Edmonton Event Review: Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up

Donair Dumplings

Placing in the top four of MasterChef Canada competitors (her season aired in the spring of 2017), chef Mai Nguyen returned to Edmonton with talent to spare. I’m going to call her the Dumpling Queen since she has parlayed her knowledge of cooking into making these delectable pocketed treats.

I’ve kept my eye on her social media, and I have drooled at photos of all the food that she has posted. I also lamented missing out on previous pop-ups that she has run. Every time one occurred, I happened to have previous plans that prevented me from attending. But, a week and a half ago, she hosted another one at Prairie Noodle Shop. You best believe that I booked a reservation as soon as I found out.

The full menu for the Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up on Oct 28.

Kirk and I arrived at the restaurant at noon (the earlier the better as the dumplings only last until sold out), and proceeded to order almost the entire wallet-friendly menu: Donair ($9 for 6 pieces), Bacon Cheeseburger ($11 for 6 pieces), Peaches & Shrimp ($11 for 5 pieces), Satay Chicken ($10 for 6 pieces), Oyster Soup Dumpling ($4 for a single), Roasted Kabocha Squash ($7 for 4 pieces), and Marinated Quail Eggs ($4 for 4 eggs). We also received a House Salad ($5) at no charge due to a delay with one of our items. Each dish was presented as they were prepared, so everything was served fresh and hot.

Peaches & Shrimp Dumplings

The first to come out was the Peaches & Shrimp. Kirk would have preferred that the shrimp was minced and mixed with other filling. But, I was okay with the shrimp being whole. The outside of the dumpling showcased a beautiful braided edge. The wrap was slightly crisp and a little bit sweet from the mayo. It’s a classic combo of flavours, taking influence from the famous Chinese favourite.

Next up was the Donair, which seemed to be filled with minced lamb. The meat was slightly drier, probably from the leaner cut. Still, these were very tasty when combined with the donair sauce, pickled onions and tomatoes. Having additional donair sauce for dipping would have taken these just a step further.

Marinated Quail Eggs

As we dined, I snacked on the Marinated Quail Eggs. These were delicate and delicious. Extremely well-flavoured with a smooth texture and not too hard. They were paired with pickled radishes that added crunch.

Bacon Cheeseburger Dumplings

Returning to the dumplings, we continued on our lunchtime journey with the Bacon Cheeseburger. These were fabulous. I kind of questioned them at first, mostly for the regular pickles listed in the ingredients. Thankfully, the pickles were just used as a topping to the dish and could be removed easily. The meat was incredibly juicy, and the fats that oozed out with every initial bite reminded me of eating a xiao long bao (soup dumpling). These ended up being my top choice of the day!

Oyster Soup Dumpling

Because Kirk isn’t keen on eating bivalve molluscs like oysters or mussels, I couldn’t convince him to give the Oyster Soup Dumpling a try. These were perfectly folded with black wraps coloured using squid ink. Admittedly, the high salinity content of the oyster can be hard for many to swallow. But, overall, I think that these showed a lot of craft, and if tweaked slightly, they could be winners.

House Salad

Part way through our meal, we realized it was likely that our last plate of dumplings was forgotten, so we quickly mentioned it to one of the servers. While we waited, they provided a complimentary House Salad. A rainbow mix of sliced raw radishes, carrot slivers and greens were tossed in a fragrant ginger soy sesame dressing. The acidity was such a nice cleanser on the palate before lunch ended.

Satay Chicken Dumplings

It wasn’t long before we received our Satay Chicken dumplings. These were massive! The minced chicken had been combined with ginger for a simple touch of spice. The seared dumplings were served with pickled veggies (chili peppers and cucumber) and a thick peanut satay sauce. Compared to the rest of the options at the pop-up, Kirk and I both thought that these were a tad bland on their own. However, when eaten with the dip and veggies, they were superb.

Roasted Kabocha Squash

The Gourmai Pop-Up was completed with a helping of the Roasted Kabocha Squash, Mai’s take on dessert dumplings. These were decadent while retaining a lightness in the whipped mascarpone cheese and squash filling. Sitting in a generous pool of spiced crème anglaise (I drank all of it) and decorated with graham cracker crumb and pumpkin seed, it was the perfect fall-inspired finish to our outing.

