Edmonton Restaurant Review: Soda Jerks

The entrance to the West Granville Soda Jerks.

I remember when Soda Jerks opened their first location at West Point Centre in 2011. The concept of building your own burger from top to bottom at a restaurant was pretty foreign. As such, going there became somewhat of a treat.

Eventually, that first shop closed, and I didn’t give Soda Jerks much thought afterwards. Not until this year, anyway.

A few months ago, I launched YEG Food Deals on Facebook to share my knowledge of restaurant happy hour and daily specials on another platform. It’s the sister site to the pages already found on this blog. In keeping those resources up-to-date, I’m constantly researching and I happened to see that Soda Jerks still existed, just in different areas of the city.

With my information provided to them, I started receiving their newsletters in addition to getting a promotion in the mail. Summertime yielded a feature menu and a BOGO burger offer that was to expire over the September long weekend.

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I’m not one to pass up a deal, so I was inclined to give Soda Jerks a try once more. We ended up at the West Granville location on Winterburn Road (near the River Cree Resort & Casino). It was lunch hour on a Sunday and about a third of the space was occupied by customers.

One of the servers greeted and seated us promptly before giving us several minutes to review the selection. We waffled for a while, but my mind was pretty much set on the Electric Pulled Pork sandwich ($13.50) from their seasonal “Pitch A Tent” options. I thought my boyfriend had made a solid decision. However, upon placing his order, he surprised me by going for the Bacon Jerk Jr. ($17+).

Bacon Jerk Jr. Burger

The latter was a double patty burger with bacon and an extra layer of bun in between. Processed cheese, lettuce, red onion, pickles and thousand island dressing garnished and flavoured the meal. I had a couple of bites and we both agreed that something was missing. I think it may have come down to charring of the meat and toasting of the bun. It didn’t have that grilled or buttery taste that’s so necessary. I also don’t understand why they bother to use processed (American) cheese slices. They still looked like plastic sheets when the burger was delivered from the kitchen.

Electric Pulled Pork Sandwich

As for my sandwich, I felt that it fared much better overall. It was a lot smaller, so I suppose it made for a lighter meal, too. The pulled pork was cooked with a root beer BBQ sauce that had a slight spiciness and sweetness to it. I do believe that they could have left the potato chips out of the sandwich. I get that the chips were included to diversify the textures. Yet, it failed because the sauce made them so soggy that I almost couldn’t tell they were even there. Just the beer bun with grains would have sufficed as the sole starch. On the other hand, I enjoyed the electric kale slaw. I’m quite certain that the base of the slaw used came from those Eat Smart Sweet Kale Vegetable Salad kits found in most grocery stores. But, that’s okay. The slaw was deliciously prepared; I think it was sautéed, so it was warm, and the slightly tangy dressing partnered well with the meat. A slice of melted havarti added a luxurious creaminess to the handheld lunch.

Both of us kept our side simple: Soda Jerks hand cut fries. These were decent. Cut to the same dimensions for even cooking, they were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I did find them to be a bit bland though. I definitely needed the ketchup. I also tried to sprinkle some of their signature seasoning on a portion of the fries. It helped somewhat, but to really add enough flavour, I would have had to douse a lot more on and I didn’t want to do that either.

I do plan to go back to Soda Jerks to eat one of their donut burgers because I’m still trying to find something similar to what I sampled in Chicago last year. Although, once that happens, I’m not certain I’d go out of my way to revisit again. Yes, the service was good when we went on this occasion, and the prices are reasonable (especially on Wednesdays for 25 percent off burgers). But, the food was truly just alright. For the money and the calories, I know that better exists.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Montana’s BBQ & Bar

Plaid for lunch at Montana’s seemed appropriate.

I’ve never put much thought towards the Montana’s BBQ & Bar restaurant chain. There are four locations that dot the south side of the city and two relatively close to my home. Yet, for some reason, they never really appealed to me.

