Edmonton Restaurant Review: Station on Jasper

PB&J Firebread Sandwich

Closing amid allegations against one of the previous owners, the space once occupied by The Needle Vinyl Tavern (10524 Jasper Avenue) sat unused since November 2017. Then, on June 25, I received an email from Station on Jasper. They were a new business and they had inherited the Needle’s existing email list upon purchasing the restaurant/music venue. With the introduction came an offer for $12 off during dinner when dining in July.

I held onto the coupon and with one weekend left before it expired, I dragged my fiancé, Kirk, with me. I thought it’d be a good excuse to try it out. From what I could tell, the menu had been revamped since the Needle’s time. Back then, the food was pretty subpar. Now, the listings looked to be promising.

We arrived at around 7:00pm on a Saturday night. It was empty inside, although their patio was definitely being utilized. We seated ourselves indoors just shy of the patio to get the fresh air without the crazy heat. Our server came over with menus and started talking about happy hour before realizing that it was actually too late for us to order any specials. Still, I asked her what they usually offer during that time, so I could make note of it for my YEG Food Deals pages. She admitted that they didn’t actually have anything solid in place yet.

The interior of Station on Jasper has a kind of indoor-outdoor feel with the lights.

It turns out that when the business transferred over to the new owners, they literally hired all staff within a two week period, set a date and opened their doors. As I soaked in my surroundings, I could see that the design of the bar and restaurant was largely unchanged. The exact same tables, chairs and setup as before were being used. As I mentioned, the menu was visibly different, but the drink selection was fairly scant with them sticking only to classic cocktails.

Personally, I found the pricing for the dinner mains to be a bit high. Instead, I focused on the rest of the comfort food by way of the south menu created by executive chef Michael Darby. With a variety of sandwiches and pizzas at relatively affordable prices, they were the more reasonable option. Kirk got a local beer on tap ($6.19) and the Station Burger ($14). I opted for the PB&J Firebread Sandwich ($12).

Station Burger

Johnny Lee, one of their bar managers, spoke with us and he said that the Station Burger was probably the most simple thing on the menu and suggested Kirk order the Po’ Boy next time. Johnny wasn’t wrong. The burger had been changed from being topped with candied bacon, caramelized onion, smoked Gruyere and Station Sauce to cheese, mixed greens, sauce and a few grape tomato halves. There was still a decent flavour to the meat. Nevertheless, it wasn’t what we had hoped for. Having stated that the patty is made of hand-formed Alberta beef, we thought it’d be freshly pressed. While it wasn’t necessarily a mass produced frozen burger, it clearly didn’t meet our expectations and could have used more charring. On the side, the blanched fries were decent. These are supposedly hand-cut and that seemed to be the case.

PB&J Firebread Sandwich

Their PB&J Firebread Sandwich fared better overall. The long toasted bun was laid with arugula, seven spice blend pork belly, a sunny side up egg, grilled peaches and some sort of aioli. I tend to shy away from toasty bread because I often scrape my mouth with the sharper edges. This was alright though. It held the components of the sandwich together well. To avoid a huge mess with the egg, I broke the yolk first and then cut the whole thing in half, spreading it out across the length of the bread. Then, I clamped it shut. This item has a lot of potential. Sure, I felt the pork belly was a tad too fatty in spots, but it was seared nicely and the saltiness was balanced out by the bitter greens and sweet peaches. My one big criticism to the kitchen was that the grilled peaches were too chunky. They fell out when I took bites, so I suggested that they create a peach chutney instead. It’d allow for the flavour to come through in every bite rather than sporadically.

After we finished our meal, Johnny came back to chat about the dishes and their quick opening. He then took the time to show us the music stages, including the main venue tucked in a side room towards the back. It’s a neat tiered space. Between that area and the back of the main dining room, they can apparently accommodate up to 400 guests per show. Johnny also excitedly told us about their plans for a hidden speakeasy, which I’m interested to visit when it gets up and running.

When it was announced Station on Jasper would be opening at the end of June, there was speculation that the previous owners were still involved with the new business . However, that has since been refuted. Mark Chisholm, their other bar manager, also introduced himself while we were there. Both Johnny and Mark are a hundred per cent invested in seeing Station on Jasper succeed. They especially want everyone who works there and who comes through their doors to feel protected. All of their staff have to go through regular mandatory training through their partnership with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE), so staff are not just aware of their own actions, but are also knowledgeable enough to spot situations that may arise with patrons. It was great to hear that they’re taking the steps to ensure that their business remains a safe place for everyone.

Station on Jasper was also able to sign on a number of big name Canadian artists like Serena Ryder and Lights for their launch, and they have a roster of other performers coming through the venue later this year. If they were in any way connected to the tarred reputation of the Needle, I’m pretty certain that information would have come out by now and they wouldn’t have been able to successfully book the shows that they have.

