Vegetarian Vietnamese Cuisine: An Chay

After my coworker introduced me to Pho Tau Bay years ago, that was it. I had a hard time ordering pho at any other local restaurants, as I always found myself comparing it to my beloved Tau Bay (Pho Hoan Pasteur is the one exception; it was also recommended by my coworker to get us through the weeks when Tau Bay is closed). I made an exception to this rule at lunch with Linda (and Emily!) last week at An Chay.

An Chay is part of the recent wave of vegetarian/plant-based restaurants that have opened in Edmonton over the last two years. Within that niche, An Chay serves up meat-free Vietnamese cuisine; much of An Chay’s one page noodle and rice-based menu will look familiar to diners, minus the meat.

An Chay took over the space previously occupied by Pitaghetti on Jasper Avenue and 112 Street. I’m not certain if much has changed – the décor is pretty minimal – but the best feature of the room by far are the windows that line two sides of the restaurant. On that day, the natural light made it a very pleasant place to have lunch.

An Chay

Interior

Linda had already tried several dishes on the menu, and recommended we share the shredded tofu rolls ($9). These fresh rice rolls were expertly packed with shredded bean curd, lettuce, mint, bean sprouts, pickled daikon, and carrots. While I enjoyed the texture (and Emily liked munching on the tofu), they were a bit plain for my taste, even with the vinaigrette for dipping.

An Chay

Shredded tofu rolls

The pho ($15), on the other hand, had flavour to spare. The broth, laced with heady five spice, had a nice hint of sweetness. There was also a great variety of vegetables included, from baby bok choy, to enoki mushrooms, and lotus root. I would have preferred more tofu, however, especially since it was essentially replacing the typical meat protein found in pho. While I did really enjoy the soup, I still have a hard time recognizing it as “pho”; I likely would never crave it in the same way as a hearty bowl of noodles with beef.

An Chay

Pho

That said, service was efficient, and my experience overall was very positive (they had a couple of high chairs and a change table, making it a great baby-friendly option for parents). So although my go-to restaurants for pho have not changed, it’s likely I’ll be back to An Chay in the future to sample more of their Vietnamese fare.

An Chay
11203 Jasper Avenue
(780) 752-2203
Monday, Wednesday-Friday 11am-8pm, Saturday-Sunday 12-8pm, closed Tuesdays

Korean Street Eats in Old Strathcona: NongBu

Everything’s coming up Korean! With mainstream restaurants like Earls featuring bibimbap and Joey’s serving Korean fried cauliflower on their spring menus, with time, I’m sure other staples like bo ssam and Korean fried chicken might soon appear as well. But for a more authentic taste, Edmontonians have a few fairly new options to choose from, including Tofu House and NongBu. Mack and I decided to give NongBu a try, after seeing a spate of positive reviews.

Located in a former eyewear boutique just off Whyte Avenue, NongBu joins an already vibrant hospitality district. But despite the fact that they’ve only been open a few weeks, the vibe they are cultivating is spot on, and reminded us of some of the young and hip establishments we visited in Seoul.

The décor is minimal, with a focus on wood and polished concrete surfaces. They also made use of a large overhead wall as a fun projected movie canvas – who says art needs to be static?

NongBu

Mack at NongBu

When we arrived, we only had to wait briefly for a table on the main floor. There is additional seating on a mezzanine level, and given the eagerness demonstrated by the staff to accommodate party sizes, relocating tables between the floors wasn’t a problem.

The menu at NongBu is focused, with a variety that spans about a dozen dishes. Most items are intended to be shared, so it’s a great option for those who enjoy small plates. Mack and I ended up ordering the royal ddukbbokki ($11), gemma rolls ($8.50) and the bo ssam for two ($32).

I probably expected too much from the ddukbbokki, hoping the dish would transport me back to the Seoul street food tour we did back in October. The sauce was pleasantly sweet, but the rice cakes were a little on the firm side for my taste. The black pepper was also a bit overpowering.

NongBu

Royal ddukbbokki

The gemma roll was perhaps my favourite dish – I loved the chewy texture of the eggroll, and the beef and vegetable filling had been well cooked and seasoned.

NongBu

Gemma roll

The bo ssam arrived as a beautifully plated platter and several small vessels containing soup and rice. The lettuce was certainly fresh, and we couldn’t complain about the quantity of meat included. That said, the pork was definitely meant to be consumed as a part of a wrap with a generous dab of chili sauce; without that added heat and seasoning, we found that the meat on its own was tender but bland.