Mai definitely outdid herself by making each and every dumpling by hand for the event. I can’t even fathom the amount of time it took for her to prepare all of them. The love certainly showed though, and I look forward to her next endeavour(s). If you want the chance to attend her next Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up, follow her on Instagram (@maicaroon). You’ll want to be there!

Edmonton Bakery Review: Destination Doughnuts

Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake, Birthday Cake, All the Reese, Ode to Sunshine and Triple Play

Opened by a father-daughter duo who saw the potential in the growing food trend, Destination Doughnuts‘ storefront resides in the equally fashionable pocket of 124 Street in Edmonton. Unlike most businesses in the neighbourhood, the shop on 105 Avenue has several free parking spots in the building’s front lot, making it prime real estate.

The bakery space is very open and you can see everyone working in the back.

On our first visit, we were meeting friends for a snack and we decided to walk over. Upon entering the shop, you’re immediately greeted by visuals of their open kitchen and a lineup of the day’s doughnut selection behind a long glass partition. To the far left side is also a self-serve mini doughnut machine ($5 per bag). If intending to stay, I suggest keeping it short as there are only a few tables. Let others have a chance to sit down as well. In our case, our friends arrived a little early and they managed to snag spots for the four of us. On a side note, it seemed like there was a bit of a yellow jacket issue as several were getting into the bakery. Hopefully they were able to take care of that.

Kirk left me to do the purchasing. He mistakenly assumed I was just going to buy a single doughnut each ($3.50; I question how well he knows me), but I showed up at the table with a box of a half-dozen ($18.45). Considering that we made it there later in the afternoon and Destination Doughnuts closes by 3pm every Tuesday to Sunday (or when sold out), I was happy to see that they still had a decent variety available.

My box of a half-dozen doughnuts: Crème Brûlée, S’mores, Angel Flakes, Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake and Oreo.

We snacked on two sizeable desserts while we hung out. Kirk thought the Oreo had a bit too much chocolate with the glaze and cookie crumble topping all being the same flavour. Although I did agree that, for the sake of aesthetics, it would have made more sense to use a white glaze in order to emulate the look of an actual Oreo cookie, the doughnut itself tasted very much like the real thing, so they hit it out of the park there.

I decided to sample the White Chocolate Coconut doughnut. It was sweeter with the white chocolate glaze as a base. Yet, the coconut shavings were plentiful and a delicious combo. Both of the yeast dough foundations were really fresh, light and fluffy. Neither one of them felt overly sugary, contrary to some of the choices from the popular Doughnut Party (I’m only able to eat maybe a quarter or half of their doughnut at once, otherwise it feels like too much).

S’mores

The remaining four doughnuts were devoured through the evening and into the next day. Surprisingly, the quality didn’t degrade as I was worried they would. We simply left the covered box out on our counter overnight. Even as day-old doughnuts, they retained their soft texture. The glazes stayed in tact (little to no melting) and the fillings kept fine without making the surrounding dough soggy. I’d say the last one we ate, the S’mores, probably fared the worst of the quad. It did dry out a little by the time we got to it. The Strawberry Cheesecake, Crème Brûlée and Snickerdoodle were excellent though.

Look at that cinnamon sugar dusted Snickerdoodle doughnut!

More recently, at the office, we convinced our co-worker to upgrade our usual order of Timmies treats to those from Destination Doughnuts. While I did find that particular batch to be a tad greasier than normal (perhaps a change of oil in the fryer was soon in order), I’ll just say that everyone was a convert. It’s really difficult to go back to the Tim Hortons ones after trying pretty much anything else from the several local and independent businesses now on the scene.

Personally, when it comes to the more elaborate style of fried dough confections, I think Destination Doughnuts may do it best in this city. They refrain from the standards and stick to specialty options that are just the right amount of sweet.

Edmonton Business Review: Table Top Cafe 2.0

Table Top Cafe 2.0 filled will customers on a Saturday evening.

Back in 2013, Table Top Cafe opened their initial board game cafe location at 57 Avenue and 75 Street. With its popularity, the owner expanded less than two and a half years later with second spot on 102 Avenue and 124 Street. The two are differentiated by the addition of a “1.0” or “2.0” to the end of its name.

I never did take the time to check out the original. However, I’ve been to the one that sits between the Oliver and Westmount neighbourhoods twice within the past eighteen months. My fiancé and I visited in the fall of 2016 because of a Groupon I had purchased. The deal covered both of our entrance fees and included about $15 to use towards food and drinks. On that occasion, we chose to grab a couple of the wraps (all are just under $10 each). I can’t say that the food was all that impressive and I wouldn’t make a point of going there to eat. Yet, they do serve some great beverages and beer.