I’m going to chalk that up to the fact that I didn’t grow up going camping or lodging, so the very rustic cabin atmosphere didn’t seem to lend itself to the idea of a great meal out. However, my boyfriend had mentioned time and again to me that Montana’s makes some pretty good wings. Plus, I just happened to get a coupon in the mail.

We ended up going to the South Edmonton Common branch for lunch on the August holiday Monday. We arrived just as they opened and one of the servers greeted us before she walked us to a booth nearby a few other customers.

The interior of the South Edmonton Common Montana’s location.

My first impression was that the joint was just as I imagined it would be. High ceilings with wooden beams (essentially wood everywhere), a stone fireplace, mounted animal heads, classic truck facades and a full-size canoe were among the decor choices I noticed.

Crayons and kraft paper provide entertainment at the table.

All of those things truly set a tone. Although, I don’t know that they scream barbecue. Either way, I didn’t actually mind it. The casual setting is great for a family outing, especially if one has children. We don’t have kids, but the kraft paper placemat that covered the entire table and the cup of crayons provided are arguably entertaining for adults as well.

Going in, the only thing I knew we were ordering was a basket of the Double Dusted Chicken Wings ($13.79, but half price on Mondays). Otherwise, we had some decisions to make. Between the two of us, we finally settled on the lunchtime Reuben Sandwich ($15.99) and Mac ‘N Cheese ($11.99).

Double Dusted Chicken Wings

The wings didn’t take long to make their way out from the kitchen. The reason why my boyfriend enjoys them so much is because there’s a lot of meat. I have to say that he was right. The wings themselves were larger than what might be found elsewhere. The only thing is that these orders only have eight wings each. Other restaurants often serve wings by weight and instead of eight wings, there might be ten to twelve instead. It balances out. Also, even with half price wings when we went, they still work out to be almost $7. Compare that to Tuesday night at Original Joe’s where a whole plate of wings comes to $4.50, and I’d probably be more inclined to go to the latter. In any case, I tend to prefer wings that are cooked with dry rubs, so these were quite messy. But, the texture was okay (still slightly crispy despite all the sauce) and the medium flavour was savoury, a little zesty and had a small kick of heat at the end. Reach dip also helped to tone down any spiciness, if needed. On a side note, I will commend Montana’s on their excellent sourcing of wet wipes, which are supplied to diners. They’re some of the best I’ve ever used.

Reuben Sandwich with Chippers

Moving along to our mains, my boyfriend is the one who chose the Reuben Sandwich. Smoked pastrami isn’t my favorite kind of meat. Yet, I’ll admit that it was quite good. I think it comes down to it being made in-house versus anything I’d get at the grocery deli. The meat was plentiful and succulent. Combined with mustard, thousand island dressing, sauerkraut and cheese, it proved more complex than I expected. Our main suggestion for improvement would be to grill the buttery marble rye a little longer to give the bread more texture and flavour. For his side, my boyfriend chose the chippers, which are fresh made potato chips sprinkled with dried dill seasoning and served with a dill dip. These were surprisingly good on their own. The potato slices were big, crunchy and non-greasy with a hint of the herb. Personally, I found the dip to be too strong, so I refrained from eating much of it.

Both of our entrees actually showed up about half way through our devouring of the wings. The server even apologized that everything came out at the same time. It didn’t matter so much for the sandwich, but it would have been nice to get the Mac ‘N Cheese a while later. I wanted to finish the wings before they got cold, but it meant that I was delayed getting to my pasta.

Mac ‘N Cheese with Caesar Salad & Cornbread

Thankfully, the macaroni and cheese came plated in a hot iron skillet. By the time I got to working on the dish, it could still be considered warm. I liked that Montana’s utilized cavatappi (corkscrew) pasta. The shape picked up more of the cheesy bacon and white wine cream sauce, locking in all the flavor. The whole thing was then baked with additional cheese until melted and golden brown. I do wish that there had been more crispy bacon tossed on top, but overall, this was a passable mac and cheese. If anything, this lunch-size version is a great value; included with the pasta is a side of Caesar salad (an appropriate amount of dressing for me) and in-house baked cornbread (sweet, moist, not too crumbly). The cost won’t break the bank and all three components of the meal are definitely filling enough.

