Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse

Pampa downtown Edmonton interior

For years, Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse sat on 99 Avenue and 109 Street as the lone location in Edmonton. However, more recently, they’ve grown to include two more spots in the city, one in Ellerslie and another in the west end. Although the premise of rodÍzio (unlimited meat carved at the table) always intrigued me, the price didn’t necessarily encourage me to go.

As my friends had mentioned before, it’s a great experience, but the cost — $52.99 per person for dinner — simply covered the main meal and buffet. Anything such as drinks and/or desserts (if you even have room left) were an addition, quickly racking up the bill. Therefore, it remained on my list of places to try, but it was never a priority.

Then, last year, a different restaurant with the same idea decided to open up along Saskatchewan Drive. A number of other local foodies were popping into Fumaca Brazilian Steakhouse to test run it, and I opted to check it out, too. Personally, I loved Fumaca’s meats (their buffet could use some improvement), and ever since then, I’d been wanting to get to Pampa to compare the two.

Downtown Dining Week menu

I strategically waited until Downtown Dining Week rolled around before booking an OpenTable reservation for our visit. The $45 menu on offer during that event was slightly smaller. It included the hot and cold buffet (over fifty items) as well as ten different meat skewers versus the usual fourteen at regular price. Was it enough of a difference to my wallet to skimp out on those four more meats? Probably not. On the other hand, I made a point of trying all ten cuts that were available to me, and I can safely say that I don’t think I could have eaten any more than what I did (not counting the dessert I tacked on at the end).

My plate of items from the hot and cold salad bar

To recap the overall meal, I’ll start with the buffet. It’s a pretty extensive spread ranging from pickles and veggies to hummus and cheese to potatoes and salads (greens and pastas) to soups and stews. It certainly seemed fresher than the one at Fumaca with more variety and larger portions set out. While I chose not to sample the soups, they did look deliciously creamy. Ultimately, I stuck with some of the house-made hummus (I’ve had better from a store bought container), sliced radishes, raddichio salad (kind of bitter and oddly textured), Brazilian cheese bread (too hard as if it’d sat out too long under heat), beef penne salad, marinated baby potatoes, Caesar salad, and a warm creamy chicken pasta to accompany my onslaught of meats.

Once we were back at our table, we left our cards flipped to the green side to signify that we were ready for the skewers to come; flip them to the red side to let the servers know you need a break.

Marinated Chicken Drumstick

First up was the marinated chicken drumstick. I found this to be simply seasoned and smoky with a very crisp exterior while still maintaining some moisture underneath the skin. Not my favourite, but tasty enough.

Pampa Pork Sausage

Next was the Pampa pork sausage. I have not learned to love cilantro (it has that soapy flavour) and I found that the herbaceousness of it came through too much for me. This sausage was also dry and I didn’t enjoy the full pieces of peppercorn that dotted the pork.

Beef Top Sirloin

I asked for a more medium-cooked slice of the beef top sirloin. Definitely a bit more fatty than some of the other cuts of beef, but this was tender, juicy and nicely crusted at the edges.

Bacon-Wrapped Chicken Thigh

The bacon-wrapped chicken thigh is likely the hottest piece of meat that we were served (everything else was lukewarm). This was probably due to bacon grease being trapped between the pork and the chicken. No question, it was a little oily, but the chicken was quite succulent underneath the bacon.

Parmesan Pork Loin

One of my top choices, more for the flavour than the texture (slightly tough), was the Parmesan pork loin. The meat had a hint of lemon to it and it was heavily rubbed with dry Parmesan cheese crumbs. Honestly, this was a genius combo.

Rosemary-Marinated Pork Shoulder

Before trying the rosemary-marinated pork shoulder, I wasn’t sure that I would like it. Pork shoulder isn’t a cut of the pig that I often have and I was concerned about the preparation of it. Turns out that it was the closest thing to pork belly (go figure) that I’d get to eat on that night. Sure, it didn’t have the same fattiness of pork belly, but the extremely crispy skin held all of the juices in and reminded me of the pork belly I’d had at Fumaca.

Beef Garlic Steak

Can you ever have too much garlic? It’s a preference thing, I suppose. In the case of their beef garlic steak, I’d say that it’s a big maybe. Initially, I loved the abundance of garlic crusting the piece I was carved. Yet, it eventually became way too salty on my palate.

Chimichurri-Basted Beef Striploin

The only meat that wasn’t served from a skewer was the chimichurri-basted beef striploin. It was one of the last meats that I was presented with, so I asked for a smaller piece to make sure that I’d be able to finish it. If there was cilantro in the sauce (it’s a typical ingredient in many chimichurris), the flavour was thankfully masked; nevertheless, it was too greasy and salty despite the use of a tender steak as the base.