Walking out that night, Kirk and I felt that Station on Jasper was on the right track. They’re beginning to solidify their space in the community by booking as much local talent as possible. They’re working with neighbouring businesses to help highlight musicians in any way they can. Most of all, they want to be there to nourish Edmontonians through their stomachs and their musical souls. We wish them the best of luck!

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: Elm Cafe

The patio space outside Elm Cafe.

Recently, I’ve written pieces about two of Nate Box’s businesses: the established District Cafe at 10011 109 Street and the soon-to-open Salz at 10556 115 Street. He’s had a successful run with smaller eateries that focus on succinct menus made with locally sourced ingredients and products. Having already discussed half of Box’s ventures, this year seemed as good as any to work my way through all four. I still have to pay a visit to Little Brick, but now I can cross Elm Cafe off my list.

In all honesty, for at least two, maybe even three, years now, I’d been sitting on a gift certificate for Elm Cafe. Despite the incentive and my best intentions, I just always forgot to go. I knew that they made some delicious sandwiches though. After all, in the past, I had eaten some of their catering during a TEDx event held at the Citadel Theatre.

The tiny interior of the shop.

Last month, I couldn’t wait any longer. I was adamant about stopping by the shop to pick up some lunch for my family. My boyfriend and I dropped by on a Sunday before noon. It was easy enough to find free street parking on the block. When we walked up to the patio, I noticed a few outdoor tables spaced out nicely. Those spots provide the majority of what seats they have available. In the winter, only a couple of bar stools are to be found inside the cafe for in-house dining. It’s a tiny 200 square foot space with a counter, a kitchen and three staff that have their moves and duties coordinated down to a tee, so as not to stumble over one another.

The day’s menu changes regularly.

Thankfully, there wasn’t anyone waiting behind me to order, so I was able to take a bit of time to decide on what I wanted. The downside to their menu is that it’s regularly updated depending on what’s in stock, so the pizza and sandwiches change daily. I knew ahead of time that they offered early sandwiches (they open early at 7:30am to catch the worker bees in the mornings), lunch sandwiches, soup, salad, muffins, scones, cookies, and an assortment of beverages; however, the specifics were to be a surprise.

As I laid eyes on the menu, I took note of the fact that the day’s pizza and one of the lunch sandwiches had already been crossed off the board. Food sells out quickly here, so the best bet for the most choice is to stop in bright and early. Still, there were some good options. I ended up selecting the following to go: Early 1 ($8), Early 2 ($8), Livin la Sous Vide a Loca ($9), a raspberry white chocolate scone ($4), and a salted caramel ($1). The full package added up $30, which was exactly the amount I had to spend.

My order packaged and ready to take home.

Our food took slightly longer than expected as there was a mistake made with my order; however, it was quickly rectified. While the final sandwich was being prepared, I perused the items on the counter. They’ve sourced a handful of products made in Edmonton (teas, cordials and caramels) as well as craft roasted coffee from Victoria. Eventually, the wait paid off. My goods were bagged up and we were on our way to my parents for lunchtime.

As soon as we got to their house, I unpacked everything and plated the sandwiches. First off, I’ll just say that they did not make for the most photogenic dish; they looked like all bun and no filling. But, hopefully, the images here do them some justice. We split the three sandwiches into quarters for us to share. In spite of their large size, I’m not sure that was truly enough to feed four grown adults. The bread also wasn’t our favourite due to the texture. Regardless, they were decent, especially when it came to overall flavour.

Early 2: cauliflower, egg, crispy onions, greens, chili mayo, and cheese sauce.

I’ll begin with the Early 2. This was a cauliflower and egg sandwich with chili mayo, cheese sauce, crispy onions, and greens. I would have liked more egg for extra protein and for the cauliflower to be more prominent. Yet, this was a much tastier option than I would have expected. The slight bitterness from the arugula was offset by the combo of mayo and cheese, and those crispy onions added texture and saltiness.

Livin la Sou Vide a Loca

Livin la Sous Vide a Loca consisted of turkey, brie, cucumber, pickled onion, arugula, apple jelly, and herb aioli. What a fantastic combination of flavours in this one. This bun was a tad firmer and more toasted than the Early sandwiches, but it worked. The turkey was succulent, there was just a bit of sourness from the pickled onion, and the apple jelly brought in a hint of sweetness. Everything balanced with the creamy brie and the pungent aioli.

Early 1: chicken, egg, roast peppers, lemon, charred green onion, Gouda, and lemon aioli.

My personal favourite turned out to be the Early 1. A chicken sandwich with egg, roast peppers, charred green onion, greens, Gouda, and lemon aioli, this one packed a punch. Savoury with the meat, a little smoky due to the onion’s preparation, and zesty from the lemon, it was somewhat of a revelation. We all enjoyed this one.

