Edmonton on Foot: Doors Open Edmonton and Chinatown Summer Market

One of my favourite things about living Downtown is its proximity to other neighbourhoods we can easily reach on foot. This was illustrated on Saturday, when Mack and I enjoyed some of what Central Edmonton had to offer that day.

I think the Historic Festival and Doors Open Edmonton should make a bigger splash than it does. It flies under the radar, given it takes place over the same duration as the much higher profile Edmonton International Street Performers Festival, but the opportunity to see some of the participating landmarks firsthand only comes around once a year.

Mack and I had already joined a horse-drawn historical tour in Beverly earlier in the week, but what I was really looking forward to was something closer to home – a guided tour of the Westminster Apartments, at 9955-114 Street. We’ve walked by the heritage building numerous times, but I’ve always wondered (a fire stoked by the accessibility of real estate reality shows) what the units inside look like.

Westminster Apartments

Tour of the Westminster

Lucky for us, this was the first year some residents of the Westminster wanted to open their doors up to the public. About forty people signed up in advance – the organizers were a little surprised at the interest in their homes!

The Westminster was built in 1912 as a speculative investment of eastern Canadian capital. It was designed to accommodate people who were transitioning from rooming houses to higher-end apartments. As such, the basement was originally set up as a kitchen, where food was prepared and sent upstairs to residents who re-heated meals in their smaller-than average warming kitchens. In 2004, the building was converted to 24 condo units. Famous occupants of the Westminster include George Bulyea, Alberta’s first Lieutenant Governor.

Westminster Apartments

Clawfoot bathtub

We explored four units, which highlighted each of their individuality. Given the age of the building, some residents had chosen to modernize their spaces, which ranged from opening up the kitchen to installing ensuite laundry and skylights. Most units retained some of the historical features, like clawfoot bathtubs and plate and picture rails.

Westminster Apartments

Picture rails

Coincidentally, we knew the couple who lived in one of the units. Over the last ten years, Mike and Yvonne have extensively renovated their top-floor unit, incorporating many Asian-influenced designs and furniture. It is a beautiful home.

Westminster Apartments

Modernized unit

Hopefully the residents at the Westminster decide to participate in Doors Open Edmonton next year – it is a gem that should continue to be admired and appreciated for years to come.

On a related note, we did try to tour Immigration Hall later that afternoon, but it seemed that the information was contained in error, as Hope Mission staff didn’t seem to know anything about it. As it goes into its twentieth year, one would hope that festival details in its guide are accurate!

After the historical tour, we walked over to Chinatown for their annual Summer Market. It is their rebranded East Meets West Festival, and when I saw that the organizers were promoting the event on social media, I was hoping that the Chinatown BRZ had changed things up this year.

It’s an event that has so much potential, and given the costs of closing down a street, I’m always optimistic that organizers will make better use of the space.

Summer Market in Chinatown

Chinatown Summer Market

They did have a more diverse line-up of entertainment, broadening the cultural lens to include South Asian performers. As well, the vendor tent did seem to house more businesses this year.  But otherwise, it was a similar template to previous events, and unlike last year, had even less street-level engagement.

Summer Market in Chinatown

Vendor tent

The massive stage was placed at the north end of 97 Street at 106 Avenue, blocking the view of the busy grocery store behind it. And while some of the larger performing groups can fill the stage, for the solo dancers or smaller teams, it seems unnecessary and actually serves to distance the audience from the action.

Summer Market in Chinatown

Xiao Hai Ou Dance Group

The food element was also missing. While food trucks don’t always have to be the answer, in lieu of them, it was disappointing that the businesses along 97 Street didn’t set up tables outside to hawk their products. It would have been the perfect opportunity to engage passerby so they might be encouraged to step inside.

We watched a few performances, then headed to Lee House for lunch. In some ways, I was retracing the steps made at the Chinatown Food Crawl back in May – it was a chance to use some of the coupons I’d received then!

One coupon entitled us to a complimentary kimchi pancake at Lee House, which went well with additional dishes of japchae and rice cakes.

Lee House

Lee House eats

To cool off on our walk home, we picked up some refreshing bubble tea from Tea Bar Cafe (also at a discount thanks to the Food Crawl).

Tea Bar Cafe

Strawberry and mango fruit slushes from Tea Bar Cafe

We were ready for a nap after spending so much time in the sun, but it was great to take advantage of what Edmonton has to offer, and (lucky for us) all within a twenty minute radius of our home on foot.