New Zealand Leg of Lamb

To change things up, they also offer a New Zealand leg of lamb. Much leaner than the other meats, it provided a decent chew and a lovely outer crust without the gamey flavour that many dislike about lamb (I don’t actually mind it myself).

Beef Rumpsteak

Last, but not least, was the beef rumpsteak. The slice I received was just a tad dry (shredding apart in the mouth) even though it looked to be cooked perfectly and had a nice colouring to it. It was also very minimally seasoned, making it kind of bland.

As a final bow on the evening, I went for their feature dessert. It was a coconut custard with boiled mango on top. The preparation of the fruit was interesting. It turned the mango into something like a chewy jelly, and the custard actually had flakes of coconut in it. Not the worst, but also off-putting since custards should really be creamy and smooth. This was unexpected.

All in, our meal came to $114 after tax and tip was accounted for. Aside from the one dessert, we refrained from extras like beverages, which made it more reasonable for two people. Nonetheless, with each small glimmer of greatness in the food, there were also many things that I found to be lackluster. I’m not likely to go back to Pampa anytime soon; however, if anyone is a fan of meat, meat, and more meat at a single sitting, then this is the place for you.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Local Omnivore

Sausage Party

Before the Christmas holiday, I was scrolling through Instagram when I came across a post from GetintheLoop. They were offering $100 in local gift certificates to those who could prove that they were following their page. I wasn’t sure if I was too late to benefit from this, but I took a chance and screenshot my information, so they could verify.

Shortly after I sent my direct message, I received a reply asking for my mailing address. Within a few days, an envelope showed up that included $50 to spend at The Local Omnivore (10933 120 Street). In my mind, it was perfect because I’d been wanting to try this deli for a while. Although owners Mark Bellows and Ryan Brodziak had run their food truck of the same name for about two years prior to launching their brick and mortar restaurant in 2015, I’d never even tried their offerings then. Therefore, this visit had been a long time coming.

We walked into the place to find a crowded entrance. Some of the patrons were clearly attempting to pay for their bill at the till. But, I couldn’t tell if another group was waiting for a table or an order to go. The painted wood pallet wall indicated that guests still waiting for companions in their party should hold back on grabbing a table. Otherwise, you should have been able to seat yourself. This being our first visit, I opted to double check before walking in. We were told to go ahead and select any of the empty chairs in the eccentric — walls marked up with graffiti, an exposed cement floor, table tops of linoleum tiles — diner space.

At first, we selected a table located at the far end of the bench that runs along the concrete wall. After a few minutes, one of the servers spotted us there and told us that, even though we were instructed to sit wherever we wanted, this was the only table we couldn’t actually have. It’s apparently the only spot that can comfortably sit a group of five, meaning it had to be left open for larger groups. Fine. That’s when I noticed an available table tucked into the corner over towards the entrance. It was cozy minus the slight breeze whenever someone opened the door. Thankfully, the cool air dissipated quickly in those cases.

While The Local Omnivore serves brunch daily until 3:00 pm, I wasn’t super keen on trying anything from that selection. Ultimately, I decided that Kirk and I would head over there on a Saturday afternoon for a late lunch/early supper to take advantage of their regular sandwich, burger, and shareable menu. The two of us ended up splitting the Roast Vegetables ($9.99), Total Recall Philly sandwich ($15.50) with a side of Pirate Poutine ($9.99), and Butcher’s Board Sausage Party ($21).

I do have to say that the service was not ideal here. After they asked us to switch tables, it took at least five minutes for one of the servers to bring us some menus. She did come back fairly quickly to take our order; however, I’d say about 15 minutes later, another server came over to ask if we had gotten any drinks and inquired as to whether or not our food was on the way yet. Because of her lack of confidence, we assumed that they’d forgotten to put our order through; I was especially worried when I noticed that a duo who came in much later received their items before us. All in, I’d say that we waited about 30 minutes until our dishes were finally brought over.

Everything looked great when presented though. As I snapped photos, the aromas made my mouth water even more. Kirk kept eyeing all of the plates, mostly upset about the melted slices of Swiss cheese sliding out of the sandwich.

Roast Vegetables

I’ll begin with the Roast Vegetables. This was a mix of carrots and Brussels sprouts topped with sweet cider beets and pickled daikon. They were lightly seasoned and still earthy in flavour. I would have preferred the carrots to be less crunchy and that the veggies be more charred. Honestly, the best part was having the preserved beets and daikon, adding both a natural sweetness and acidity that balanced well together. For the price, I’ll admit, there are many other places that do roasted vegetables better than this and in ways that are more unique.

