I’m sure if the restaurant was packed, it would create quite the lively atmosphere. I loved the granite tables and the high-backed chairs, while Mack found the mounted wall “fireplace” to be particularly amusing. I thought the flat screen televisions, tuned to Food Network and ESPN, were two signs that we were in the right place.

Samurai Bistro interior

We underestimated our appetites that night, and opted to order the gyoza (7 for $7) to start. For our mains, I decided on the chicken and spicy herb ($9) bowl, and Mack chose the shrimp, scallop and seafood ($11) bowl. The restaurant had run out of ramen (brought in from Vancouver), so udon was our only option.

Order by photo!

The gyoza were fantastic – crispy and light on the outside, they were filled with just the right amount of pork and crispy cabbage. Definitely a keeper.

Gyoza, beautifully presented

As for our udon bowls, they were never-ending vessels, and ultimately defeated both of us. What first struck both of us was their generosity with seafood – Mack’s was filled to the brim with plump shrimp, scallops and calamari rings, in addition to crab legs. My accompanying chicken wasgood (the spicy coating making the difference), but seafood was definitely the winner here. The broth was all right, but my frequent pho ventures left me wanting for more flavour depth, which I realize is an unfair comparison.

Shrimp, Scallop and Seafood Bowl

 Chicken and Spicy Herb Bowl

Mack, a self-described “unstoppable crab-eating force”

With their responsive service and generous portions, I wouldn’t hesitate to return in the future. I hope others do the same, and perhaps in the process, help Chinatown regain some of its former glory.

Samurai Bistro
10632 100 Street
(780) 756-0834
Monday-Wednesday 11am-9pm, Thursday 11am-10pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-11pm, Sunday 11am-6pm

Extreme Sticker Shock: Noodle Noodle

Two co-workers and I decided to indulge in a dim sum lunch last Friday to celebrate Chinese New Year. With only two options within reasonable walking distance for our one hour break, we chose Noodle Noodle over Urban China. Though I hadn’t been to Noodle Noodle in years, from what I remember, the prices weren’t egregious.

We arrived at the restaurant just after noon. It was pretty busy already, not unexpected for a Friday before a long weekend. We were quickly seated at a table by the door, and before long, were greeted by cart-directing servers.

As soon as our first dishes were marked on our tally sheet, we realized that the prices were way above average for dim sum – they ranged from $4.75 to $9.95! We were unfortunate enough to select a dish on the latter end of that scale (the ginger beef, primarily for one colleague who does not consume pork). As soon as the dish was priced my co-worker and I looked at each other and laughed at the absurd mark-up – it would be a painful meal.

Ginger Beef

Rice crepes, with either beef or shrimp? $6.50. Almond tofu? $5.95. BBQ pork buns the size of dumplings? $4.95. The quantity of food provided exacerbated our sticker shock as well – not only we were paying double for each dish, but in almost each case, the portion size was smaller than what we would find elsewhere.

Rice Crepes

 

 No joke, they were serving $10 dim sum dishes at Noodle Noodle

Good service was also something to be desired. After we told one waitress about our colleague’s non-pork diet, the next time she whizzed by, she did not bother to stop, and just commented in passing that there was nothing on her cart that we would want. Thankfully, the other servers were not as dismissive, but needless to say, we were not impressed.

Ellen and I “showing off” the BBQ pork buns

In terms of quality, the only dish that we were remotely happy with was the almond tofu. Lightly scented and accompanied by a decent amount of canned fruit, it provided a sweet end to an otherwise bitterly comical experience.

A serving of almond tofu

We all agreed in the end that our next dim sum trip would be in a vehicle.

Noodle Noodle
10008 106 Avenue
(780) 422-6862
Monday-Thursday 10am-10pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-11pm, Sundays & Holidays 10am-9:30pm

Setting the Decor Standard: Basil Leaf

I met up with Dickson, my stalwart pho companion, earlier this week to give the newest addition to Chinatown’s ever-revolving dining scene a spin. Basil Leaf, dubbed a Vietnamese restaurant and sports bar, opened about two weeks ago in an unfortunate location. Not unfortunate so much for the ghosts of the failed restaurants past, but for its sight-unseen building, tucked just far enough down 107 Avenue to be missed by most passing by.

Interior

Though this was my introduction to any incarnation of the space,  it looks like the new operators gutted the place, with stunning results. The dark wood floor, intimate leather banquets, and Cactus Club-esque artichoke lights elevate interior design expectations of Asian restaurants. Moreover, the dish and flatware were surprisingly modern, with beautifully curved tea cups and soup spoons in place of more traditional pieces. Between Basil Leaf and Urban China, the bar for the design of Edmonton’s Asian restaurants has been set. Though Basil Leaf does support a “sports bar” in theory – a high, granite bar encircles a mounted television screen, an area separated from the main dining space by a partition – it seems to be a footnote, and shouldn’t detract would-be diners from visiting.

