Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blaze Pizza (Brewery District)

Worked my way through my White Top pizza.

On a whim, my boyfriend and I decided to pop over to the Brewery District last month. We were both hungry, so we opted to try Blaze Pizza for lunch. Similar to Edmonton’s own Urbano Pizza Co. or LOVEPIZZA, this Californian chain of franchises started infiltrating the city with their version of the build your own pizza process back in the spring of 2016 on the north side. Just a little over a year later, two more have risen. This location in the west end and another at South Common.

I’m going to assume that the three shops are relatively the same in terms of quality. From what I gathered on the Blaze Pizza website, franchisees are expected to sign on to develop a market area, so it’s very likely that all of the current spots in the city actually share the same ownership. Plus, with standardization across a chain, it should be expected that dining at one is equivalent to eating at another. In that case, I have to say that, going forward, my expectations will be relatively high.

When we arrived at Blaze Pizza, it wasn’t too busy (the line picked up five minutes later), so the first staff member we encountered was able to explain the whole process to us. Instead of creating our pies from scratch, we both chose to go with their signature pizzas ($11.65 each) — BBQ Chicken for him and White Top for me — supplementing our very own unlimited customizations as we saw fit.

I enjoyed watching them prep the balls of dough with a pressing machine that flattened them into a thin base. The dough was then transferred onto a wooden board that made its way down the assembly line. It begins with the sauces, then moves to the cheeses, followed by the meats, and then the final toppings. At that point, the board is handed over to the “pizzasmith” who slides the pie into the oven. The three minutes it takes to cook is when payment is processed. After that, either find a table and come back to grab the pizza, or wait by the prep area next to the oven for it to be done.

There seemed to be somewhat of a bottleneck during the baking of our pizzas because it took longer than 180 seconds for them to come out. When they’re fetched from the oven, they are placed onto a pan, sliced and then finished off with any last sauces or toppings. I had to ask for the pesto drizzle and I also had to remind the employee to put my arugula on before he handed it to me (I was informed earlier that those greens were placed on at the end to avoid wilting from the heat). My boyfriend’s pizza took another few minutes.

Initial impressions for me: 1) thin, foldable crust; 2) a tad too crispy on the bottom and edges, but still had a nice chew in the middle; 3) flavourful; and 4) plenty of different toppings. I never did sample the BBQ Chicken pizza, but the White Top was made with white cream sauce, mozzarella cheese, applewood bacon, chopped garlic, oregano, and arugula. Personally, on its own, I don’t think the toppings would have sufficed. The staff were kind of skimpy with those ingredients. Thankfully, I had garlic pesto sauce, grilled chicken, artichokes, zucchini, and goat cheese added to the mix, which helped to fill it out.

For the most part, our experience at Blaze Pizza turned out to be a good one. I’m not yet sure if it’s the best pie joint in the build your own pizza realm, but it’s certainly decent enough for the price.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urbano Pizza Co. (103 Street Closed – Visit 124 Street Location)

Portable pizza ovens that fast-fire pies in under 2 minutes!

The first time I tried Urbano Pizza Co. wasn’t at one of their storefronts. It was actually at last year’s Sturgeon County Bounty Culinary Cookout. As one of the participating partners at the event, Urbano was well prepared to serve the masses. They brought with them a couple of their portable pizza ovens (fast-fired in under two minutes) and were cooking up their meat (The Italian Stallion) and vegetarian pies as fast as they they could manage.

Urbano ended up being our favourite vendor of the night. Not only did they provide reasonable portions for the tickets redeemed, but their pizzas had a lovely thin crust and a mountain of toppings. In fact, my only complaint was that the toppings were so heavy that the crust couldn’t withstand the weight, making it tough to keep my slice together.

Fast forward a year later and I was contemplating where my co-workers and I could go for a quick lunch together. The light bulb in my head went off and I suggested Urbano Pizza Co.

