Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cactus Club Cafe

A couple of my favourite things at Cactus Club.

For the past few years, I’ve been sharing my top 24 picks for the best eateries in Edmonton (check out the 2017 list here). Even though I have never reviewed it until now, Cactus Club Cafe has been a mainstay within the rankings. A favourite ever since 2009 when they entered the city’s food scene with their West Edmonton Mall location, it’s interesting to see how their brand has developed and been embraced.

Cactus Club’s Retro Logo; Photo courtesy of their Instagram page.

I don’t know if anyone else remembers, but I recall going down Jasper Avenue as a child and seeing this big sign with a drawing of a smoking cow on it. That was the original Cactus Club logo from when they first attempted to expand into Alberta in the 90s. Should my memory serve me correctly, the building that once housed that iteration of the restaurant is now the Rexall pharmacy on 118 Street. My family never went there, and it seems many others in the city avoided it because it closed soon after.

The dining room of the Jasper Avenue location.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that Cactus Club decided to give this market another go. This time, it was the place to see and be seen. On its best nights, patrons would willingly wait hours just to get a table for their large group of friends. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. The chain had gone from a funky eatery to a sleek establishment that served consistently upscale food and drinks. It was so successful and busy (it literally took away business from nearby competitors like Joey and Earls) that I’m actually surprised it took another four years before the company launched a second eatery on Jasper Avenue. About six blocks east from the one that failed in the nineties, it’s become a popular spot for locals to hang out as well.

Having frequented Cactus Club for almost a third of my life, I’ve developed a love of specific dishes. Some, such as the BBQ Duck Clubhouse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, are signatures of Chef Rob Feenie who joined the business as a “Food Concept Architect” in 2008 just before their foray back into this province. Sadly, I don’t make it to the restaurant as much as I used to, and, when I do go out, I really appreciate good deals.

The recently updated happy hour menu.

They’ve long offered happy hour specials at Cactus Club (available from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to close, Monday to Saturday). However, they recently revamped the menu, a la Earls, to cover a greater variety of their dishes and drinks at a few stellar price points (I’ll be listing the lower prices here, so check their online menus for the regular costs). Therefore, when my fiancé and I wanted to celebrate our second anniversary together, we chose to go here. We still ended up spending over $100 on our meal for two, but we certainly didn’t skimp on anything (we ordered a lot). It gave me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with plates that I hadn’t eaten in a while.

As far as my significant other goes, he’s quite content with a beer, so he alternated between the Udder Pale Ale and Longboard Lager ($3 per sleeve). Those are brewed specifically for Cactus Club and have been staples for quite some time. I started with a Whiskey Ginger Smash ($5) cocktail. I really didn’t taste a whole lot of ginger. I enjoy it when you get the spice from the root, but it didn’t come through so much as the rosemary. My second libation of the night was their classic Bellini ($4). It’s basically an adult version of a slushie that tastes like a fuzzy peach in liquid form.

The rest of our dinner was a free-for-all. We ordered two Mini Burgers and two Mini Crispy Chicken Sandwiches ($4 per slider), one for each of us. On the side, we shared a bowl of the Truffle Fries ($4). We split the Ravioli + Prawn Duo ($8), Pesto Chicken Quesadilla ($8), and the Blackened Creole Chicken ($20).

Honestly, of all the things we selected, we weren’t sure that the sliders were of great value. Sure, a few bucks are saved in comparison to the regular appetizers, but they’re pretty small on an individual basis. Despite the size and amount of meat, the flavour was there. I did remove the pickles and onions as I’m not a fan. Still, the chicken was clearly white breast meat, the sambal mayo gave it a little bit of a kick, and the mild, nutty Swiss cheese provided a balance. What made the mini burgers delicious was the red pepper relish and Dijon mayonnaise atop the perfectly charred Angus beef.

I almost forgot to include the Truffle Fries. Thankfully, I remembered part way through our meal. These were so yummy. The potatoes were fried to a golden brown and then doused in truffle, herbs and grated Grana Padano cheese. A small saucer of garlic aioli accompanied the fries, taking them to another level.

