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 Restaurant Review: Milestones

Milestones Original Bellinis

I can’t exactly recall when Milestones first entered the restaurant scene in Edmonton. It has likely been at least a decade or close to. What I do remember is that my favourite dishes were once the signature Portobello Mushroom Chicken and the White Chocolate Cheesecake (that sauce!), both of which still hold a place on the menu today.

Despite all the love I had for the chain back then, I have to admit that the quality of the food has become a bit lackluster. It’s just not quite the same as it used to be, and, overall, much better, more consistently made food can be found at other casual dining establishments such as Cactus Club, Earls Kitchen + Bar, or Joey Restaurant. Regardless, I continue to visit from time to time.

Monday Girls’ Night Out Menu

The best reason for going can be summed up in four words: Monday Girls’ Night Out. The gist of the package is that four people can dine for forty dollars. It consists of one Milestones Original Bellini per person ($7.50 each) as well as four appetizers to be shared among the group. I believe the special is available from 4:00pm until close. There’s a list of seven starters to choose from. Some are relatively inexpensive on the regular menu, so I always opt for the ones that provide the best value. Of late, that includes the Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($13.95), Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter ($13.25), Coconut Calamari ($13.95), and Asian Chicken Bites ($13.95). Essentially, everything can be had for more than half off the usual price, making it a total steal. Also, as far as I know, for the guys, there is a male version of the deal that comes with a pitcher of beer instead of the Bellinis, although it might be best to ask ahead.

My boyfriend and I went on our own a few months ago to take advantage of this offering and the staff could have rolled us out the door by the end of our meal. The amount of food is kind of deceiving, but don’t be fooled. There’s definitely enough to feed two pairs of people without ordering anything extra.

When we were there in September (and again this month), our Bellinis were brought out without delay. One thing I always enjoy are the animal-shaped drink toppers. Typically, it’s a mix of different figures. In November, they placed little reindeer atop the mountain of Bellini slush. I found that to be quite festive.

Asian Chicken Bites

Our food arrived shortly after. Visually, they all looked appealing; however, I’ll begin with the Asian Chicken Bites. These were pretty ubiquitous at one point in time. Almost all of the casual eateries were serving some iteration of this plate. Milestones has stuck with it though. Why mess with a decent thing, right? The bites of chicken are well-breaded, the crisp wonton chips add extra crunch, and the cucumber is refreshing in the midst of all the sweet chili sauce. It’s pretty satisfying and at least it provides some protein as part of this dinner.

Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip

The majority of chain restaurants also tend to serve some form of dip. Milestones does a Hot Spinach & Artichoke version. I find theirs to be a bit runnier than others. Yet, it still holds up okay, and the artichokes aren’t pulverized too much; there are still some sizable chunks of the veggie, which is how I like it. With the dip, they serve red and white tortilla chips. Those are always crispy, if a tad too salty.

Coconut Calamari

Moving along to the calamari, this is actually a very tasty dish. What is disappointing about it is the fact that the squid is clearly processed. I understand the reasoning behind using a meat that is prepared in this way. After all, one of the main complaints diners often have about calamari is that it’s overcooked and rubbery. Well, rest assured because at Milestones, this won’t be a problem. The calamari strips are all super tender with a sponge-like mouthfeel. It’s just not the same as fresh octopus. Nevertheless, the way the kitchen marinates it in coconut and fries it to a golden brown makes it more than edible. The bed of crisp rice noodles and mango chili dipping sauce add dimension in terms of texture and flavour.

Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter

Out of the four appetizers, the best is definitely the Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter. It comes with slices of toasted focaccia bread (soft in the center), a mound of warm goat cheese topped with red pepper relish, a side of roasted garlic cloves, a pot of fig jam, and a pile of arugula. I like this starter since it’s possible to customize each slice of bread to one’s preferences. I’m an all in type of gal, so I start with a thick layer of the goat cheese and red pepper relish. Then I crush the roasted garlic and spread that on with some fig jam, and, at the end, I lay down some leaves of arugula. For it’s simplicity, it’s actually really decadent. The variety of flavours, along with the richness of the cheese and bread, is to die for.

With that said, I give Milestones a passing grade. I’ve been a customer for about ten years now. While I can’t say whether or not the south Edmonton location has improved as I haven’t been in some time, I will state that the one on 171 Street and 100 Avenue is more comfortable and the service is usually quite good (it’s never busy when I’m there). If anything, Milestones can be a relatively affordable place to catch up with friends. It’s truly hard to find another venue where approximately twelve dollars will buy a drink and food, tax and tip included. For that alone, Milestones can’t be beat on a Monday night.

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

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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