Skillet Cookie

Now, we could certainly have skipped dessert that day, but the coupon I had on hand required a $40 purchase in order to receive a $10 discount, so we went for it. Montana’s provides several options in the sweets department. We ultimately decided on the classic Skillet Cookie ($6.99). First, I’ll say that it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. Our idea of a skillet dessert is that it’s made right in the pan itself. When the dish was delivered to our table, it looked like two already baked chocolate chip cookies had been sandwiched together with caramel in between and then placed into the skillet to be warmed. The dessert was then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I did find it to be very sweet and I tapped out before it was finished. However, it wasn’t bad by any means. The cookies were soft and chewy with lots of melted chocolate. The semi-sweet chocolate chips probably even aided in balancing things out with a touch of bitterness.

So, is Montana’s BBQ & Bar going to be a place I visit regularly? Most likely not. Nevertheless, going forward, I won’t discount it either. Timing issues aside, the service we experienced was excellent at this particular spot, and the food, while not the best I’ve had, is of decent quality for the price.

Daily Specials

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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: CRAFT Beer Market

Since CRAFT Beer Market opened their first Edmonton, Alberta location back in December 2013, within the last month it has quickly become a bustling downtown venue for a casual, yet fun night out. Whether you’re meeting friends for late night snacks or heading out with co-workers during lunch or having a vent session over drinks, it has turned into the new popular place to see and be seen. I would also say that it is acting as an additional anchor in the revitalization of the downtown core.

The bar - the focal point of the restaurant.

The bar – the focal point of the restaurant.

I have been there on three separate occasions, all for different reasons, so I now feel like I can give a fair review of the restaurant and bar.

My first visit to CRAFT was for what was considered to be the VIP grand opening on December 17th. We were invited as our office had just booked out the top floor for a company mixer to take place in the New Year and this was a chance for a few of us on the party planning committee to check out the space, the food and the extensive drink selection.

Surprisingly, upon stepping into the restaurant, my initial thought was that it was way larger than I expected it to be. The main floor is deep set with booths at the front as well as bar height seating taking over a wall on a slightly raised area of the section. There is essentially no wasted space. If they can fit a seat, they probably will. The back portion of the street level space is lined along the east and west walls with booth seats, bar stools and raised wooden tables and at the very back some lower booths look into the room where all the beers and wines currently available are stored and tapped. However, the real focal point is the huge bar that houses over 100 different taps with large pipes running the kegs from the back room to the bar, giving the place an industrial rustic feel. If you love beer, I really think you won’t be disappointed. And, if, like me, you don’t know much about beer, this is the perfect place to test some out and find one you enjoy drinking.

The restaurant's main floor.

The restaurant’s main floor.

The second level overlooks the main floor. Windows give you a peek into a kitchen and there are large booths and long tables that are perfect for hosting larger groups. Come summertime, the rooftop patio should be open and I think it will be wonderful for soaking up the sunshine over lunch or an early supper. Although, I suspect there will be long lineups to get a table. The basement provides extra keg storage, a coat check and the bathrooms along with ATM machines for those who find themselves in need of extra cash. It’s also about 10 degrees cooler in the basement, which, believe me, is fantastic as the main and second floors can warm up rapidly.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering about the food. At this grand opening event they had two stations set up. One served their Baja Fish Tacos and the other their Hawaiian Ahi Poke. I have to say that, on this occasion, the fish tacos were just okay. I think that there just wasn’t enough fish in the taco, so mostly I was eating cabbage, wrap and hot sauce. On the other hand, the ahi poke was amazing. The sashimi-grade tuna was incredibly fresh and melted in my mouth. The dish is served with cucumber, vinaigrette and crispy wonton chips. I believe if you order the dish there is also a spicy sauce that can be added, but that was included at this event. The texture of the fish against the crunch of the chips and cucumber was great, and the coolness of the tuna and cucumber nicely offset the spice from the sauce. It was my favourite appetizer. Servers also came around with samples of the Fast Food Sushi (cheeseburger and fries wrapped in bacon) and pretzel bites (stuffed with cheese and served with what I’m guessing is an aioli). What I like about CRAFT is that they do source out local produce if they can, and, from those few tasters, I saw the potential of the food. Without a doubt, the ahi tuna was enough to convince me to make a return trip.