Ravioli + Prawn Duo

Instead of a trio of ravioli, the happy hour deal offers a duo of the dish. Two large pockets of pasta hold butternut squash and mascarpone. It’s cooked in a decadent truffle butter sauce and then served with a sautéed jumbo prawn placed on each square. Pine nuts and fried sage leaves garnish this masterpiece. The shrimp was plump and juicy. The ravioli and sauce is rich. The sage and pine nuts give it an air of earthiness. This is one of their standards for a reason.

Pesto Chicken Quesadilla

It’s funny to find something as simple as a quesadilla on a menu where they seem to lean more towards high-end than casual. Yet, the one at Cactus Club works. Admittedly, I’ve never much appreciated the triangles and strips of tortilla chips that anchor the plate (I’d rather fries or a salad without the additional cost to upgrade). Nevertheless, the Pesto Chicken Quesadilla is on point. It comes down to the combination of ingredients. There’s the herbaceous zestiness from the basil pesto, sweetness from the sundried cranberries, melted cheesy goodness, smoky grilled chicken, and a slight sweet-sour flavour from the light honey lime dip. This is something that I used to emulate at home because it’s a recipe that was accessible, easy, and satisfying.

Blackened Creole Chicken

The final entrée we shared was the Blackened Creole Chicken. I’d never tried this one before, so it was new to me. Outside of happy hour, it’s usually over $25, so there was about a twenty per cent savings on this dish. I’m not sure it was worth the money though. It was a decent amount of food, for sure. However, a lot of it consisted of the buttered mashed potatoes. Also, while I could eat asparagus for days, the stalks we received were overgrown with the woody ends still there. Proper preparation calls for the bottoms to be snapped off, leaving only the tender portion of the greens behind. Other than that, the chicken (skin on) was well-seasoned and succulent.

Beef Carpaccio

We must have been done by now, right? For my fiancé, that would be a yes. For me, that was a hard no. Before leaving, I indulged in an order of their Beef Carpaccio. It’s been a favoured Cactus Club item of mine, and it’s one that I always return for. On this occasion, a few pieces of the crostini were a tad too toasted. Nonetheless, they tasted wonderful with baked-in garlic, drizzled in olive oil, and sprinkled with herbs and cheese. The super thinly sliced peppercorn-crusted beef tore apart at the sight of a fork. I carefully curated each bite with meat, Dijon aioli, a fried caper, pickled onion, arugula, and a cut of Grana Padano. This is truly the best.

When all is said and done, Cactus Club does a ton of things right. From a mix of atmospheres within the same restaurant (patio, lounge and dining room are all different) to the magic that happens in the kitchen to the well-trained front of house staff, it’s clear that this homegrown company is here for the long haul. They’ve learned from mistakes made early on and they’ve taken those lessons to grow this chain into a Canadian empire that appears to have the legs to go even further should they choose to. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cactus Club name on an international scale. For now, I’m happy to have it in my backyard.

Edmonton Happenings: Streetcar Shows Edmonton

Singer Ken Stead performs for us atop the High Level Bridge.

Streetcar Shows Edmonton has been chugging along since 2013. Founded by Tad Hargrave and Zizi Lievers with Peter Seal hosting and photographing events, it’s probably one of the city’s true gems. These are intimate concert experiences taking place on electric streetcars run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. I’ve been registered to their mailing list — currently closed on their site, so check their Twitter page or join their Facebook group for updates — for two or three years now, but I always found it difficult to get my hands on tickets. By the time I’d read the newsletter and linked over to Eventbrite, the 32 spots would already be sold out.

The streetcar being prepped for our trip across the High Level Bridge.

This year, I happened to sign into my webmail account at just the right moment and I snagged two tickets for the inaugural show of the 2018 season. I was ecstatic to finally be going to a Streetcar concert. Taking place last Thursday, May 17, we arrived at the train platform located behind the ATB Financial Arts Barn in Old Strathcona about 15 minutes prior to embarking. Peter checked our names off of his list and we waited until we were told to climb on. NOTE: There are no washrooms on board. If needed, make sure to use the one in the barn beforehand.

