Dine the Ave: Eats on 118 Continues!

Eats on 118 was an initiative that the Alberta Avenue Business Improvement Area (BIA) launched in 2016, in order to highlight some of the great restaurants located in an often overlooked area. The BIA contracted Wild Heart Collective to organize restaurant walking tours; each tour featured a visit to 4 or 5 different businesses with a meal or an activity served up at each stop. Over the last four years, more than 500 guests have attended the tours that have involved more than 45 businesses. I was fortunate to have been attended several of those tours over the years, and given my office relocated to 118 Avenue two years ago, it was especially fortuitous as a means to get to know my culinary neighbours better.

This year, the BIA wanted to continue Eats on 118, but in a different format, and Dine the Ave was born. Although they found that the tours were a great way to expose new people to the area, only a few businesses could participate in each round, and they found that it limited participants to restaurants. Through Dine the Ave, 20 hospitality businesses from NAIT to Northlands will be offering special menus priced at either $10, $15, or $20 from June 17-23, 2019. Last week, I was invited to attend a media preview that saw us sample our way through 5 stops (portion sizes were scaled down to ensure we’d be able to maintain our appetite throughout!).

The first featured restaurant is a favourite of mine: Battista’s Calzones. In my opinion, the calzones here are the best in the city; the dough (a family recipe) has just the right chew and is always baked to perfection, and their filling varieties mean there is something for everyone. They will be celebrating 10 years in business in the fall.

During Dine the Ave they’re offering three of their most popular calzones (the Spicy Italian, Giovanna, and Pesto Presto) for just $10 each.

Dine the Ave

Co-owner Doug Mah of Battista’s Calzones

Next, we headed half a block down to T & D Vietnamese Noodle House, another restaurant on my regular rotation. Laura Truong has been running the restaurant with her family for five years, and chose the 118 Avenue location specifically so they could grow with the evolving community (she currently sits on the Board of the BIA). For Dine the Ave, T & D will be serving up 2 house-made spring rolls and chicken on rice or noodles for $10.

Dine the Ave

Rice plate from T & D Vietnamese Noodle House

I was looking forward to trying our third restaurant, La Bodeguita de Cuba. Early this year, it replaced the neighbourhood stalwart El Rancho. Although I was sad to see the restaurant go, the spot is the perfect size for a start-up establishment looking to make their mark. This was exactly what owners Yordanis and Jennifer Lamoru are hoping to do, having dreamt of opening a restaurant for years.

We received a taste of their $20 Dine the Ave multi-course menu, featuring Cuban comfort food like rice and beans. The ropa vieja (shredded beef in an onion, pepper sauce) was the standout on the plate, and for some at our table, it was also their first time encountering plantains.

Dine the Ave

Cuban comfort food from La Bodeguita

The highlight of the stop was a serenade from Yordanis, who is also a musician. Expect live music at La Bodeguita on weekends; it’s an understatement to say the couple are doing it all themselves!

Dine the Ave

A performance by Yordanis Lamoru

I had also never been to Simba’s Den Pub & Bistro. It opened in May 2018, and owner Senait Tamene, recognizing the “up and coming” nature of the neighbourhood, purchased the building and opened the newest pub on the block. Also, Senait, like Laura Truong, is also on the Board of the BIA.

Although they do offer nachos, chicken wings and burgers, Simba’s Den prides itself on the Ethiopian and Eritrean fare on the menu, which is what we sampled that evening. The heat level was pretty tame in the chicken, beef, and lentils, and I particularly enjoyed the house-made enjera. For $20, Dine on the Ave guests can have their own vegetarian or meat platter with enjera or rice.

Dine the Ave

Meat platter sample from Simba’s Den

Our final stop is a community landmark – The Carrot, which operates under Arts on the Ave as a non-profit, has been open for twelve years. The baristas are volunteers, and the shop showcases and sells art and jewelry from local artisans. They just changed their sandwich menu, which they will be featuring during Dine the Ave as a $15 special, in addition to a dessert combo of carrot cake and a house-made beverage for $10.

Dine the Ave

Carrot cake and coffee from The Carrot

Thanks to the Alberta Avenue BIA and Wild Heart Collective for hosting a fun evening – it was great to discover even more gems on 118 Avenue. Check out the menus for Dine the Ave here!