NongBu

Bo ssam

Our server was extremely gracious and humble, and apologized for the wait and timing of our food (even though we really didn’t find fault with either). But he seemed genuinely interested in ensuring we had a positive experience, so we appreciated the gesture.

Overall, while we did enjoy our evening at NongBu, we do think the kitchen can improve their consistency in the weeks and months to come. But given their focused menu, I am hopeful that NongBu will have a successful place among this current wave of Korean cuisine in Edmonton.

NongBu
8115 104 Street
(780) 989-0997

The Chain Pub: Fionn MacCool’s

Pubs are a dime a dozen in Edmonton. But given their versatility, the popularity of pubs isn’t difficult to understand. Good for a pint after work, a casual bite to eat, for groups large and small, and of course, for those looking to have an evening out, they transition well from day to night. We have our share of pubs downtown, and I’m sure there are more to come. Last week, Mack and I had supper at the most recent addition to our neighbourhood, Fionn MacCool’s, the decision resulting from my need for a drink at the end of a long day, and the fact that it seemed like we’d exhausted all other restaurants within a two-block radius.

Back in October, Fionn MacCool’s replaced the Elephant & Castle in City Centre Mall opposite the movie theatre. The location was in dire need of a makeover, so the change of ownership was a blessing of sorts, even if MacCool’s is nothing more than a franchise of a Toronto-based chain. The interior has been completely refreshed, and though the dark wood accents have been retained, a new bar has been installed, and the space has been opened up to feature even more large tables. Lastly, a makeshift stage has been constructed to host live musical acts on Thursdays and Saturdays. That particular night, we had the option of Olympic replays or a live acoustic duo play the backdrop to our dinner, though like most in the room, it was just for ambiance.

Fionn MacCool's

Inside Fionn MacCool’s

They had a decent drink special on ($5.50 for selected pints), but neither of us had particularly high expectations for the food (this was our first visit to MacCool’s, though there is another branch on the south side that has been open for quite some time).

Fish & chips ($16 for two pieces) was disappointing. The batter was more like a hard shell than a fork-tender encasement, but at least it was crispy. The fries (which I had made into a poutine) were less than ideal, dense and unsatisfying – it’s really unfortunate when a pub can’t even get fries right.

Fionn MacCool's

Fish & chips with poutine

Mack’s fried haddock sandwich ($15) was advertised on the menu as being topped with lobster – given how much lobster he found (and really, at that price, is it even necessary?), it really was better left off. The fish was thankfully crispy, again, unlike the fries.

Fionn MacCool's

Haddock sandwich

Service was fine, friendly and competent. But as a whole, Fionn MacCool’s really didn’t distinguish itself from any of its competitors. But I suppose it really isn’t striving to do that anyway – instead, Fionn MacCool’s aims to appeal to those looking for a generic pub, with basic food and a casual atmosphere. We certainly won’t be frequenting the location, but I’m certain its convenient location will enable its success.

Fionn MacCool’s
10200 102A Avenue (Edmonton City Centre Mall)
(780) 424-4330
Monday – Wednesday, 11am – 1am; Thursday – Saturday, 11am – 2am; Sunday, 11am – 1am

Not Quite There Yet: Afghan Chopan Kebab House

A few of my coworkers and I hosted an Afghan colleague from a Fort McMurray office two weeks ago, and we thought it was an appropriate occasion to try out a new Afghan restaurant within walking distance of our building.

Afghan Chopan Kebabhouse

Afghan Chopan Kebab House

Afghan Chopan Kebab House (10756 101 Street) opened up a few weeks ago on 101 Street next to Padmanadi. Although it is located on a major thoroughfare, it is inset on the street and thus easy to miss, which partly explained how quiet the restaurant was that Tuesday afternoon.

The décor was dated but clean, and brightened up by the ample natural light in the space. There is a large take-out counter, but plenty of eat-in space as well. We seated ourselves in a booth next to a window.

Service was surprisingly slow, especially given we were the only party in the restaurant (our request for waters was fulfilled about halfway through our meal). We were provided menus, but when we tried to order off of them, were encouraged to eat from the $9.99 per person buffet instead. The server indicated that the dishes served would be the same – namely, kebabs.

Although there were a number of buffet selections, that wasn’t actually the case – there wasn’t a kebab in sight! That said, there were a nice mix of vegetarian and meat dishes, including some pulse-based stews, pasta, shredded chicken curry and clove-scented rice. Dessert options included rice pudding and fruit.