Ernie, one of the drivers of the streetcar, gave us a history lesson.

The restored streetcar had two drivers for the night, but Ernie was our guide. He gave us a little bit of a history lesson as the vehicle made it’s way down the tracks towards the middle of the High Level Bridge. Moving along, Edmonton’s downtown skyline eventually game into view. Once we’d come to a full stop, Peter introduced our performer of the evening, Ken Stead. While he sang (and joked), the river and traffic flowed quietly beneath us as we basked in the slowly setting sun.

 

Ken Stead, born and raised in Edmonton, and now residing in Calgary, has a soulful voice. Despite living in Canada, his Irish-Scottish background seems to come out, in the form of a slight lilt, when he speaks. He flipped between his own original songs and covers that ranged from Foy Vance to Bill Withers, fully encompassing the persona of a down-to-earth folk-rock artist.

 

Lasting about 45 minutes, the first half of the show went by quickly. The streetcar then trundled northward towards the other side of the High Level Bridge. We were supposed to take a break at the stop directly across the street from the Legislature Building, but the driver overshot it, and we ended up going all the way to the Grandin Station terminal. There, we were able to get off and stretch our legs while the musical equipment was shifted to the other end of the streetcar. The backrests of all the seats were flipped to face the opposite direction, allowing passengers to be seated again in the direction of travel. It also gave all of the riders an opportunity to be closer to the show as those who previously sat at the front were now at the rear of the train.

Out on the bridge once more, we were treated to another 45 minute set. Being above the water, it started to get chilly as the darkness fell, but the close quarters and the music helped to warm me to my soul. As we returned south, we came to a surprise standstill in a heavily graffitied tunnel for one final (sing-along) song. It sounds like this is something they do at every show, but I won’t give every single detail away. All I can say is that it makes for a special moment.

Inside the tunnel at the end of the night.

Two hours after our departure, we found ourselves back where we started our musical journey. It’s definitely a night that neither my fiancé or I will ever forget. It was so much fun, and I’m already itching to go to second Streetcar Show as soon as possible. Haven’t been yet? I urge everyone to follow their pages. You may luck out and catch a post about tickets in the nick of time.

Edmonton Happenings: MINBID MINBattle 2018 Launch Party & Art Battle

Co-founder of MINBID, Michel Côté, was one of the artists drawn to participate.

From what I know, MINBID (short for Minimum Bid) has existed for at least 5 years in the underground art scene of Edmonton. The collective began as a gathering of local creators; it gave them an outlet to share work with their peers and the public. The showings doubled as auction events, too, providing a way for artists to gauge the value of their pieces based on the highest bid received.

The banner ad for their 2018 MINBattle.

One of the things that MINBID has become known for is their annual MINBattle. Friday, May 11 marked the launch of the 2018 series and my initial visit to one of their functions. Kicking off at Vacancy Hall (103 Avenue and 104 Street), sixteen artists registered, but only eight had the opportunity to compete through a lottery draw. There were two rounds of four contestants. Each person had an hour to complete a 24 inch x 24 inch canvas.

Audience members voted with tickets stubs dropped into each artist’s bucket. Bids for the finished pieces could also be placed on the cards.

A group of three to four judges circled the room as they all painted. Audience members even got to partake in the judging process with ticket stubs to be deposited as a vote towards their favourite in both rounds. Plus, all of the pieces were up for auction with bidding starting at $50 and going up in increments of $10. The selling price would count in the final tally of each artist’s score as well. Whoever prevailed in each round (we didn’t stay for the announcement of the winners) will move on to the final MINBattle later this summer.

Co-founder Darren Bolz DJ’d throughout the evening.

Speaking to Darren Bolz, one of the co-founders of MINBID and the evening’s DJ, we found out that this is the first time they’ve used this particular format. Usually they’ve only had two artists battle head-to-head on any given night. This year, they thought they’d change things up, bringing in multiple artists at a time with the top two at each battle duking it out in a huge showdown later this year.