For their first night being open, the service was superb that evening. Our server seemed very knowledgeable about what was on tap and she made recommendations based on what we mentioned to her. She even brought us small glasses of a few different beers to try before we made our decisions for our full pints. Overall, on first impression, the staff was very friendly. It was extremely busy though, so it took a bit of time for our server to make it back to take an order or drop things off. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. If you go in without the expectation of making it in and out within an hour, you’ll have a good time.

The extensive beer selection - over 100 on tap!

The extensive beer selection – over 100 on tap!

I visited CRAFT for the second time on January 10th. This is where I was a little less than impressed. I had phoned two days prior to make a lunch hour reservation. The hostess took my information and, while she initially mixed up the date, I corrected her and expected that they would have it on file when I arrived to meet my friend. Unfortunately, when I approached the desk, the hostess working that shift could not find my booking at all. Thankfully, she explained the situation to her manager and he immediately offered me two seats at the bar. His quick solution was satisfactory on this occasion since I was meeting just one person. Yet, if I had made a reservation for a group of four or more people, I would have been quite upset. Sitting at the bar with that many people doesn’t allow for conversation and, from what I could see, most of the other tables were occupied or likely reserved. I have absolutely no idea what happened with my booking as they never figured it out, but I really hope that it isn’t a regular occurrence. For the time being, I’m just glad they are taking reservations at all. They may rid of that eventually as I think the CRAFT site said it is temporary since they are new and unsure of how busy it will be, but typically their restaurants are first come, first serve. All I know is that had I not made a reservation, I may have been waiting for a table for a long time as one woman who was at the front when I walked in asked how much longer it would be and was told it was still going to be about twenty minutes and she replied, “but that’s what you said twenty minutes ago when I arrived.” Yikes! I understand that new restaurants are always going to have growing pains while they figure out staffing, routines and procedures, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

In terms of the food that afternoon, I had their CRAFT House Soup – a cheddar, jalapeno and Rice Howard House Ale concoction – that was quite delicious. It wasn’t overly creamy, the cheddar wasn’t overpowering and the pepper gave it a nice kick, but not so much so that it burned my taste buds. I also tried the crab cake sliders, which had crab cakes sandwiched between cucumber, arugula and a pretzel bun with citrus aioli and pepper salsa on the side. I enjoyed them, but make sure you eat them with the aioli and salsa as that really upped the flavour quotient. My suggestions for improvement with them is that the crab cakes should have been charred a bit to better keep the crab meat together and that maybe the cucumber only be placed under the crab cake rather than above and below it which acted as a press that subsequently squished the cake every time I took a bite of the slider and resulted in the meat falling out the sides. I’m also not a huge fan of the pretzel buns that seem to be more of a staple nowadays. Unless they’re baked fresh I find them to be too hard and dry to really add to a dish. I would much prefer a soft whole wheat bun over a pretzel bun. Of course, that’s just my opinion and I’m sure that many out there love pretzel buns. My friend ordered the Yucatan Chicken Salad, which looked really fresh and like a very substantial meal. The service, again, was stellar. The bartender was very attentive and checked on us throughout to take our orders, make sure the meals were alright and refill our glasses.

