Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mai Vietnamese Fusion

The exterior of Mai Vietnamese Fusion.

Had I not strolled by Mai Vietnamese Fusion along West Edmonton Mall’s Bourbon Street earlier this year, I never would have known of its existence. Intrigued, I searched for it online and found that the restaurant itself had no website or Facebook page. The only trace of it came through reviews left by patrons on Yelp and Zomato. Their only social media presence was on Instagram and even that hadn’t been updated since the summer of 2016.

Those reviews I’d seen weren’t very flattering either. Yet, a Groupon deal was all I needed to forgive any negatives and give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a try. I waited almost the full four months before I went to redeem that voucher on a Saturday night. When my boyfriend and I walked up to the host standing outside the front of the establishment, we indicated that we needed a table for two people. She seemed disorganized and asked us to wait while she ran inside to find an empty space (shouldn’t they have a seating chart at their disposal?). When she came back, we were told that there wasn’t anything available, but something would be ready within ten minutes or so.

The entrance into the restaurant.

As we waited, my eyes explored the room, and I have to say it was designed well. A giant Buddha greets patrons as they come in through the door. To the left hand side of the entrance is a whole wall of smaller figurines of the same in a variety of colours. On the main level, there are a couple of semi-private rooms for larger groups as well as some more intimate tables for couples. Up a few steps on the right hand side are a number of large velvet-lined booths overlooked by a handful of portrait paintings. Overall, the aesthetic was modern with just a touch of the traditional.

Condiments at the table along with fresh basil and bean sprouts.

Once we were seated, we reviewed the menu. Initially, I thought it was a bit expensive in comparison to other restaurants that serve the same type of food. However, I do understand that the cost of rent at WEM is much higher than it would be anywhere else, so I’m assuming that is reflected in their prices. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the large Pho with Steak ($15.70) and I went with the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli ($16.20).

It didn’t take much time for them to prepare everything because, before we knew it, our bowls were brought out to us, along with a plate of fresh basil and bean sprouts. Then we went to work devouring it all.

Pho with Steak

The Pho with Steak was very generous in size. There were plenty of noodles in the bowl and enough steak that my boyfriend nearly failed to finish off the meat (unheard of). The soup wasn’t particularly hot, but it was warm enough. Fattiness was apparent in the broth with bubbles of oil at the top, yet it didn’t seem greasy when consumed. It was a nice, simple soup. I wish I could give a true sense of what it tasted like on its own though. Unfortunately, I only had some after my boyfriend added in a bunch Sriracha sauce to it. Arguably, that added a delightful heat that also elevated the flavour of the dish. Of course, I won’t know for sure how pure the soup is until I go back and try the pho again without that alteration. In any case, it was good enough for me to want to keep drinking the broth.

Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli

My portion of the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli did not disappoint. Sure, it wasn’t as big as the pho, but it was all noodles, veggies and protein. I almost had a hard time stirring the components together for fear of anything jumping ship out of the side of the bowl. In the end, I managed to get the fish sauce mixed in well though. Again, they did not skimp on the noodles (as a cheap ingredient, they shouldn’t be). The ratio of vermicelli to beef was almost perfect. I especially enjoyed the meat as it was marinated really well; the lemongrass flavour definitely came through and there was a pleasant charring from the grill. The two spring rolls were deliciously crisp and filling, too.

Our only issue with the restaurant was the service. Each staff member that we encountered came across as friendly, and, as I mentioned before, our food was presented pretty quickly. Despite that, there was still a sense of mismanagement. With several people working that evening, two tables, including ours, never received our requested glasses of water. Both of us had to ask random employees for our drinks towards the end of our meals because we couldn’t find the person who was supposed to be our server.

Otherwise, it turned out to be a decent dinner out. I think I understand why the restaurant doesn’t necessarily have the greatest reviews out there. Nonetheless, if someone can see past possibly subpar service and they happen to be at West Edmonton Mall with a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine (and other Asian-style dishes), I would tell them to give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a chance.

Asian Adventures Photostream: Hong Kong & Singapore

DSCF2621 - CopyWhat exactly does it mean to travel? Depending on the situation, travel can mean exploration, reconnection, growth, experience, relaxation or any number of things.

This past May, I spent three weeks in the city of Hong Kong with four and a half days in the middle touring the small island country of Singapore (it’s just 34 square kilometers bigger than Edmonton). Under any other circumstance, you would not find me traveling to Asia in the spring or summer. I typically find the kind of heat during that time of year – highs of 30 to 40 degrees Celsius including 80 to 90 per cent humidity – to be completely unbearable. However, in the name of family, I succumbed and flew with my parents to Hong Kong to celebrate my cousin’s wedding.