For the launch event, the ticket price was $25 plus fees in advance through their website or Eventbrite. At the door, the cost was $30. Although notes on the Eventbrite page said the cost covers gallery membership, it’s not like buyers receive a card or anything. Ultimately, the money simply covers entrance and the open bar.

Bartender for the night was Christopher Hughes.

Speaking of the bar, it could have been a little more diverse. There were only four drinks available, which I realize is essential to keeping things easy for the organizers, especially in a space that isn’t equipped for bar service. However, the options were so-so, and there was only one non-alcoholic choice. It was a PC brand watermelon soda that was sweet. I think offering just a simple cup or bottle of water would have been appreciated. Not everyone wants something carbonated and sugary to drink. Water would have been a nice alternative to help cool off in the warm space.

The lighting in the space is dim to create a non-intimidating vibe for the artists, allowing them to work without feeling too exposed.

They also struggled a bit with lighting in the basement of the Mercer Warehouse. In order to keep the vibe, the lighting has to be relatively dim. Nevertheless, it’s equally as important to allow enough brightness for the artists, which means there’s a balancing act that’s required. Being that this is a nighttime event, the place emptied out quite a bit by the second round. Yes, it’s unfortunate that people didn’t stick around to watch it all unfold. But, if I’m being honest, I was happy for the extra breathing room.

The participating artists were allowed to paint whatever they wanted within the allotted time, leaving it open ended. Still, if they haven’t already done this in the past, I think it could be very interesting to see them paint to a specified theme. It’d add another dimension to the competition. Additionally, for those not already in the Edmonton art industry and who didn’t know the competitors personally, it would have been beneficial for the emcee to announce the names of the artists before they started each battle

There was only one person, Peter Gegolick, who blatantly advertised himself and had a sort of “I don’t give a shit” attitude as he painted while wearing sunglasses. He actually had a finished piece of art already hanging on the gallery wall with an asking minimum bid of $700 (his battle piece could have been purchased for less than $100). The rest of them were pretty low key. While their first names were listed on the bidding cards, their last names weren’t always there, so it was otherwise hard to follow-up on some of the artists after the fact.

Another piece from Michel Côté was hanging in the MINBID gallery for sale.

I understand that one of the goals of these parties is to assist artists in determining how their work should be priced. It’s a bit of a catch-22 to do that though. I mean, it’s entirely reliant upon the audience that shows up. If there are people with the income and they happen to like the work they see, there’s a chance that a piece will go for much more. But, based on this particular event, I’d say it was mostly a youthful crowd that didn’t necessarily have the money to burn. Most didn’t seem willing to shell out the extra cash after what they spent on the actual event ticket.

The 2016 MIN Royale breakdown.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was an anomaly, or maybe they simply didn’t like what they saw. Either way, this aspect kept the number of bids to a minimum and kept the overall price of the bids low with most going for under $100. For comparison, I looked at how much battle auction pieces went for back in 2016. Of the 30 creations born out of MINBattle events, a dozen sold for over $150. That included one from my favourite artist of the 2018 launch night, Reece Schulte, that went for a cool $450.

I loved his dynamic Edmonton skyline piece so much that I put a couple of bids on it to the tune of $90 (this was a total steal). I left my name and number on the bidding card and walked away. Since the art is still wet on the evening of the event, they just phone or text the winning bidder to make arrangements for pickup and payment (either cash or credit is accepted) over the following week. Sadly, I didn’t end up hearing from MINBID by the end of the weekend, so I assumed someone else swooped in at the last second to snag it. Then, to my surprise, I received a message on Monday afternoon. It turns out that the person who outbid me couldn’t be reached, so it went to the next highest bidder! I’m super excited to add Reece’s work to my modest art collection.

Aside from the late start (listed as 9:00pm, yet didn’t truly begin until 10:30pm) and the crowdedness of the venue during the first round of the evening, my fiancé and I left with an awesome appreciation of what MINBID and MINBattle had to offer. Sure, I initially felt a little out of place. The majority of the other attendees came across as younger and artsier than me.