Afghan Chopan Kebabhouse

Savoury buffet options

There’s no doubt that the buffet was value-driven, but the dishes were a mixed bag. The chickpea and bean stew and pasta (sampled on the second go-around) were the best of the lot, prepared and seasoned well. The lentil dish was noticeably undercooked, and perhaps worst of all, the chicken curry was strewn with tiny bone fragments – not appealing to eat at all. We fared better with dessert; the rice pudding had a nice rounded flavour and good texture. For the record, our Afghan colleague enjoyed the food, but noted that he was likely biased, given his homesickness for this cuisine narrowed his judgment.

Afghan Chopan Kebabhouse

My first plate

We all agreed, however, that their naan, delivered to our table freshly baked and imbued the unmistakable smokiness from a Tandoori oven, was some of the best we’d tasted in the city. Fluffy and light, it was delicious, even without any drizzle of oil or butter. The bread alone would be worth returning for.

Afghan Chopan Kebabhouse

Naan bread

Given Afghan Chopan Kebab House is a small, family-run business, I would hope it does well, particularly in light of the dearth of restaurants specializing in Afghani cuisine in Edmonton. Still, to foster repeat business, they have some kinks to work out with regards to service and consistency.

Afghan Chopan Kebabhouse
10756 101 Street
(780) 756-3191

Breakfast Artistry: Cora’s

I really thought 9:45 on a Sunday morning was early enough to escape the brunch-line crunch, but I was wrong. Arriving at Cora’s today, I was greeted with a crowd that not only snaked through the lobby, but onto the sidewalk outside. It made me wonder if the same resilience would hold in colder weather.

Eventually, I was joined by two more of our party of four. Our wait actually didn’t end up being that long – around twenty minutes. As we edged closer to the front of the line, we were able to peer into the kitchen to watch the “breakfast artists” (Cora’s term, not mine) at work firsthand, busily blending smoothies and assembling plates.

“Breakfast artists” at work

The restaurant itself was also larger than it appeared from the outside, with basic wooden tables and chairs divided by four foot high partitions. They broke up the space somewhat, and definitely helped Cora’s maximize the room. Janice made the apt observation that she felt a bit like she was in an elementary classroom – colourful cartoon representations of Cora’s dishes graced the walls, alongside random animal figures perched high on shelves. And though Cora’s is a chain, where each restaurant is likely decorated in a similar way, I had to say I liked the sense of lightness and fun expressed by the interior.

Interior

The family-friendly atmosphere was also highlighted by the many children dining alongside their parents. Moreover, we noticed that the patron demographic seemed to skew pretty young, with the majority of diners in the 20-35 age range.

Our friendly server got the three of us started with beverages right away while we waited for Annie. May ordered the smoothie ($3.95), which changes daily, while Janice and I stuck with coffee ($2.35). After our drinks arrived, and our server knew a friend was still to join us, she checked on us periodically to see if we needed refills, but never pushed us to order, despite the consistent line outside. At some point, recognizing that Annie was running really late, we ordered without her anyway, but with noted appreciation for our server’s patience.

Smoothie

I was excited to see the menu, with some knowledge of Cora’s reputation, especially out east. I loved how visual the menu was, with photos of every dish to illustrate the artistry that goes into every plate. While I usually settle on my meal fairly rapidly, with the choices so vividly represented in front of me, my decision was made all the more difficult. In the end, the ham and swiss crepomelette ($10.95) won out for both May and myself, while Janice ordered the ham panini-crepe, and Annie opted for Cora’s special.

Colourful menu

Though our server apologized profusely for our wait for the food to arrive, I didn’t think the length of time was unreasonable at all (especially given our tardy order placement). My crepe, which had been stuffed with a ham and swiss omelette, was good overall – the lightness of the crepe was notable, as was their generosity with the fillings. The hollandaise was a little on the rich side for my taste however, though I must admit I don’t usually order any dishes containing the sauce. The fruit included was a nice touch (and for me, the small bowl was enough – Janice’s “mountain” of fruit with the panini-crepe would have been too much for me), but the cantaloupe slice made me wish they used only fruits in season.

Ham and Swiss Crepomelette

Panini-Crepe (lovely grill marks)

Cora’s Special (2 eggs, bacon, ham, sausage and crepe)

With excellent service (the roving coffee servers were great), I would not hesitate to recommend Cora’s as a brunch destination. My only nitpick is its location, towards South Edmonton Common, and not easily accessible by public transit. With the success of this outpost, however, perhaps TPTB at Cora’s will consider opening a second branch closer to the core? I can only hope.

Cora’s
111, 2920 Calgary Trail
(780) 465-2672
Monday-Saturday 6am-3pm, Sunday 7am-3pm