Edmonton Restaurant Review Duo: Joey Restaurant & Earls Kitchen + Bar

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

Nowadays, chain restaurants like Joey and Earls – both founded by the Fuller family – get a lot of flak. People say these establishments are too corporate, that they take away from the smaller, independent eateries. But, I beg to differ. There was a time, not too long ago, when those were the go to places in Edmonton. Always bustling with people, there could be lines of up to an hour (or more) for a table and patrons would patiently wait.

While still relatively casual, these places give off an upscale air. During my lifetime, the trio has become synonymous with living up to a standard in service (for the most part) and quality of food. No matter which city across Canada that a customer happens to be, if they walk into one of the Fuller offshoots, they’d likely come away satisfied.

Yet, in recent years, we’ve had a bit of a love affair with a smattering of great entrepreneurial chefs and business owners who have gone above and beyond in growing the food offerings available in E-Town. Why go to a chain restaurant when you can support something more local? However, let’s not forget that the first Earls opened in 1982 in this very city as an independent, local eatery. Sure, the chain’s headquarters is now situated in Vancouver, but its roots are here.

It’s not to say that we’ve all abandoned Joey and Earls. Far from it. They remain popular hangouts for the typical diner. There’s just a lot more competition from the single storefront eateries with their award winning menus that dot our city. Those who frequent these, arguably, awesome establishments on the regular seem to forget that the chains were once our saviors when it came to a night out on the town. Friends (a few, not all) sometimes turn their noses up at the idea of stepping foot into a chain restaurant, and it’s fine if that’s how they feel. I’ll even concede that the menus are relative carbon copies of one another, and sometimes the selection isn’t all that exciting or adventurous, but there are still things I enjoy about these places.

Personally, I believe that there’s room for the chains and the independents in my heart and my stomach. So, this is my review of and love letter to Joey and Earls.

Joey really does have a permanent slot in my heart. I have many memories of great meetings and conversations over delicious meals with friends and family within the confines of Joey walls. At one point, my parents and I were frequenting the Jasper Avenue location so much that we became well acquainted with a server named Ryan. In my younger days, a good friend and I would often takeover a table for the entire evening as we lost track of time. It was almost like a second home (slightly exaggerating), but with better food (sorry Mom).

I don’t make it to Joey as much as I used to anymore. The locations around town aren’t the most convenient for me. However, I always think it’s worth it when I get to go.

Although the menu has changed over the years to better suit whatever food trends pop up, I’ve never been truly disappointed with a dish. From the lettuce wraps, chili chicken and flatbread to the rotisserie chicken, salmon (used to be cooked with maple) and fettucine alfredo, it was/is all so tasty.

For at least a few years, they’ve had simply one of the best sandwiches on their menu. The Ahi Tuna. Grilled so that the middle of the tuna steak remains rare, it’s a good value for the portion at under $17. The tuna is topped with bacon, crispy onion rings and a flavourful sweet pepper relish. All the layers combine to make for an extremely delicious sandwich. If you’re a fan of sushi and burgers, you can’t really go wrong with this choice.

I’m also a fan of Joey desserts. They’re known for the Molten Lava Chocolate Soufflé and Baked to Order Apple Pie, both of which have been on their menu for as long as I can remember. Those two are tried and true classics that continue to belong because Joey does them so well. Recently though, they added in a key lime pie as a third option. I was a bit skeptical when I first saw it, but I tried it and I have to say that it’s another win. There’s a good balance of sweet to tart and if you like fresh cream, they put a very generous helping of the whipped topping on the plate, too. It’s not quite on par with what one would find at Duchess Bake Shop, but it’s better than the version on offer at Cactus Club.

I often can't pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

I often can’t pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

Moving along to Earls, who remembers the parrot décor (while I’m at it, don’t forget about the red and white checkered table cloths and giant tomato decor of Joey in its original form)? The Earls chain has come a long way since those days. The original Tin Palace on Jasper Avenue has shifted from the beer and burger joint it was to a fancier iteration of itself. It still has a wonderful, large patio for those short summer months, and a few burgers up for grabs, but the menu has expanded.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself at Earls (mainly the one by the U of A Campus) for many a book club meeting. I admit that, yes, I was getting a little tired of going to the same place so much, but I have to say that the food and the drinks are more than decent.

I do miss their old Thai flavoured chicken wings. Nevertheless, Mojito Friday and Saturday is the best. I also love their Dynamite Prawn Rolls and the Cajun Chicken Caesar Salad (the Pecan Chicken Rocket Salad is fantastic, too; sadly, I think it was replaced within the past season). The one misstep I made recently was ordering their Forager Burger. It was just okay. I’m all for a good veggie burger, but something was missing. Maybe the roasted mushroom patty wasn’t patty-like enough for me. The flavours didn’t pack much of a punch either.