It’s unusual for me leave everything to others when I go on a trip, but I planned absolutely nothing. With all the family gatherings that would be taking place, I figured it would be pointless to get my heart set on anything specific, so I didn’t.

While we endured some flight delays, weather extremes and higher costs than expected, the holiday was still a success. A full three week break from my every day life was exactly what I needed. I visited with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and my little nieces. I got some new stamps in my passport (well, only in Singapore). I ate a ton of food. Too much food, really. I did end up doing some shopping, not just window. After all, eating and shopping are major pastimes in Hong Kong. You can’t expect to go and not do either of those things. That would be impossible. By the time the trip was over, I almost felt acclimated to the heat, too. One of the best things though? I finally had a chance to test out the Fujifilm X10 camera I bought a couple of years ago.

So, this post is going to be more like a pictorial journey of my vacation. There’s a lot of food porn. But, those of you who follow this blog would expect that. Otherwise, it’s a mix of everything that I saw or did during my time there. The majority of the photos were taken on my Fujifilm camera. There are also a few here from my HTC One M8 and my mom’s Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX80 (for those times when my camera battery died). I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: 97 Hot Pot

Boiling our pots of soup at 97 Hot Pot.

Boiling our pots of soup at 97 Hot Pot.

As a Chinese girl who was born and raised in Edmonton by my parents, far away from the rest of our immediate family, we would eat Chinese food when I was growing up, but I much preferred things like pizza, pasta and the like over traditional Asian fare. I’d happily go to Chinatown to eat sweets like pineapple buns, and, of course, to shop for all things Sailormoon. That was pretty much the extent of it.

It has always been that way for me. If I ever had the option to have anything other than Chinese food, I’d take it. Yet, that mentality has changed over the years. By all accounts, Chinese cuisine still isn’t my favourite; however, I do love a good Peking duck, or freshly made shumai and cocktail buns at what I like to call “Asian brunch” as we usually partake in dim sum late in the morning and on the weekend.

So, now that I’m older and more willing to try everything, when my parents suggested going for a hot pot lunch on a chilly December day, I thought I had better give it a go. I really should refrain from being picky nowadays.

Raw chicken and pork slices, bean curd, dumplings and sauce.

Raw chicken and pork slices, bean curd, dumplings and sauce.

Years since I had had that type of meal – essentially you get boiling hot soup and you cook raw veggies and meat at the table yourself (it actually sounds a lot like The Melting Pot from what I’ve been told) – I figured it was time to open myself up to my heritage. After all, hot pot is the Chinese equivalent of bringing family together.

We ended up at 97 Hot Pot, a somewhat newer establishment in the heart of Chinatown. The location used to be home to a small grocery store, but has been renovated into a spacious, bright and clean restaurant. Tables have individual hot pot plates built into them, so each diner can pick a soup base of their choice. The temperature settings of the heating plates can be changed (on a scale from 1 to 3), allowing patrons to adjust them as needed.

The interior of 97 Hot Pot.

The interior of 97 Hot Pot.

They offer an all-you-can-eat option at 97 Hot Pot, but the lunch menu is more than enough for each person. At around $13 each, there’s plenty of food to ensure you don’t leave hungry. Using the paper menus, we checked off what we wanted, which includes one type of broth along with five entree items. All of us selected different things, but I went with the Szechuan Spicy Chicken soup, sliced sirloin beef, pork wontons, pork & vegetable dumplings, beef balls and vermicelli noodles. Another bowl of fresh veggies (lettuce, tomato, corn on the cob, enoki mushrooms, white button mushrooms and broccoli is provided as part of the price.

First off, let me say that the Szechuan Spicy Chicken soup is SPICY! I love food with a good amount of heat, but, for me, this was more than I expected. On the one hand, I didn’t have to use any additional sauces to flavour my soup and food. On the other, it was spicy enough to take away some of my ability to taste anything else. This soup is made with a number of ingredients, many of which I couldn’t quite pick out, but can be seen in the pot. One flavour in particular was hard for me to pinpoint, but I’m sure it came from some sort of re-hydrated veggie or bean, which is often used in Asian soup bases, and not one I’m that fond of. Nevertheless, it was still yummy, and, if you have a penchant for extremely spicy food, this might be for you.

I liked that they didn’t skimp on the extra bowl of vegetables because it could be a meal in itself. Regardless, I’m glad to have the additional entree items. The sirloin beef slices were fresh, the beef balls had a nice spring to them once cooked, the dumplings were plump and juicy, and the vermicelli, which soaked up just the right amount of flavour from the soup, helped to fill my belly. The only misstep of my meal was the tiny wontons. Although several were provided and they were tasty, they were much smaller than regular wontons that are to be had anywhere else. Also, if I had a do over of my lunch, I would maybe have gone with the rice noodles instead. Thick, clear and kind of gelatin looking, I sampled one from my mom’s plate, and they were delicious.