The day we went, we arrived at the original downtown shop (at 102 Avenue and 103 Street) a little after 1 o’clock. It was quiet. There were a few staff members lingering behind the counter and one other customer perched on a stool in the seating area.

The menu displayed on a few screens.

We all took a few minutes to review the menu, which consisted of several Signature Pizzas and Pastas as well as the choice to build your own dish ($11.95 each; $7.95 without toppings). Although it was tempting to consider the latter option because I could pick whatever I wanted (similar to LOVEPIZZA and Blaze Pizza), I wasn’t in the mood to put a lot of thought into things. I ended up taking the lead by ordering The Vegetarian pizza.

I watched the staff as they put my pizza together from start to finish. When not in use, they always pull down the cover of the case to keep the toppings fresh. As they went along, I had the opportunity to let them know if I wanted anything excluded or switched out or added on. There are no extra charges for changes made, so it’s completely customizable.

A view of the prep counter from the seating area upstairs.

By the time I’d paid at the till, my pizza was already out of the oven and had been transferred to a wooden pizza board. I guess the staff members typically bring the food to the customer’s table, so the guy who had my pizza was a tad reluctant to hand it over to me at first. Yet, after checking with another person, he passed it over to me and I made my way up the stairs to grab a table.

The rest of my party followed and their pizzas showed up a few minutes later. I didn’t sample everyone else’s lunch. However, I was told throughout our meal that they all enjoyed what they had selected: The Piri Piri, To the Greek, and Pork & Pineapple.

The Vegetarian pizza with a bottle of Root Beer.

I loved my Vegetarian pizza. It’s a bit different from others as the base doesn’t consist of the usual tomato sauce. Instead, it’s replaced with a puree of eggplant curry. Then it’s topped with roasted cauliflower, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Flavourful and filling despite the lack of protein, I’d be inclined to get this one again.

In fact, the pizzas are quite large for the price. None of us were able to finish the whole thing. One of the employees passed by and came back carrying takeaway boxes without us even having to ask. The leftovers served as my lunch the next day.

Just this month, I went back to Urbano for dinner with a friend. We each ordered a pizza. I still didn’t opt to build my own, but I made sure to try something new. This time, I chose the Salmon. I opted to omit the red onions though. What remained of the toppings was Hollandaise sauce, white sauce, smoked salmon, capers and arugula. I will say that the salmon loses a bit of it’s appeal from an appearance standpoint since the fish turns more of a brown colour after being cooked in the oven. Nevertheless, it’s quite delicious. The smoked salmon still had a tenderness to it along with the salty flavour, and the creamy sauces worked well to balance out the slight bitterness from the greens. The one issue I did have, and maybe it’s due to the amount of sauce and the moisture from the salmon, is that over time, the crust can get a bit soggy as it sits. Still, I ate the whole thing.

My friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza on the right.

I also had a bite of my friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza. It’s not one that I’d usually go for, but it was decent. Made with tomato sauce, roasted pork loin, pineapple and Camembert cheese, it was certainly more traditional in flavour. Personally, I do think it was missing a little something; it needed an unexpected punch of flavour to add an element of surprise. Regardless, those who like Ham & Pineapple likely won’t be disappointed.

Urbano Pizza Co. is the sister to the upscale Sabor Restaurant. Owners Christian Mena and Chef Lino Oliveira took a sharp left turn when they decided to go the fast-casual route. Yet, it’s a concept that works. With others like it popping up all over the city, it’s obvious that they were on the right track. Perhaps it’s because I’m often going there before or after the lunch and dinner rushes, but I’ve experienced nothing but friendly faces, quick service and tasty food each time I’ve visited Urbano. Plus, it’s fairly affordable for a relatively healthy meal with fresh ingredients, many of which are made in-house.

They’ve also got a great deal on their Pizza of the Day. Ask for details when visiting!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Via Cibo

Pizza and pasta are a couple of the options to be found on Via Cibo’s menu.

Okay, so Via Cibo is a little ways out of Edmonton, but it’s close enough considering that it’s located right on Baseline Road in Sherwood Park. My visit here was thanks to another deal snapped up through Groupon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I knew that it was a franchise in the vein of Italian street food.