Recap: Eats on 118

Last week, my Mum and I were invited to attend the first of this summer’s Eats on 118 Food Tours. The series started back in 2016 as a pilot, but has continued annually since; organized by the Alberta Avenue Business Association and Wildheart Collective, they’ve been a popular way for people to engage with some of the many independent businesses in the neighbourhood. I attended all of the tours last year, with the bowling edition being the highlight for me.

The first stop of the evening was familiar to me, as Paraiso Tropical was included on one of the tours last year. But the shop (as with the rest of the businesses) was new to my Mum; the tour was a great way for her to learn about an area of the city that she does not often frequent.

Eats on 118

Ready to eat!

Pre-assembled boxes of food meant that the large group was fed quickly. We were treated to a variety of tastes, including a pupusa, two flautas, and plantain topped with dulce de leche.

Eats on 118

Paraiso Tropical sampler

We walked over to Handy Bakery next. As my office is just a few blocks from the bakery, it’s my go-to for Portuguese egg tarts (in my opinion, the best in the city), and sweet bread to be used for French toast. But I hadn’t been exposed to their savoury menu before.

Eats on 118

The spread at Handy Bakery

Several different dishes were served buffet-style, including salt cod and potatoes, sausage, fish croquettes, and fried shrimp cakes. The latter was my favourite of the bunch, especially enjoyable alongside the glass of sangria that was included in the meal (the owner endeared himself to the group with his generous pours of wine and sangria).

My favourite moment of the evening came en route to our final stop. In collaboration with Arts on the Avenue, we were treated to a musical interlude by a barbershop quartet, performed in a barbershop! The four women of the Thumbs Up Quartet were fabulous, their passion and joy for song evident.

Eats on 118

Thumbs Up Quartet

We proceeded to Battista’s Calzones, one of my favourite restaurants on Alberta Avenue. Owner Battista offered a sampling of a number of their calzones. He recommended the Giovanna (artichokes, prosciutto, truffle oil), which we learned is named after a student who used to frequent the restaurant and shared her recipe for a pizza served at her family-owned pizzeria in Miami.

Eats on 118

Calzones galore

The second and last Eats on 118 takes place on August 29, 2018, which will highlight several women-led businesses. Tickets are $47 each.

Thanks to Bottom Line Productions for the tickets, and to the organizers for another great event!

Recap: Eats on 118, International Edition

The third and final Eats on 118 event this year took place in late August. A series of events organized by Wild Heart Collective and the Alberta Avenue Business Association, Eats on 118 helps to showcase the variety of establishments located in an often overlooked neighbourhood. I’ve discovered a few gems from past tours (including Plaza Bowl on the last crawl), and this evening was no different. In particular, it highlighted just how much diversity is present on the Avenue.

The group met up at Paraiso Tropical, a popular Latin food market in the heart of 118. We were welcomed by Jesus Gonzales, who took over the shop from his parents in 2009. Although they boast a wide selection of import products from the Caribbean, South and Central America, they also offer a selection of hot takeout items. The menu varies by day, and could include tacos, empanadas, and taquitos.

Eats on 118

Kicking off Eats on 118

That evening, we each received a street food box with two tacos and a pupusa. Of the trio, the al pastor taco was my favourite, but it was nice to be able to sample a few of their dishes.

Eats on 118

Sampler box from Paraiso Tropical

Our second stop was Mama Asha Cafe, easily missed tucked in next to an auto shop. Like Jesus, Saharla Aden also took over the business from her parents, renaming the restaurant after her grandmother.

Eats on 118

Saharla Aden of Mama Asha Cafe

Saharla and her husband also refreshed the dining room have a more modern, contemporary feel, reopening in May of this year. The menu is unique, offering all-day Somali breakfast and some dishes that are hard to find in Edmonton, such as shakshuuka.

Eats on 118

Savoury plate from Mama Asha

We indulged in a savoury plate featuring beef suqaar strips, rice, a samosa, sabayat (Somali flat bread – my favourite), and bajiya (black eyed pea fritters), but without a doubt, it was dessert that stole the show. The moist coconut cake we were served to end our visit is definitely worth seeking out.

Eats on 118

That coconut cake!

Next, we walked over to Mini Kitchen. While not a retail outlet, the production kitchen on 118 Avenue is used to prepare heat-and-eat Indian and Thai meals sold at eight farmers’ markets in Edmonton, St. Albert, Fort Saskatchewan, and Red Deer. Mini Kitchen’s products can also be found at some specialty retail locations.