Stories Behind the Chopsticks: Chinatown Food Crawl

I love the idea of food crawls – they’re not only a great way to meet other people, but they spotlight multiple establishments within walking distance of one another, thus promoting the neighborhood on a larger level. In the past, with the seemingly defunct Edmonton branch of Dishcrawl, the focus was on areas that were already mainstream – Downtown, Old Strathcona, 124 Street.  In some ways, the food crawl is a more powerful tool when wielded to expose people to quadrants less ventured. Two years ago, the North Edge Business Revitalization Zone (covering Queen Mary Park and Central McDougall, just north of the Arena District) did this with their Flavour Journey Restaurant Tours. Now, McCauley Revitalization has embraced the food tour with a series called Stories Behind the Chopsticks.

Led by Freya Fu, the tours have been a way for her to connect Edmontonians with an oft-overlooked neighbourhood: Chinatown. Plagued by a reputation of its high concentration of social services and housing, many dismiss Chinatown as unsafe and unwelcoming. Those who do miss out on the gems – food stores like Ying Fat tofu factory and Shan Shan Bakery, happening late night hot pot restaurants like 97 Hot Pot and Urban Shabu, or my personal favourite, pho joints like Pho Tau Bay and King Noodle House.

Freya established connections with several business owners in Chinatown to create four tours in May, each highlighting four restaurants. Two were open to the public, and the $35 tickets sold out in just a few days. I have to say I was initially disappointed that the public tours were held in the afternoon (I think much of the stigma Chinatown has to overcome relates to its evening economy), but I also recognize the need to work with the owners at a time convenient for their regular customer flow.

I had the pleasure of accompanying Freya on her May 30, 2015 tour as a volunteer. There were about two dozen people in the group who gathered at our first stop: Lee House (10704 97 Street). The second location of the southside Korean mainstay, proprietor Mrs. Lee shared that she had started the restaurant twenty-two years ago with her husband. She was clearly very proud of her scratch cooking, and her son shared that she was particularly excited about this branch because of its proximity to the Lucky 97 Supermarket across the street, allowing for easy access to fresh ingredients.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Mrs. Lee and her son, of Lee House

We were treated to a family-style feast, including bulgogi, japchae, chicken balls, and an assortment of pickled accompaniments. The japchae (stir fried sweet potato noodles) is a favourite of mine, and the Lee House version doesn’t disappoint.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Korean-style feast

Zen Sushi (10518 101 Street) was the second stop. I confessed that I had walked past the storefront on 101 Street countless times, but had never peeked inside.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Zen Sushi interior

Henry, the owner, grew up in the neighbourhood, and expressed his commitment to help grow and develop McCauley. He intends at some point in the future to start “Zen After Dark” where their usual all you can eat concept will be set aside in favour of a special ramen menu on Friday and Saturday nights. This would help drive foot traffic in the area and he hopes to make Zen a positive destination.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Making sushi

I’m not a sushi eater, so I didn’t partake in much at this stop. Zen also had some kinks to work out in their ordering system for a group our size, but I’m certain they would have streamlined it by the second crawl.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Travelling on foot

Next, we headed to the adjacent Golden Szechuan (10508 101 Street). Specializing in regional Szechuan cuisine (known for its unrelenting heat), we were served a beautifully plated sampling of dishes: shredded pork with Szechuan sauce, sliced beef tendon in spicy sauce, and my favourite, sliced fish in hot sauce.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Golden Szechuan sampling

It would have been ideal for the owners to provide more of an introduction to the cuisine, as I was certain many would have benefited from learning about what separates Szechuan cooking from other, more familiar, Chinese styles.

Before dessert, we made a quick stop at Ruby’s Bakery (10642 98 Street) to pick up some treats.

Chinatown Food Crawl

How many people can fit inside Ruby’s Bakery?

Offering Hong Kong-style baked goods, including elaborate wedding cakes, it was difficult to ignore the wafting aromas of freshly made sweets. The coconut tarts were such a hit that some tourgoers ended up purchasing more to take home.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Coconut tart and tulip cake

With our to-go boxes in hand, we ambled next door to Tea Bar Café (10640 98 Street), one of several Chinatown establishments serving up bubble tea. An alternative to coffee shops, the blended fruit-based drinks with tapioca pearls proved to be a refreshing way to end our journey. Similar to Golden Szechuan, I would have appreciated some more information from the owner about the history of bubble tea.

Chinatown Food Crawl

Mango bubble tea

Overall, from conversations with participants, most had never been to any of the establishments prior to the tour. Many said they would return on their own, now knowing what to expect. Freya had the ingenious idea to distribute a coupon book offering deals to each of the businesses, which will hopefully further encourage repeat visits.