When my boyfriend and I arrived at the restaurant early on a Saturday night, it was fairly quiet. I noticed that the only other diners happened to be a celebratory wedding party. They were sitting at the long communal table in the center of the space and their stay was winding down. The staff attempted to busy themselves around the open kitchen. Yet, as soon as one of them saw us walk in, she greeted us and asked if we knew the process for ordering.

Being our first time to Via Cibo, I found out that the model is similar to Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria (our local success story). The idea is pretty much the same: check the menu, order and pay at the till and then the food will be brought out when it’s ready.

Via Cibo’s site says that the shops pride themselves on using local ingredients and making all items from scratch. Although I can’t actually speak to that information as a certainty, I could see that the kitchen was stocked with the small appliances needed for making things like fresh pasta. Therefore, I’m inclined to believe that at least one of those facts is true.

Since it wasn’t busy, we actually took the time to settle into our seats and peruse the menu. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the Carbonara Pasta ($13) with extra Grilled Chicken ($5) and I decided on the Via Casalinga Pizza ($15).

Preparation of the food was extremely quick as the plates were probably served to us within ten minutes of us placing our order.

Carbonara Pasta with Grilled Chicken

A bun came with the pasta even though the starch was unnecessary and the Carbonara dish itself consisted of pancetta, fresh egg, Grana Padano cheese, fresh parsley as well as plenty of added grilled chicken. What I didn’t like was that the sauce wasn’t all that creamy and the texture felt as though the sauce had curdled a bit due to overcooking of the egg; it was slightly chunky instead of being smooth. Otherwise, I thought that the flavours were there.

Via Casalinga Pizza

Of the items we tried, the pizza ended up being the better of the two. While I do think that the toppings could have been spread out across the dough more evenly, the Via Casalinga Pizza is a great value. With two types of meat ─ handmade Italian sausage and Casalinga salami ─ and fior di latte and ricotta cheeses, there’s no need to tamper with the recipe. It was savoury with a slight amount of heat and the crust was easy to fold and bite into. I only managed to eat half of the pizza and the rest was packed to go.

If Via Cibo was closer to my neighbourhood, it would probably be a good alternative to our usual eat-in or take-out options. The prices are pretty fair for the portions received. It’s just not a place that is practical for us to frequent more often though. But, it’s certainly somewhere to keep in mind should I ever find myself in need of a speedy fast-casual meal in and around Sherwood Park.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: KB & Co

Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich with a Vegan Cream Cheese Filling

KB & Co, found on the main floor of the Fox Tower building on 104 Street, is relatively new. I’d heard about their health-conscious menu through word-of-mouth recommendations from friends; their smoothies and smoothie bowls often coming up as items to try.

After some delay, I made a point of planning a recent lunch date at the eatery. It’s strictly a fast-casual business with the counter set up for orders to be placed at one end and picked up on the other side. Once items are collected, the take-away packages can be carried out. Or, there’s also the option of eating in-house at one of several tables inside the space or outside on the sidewalk patio. Either way, the food is provided in disposable packaging without the choice of reusable plates or cutlery. I thought that it was interesting to see that a business that prides itself on the idea of wellness and sustainability would decide to use takeout only containers and bags, even if some of it is eco-friendly.

That aside, I was there to try the food. As much as I wanted to sample a smoothie bowl, I felt as if something less liquid-based would be more appropriate for lunch. Since I had perused the menu beforehand, my mind was already made up. I quickly paid for my Tahini Beet Wrap and tacked on one of the Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwiches for dessert.

Sweet Green Smoothie and Coconut BLT

While I waited for the staff to assemble my meal, I joined my friend at one of the tables. She had already received her Coconut BLT and Sweet Green Smoothie. One close look at the menu and it’s easy to see that it’s strictly plant-based; they’ve committed themselves to using organic and local ingredients to create items free of meat, dairy, egg and soy products.