Damini Mohan prides herself on preparing healthy and nutritious meals without compromising flavour. With the exception of soy sauce, all ingredients they use are non-gmo, and the produce they source is primarily organic. I enjoyed the taste of butter chicken and naan we were provided, with layers of flavour without an overwhelming heat.

Eats on 118

Butter chicken from Mini Kitchen

Our final destination was Passion de France, a patisserie opened by Montreal ex-pat Mélanie Dovale in 2014. A halal pastry shop, Passion de France fills a niche in Edmonton, but she shared that she likes the community feel of the neighbourhood.

Eats on 118

Pastries on the patio

We were provided with a generous variety of their treats, including a lemon meringue tart, chocolate orange tart, eclair, opera cake, and a macaron. My office is only a few blocks away, so it wasn’t my first brush with Passion de France, nor will it be my last.

Eats on 118

Dessert from Passion de France

Kirsta Franke from Wild Heart indicated that Eats on 118 will be back again for two installments in June of next year. So if you missed out, make sure to check the Alberta Avenue website in the spring! Thanks again to the organizers for putting on another great event.

Recap: Eats on 118, Bowling Edition

I had such a grand time at the first Eats on 118 in April of this year that I knew I had to sign up for their second event in late June. Su was the perfect dining companion as we ate (and bowled!) our way down the street together.

Organized by Wild Heart Collective, the tours are designed to showcase businesses that may otherwise be overlooked because of the overall reputation of the area. Although I had been to some of the restaurants prior, it’s always interesting to learn more about the people behind the businesses.

We started our evening at Lan’s Asian Grill. Named for their mother, Lan’s is operated by three siblings: Tom manages front of house, Monica ably leads the kitchen, and Vince handles all marketing and photography. They’ve been in business since 2008, and though their parents taught them to be great hosts, they didn’t want them to be restaurant owners. But with several generations of chefs and food entrepreneurs in their family, it was in their blood, and it’s clear that this family is passionate about what they do. Tom shared that they just signed another five year lease, and they’re happy with how the neighbourhood has continued to grow since they moved nearly a decade ago.

Eats on 118

Vince, Monica, and Tom of Lan’s Asian Grill

We sampled several small plates at Lan’s. Everything is made from scratch (so they can manage the dietary restrictions of most diners), and pride themselves in using free range chicken and organic vegetables.

The carrot and green papaya salad was my favourite course – vibrant, crunchy, and refreshing (I had to laugh when Tom said the heat level was “baby spice”, considering it was on the hot side for me).

Eats on 118

Green papaya and carrot salad

We also tried their chicken satay skewers and a lovely dessert of passion fruit and guava panna cotta.

Eats on 118

Passion fruit and guava panna cotta

Our second stop was just around the corner – The Duck (which some may remember as The Blind Duck) is now led by Alex.

Eats on 118

Kirsta Franke of the Wild Heart Collective introduces us to The Duck

He served us a buffet-style Mediterranean spread, including baba ganoush, hummus, and fatayar (meat and spinach pies). Though most items we tried don’t appear on their regular menu, they are often featured as daily specials, and are available through their catering service. Of the samples we tried, the fava bean dip was at the top of my list, creamy and well seasoned.

Eats on 118

Bites from The Duck

I was most excited for our third and final stop. Plaza Bowling Co. has been in the Stride family for three generations since it opened in 1959. The facility has been meticulously maintained for the nearly 60 years they’ve operated, as it changed hands from grandfather, to father, and now to son.

Although Trevor Stride never thought he’d continue the family business, when his dad told him he’d be putting it up for sale, it just didn’t feel right. So on January 1, 2017 he returned to Edmonton from Vancouver in the hopes of creating a place for people to socialize. He brought in TVs and craft beer, focusing on brews from Alberta and BC on six rotating taps. In the fall, they’ll also be serving up some food prepared by Drift.

Eats on 118

Su has great form!

They have sixteen five-in lanes, and the only remaining wooden lanes in the city. The space feels worn in, laid back, and comfortable, and we had such a great time bowling one game that we stayed for a second.

Eats on 118

Five pin bowling!

Because Plaza Bowl doesn’t have a full kitchen, they allow groups to order food in. In this case, Eats on 118 wanted to showcase another business off the Avenue – Otto.