Raspberry White Chocolate Scone

To finish off our meal, we split the moist raspberry white chocolate scone. It defied expectations by avoiding the dry quality of some of its counterparts. Even with a crunchy sugar topping, it refrained from being overly sweet. My only suggestion is that they try to spread out the raspberries and chocolate when they lay out the dough to bake because the distribution was quite uneven. I shared my salted caramel with my mom as our final dessert. I’m pretty sure that these are made by Erica Vliegenthart, the head baker at District Cafe, who sells her pies and caramels under the Red Balloon Pie Company name. The caramel was super soft and fresh. I would have happily eaten a dozen on the spot.

Salted Caramels

A meal from Elm Cafe was a long time coming. I’m glad that I finally tried it out. Although we thought there could be minor improvements made to the food, the important thing is it brought my family together for a lovely afternoon. Nate Box’s venues are grounded in the idea of community, and I think that he and his team are definitely succeeding in that respect.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Needle Vinyl Tavern (Closed)

The open bar and stage at The Needle Vinyl Tavern.

Since The Needle Vinyl Tavern opened about a year and a half ago, I’ve frequented the place a few times. It’s located right on Jasper Avenue and 105 Street. When the business was first announced, it was a welcome addition to the city as it wasn’t simply another bar, but a small live music venue as well. On the cusp of the loss of several others like it in the span of a year or two, Edmontonians were happy to know there was something coming in to fill that void.

The wall opens up to allow for an expanded patio space.

Although I haven’t gone to any of the shows (they do have some great artists coming through), I have been for food and drinks. The first time was last summer when my friends and I decided to walk a few blocks from the office for our lunch break. It was a beautifully sunny day and we managed to snag a table out on the extended sidewalk patio, one of the few spaces like it in the downtown core. Personally, I think it’s a great spot to catch some rays and grab a bite. The only thing is I prefer sitting a little further in from where the pedestrians are constantly passing by.

The original vinyl drink menu is no longer used, but was a great touch.

On that occasion, I was really impressed with the details that went into The Needle. The overall menu had a decent mix of options and the dishes were promising. What we ate tasted good and the service was prompt. I especially loved that, to go with the theme, they had their list of drinks printed on actual vinyl discs. It was a fun feature. However, over time, those intricacies have disappeared and been replaced with what I would say are watered down versions of their previous offerings.

The last time I visited, my friend and I popped in for lunch. Instead of sitting out on the patio, we ate at a booth inside. While I enjoyed getting to view the bar and the stage, I found the service to be extremely slow even though there were a lot of staff on hand (chatting to each other) and not many people dining in.

Eventually, a server came over to take our order. I opted to make a meal of two of the appetizers: Mac N’ Cheese Bites ($9) and Cauliflower 78 ($13). My friend chose the Taco Supremo House Pizza ($17).

Taco Supremo House Pizza

I have to say that the slice of taco pizza was the best thing out of the trio. Yet, I don’t think that’s saying much. Sure, the flavours were okay, but I felt that the crust was bland and lacked in texture. I also disliked the fact that it was difficult to see past all of the lettuce and tomato that topped the pizza. It was like the kitchen was trying to hide what was underneath. The red sauce was basic and there was not enough beef.

The Mac N’ Cheese Bites with Ketchup

Still, the pizza was better than both of my starters. The Mac N’ Cheese Bites were passable. The thing is, it seemed as though they literally took a box of Kraft Dinner and made the pasta into nugget shapes before breading and frying them. The ten greasy pieces were served with a side of ketchup for dipping. They may have added some extra cheese as the interior of the bites were creamier than I expected. Regardless, the execution was poor. If you’re going to serve something like this, take a page from the many other restaurants that serve similar items. Jazz it up with a ketchup that’s made in-house or incorporate some spice or seasoning.

Cauliflower 78 with Sweet & Spicy Dip

The worst of the bunch was definitely the Cauliflower 78. These tiny florets were over-breaded (somehow not that crispy) and the portion was way too small for the price. They came in a bowl the size of a cup of soup. The side of sweet chili dip was probably store bought as well. This was absolutely nothing special and such a disappointment.

My takeaway from the whole experience is that The Needle Vinyl Tavern is mainly there for the music and maybe the drinks (my co-worker said the selection of beer is lacking). I’ve been told the brunch menu is a winner, but I have yet to try it. In the meantime, I believe that food is no longer their forte. They have the potential to make it a strong suit because I saw it in the beginning. I just think that they’ve veered off of that path for the time being. Hopefully they can get back on track eventually.

The bar is a cool feature of the venue and it’s pretty spacious to fit a standing crowd during shows.

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.