My third and most recent visit was just this past Friday, January 17th for my workplace get together. It took a bit of convincing to get some people to go, but quite a few of my friends either wanted to try something new or had been to the Calgary location and were looking forward to checking it out in Edmonton, so this party was the perfect excuse to do just that. We rented out the second floor for four hours of the evening. The package we went with included six different appetizers, two drinks per person and a variety of bite sized desserts. They moved the long tables usually situated in the center of the space to the sides and placed cocktail tables in the middle making for a variety of places to sit or stand. Initially, I was skeptical that the floor would accommodate 125 people, but it worked.

My co-worker and I at our holiday party.

My co-worker and I at our holiday party.

The selection of appetizers chosen included a veggie platter with hummus and flatbread, chicken wings, pulled pork sliders (not available on their regular menu), fish tacos, pretzel bites and the ahi poke. I can’t speak to all of them as I only tried four out of the six items. However, I can say that the fish tacos were much better than at the grand opening – plenty of fish and more flavour. The ahi poke was just as delectable this second time around, so much so that many of us said we would have just taken the whole bowl of tuna if we wouldn’t have been frowned upon. The pretzel bites were soft and had just the right amount of cheese stuffed inside, but I tried them after they had been sitting out for bit and they were no longer fresh. Had I had some when they arrived at the tables, I’m sure they would have been even more enjoyable. The last appetizer I tasted was the pulled pork slider. Now, I love pulled pork sandwiches. They have become one of my favourite meals, and while I won’t say that these were terrible, they certainly could have used a little effort from the kitchen. It was literally just a bit of shredded pork on a pretzel bun. The sauce was subtle, but should have packed more of a punch with the barbeque flavour and it needed additional texture such as a slaw to really bring it up a notch. I was satisfied though and everyone else I spoke with raved about the food. CRAFT also did a good job of ensuring that the dishes were replenished regularly, so there was food consistently present.

Another aspect that I was happy with was the fact that CRAFT supplied servers to our party, and that they actually took drink orders throughout the evening. Prior to attending the party I wasn’t sure if we would have to take our drink tickets down one floor to the bar, but this simplified things for the party goers. And, for the most part, the servers were excellent at bringing the beverages back to the proper people (difficult at times as people moved around as they mingled with others), only seldomly mixing something up. In addition, I did read some of the reviews of the restaurant on Urbanspoon that complained of them being out of certain beers that were listed on their menu, so I was a bit worried that would be the case for our party, but it wasn’t. From what I could see they didn’t have a problem fulfilling the orders that were taken. This being one of CRAFT’s first large events for hire since opening, I would say they provided us with a memorable time and great service.

One thing I will note is that the acoustics were terrible. We were provided with a PA system for a quick speech and the handing out of door prizes, but with the music in the background as well as all the commotion from the patrons on the main floor as well as our zone, it was almost impossible to hear even from 10 feet away. I’m not sure if the microphone was turned up, but that’s something to consider should you decide to throw a party there and require that.

Also, I know it’s too late to make this suggestion to CRAFT, but they certainly should have contemplated adding an elevator into the building. I can see potential issues with overzealous customers who’ve had a little too much to drink having a difficult time navigating the staircase. If anything, as a precaution, I suggest they think about placing a bouncer in the stairwell area who can escort anyone who needs help to a cab.

All-in-all, I really like CRAFT. The sleek look, the relatively well CRAFT-ed (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) food (seriously, the ahi tuna makes this place), the welcoming atmosphere and the pleasant service are all things that will bring me back.

The much raved about Hawaiian Ahi Poke!

The much raved about Hawaiian Ahi Poke!

Grab some friends and have a nice meal, a couple drinks and some good conversation. More than anything, this place is about bringing people together and rediscovering the social aspects of your life again. They also offer daily deals on drinks and food, so check them out here.

If you’ve tried CRAFT in Edmonton, tell me what you thought of it by leaving a comment below. You can also follow the restaurant for up-to-date news on Twitter: @CRAFTbeeryeg.