Nonetheless, MINBattle certainly made for a different kind of date night where we got to experience something new to us. We had some drinks, danced to music, mingled with the artists, and watched canvases come to life. What I like best is that it’s an excellent way to potentially find and buy art for an affordable price.

The next MINBattle event date is still to be determined. Make sure to sign up for their newsletter through the MINBID website to be kept in the loop. In the meantime, think about attending their Udell X & MINBID Collaboration (buy tickets here). Two parties will take place at the Udell Xhibitions Gallery (103 Avenue and 124 Street) on June 22 and 23. Any art aficionado won’t be disappointed. I know that we’re definitely looking forward to our second outing.

UX MB Art Xhibition + Auction

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bottega 104

Bottega 104 is all about Italian.

Situated on the 104 Street Promenade, between Jasper and 102 Avenues, sits Bottega 104. The Italian eatery is less than a year old. Nonetheless, it seems to have become a favourite in the downtown neighbourhood. When I arrived after work to meet a friend, patrons were starting to trickle in. By the time the two of us left, the venue was jam packed full of people.

My reservation, booked through the OpenTable app, yielded us a table towards the far back corner of the restaurant. It allowed me a bit of a view of the open kitchen as well as perfect sightlines of the long bar and the rest of the establishment. Honestly though, it’s a tight space.

The bar has a lovely design.

Sure, the details of the design scheme and the lighting added to the ambience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly comfortable. It was really cramped. When I was taken to our seats, I was the first to get there, so I decided to sit on the booth side. I had to squeeze myself between the two tables, sucking in my chest, to fit through. Moreover, I narrowly avoided knocking down the wine glasses of the guests next to us. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the close quarters experienced in restaurants on trips to New York City. However, let’s face it. This is Edmonton. People aren’t used to it being like this, and I can’t imagine others love feeling as if they’re sitting on each others’ laps either.

Room aside, I narrowly missed Bottega’s Prohibition Hour specials on their cocktails. From 2pm to 5pm, $13 two-ounce cocktails are marked down to $7 each, which is a hefty savings. Once I had settled in, I may have been able to quickly select something. Yet, our server was gone as soon she dropped off the menus, and she didn’t bother to come back until my friend showed up fifteen minutes later. Ultimately, we both chose water over any other beverage.

Ready to share dishes, family style.

When we did get to place our order, we opted to share a couple of the items: Spaghetti Carbonara Pasta ($21) and Prosciutto Pear Pizza ($21). As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our food, the server came back with side plates and pasta tongs, so we could more easily divide the dishes family style. The food was decent. Although, personally, I found it to be either too salty (pasta) or too bland (pizza).

Spaghetti Carbonara

The Spaghetti Carbonara was made with a “delicate” cream sauce, smoked pancetta, and egg. It was true that the sauce was creamy; unlike other plates of carbonara I’ve eaten, the egg avoided curdling. There was great potential as seen with the extra crispy pieces of pancetta, too. Bottega also didn’t skimp on the amount of protein. The problem was that it became very repetitive on the palate with only the pork and sauce to turn to. They had essentially become one and the same in terms of flavour. I realize that carbonara is not anything fancy; nevertheless, something is needed to help cut through the dish to awaken the taste buds.

Prosciutto Pear Pizza

As for the pizza, I was expecting more. The dough was topped with prosciutto, mozza, gouda, cherry tomatoes, sliced pear, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze. It’s a combination that sounds like it’d be amazing. Each inch of the pizza was covered with one of those ingredients, but there was very little stacking. Therefore, each bite provided just a small glimpse of what it could have been. There wasn’t a whole lot of balance between the saltiness of the cured meat and cheeses, the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the walnuts, or the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic drizzle. Additionally, the pizza cooled off fast, taking away the gooiness that any of the melted cheese may have had.

Zeppoli

Our night concluded with us splitting the Zeppoli ($9) for dessert. Bottega lists it as Italian street food. Typically, they come in the form of fried dough balls covered in some sort of sauce or a dusting of sugar and spice. They’re kind of like the mini doughnuts available at all of our annual festivals. When they were presented to us, I was surprised at the portions (definitely enough for two to three diners) as well as the shape of the Zeppoli. Instead of puffy balls, they were sticks of dough in the vein of churros, yet chewier. Sprinkles of icing sugar decorated the zeppoli along with zigzags of Nutella ganache. Again, this was underwhelming. Had the menu not mentioned Nutella, I wouldn’t have guessed there was supposed to be any hazelnut taste to this. It came across as a basic chocolate sauce.