My girlfriend enjoyed her smoothie of spinach, parsley, pineapple, apple, banana, dates and almond milk. I didn’t try it, so the most I can say is that the mix of ingredients sounded well-balanced in terms of greens to fruits. Additionally, her Coconut BLT was stacked high with smoked coconut bacon, spinach, tomato, avocado, date jam, mayo and hemp seed pesto (she had the red onions omitted). Although I didn’t have any of it either, there seemed to be an overall lack of “bacon.” Still, I’d be willing to give it a shot next time I’m there.

Tahini Beet Wrap

I’m sort of on the fence about my Tahini Beet Wrap. It’s built with a flax wrap base, which is filled with mixed greens, quinoa, beets, carrots, apples, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and tahini-lemon dressing. All of the components are things I like and everything was fresh. Yet, a large portion of it came across as kind of bland. It was also somewhat difficult to eat as the quinoa tumbled out with every bite I took. The best part of the wrap was towards the bottom of each half. That’s where I found most of the dried cranberries and the tahini-lemon dressing. When those two elements were present, the wrap shone. On a side note, the greens (there’s also the option of chips) that came with the wrap were stellar. It’s a simple kale salad with a zesty dressing and it was really delicious.

The Strawberry Nanaimo Bar all bagged to go.

Before we left, my friend picked up a small Strawberry Nanaimo Bar to go. She texted me later to tell me it was yummy, but rich. Back at the office, I snacked on my Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich throughout the afternoon. The texture was lighter than I expected and not as dense as some oatmeal cookies can be. Albeit, it was slightly crumbly. The vegan cream cheese middle was to die for though. I don’t know how they emulated the flavour of cream cheese frosting without real cream cheese. Whatever they did, it worked.

Honestly, I was expecting KB & Co to be better. I had heard so many good things. My biggest issue is the price. The two items I purchased came to about $19. My friend paid about $27 for her trio. I think that for a place that doesn’t provide much added service, the cost does appear to be a tad high.

Nonetheless, I won’t be deterred by that alone. KB & Co is a promising business. It’s catering to a specific clientele whose needs aren’t always met at other restaurants. Even though I’m lucky enough to be able to eat what I want, I appreciate that there’s an alternative out there to help even out the scales when required.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: ‘Ono Poke Co.

The traditional ‘Ono Poke bowl.

As a food lover, it has been fantastic to see new restaurants popping up all over Edmonton. Within the last month, there have been about a handful of new establishments gracing our streets, including Ono Poke Co., which celebrates their grand opening today.

Located north of Jasper Avenue on 104 Street, the spacious shop will be open six days a week to serve guests. Although Ono Poke Co. is not the first to introduce the beloved Hawaiian dish of poke (raw fish salad) to Edmontonians, Executive Chef Lawrence Hui has taken a very different approach with his offerings.

Initial plans for Lawrence’s fast-casual restaurant were similar to Splash Poke‘s Build-Your-Own-Bowl concept. Yet, after an eye-opening trip to Maui at the beginning of May, Lawrence decided to focus on a chef-driven menu instead.

Chef Tom Muromoto imparting his wisdom on Chef Lawrence Hui. Photo by Liv Vors.

During Lawrence’s trip to the island, he stayed at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel where their executive chef, Tom Muromoto, took Lawrence under his wing. In addition to teaching the history of poke and the best techniques to make it, Chef Muramoto also took Lawrence out surfing.

As Lawrence toured Maui, he also met with Chef Charlie Owen of Hula Grill Ka’anapali, Chef Jesse Anacleto of Roy’s Ka’anapali (named after Chef Roy Yamaguchi, the great pioneer and champion of Hawaiian cuisine) and Chef Ikaika Manaku of Mauka Makai at the Westin Nanea. Through and through, the hospitality of the island’s chefs shone. Each one gladly shared their version of “traditional” poke along with some modern takes that used different proteins such as beef, scallops, shrimp and beets.