Table setting

The menu was fairly standard for a Vietnamese restaurant, stretching several pages with numerous stir-fries, vermicelli bowls and soups. Prices also seemed match those found at similar establishments, though I can only really speak to pho, which is always my dish of choice.

My predictable pho with medium rare beef was $7.75, while Dickson’s usual deluxe pho with all of the fixings rang in at $8.25. The green onion cake starter was $4.50.

As in Paula’s review, the service was borderline too attentive, with the servers at numerous points hovering over our table, and constantly checking to see if we needed a hot water refill for our tea. For some reason, it wasn’t off-putting – perhaps because they appeared to be genuinely interested in our dining experience.

Of course, with food being the focal point of our visit: I liked the green onion cakes well enough, though the batter had not been evenly seasoned. The pho also could have been better – the curved bowl my dish was served in was another plus, but the flavour of the broth was one-note, and could have been enhanced with more aromatics and spices. Dickson and I also agreed that the beef was overdone, becoming tough and unpleasantly chewy too quickly.

Green Onion Cakes

Beef Noodle Soup with Medium Rare Beef

Deluxe Noodle Soup

While Basil Leaf may not become my destination for pho, I would gladly visit them again. Perhaps for dinner when I might be able to take advantage of a booth , and when the lighting will better highlight the space.

Basil Leaf
10023 107 Avenue
(780) 756-8880

The Comfort is in the Heat: Boualouang

Though Chinatown is only a ten minute walk from Downtown, depending on what event we’re running to, sometimes it is an additional distance we don’t have time to travel. That wasn’t the case on Thursday, when both the weather and our schedules were cooperative, with our Global Visions screening at Paramount falling at 8 (on a sidenote – I don’t like the trend of plays moving their start times to 7:30. I like the option of lingering at dinner).

As a result, I was finally able to return to Boualouang, many months after my first visit, and six months since the restaurant relocated down the block to a beautifully-renovated space. While the original location was functional and well-kept, it was bland and visually unattractive. This new venue better suits the wonderful food produced by the kitchen, and of course, provides the owners with a few tables to spare (they seemed to be forever turning people away at the previous restaurant). I especially love the lavish blue drapes that help separate the room from the bustling world outside.

Interior

I was very tempted to order a dish I hadn’t yet tried, but the side of me seeking a familiar, reassuring meal eventually won out. I couldn’t complain though – their green curry is (in my opinion), the best in the city. The chicken was tender, drenched in a sauce lovingly prepared with flavour that was worth the heat (which is saying something for a person who usually stays away from spice). We ended up ordering an additional bowl of coconut rice to soak up the curried goodness, and kept our server busy who insisted on keeping our water glasses filled to the brim.

Green Curry

The pad thai was also great, with a serving size that blows me away each time. Mack loved the grilled shrimp (and surprisingly) the tofu strips, and though isn’t a big fan of the sweet and spicy profile of the dish, was willing to overlook it for me.

Pad Thai

We were both stuffed, with leftovers remaining. For just over $40 (including tip), we were treated to a satisfying, relaxing meal with time to spare before our next engagement. If you’re in the area, be sure to keep Boualouang in mind.

Boualouang
10569 97 Street
(780) 423-4207
Monday-Thursday 11am-9pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-10pm, Sunday 12-9pm

Marathon Pho: Ninh Kieu

The ongoing chronicles of pho continued at Ninh Kieu, an establishment I have passed by countless times on my way into Chinatown, but never really noticed. The only reason it stood out at all was due to the fact that they had, at some point, put up a white vinyl sign which attracted my eye.

The restaurant is most notable because of their large windows, which enclose just about the entire dining area. As I am used to the shadowy corners of Pho Tau Bay, this was definitely a pleasant change. We could have done without the tinkering elevator music though, which although had the intention of providing a relaxing atmosphere, had the opposite affect.

Interior

As is standard, we split an order of green onion cakes ($4.75) to start, and opted for our usual benchmark bowls of pho – for me, the medium rare beef ($7.50) and for Dickson, the special beef noodle soup ($8.50).

Service was friendly and fairly efficient – we weren’t left waiting for our food. I would pass on the green onion cakes next time though – while crisp, the kitchen may have misplaced the salt while making the dish.

Green Onion Cakes

As I always order the smaller portions of pho when given the opportunity, I wasn’t ready for Ninh Kieu’s marathon version of pho. And it wasn’t just me – even Dickson had difficulty getting through the entire serving. However, quality is more important than quantity in the case of pho, and though we found the broth to be satisfactory, it didn’t make an indelible impression on us either.

Medium Rare Beef Pho

Special Beef Noodle Soup

Having the opportune location next to Pho Tau Bay, whose closure periods are hard to predict, I would consider returning to Ninh Kieu in a pinch. I would just have to prepare my appetite for a worthy opponent beforehand.

Ninh Kieu
10708 98 Street
(780) 429-8881
Sunday-Thursday 11am-9pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-10pm