Total Recall Philly

The Total Recall Philly is The Local Omnivore’s take on a classic Philly cheese steak sandwich. Theirs includes a foot long sesame bun filled with a zesty cheese sauce, green peppers, mushroom, onion, Swiss Cheese, and a generous amount of roast beef. I was able to discern the sauteed mushrooms along the bottom of the sandwich and I found one piece of green pepper, but I didn’t notice much in the way of onion. It could certainly have used more of the veggies to round it out better. Kirk didn’t like how soggy the bun got either. On the other hand, I enjoyed the fact that it was a straight up bun, no crazy toasting, as I hate bread that is too hard. The zesty cheese sauce, Swiss cheese, and roast beef are what makes this delicious. I found the shaved meat to be a good thickness, easy to bite apart, and quite succulent.

Pirate Poutine

When the Pirate Poutine was brought over, it came in a separate bowl rather than on the same plate as the sandwich. I thought they may have given us a full order, but upon paying, I confirmed that it was actually put through as a side. Considering that, I feel like the side portion is quite decently sized and great for sharing. The shoe string pirate fries (seasoned with a paprika based mix) were doused in vegetarian gravy, cheese curds, and green onion. Based on the description, the potato itself wasn’t as skinny cut as I expected. There was still a little width to each stick. Granted, the outside of the fries were not all that crisp, so they got soggy fairly quickly. We ate this fast though as it turned out to be one of our favourite things at the table. In fact, the gravy was so good that Kirk truly thought it was made using meat. He was surprised to learn of it’s veggie origins when I broke the news to him.

Sausage Party with Pirate Poutine

Under the Butcher’s Boards category is where you’ll find the Sausage Party platter. This includes three of The Local Omnivore’s smoked sausages: Garlic Uke, Hot Italian, and Yellow Curry. Pots of house-made preserves are served on the side. Two of them were repeats of what already came with the roasted veggies, so we had hefty portions of the pickled daikon and sweet cider beets. More traditional pickle slices came in another (Kirk said these were super garlicky). In the last was plenty of grainy honey mustard. Initially, I chose to taste test each of the sausage flavours by themselves. The meat was well-blended, allowing for an easy chew and didn’t taste too fatty. The Garlic Uke was somewhat standard in terms of flavour profile, but easily the most approachable and probably the best one to pair with the preserves. In the other cases, I didn’t believe that the preserves paired well with the sausage. I kept thinking that the honey mustard and the beets were just too sweet and the pickled daikon was too acidic to go with the Hot Italian and Yellow Curry options (both of those offered a noticeable amount of heat). In my opinion, the sausages were all best when appreciated on their own merits.

I’m a bit on the fence about The Local Omnivore. I felt like we were approached as a nuisance to the staff. They were never all that attentive or friendly to us from the second we walked in, and it was almost like they had a mentality that the service didn’t matter. That’s how it came across to me, anyway. Perhaps they were having an off day. That being said, there’s no doubt that they make some excellent smoked meats and poutine. Ultimately, if the hospitality doesn’t bring me back, the hints of greatness in the food might do the job.

Calgary Restaurant Review: Vin Room Mission

A petite serving of Hummus and flatbread.

On our recent road trip to Calgary, I opted to try out restaurants that offered Happy Hour menus. Our meals were planned around the mid- to late-afternoon hours or well into the evening to take advantage of the deals. During our first night there, we ended up at Vin Room Mission (2310 4 Street). We were seated on the main floor in a narrower space past the lounge and right near the kitchen. It was cute and cozy as Kirk and I sat side by side.

As we reviewed the options, I was quite tempted by a list of features that they had for the evening. But, we stuck to my plan, and ordered only from the Happy Hour items: Bartender’s Choice Beer Pour ($6), Hummus ($5), Weekly Tacos ($5 each), Spaghetti Pomodoro ($5), and Grilled Chicken Skewers ($2 each).

Bartender’s Choice Beer Pour

For the beer, we were hoping for something on tap and more local. It turned out to be a bottle of Steam Whistle, so nothing all that special and kind of expensive for the price. On the plus side, to start, they provided complimentary popcorn with the beer.

The Hummus was presented in a tiny dish with four triangles of grilled flatbread brushed with olive oil. It was nice that the flatbread was actually warm and still soft. The hummus was garlicky and flavourful. It was so small though. It took just a few minutes for us to crush that plate.

Weekly Tacos

Kirk is the one who chose to have two of the Weekly Tacos. I sampled a bite of it, and I wasn’t impressed. I already tend to dislike pico de gallo because of the frequent inclusion of cilantro, but, on top of that, the corn tortilla was super dry, tasting like thin cardboard. Otherwise, the Valentina hot sauce and chicken was fine.