In the end, this wasn’t what I was hoping for. The service, once both of us were there, was passable. The food was edible, but nothing to write home about. Mostly, it was too crowded and noisy. I mean, the din from everyone conversing makes it loud enough as it is. So, my recommendation is that they take out a table or two and lower the music a bit. I think visitors would appreciate it more than they know. Ultimately, the menu is their bread and butter though. If I’m to return and spend my hard earned money there, that’s where they need to see some major improvements.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Chop Steakhouse Bar

My spread of food and drink at Chop.

Edmonton’s downtown Chop Steakhouse Bar, found connected to the Sutton Place Hotel, used to be a lunchtime spot for my co-workers and I to hang out. The place provided a spot for us to happily chat over cocktails and food as well as giving us a respite from the office.

Fast forward a few years later and the dynamic of my workplace has changed dramatically. Those friends have moved on to new things. With their departure, trips to Chop diminished, too.

The Chop lounge in downtown Edmonton.

When I saw that Chop was participating in Downtown Dining Week again this year, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to revisit. A reservation was booked through OpenTable. When we arrived after work that Friday, we were actually one of the first tables to be seated in the dining room. Located upstairs from the lounge, it’s a much dimmer space decorated with deep blues and greys. The lounge is the opposite. Washed in natural light with high ceilings, it’s much more open and bright (my personal preference).

Pina Colada

My friend began with a pint of beer. I opted for a Pina Colada ($8.75), which was beautifully garnished with a thin cut floral-shaped slice of pineapple and poured into a pretty vintage cocktail glass. What I didn’t love was how chunky the blended ice was. Yet, in terms of flavour, it was fine. There was a nice balance of white rum, fresh pineapple and coconut. As we waited for our dishes to come, we were also provided with fresh complimentary bread and butter to tide us over.

We each started with a different appetizer. She got the Feature Soup ($8.95), a creamy tomato bisque that had a pleasant consistency. It had been cooked down to create a depth to the sweet-tart taste, and it refrained from being too thin. I went with a standard Caesar Salad ($9.95). The lettuce was slightly limp, but well-coated with dressing and grated Grana Padano cheese. I enjoyed the house-baked focaccia croutons and the slice of lemon for spritzing. Although it didn’t come across as the freshest salad, all of the components I look for were there.

For our mains, we both chose to indulge in the half rack of the Smoked Baby Back Ribs ($25.95). This was served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. At the time, the veggies included roasted beets and broccolini, and they were prepared until they were tender with just a little bit of that needed bite left. The ribs were evenly painted with a rich barbecue sauce that had caramelized onto the succulent meat during the cooking process. A knife came in handy to cut the baby back ribs apart, but the meat pretty much pulled clean off the bone without much effort.

Supper finished with mini versions of two of Chop’s desserts: Crème Brûlée ($4) and Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake ($5.50). Neither will blow your socks off. However, between the two, the crème brûlée was definitely the smaller and arguably least adventurous. It was a standard custard dessert with a simple vanilla infusion and the sugar crackle. The soufflé cake is not what I expected. I pictured something along the lines of a lava cake. Instead, I received a slice of a chocolate cake crust filled with mascarpone mousse atop a pool of fresh vanilla anglaise. It was actually quite decadent, and I’d have that one again. I’m not sure how much larger the dessert is if the regular size is ordered, but I think for the price, this was the perfect amount of sweetness to cap off the night.

All of the food options that were available for this specially priced event are also on their regular menu. We just happened to save about $10 per person for our three-course meal versus if we had gone any other time. On this occasion, the service was friendly and attentive even when the dining room filled up. I’m not sure how often I’ll be back, but I think the quality of the food I tried was good enough to warrant a future drop-in, especially for happy hour.