My mom's selection of rice noodles, sliced sirloin beef, shrimp, squid and fish.

My mom’s selection of rice noodles, sliced sirloin beef, shrimp, squid and fish.

With regards to the service, it was busy that day and they don’t have many people on staff, so I would say that they could improve in that aspect. Both my mom and I still had some food to cook, but our soup had boiled down until there was very little left in the pot and you could smell a bit of the food burning. We had to wave a staff member down to get them to add water to our pots before we could continue with our meal.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the food and the outing. It’s a fun, communal type of meal that is as traditional Chinese as one can get.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wild Tangerine (CLOSED)

The restaurant's tag line.

The restaurant’s tag line.

I had been to Wild Tangerine (@goWildTangerine) years ago, visiting after hearing many excellent reviews. While the experience at the time was great, for some reason, even though I kept telling myself to go back, I never did. Fast forward to the beginning of this month and I came across a Twitter post or perhaps a quick news snippet announcing the impending closure of the restaurant on June 21. I was shocked to hear that such a successful and loved establishment was deciding to shutter their business after 10 years, especially when siblings Judy and Wilson Wu’s passion for food has continued to shine so brightly (voted by readers into the No. 19 spot on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in 2014 and No. 22 in 2013).

So, upon learning of the countdown to the restaurant’s final day, I immediately texted my friend and asked if she wanted to join me there for supper the following week. When she agreed that we should definitely make a point of going before it was too late, I reserved us a table and we were off to the races.

The interior of Wild Tangerine

The interior of Wild Tangerine

Walking into the brightly lit and colourful space, it hadn’t changed much since my first meal there, but I could see that everything was well taken care of and had been kept in great condition. We were seated at a booth by the windows at the front, giving me a view of the entire room. Arriving a little before the dinner hour, there were only a handful of other occupied tables. However, as we dined, the restaurant was eventually filled to capacity with patrons both showing their love and wanting to indulge in one last meal that usually consisted of at least one order of their known shrimp lollipops.

Enticing as that appetizer sounded, my friend decided to go with Chef Judy’s famous Thai Green Curry with Prawns & Tortiglioni minus the seafood as she is allergic, making it a vegetarian dish. I opted to go with the Cha-Siu Organic Pembina Pork Tenderloin with Spicy Tangerine Glaze as well as a side of Gnocchi with Coconut Cream. What I love about their food is that they always serve everything with fresh seasonal vegetables, so you know you’re getting the best that producers have to offer and that the meat products are one hundred percent Alberta grain or vegetable fed in addition to being antibiotic and growth stimulant free.

My order of pork tenderloin and gnocchi with coconut cream.

My order of pork tenderloin and gnocchi with coconut cream.

I tasted a bit of my friend’s Thai Green Curry dish and the flavours were fantastic. It wasn’t overly spicy and was filled to the brim with green beans, zucchini, red peppers and eggplant. And, as we found out at the end of our supper, they were really fair in that they lowered the cost of my friend’s meal since she had asked for no prawns. They could have charged the regular price of the dish without resistance from us, but they went ahead and altered the cost in a way that was pleasantly surprising. It showed me that this is an independent business that really knows how to take care of their customers.

The Pork Tenderloin that I ordered was very good, too. The meat was, well, tender. Pork is often easily overcooked, but it was perfection here. The tangerine glaze was a nice balance to the saltiness of meat and the bok choy was another little nod to their Asian roots. Paired with the coconut cream covered gnocchi, I was easily satisfied. Of course, I still saved room for dessert, and, am I ever glad that I did!

The warm gingered bread pudding with black sesame ice cream. To die for!

The warm gingered bread pudding with black sesame ice cream. To die for!

When Wilson brought the dessert menu over to the table he made a quick disclaimer about the warm gingered bread pudding, saying they were now out of the typical banana ice cream and that they had replaced the usual with a black sesame seed version instead. That really didn’t matter to me. I was sold as soon as I saw bread pudding there and, truth be told, I love black sesame, so that is indeed what I went with. When the plate was placed on our table, it looked almost too good to eat. The ice cream was in this perfect little cube next to a round cylinder of the bread pudding that was encrusted with a thin layer of torched sugar like a crème brûlée. It was served with a side of blueberries and small cubes of watermelon. The whole dish was wonderful and really the best cap to my meal. The slightly gritty texture of the ice cream was a great compliment to the smoothness of the bread pudding and the fruit provided an excellent palate cleanser.

I would say that I can’t wait to go back again, but, alas, that is not to be the case this time around. Now, it’s more like I’m kicking myself for not having gone more often in the past. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way either. I overheard a table of ladies tell Wilson that they were sad to see the restaurant go, and although Wilson appreciated the sentiment, he wasn’t down about the idea, telling them it was just time for them to move on.