Whereas Plaza’s refrain is “craft beer and bowling”, Otto operates on “craft beer and sausages”. It’s a gem of a restaurant in Norwood, relaxed and family friendly. They served up two different kinds of Fuge sausages and coleslaw for us to try – the Otto dog (a bratwurst stuffed with Sylvan Star smoked gouda) was new to me, and will definitely be on order on my next visit to Otto.

Eats on 118

Otto dog and coleslaw

Kudos to Wild Heart Collective for putting together such a fun evening! If you missed it, you have one last chance this year to (re)discover Alberta Avenue – the last Eats on 118 takes place on August 30, and tickets are just $42.

Showcasing Alberta Avenue: Eats on 118

It was kismet for the 2017 season of Eats on 118 food tours to start at the end of April. My office just relocated to 118 Avenue this week, so I thought the tour would be a great way to acquaint (or reacquaint) myself with some of the eateries I’ll be frequenting more.

Wild Heart Collective (the same folks behind the 124 Grand Market, among other placemaking events) was brought in by the Alberta Avenue Business Association to run a pilot of food tours in September 2016. The four tours in four weeks were so successful that they decided to continue in 2017. It appears to be a good decision so far; the first tour of the season was so popular Wild Heart had to open up a second seating to accommodate those interested.

Eats on 118

Eats on 118

As with most food tours, the hope for participating restaurants is that patrons will return on their own after the guided introduction. Happily, Business Association Executive Director Joachim Holtz shared that many of the restaurants that participated last fall did notice an uptick in traffic following the tours.

On this tour, the $40 ticket would include tastes at three restaurants that we would reach by foot. As I mentioned in a recent post however, the value for organized tours is not found in the food alone, but in the information or access provided by the guide. In some ways, the buy-in from the Business Association (and the connections they can bring) has resulted in a solid foundation for Eats on 118; all three restaurants were enthusiastic and well prepared for their showcase.

Mack and I joined about two dozen others for the first seating on Wednesday evening. Kirsta Franke was our tour guide.

Eats on 118

A welcome from Kirsta and Joachim

We began at Battista’s Calzones, an Alberta Avenue gem. Battista Vecchio has been in business for six years, and his handmade calzones have been featured on Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here. But you have to visit in person to understand why Battista’s Calzones is worth seeking out. Hot out of the oven, the dough is soft and yielding, encasing savoury combinations ranging from all-beef meatloaf (my favourite) to prosciutto, artichokes and truffle oil (Battista’s favourite).

Eats on 118

Battista’s Calzones

That night, everyone had the chance to sample two calzone flavours. Though I could have easily finished a whole calzone, it was probably wise of the organizers to limit this appetizer to only part of a calzone so we’d be able to pace ourselves for the other establishments.

Our second stop was on the next block at T & D Noodle House. A family-run restaurant open for more than two years, T & D is named after its proprietors Thien and Diep. Their daughter Laura (who also happens to serve on the Business Association Board of Directors) offered us a warm welcome. She served up one of their most popular dishes – chicken, beef, and spring roll combination plate.

Eats on 118

Chicken, beef, and spring roll combination plate at T & D Noodle House

Everything was well-prepared, but I was really hoping for a sample of their pho. One of the things I’m still mourning with our office move is not being within walking distance of Chinatown’s Pho Tau Bay any longer (my go-to for quick lunches), so I’ll be back to T & D to see if they’ll work out as an adequate stand-in.

Our final visit was another neighbourhood favourite – El Rancho. Open for thirteen years, El Rancho has been a part of the Avenue’s revitalization efforts. Last year, restaurant owner Dora Arevalo founded a street festival that celebrated Latin food, dancing and music; expect the event to return again this July.

Although Dora was away in El Salvador last night, her hospitable staff ensured we were well-fed and happy. Each table was provided with a platter of chorizo, beef, and chicken tacos to share. Although we’ve been to El Rancho many times, we typically stick with their pupusas and flautas, so it was great to be reminded of their other menu options. The chicken tacos were by far our favourite.

Eats on 118

Tacos at El Rancho

Mack and I agreed we were served just enough food to be comfortably full – any more and we would have had to bag leftovers!

It sounds like the Business Association recognizes the assets they have in the neighbourhood, and have found a good way to highlight them. I hope these initiatives do encourage ongoing return visits to an area that is often overlooked.

Thanks to Wild Heart and the Alberta Avenue Business Association for organizing a fun evening! If you missed it, there are two additional tours to come on June 28 and August 30, 2017 – tickets are now available, and are likely to sell out fast.