Another couple met us that afternoon and we stayed for a few hours playing games until we were ready for dinner. What’s so awesome is that this form of diversion is so affordable. If one isn’t inclined to order snacks or drinks, the cost to play all day comes to only $5 per person. Several shelves house hundreds of available games that are sorted based on type and difficulty.

The business has made it really easy to get started, especially for those that aren’t too familiar with all of the choices out there. I mean, board games have moved well beyond the classics that I grew up with like Scrabble, Monopoly, or Life to include more risque ones such as Cards Against Humanity, strategic ones like Quantum, or puzzles such as Sagrada. There are so many to explore and likely not everyone can afford to buy them all, so spots like Table Top Cafe provide fantastic opportunities to test them out first. Staff are also more than willing to take the time to explain rules whenever anyone gets stuck. Should patrons find something they love, there’s a good chance that there’s an unopened copy in stock to purchase before leaving. Plus, sign up for a membership and a percentage of every game bought can be accumulated and used towards a future buy.

My most recent visit was at the end of January. After supper at The Manor Bistro, we made our way over to Table Top Cafe 2.0 to continue our double date. It was a busy Saturday night, and, luckily, we managed to snag the very last table out of maybe 17 to 20 in the space. When we arrived, we had to check in at the counter to start up our tabs. While we were standing there we placed our orders for drinks (hot beverages, cold refreshments and alcoholic choices are on the menu) and snacks (Magic Maize, a big bowl of popcorn, was $4).

Coaster Park was put back when we realized it was a bit more difficult to get started than we expected.

Then, we got busy looking for some games to try out. The guys started out with a round of chess, so my friend and I kept perusing the shelves. In the end, the two of us decided to bring a few games to the table: Unlock! The Nautilus’ Traps, Pass the Pandas, and Coaster Park. Ultimately, we set aside Coaster Park. Although the box stated that the playing time is between 30 to 60 minutes, when we opened the box, we realized it was more complicated than we expected. Everything else we worked our way through that night fell into the easier category and were essentially card based. They were all quick to learn and none took more than an hour or so from start to finish.

While the men were completing their chess game, us ladies learned Pass the Pandas. It’s a simple, speedy dice game with about four rules. The first to rid of their dice wins.

Unpacking the Unlock! box to play a card escape game.

Our toughest challenge was definitely the Unlock! game. It’s basically an escape room in card format. All four of us had tackled other games in the Unlock! series before. But, we had yet to play together, so we thought we could do that here. Even though the game is rated at a difficulty level of two out of three locks, it was tough and we didn’t technically survive by making it out of the “room” in the allotted hour. I’d chalk up our failure to it being too loud in the cafe to hear some of the recordings we needed to listen to within the accompanying app.

Rhino Hero was so fun! I couldn’t stop laughing as I was attempting to balance the Rhino on that stack of cards.

Once we had muddled our way through that game, we moved on to Rhino Hero. Admittedly, we kind of mixed up the rules a bit, putting each of us at a disadvantage at some point. It’s in the vein of Jenga and the object is to stack the houses higher and higher without knocking the tower over. The downside was that all the roof cards had been folded (we’re guessing this was a mistake by a previous group), which increased the difficulty slightly. No matter though. This was still super fun with a straightforward concept. My girlfriend thought it’d be a perfect game for her kids, so she bought a copy to take home with her.

Check out my monsters towards the end of our game of Bears vs. Babies!

Finally, before we had to head out for the evening, we played a full game of Bears vs. Babies. I’m bad at following rules and directions, so I’m sure I can do better next time, but the gist of the game is to build super strong monsters that can fight off baby armies which periodically attack when someone at the table provokes them. This was designed by the creators of Exploding Kittens, so you can expect things to get a little weird. The whole group enjoyed this one and often chuckled when we saw the combinations we were coming up with for our monsters.

All in, we were there for about four hours and I’d say each person spent, on average, approximately $10. Not too shabby for a full night of entertainment. I have no comparison to any of the other local board game cafes (I would like to stop by all of them down the road). Yet, my experiences specifically at Table Top Cafe have been wonderful. I’d highly recommend that Edmonton residents who want to get into the board game resurgence, or who are already board game enthusiasts, support this local gem.

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.