It was through this educational experience that Lawrence came to fully understand the fusion of flavours in Hawaiian food. A combination of Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean and Japanese tastes and traditions can be deciphered and it’s that willingness to blend them all together that makes their dishes so unique.

As soon as Lawrence returned home, he scrapped his original idea and menu. Starting from scratch, he came up with a succinct list of items: ‘Ono Poke, The G.G., The Twitch in Tuna, Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke (inspired by and named after Chef Tom Muromoto), Prairie Luau and the vegan and gluten free Beet the Poke.

Crafting the samples of poke during our pre-opening event.

I had the opportunity to try a few of their dishes at a pre-opening event earlier this week and I was definitely impressed. What I loved most was how large and fresh the cubes of fish were. They were marinated to enhance the flavour rather than mask the taste of the seafood, which is so important when it comes to poke.

The ‘Ono (‘Ono means “delicious” and ono means “fish) Poke bowl is their most traditional offering. It utilizes Ahi tuna ─ yellowfin tuna that swims in warmer waters and is pinker in colour ─ with shoyu sauce, sesame oil, ginger, seaweed, white onion, macadamia nuts, Hawaiian salt, sea asparagus, green onion and their Asian slaw (red cabbage, daikon carrot and cilantro). Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of cilantro, but I felt that all the flavours and textures were there. As Lawrence said, it was imperative to ensure that there were layers to the bowls; each one needed to finish with some sort of crunch and had to have excellent palate profiles.

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke was my personal favourite. This brought a creamier consistency to the tuna with the use of a spicy tobiko aioli instead of the shoyu sauce. White onion, cucumber, edamame beans, green onion, micro greens, sea asparagus and wasabi crab chips gave it several punches of colour and just a slight amount of pungency. It’s also the only selection on the menu that didn’t include cilantro in it. However, on a second visit, it was made with the herb sprinkled on top, so I’d definitely suggest letting the staff know to exclude any cilantro if there’s an aversion to the taste. In any case, the Surf Poke was a less salty offering and it felt pretty refreshing.

Prairie Luau

Of the three that I sampled, I’d say that the Prairie Luau fell in the middle for me. Rather than a protein of fish, it came with gochujang (red chili paste) marinated braised pork, gochujang vinaigrette, Chinese black fungus mushroom, cucumber, white onion, green onion, house-made kimchi (contains shrimp), chili oil and cilantro. It was certainly the spiciest option, but not in a way that scorched your taste buds. On the contrary, the pork was so succulent and the kimchi was fermented to bring out that balance of heat and acidity.

All of the bowls can be customized with a base of either short grain Japanese rice, salad greens or quinoa. Once the bowl is made and collected, I’d also recommend splashing some of their Hawaiian Chili Water into the mix as it adds a whole new dynamic to the dish.

The menu boards at ‘Ono Poke Co.

Even though the prices seem a tad high ($11.95 to $14.95 for a regular size bowl), the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. Everything is prepared fresh daily and, if it can be made in-house, it is. Apart from the fully prepared bowls, there will even be containers of kimchi, shoyu japchae (sweet potato noodles and veggies) and fresh marinade poke, bags of house-made taro chips, and bottles of Hawaiian Chili Water for sale, so a feast can be laid out at home.

In a way, this spread of one of Hawaii’s most popular foods across the Pacific Ocean shows just how dynamic a place Edmonton is. If we can’t go to Hawaii, why not have the chance to familiarize ourselves with that State’s cuisines and culture right in our own back yard? I’m thankful that Ono Poke Co. is bringing us this authentic poke experience.

For Hawaiian’s, it’s typical to end the work day with some beer, snacks and poke. In fact, there are dozens of varieties of poke available (even in liquor stores). While the menu at Ono Poke Co. is a small one, Chef Lawrence and his team are doing their absolute best to pay tribute to their Hawaiian mentors. By providing the most genuine poke possible, I imagine that they’ve made all those Maui chefs proud.

Sou Chef Matt with Executive Chef Lawrence