Thanks again to Freya for the opportunity to join her on the tour! And if you missed it, you’re in luck – due to popular demand, a second tour, featuring different restaurants, is taking place on July 15, 2015 at 6:30pm. The link to the tickets will go live on July 2 at 7am.

Another Chinatown Transformation: Lee House

It has been a few years since my last visit to Lee House in Old Strathcona, but for a recent Korean food fix, I was excited to visit their second location in Chinatown. They took over a storefront on 97 Street that has been vacant for many years, a building that I remember from my childhood (it had the distinction of being the only grocery store in the area that offered underground parking). Earlier this year, 97 Hot Pot also similarly transformed a derelict, hollow shell into a bright spot in the neighbourhood, and I’m hoping Lee House is continuing the trend.

The Lee House owners did a great job with the interior, with the wood finishes anchoring the room with a warmth and familiarity not unlike a comfortable kitchen. Tables are inset with a natural gas burner, which spoke to the communality of much of the menu.

Lee House

Interior

Having just been in Korea for our honeymoon, it was great to see some familiar items on the menu, spanning from barbecue to broth-based bowls and a plethora of small plates. Still, Maria and I let Roxanne (who had lived in Korea for a time) lead us through our choices. We ended up with the sweet ginger dubboki ($9.95), similar to one of my favourite dishes in Seoul, and the pork bone soup ($33.95), which seemed ideal on that chilly winter evening.

The dubboki, made up of rice cakes, fish cakes, cabbage and green onions in a ginger-soy sauce, was pleasantly sweet, though the rice cakes themselves were much firmer than their Seoul cousins.

Lee House

Dubboki

The pork bone soup felt like the main event when it arrived, complete with accompaniments. Over the course of a few minutes, simmering in front of us, the broth took on a piercing red tone, cooking down the vegetables layered in amongst the meat. But the chilli-based soup was beautifully balanced, with just enough heat to warm us through.

Lee House

Pork bone soup

It was the kind of meal you linger over, taking your time over the dredges of soup left in the pot. And unlike some other places in Chinatown, we never felt rushed; the friendly servers were more than happy to refill our tea, and gave us the time and space to catch up. It was a satisfying supper, and shared between the three of us, amounted to just over $20 per person with tip. Our only feedback for the restaurant was to consider offering dessert, as we would have been more than happy to indulge in something sweet.

On a random Tuesday night, we were happy to see that many other people had already discovered Lee House (though it should be noted their south side location is currently under renovations). And given there are many more menu items I was tempted by, I’m sure to be back soon.

Lee House
10708 97 Street
(780) 438-0790
Monday-Saturday 11am-10pm

Korean Delight: Lee House

On a fine fall day (you read that right), I met up with Annie at Lee House, a Korean restaurant tucked away almost unseen in an Old Strathcona strip mall. I hadn’t been there before, though Annie had, but the ultimate reason we chose Lee House was because of its proximity to Annie’s school and my ability to get there on one direct bus after work.

About half of the tables were full upon our arrival, but continued to pick-up throughout our stay. And though we were seated at the odd table out (most of the furniture was wood; our table and chairs were seemingly spared from an 80s furniture cull), we still benefited from the warm surroundings – wood floor, wood paneling, simple grey wallpaper and incandescent lighting. Service was conversely pleasant, as our waitress respected our desire to linger.

Neither Annie or myself deviated far from our Korean favourites – I ordered my usual stone bowl bibim bab ($12.95), while she opted for the spicy noodle soup with seafood ($12.95). I did succumb to the intriguing vegetable pancakes ($10.95), however, and selected them to start our meal.

The vegetable pancakes were the weakest part of our experience, and weren’t worth it. The plate contained what was essentially battered zucchini – the dish could have been good, but had a texture that neither of us enjoyed – not quite crispy, yet not quite tender.

Vegetable Pancakes

On the other hand, my dolsot bibim bab was fantastic. I’ve never had a stone bowl version stay hot for the entire duration of my feast (being a slow eater and all), but this bowl was absolutely sizzling. I love the combination of pickled carrots, bean sprouts, and a creamy fried egg to bind the mixture together. Of course, the bits of crunchy rice are the best – a reward for reaching the bowl’s bottom.

Dolsot Bibim Bab

Annie liked her entrée as well, and in particular, the flavour and heat of the soup. She commented that the seafood was a bit lacking though, and would have traded the large mound of rice noodles for more mussels, prawns and squid.

Spicy Korean Red Chili Noodle Soup

It was a solid meal overall with few blemishes. Lee House’s relative accessibility on public transit is also a bonus (compared with, say, B-Bim-Baab), so I know I will be back in the future.

Lee House
7904 104 Street
(780) 438-0790