Where the Forager Burger fails, Earls has plenty of other choices to fill its place. My friend has enjoyed their take on Korean Bibimbap a few times now. The Fettucine Alfredo or the Confit Chicken and Pancetta Fettucini are good for carb fans. The Jeera Chicken Curry is a mild dish for those who like Indian flavours without the spicy heat, and the Chicken, Brie and Fig Sandwich has become a mainstay for many.

Aside from the food, the appeal of Joey and Earls comes from the fact that, because each location is part of a larger corporate entity, they’re never quick to shoo patrons out the door. Sure, high table turnover on a busy night means a larger pool of tips for staff, but the bottom line is often determined by a few factors: affordability, service, atmosphere and flexibility.

Allowing customers to linger a little (or a lot) longer because they’re having a good time is something that these chains understand. After all, my friends and I, deep in conversation, have been prone to stay the night. It’s where we’ve shared many a story with one another, and where we’ll likely continue to do so as long as we always feel welcomed by the corporate exterior with the heart of a family who decided to start their business right here.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Underground Tap & Grill

Green Onion Cake Sandwich

Green Onion Cake Sandwich

Every time I set foot into Underground Tap & Grill for lunch, I’m surprised to see how quiet it is. I guess it isn’t a destination of choice for most of Edmonton’s downtown workers, but it is one of mine. Over the last year, I’ve eaten there several times. The quality of the food is consistent, even if the friendly service received doesn’t necessarily meet my expectations.

Underground has become one of my go to restaurants, in part, because of proximity to my workplace, but also for the delicious pub food that is, on occasion, made with a slight twist.

Although I haven’t tried everything on the menu, I have enjoyed the chicken fingers with caesar salad, the green onion cake sandwich, the loaded nachos, the blackened tidbits and the tinga chicken quesadilla.

Looking at that selection, it’s easy to scoff and say that it’s pretty hard to screw up chicken fingers or nachos. However, I beg to differ.

Chicken Fingers & Caesar Salad

Chicken Fingers & Caesar Salad

Breaded chicken fingers can easily become overcooked, yet the ones at Underground are always crisp on the outside and piping hot, tender and juicy on the inside. The caesar salad that accompanies the strips is nicely coated with dressing, too, so they definitely don’t skimp there.

As for the nachos, I had those the very first time I stopped into Underground. I added the Asian pulled pork to my order just to round out the meal, ensuring I had something from every food group. I was met with a huge basket that I eagerly tried to share with the rest of my group. What I like is that they put plenty of cheese into the mix and they use fresh jalapenos. Plus, they provide sides of guacamole, salsa and sour cream.

On the other hand, during my last visit, my friends and I shared an order of the loaded nachos, which were on special for just $7 on a Thursday night (meat not included), and I was a bit disappointed at the serving size. The first basket was gone in a flash and we ended up ordering a second to go around. While I don’t blame the eatery for trying to balance portion for profit, the nachos didn’t really seem worth it that evening.

The latest version of their menu.

The latest version of their menu.

The blackened tidbits are a great appetizer to share though. The top sirloin pieces are wonderfully seasoned and served with a spicy chipotle sauce and shreds of sweet potato. The steak might not be the tenderest cut, but I’ve never seen them overcooked.

A quesadilla is simple yet delicious. It’s easy to split among a few people, but it also makes for a filling meal for one. Underground stuffs theirs with chipotle tinga chicken, corn truffle, sweet peppers and mozzarella and it’s served with the same sides as the nachos. Most places would charge extra for the guacamole and the salsa, so it’s nice that those are included here.

I’ve had the green onion cake sandwich once before. It’s maybe one of the more creative items on the menu, and it’s my friend’s favourite (she gets it each time we’re there). Underground’s homemade green onion cake is stuffed with Asian BBQ pulled pork, suey choy, tomatoes and more green onions. I think it’s appetizing, but it’s certainly a heavier sandwich. Also, if the green onion cake is even a little too crisp, it takes away from the dish as a whole.

In the evenings, Underground seems to liven up with the majority of the tables occupied. The downside is that service slows immensely when it’s busy. However, nightly deals – including a 7 oz. steak with all-you-can-eat sides for $12.50 on Mondays – make it an affordable place. The food caters to the masses, so there’s likely something for everyone.

Keep in mind that, during happy hour (3pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday), they have select Alberta beers available for just $5, but there’s a high chance they’ll be out of 4 of the 5 choices. Good thing they have 72 micro-brewed beers on tap at any given time, not to mention the cocktail or beer cocktail menu, so there’s no shortage of other options. The other choices might not be as inexpensive, but at least there’s plenty to choose from.

All-in-all, Underground is a fun, slightly noisy place to meet up with friends for a low key gathering over above average pub food and a few smooth drinks.