The good news is that Wild Tangerine will still remain in some form after June 21. Judy and Wilson will continue to manage their prepared foods business part-time, serving up items such as soups, snacks and bagged cuisine meals at the new Mother’s Market, a downtown farmers’ market that is located indoors and open year round on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 102 Avenue and 109 Street.

With that, I wish the Wild Tangerine a fond farewell. It will truly be missed by Edmonton foodies. However, the show must go on, and I give three cheers to Judy and Wilson as they take their next steps! All the best!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tropika Malaysian & Thai Cuisine (West)

About two weeks ago, my friend Ashley and I braved the cold weather on the way to West Edmonton Mall to stop at Tropika Malaysian & Thai Cuisine for dinner. I’ve been going to the 149 Street and Stony Plain Road location ever since it opened. It’s a favourite of my family’s and, therefore, we eat there frequently.

Ashley and I selected the restaurant for the evening because it is one of the establishments listed on The Tomato’s 2013 list of the top 100 eats and drinks in Edmonton, coming in at number 36. While we’ve gone separately before, we had never been there as a duo, and as it is on the list we’ve currently decided to tackle, we thought it would be a great opportunity to enjoy a supper together.

The food is consistently good and the service is impeccable (the servers make sure to refill your glass of water even when it’s still half full and they come by to clear away things like cleaned off satay sticks, so your table stays clutter free), which is why it holds an 86% positivity rating on Urbanspoon.

Some of my favourites - pad Thai, sambal bunchies and Tropika homestyle chicken - amazing food, plenty to go around!

Some of my favourites – pad Thai, sambal bunchies and Tropika homestyle chicken – amazing food, plenty to go around!

The menu at Tropika is extensive, but my parents and I have narrowed down our favourite dishes to satays (beef and lamb) with peanut sauce, Indonesian spring rolls, roti canai (Malay bread), pad Thai, sambal bunchies, Tropika home style chicken, stir-fried eggplant with chicken in Thai’s bean sauce and sayur lemak hot pot (vegetables in coconut milk).

What I love about going there for a meal (really any Asian restaurant is like this) is that it brings individuals together by allowing you to linger, converse comfortably and encourages sharing. The dishes served are meant to be split between everyone at the table, allowing you to try several items as opposed to limiting yourself to merely one or two things.

On this particular occasion, we did only end up ordering a couple of plates as it was just the two of us. Unfortunately, we did not order the sambal bunchies that were specifically singled out on the Tomato’s list. We attempted to have it made without the prawns since Ashley is allergic, but unlike the traditional sambal sauce made simply out of chili peppers, Tropika’s sauce is made using shrimp paste as well, so there was no getting around that for her. However, I can still vouch for those who voted to have it added to the Tomato’s top 100. Sambal bunchies, a mix of fried green beans, tomatoes, prawns and sambal sauce, is addictive because of the spicy flavours of the sauce mixed with the acidity from the tomato and the nice crunch of the beans.

I especially like to have the sambal bunchies with their pad Thai, which we did order this time. Again, the prawns were cooked and placed in a side dish. The stir fried rice noodles are cooked with chicken, fried tofu and egg in a Thai style sauce, topped with crushed peanuts and served with bean sprouts, lettuce and a slice of fresh lime on the side. The taste of the pad Thai is so good that sometimes my family orders two plates because one isn’t enough to go around. This evening, it was no different. One plate was plenty for the both of us, but we each probably could have eaten a whole order on our own if we wanted to indulge. Instead, we ordered two Indonesian spring rolls to complement our pad Thai.

My plate that evening out with Ashley - pad Thai and an Indonesian spring roll - so delicious!

My plate that evening out with Ashley – pad Thai and an Indonesian spring roll – so delicious!

The spring rolls are a good size, made with pan-fried chicken, Chinese mushroom and shredded jicama inside a crisp flour shell that is coated with peanuts. It comes with a side of chili sauce for dipping. I was happy to introduce this scrumptious appetizer to Ashley, and I’m pretty sure she really liked it as she told me, “I could have 20 of these. Well, I can definitely have at least 2.” When someone has eyes bigger than his or her stomach when it comes to their appetite, you know you’re on the right track.

As long as Tropika continues to serve up interesting dishes with layers of contrasting yet complementing flavours, I will continue to support the restaurant, and I’m certain that, if you try it, you will find some new menu items to call favourites as well.

Should you be unable to make it to a physical location, you can still treat yourself by having them deliver (free within a 6 km radius from their south side or west end locations and only $4 outside of those areas). Or, if you happen to be in a rush and want to get takeout on the way, you can save 10% on all orders over $30.

Have you been to Tropika before? What’s your go to dish?