Spaghetti Pomodoro

The Spaghetti Pomodoro comes meatless with a simple mix of tomato sauce, basil pesto, and shaved Grana Padano. The sauce was light, but tasty. I appreciated the amount of cheese, considering the ratio of the topping to the noodles. I was beginning to understand that Vin Room was able to have such a cheap happy hour by altering the portion sizes significantly. It’s a good thing we weren’t particularly hungry and these “snacks” were enough.

Grilled Chicken Skewers

Probably my favourite choice of the night were the Grilled Chicken Skewers. I’m pretty certain that the same chicken was used in the tacos (and I doubt they switch up the type of taco every week). Still, the pieces of chicken were plump and tender. I also enjoyed the honey-lemon glaze and fresh herbs. We even ate the petite green salad on the side.

Carrot Cake

We decided to indulge in dessert before we left. It was the Carrot Cake ($9) that caught our eyes. With a Wensleydale cheese frosting, carrot-pineapple jam, and vanilla creme anglaise, it was quite decadent. Our only complaint was that it was clearly prepared in advance and refrigerated as it was chilly on the tongue. It would have been more pleasing to, at least, have it served at room temperature. Regardless, it was a highlight of our meal at Vin Room.

I wouldn’t necessarily go back to Vin Room for happy hour alone. But, the service was attentive, so I’d be interested in checking them out again for their regular menu just to see what the quality is like in comparison to what you get for happy hour. There was certainly a bit of promise with a couple of the items and the place was busy, so it can’t be all that bad, right?

Calgary Restaurant Review: Calcutta Cricket Club

Calcutta Cricket Club

From the second you spot the mint-hued building, you know you’re in for a treat at Calcutta Cricket Club in Calgary. Located on 17 Avenue, this restaurant, designed by local artist Maya Gohill, is described by her as a “1960’s Indian social club meets The Golden Girls.”

Stepping into the space, I totally understand the latter idea. It’s got that sort of gaudy quality reminiscent of the crazy, colourful clothing the women on that show used to wear and there’s a very ’80s to ’90s vibe (à la Miami Vice). Sunny pinks and blues are offset by a large-scale checkered floor, wicker bar stools, and a prominent leaping jaguar behind the bar.

A reservation had been made in advance using OpenTable, and, upon arriving for brunch (available Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm), we were promptly seated by a friendly server at a table for two.

Mango Lassi

We took a few minutes to review the menu. It’s not extensive, but there are several options, including a Slow Brunch consisting of three courses for $25 per person. While it looked wonderful, both of us decided to select individual dishes. Kirk went with his usual standard-style English-ish Breakfast ($15) with a side of Bacon ($5). I chose the Tandoori Fried Chicken ($18), and, because I had to have it, I also ordered a Single Chai-Ovaltine Pancake ($6.50) as well as a Mango Lassi ($4.50) to drink.

The Mimosa Cart

The Mango Lassi was served in a short glass, but, due to the thicker, creamy consistency, it was sufficient enough to go with my meal. Made with yogurt, mango, and cardamom, the slightly spicy and fruity mix was sweet without being cloying as the yogurt mitigated the natural sugars. It’s the perfect non-alcoholic beverage to pair with Indian cuisine. On a side note, I saw the mimosa cart go by a few times while we dined and it was super tempting. They use fresh squeezed juice — grapefruit, orange, or spiced pineapple — to make their cocktails ($8 each), which makes all the difference.

English-ish Breakfast

Kirk’s English-ish Breakfast came with Empire Provisions spiced sausage, sunny-side eggs, tomato, masala potatoes, and sourdough. Visually, at first glance, it was a little boring. However, digging in, the seasoned potatoes were delicious and the curry over the eggs added a new dimension. The additional bacon was generous and crispy. The star of the plate was certainly those spiced sausages though. They packed a ton of flavour and some heat on the palate. Not overwhelmingly spicy by any means, but enough to be warm, comforting, and a change from the norm.

When my Tandoori Fried Chicken was placed in front of me, I was shocked at the size of the dish. The two pieces of deep-fried yogurt marinated chicken were huge! I commented on that, and the server who had dropped our plates off stated that many guests even opt to add extra chicken. After taking an initial bite, I could see why. The meat was succulent and tasty — nutty, zesty, spicy, pungent — with a crisp breaded exterior and a balance of sugar from the coconut and honey. Laid beneath was a large slab of cornbread (maybe a tad dry) and a refreshing green salad. Since I still had “dessert” to work through, I ate only half the food, packing up the rest to go.

Single Chai-Ovaltine Pancake

I’m so glad that I didn’t miss out on the Chai-Ovaltine Pancake either. It was incredible. The single portion was perfect for me and it’s still prepared the same way as a full-size order, meaning it is presented with the daily fruit compote, saffron chantilly, and garam spiced granola. You get the best of everything without the possibility of overeating. I loved all of the textures from the thick, fluffy pancake to the crunchy granola and the floral-infused chantilly cream.

As our final meal during our short visit to Calgary, this was definitely a memorable one. It’s sad to think that Calcutta Cricket Club is hours away from home and it’ll be a while before I can go back. Then again, it just gives me something else to look forward to (like maybe happy hour next time) whenever I have a chance to return to Calgary.

Calgary Restaurant Review: Bread & Circus

Art made for Bread & Circus

For my birthday weekend in Calgary, I had planned several meals based around available happy hour menus. One of the places that popped up during my search was Bread & Circus. It’s tucked away on 17 Avenue — a favourite area whenever Kirk and I visit the city — behind Una Takeaway on 6 Street.

The interior of Bread & Circus keeps your eyes moving.

I mean, anyone who walks into Una Takeaway will see the restaurant entrance right there, but it still kind of retains an in-the-know hideaway feeling when you show up for your reservation (booked through Resy). Prior to being seated, our winter coats were taken and hung up for us. We were then led to a table for two that was tucked into a small nook across from the chef’s bar.

As it turns out, only select items from the antipasti and pasta options were included as part of happy hour, but it was enough to satisfy us. NOTE: It seems that happy hour has changed since our visit as they now offer a daily $5 menu of house wine, specific cocktails and food items between 5:00pm to 6:00pm.

When we were at Bread & Circus, cocktails were on special for $6 each and certain marked plates were half off (costs listed here are regular price, unless otherwise indicated). That included their Garlic Bread ($7), Amatriciana ($19), Carbonara ($20), and Beef Carpaccio ($14).

The Pomme Pomme

The Pomme Pomme ($10) was a tall cocktail mix of Calvados, Gifford’s Ginger Liqueur, and lime juice, making for a refreshingly tart beverage with a hint of spice at the back of the throat. Very smooth and easy drinking.

The Beef Carpaccio was presented first, and it was superb. The paper thin, circular slices of bright red meat were generously covered with broccolini salsa verde, shaved mimolette cheese, and puffed farro. The salsa was creamy and cooling on the palate. The hard orange-hued cheese was nutty and slightly salty, pairing well with the florets of broccolini, and the puffed farro added a little bit of crunch. So many textures and distinct flavours came together to make one fantastic dish. Even Kirk, who does not like raw meat, ate his fair share of this one (citing the beef actually looked fresh and appetizing to him because of the colouring), and we ended up ordering a second plate.

Amatriciana pasta in the forefront with the Garlic Bread in the back.

Before we even got our first order of Garlic Bread, Kirk decided that we should get two, so again, another was requested. There’s a reason why this is charged at $7 each though. It’s because it’s a whole loaf of freshly baked, warm pull-apart bread. The outer crust was a tad dry in spots and sort of subtly flavoured throughout. That is, until you get to the portion where they stuffed it with the garlic butter. Then it turns into a potently garlic treat. I devoured almost my entire loaf, careful to eat all of the parts doused in that butter and leaving behind the drier bits.

Carbonara

The two of us split the Amatriciana and Carbonara pastas. Both were delicious. Yet, they were also kind of similar. The only difference was the type of sauce that each came with. Their Amatriciana is technically made with bigoli noodles — still a thick, round pasta that I couldn’t really tell apart from the spaghetti used in the Carbonara — tossed in a traditional tomato sauce, chilies, and pecorino romano. The Carbonara is prepared with a creamy white sauce made using a farm egg and cracked pepper before being topped with more pecorino romano. Each of the plates was elevated with the same protein of crispy pancetta. Either way, I’d order both again. Incredibly simple in execution, but perfectly al dente noodles and deep, rich flavours in the sauces.

Caramelized popcorn as a parting snack.

By the time we finished all of that food, we were so full. I would have loved to try dessert, but I just couldn’t fathom eating anything else. Thankfully, a tiny dish of caramelized popcorn was dropped off with our bill, so I got a little taste of sweetness to cap our meal.

From the fun, secretive nature of Bread & Circus and the eclectic decor to the friendly service and the wonderful food, I’d say that this is definitely a spot to visit if you live in Calgary or find yourself there for work or play. In a heartbeat, I’d recommend it, especially for that stellar beef carpaccio.