Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (WEM)

Our spread of food at Famoso WEM.

I recently reviewed the Famoso Magrath location of my own accord, and, subsequently, I was invited, along with my fiancé, to the Famoso at West Edmonton Mall (WEM) for a VIP meal on the house. We decided to take them up on the offer, visiting the eatery at 5:00pm this past Monday.

With Famoso’s brick and mortar space situated next door to the popular Cactus Club Cafe, it would seem that diners could be enticed when shoppers are already so close. Yet, thinking about it, it’s really not the ideal spot. There is no direct door connecting the restaurant to the mall from inside, and there are no convenient entrances that allow patrons to sneak out of the mall for a quick jaunt over to the restaurant. The closest way to get to Cactus Club or Famoso used to be a shortcut through a set of Sears doors, but with the store closed, I’m assuming it’s always locked.

Now, customers either have to hightail it across a large parking lot to get to Famoso, or, like my fiancé and I, grab the car and drive it right to Famoso to park there. My guess is this small hurdle is a deterrent for a lot of people. After a long day of walking around the mall, many won’t go out of their way to get to Famoso, and once they’re in the car, they may just opt to go home instead of dining out. If potential visitors aren’t near the mall to begin with, I could see them skipping out on going to WEM all together to avoid the crowds.

Speaking with the manager on staff when we arrived, I was apparently correct in my assessment. Famoso WEM is not attracting the numbers that the other locations in Edmonton are, which is unfortunate news. Aside from it’s questionable proximity to our famous landmark, it’s actually a lovely space. It’s incredibly open, airy and bright compared to the rest of the Famoso establishments I’ve been to. The venue has high ceilings, a big kitchen, lots of lower tables that are roomy and comfortable, a fireplace that grounds the room, and they even have a waiting area at the front. It’s actually a sharp contrast to what I’m accustomed to seeing at Famoso, and I appreciated this.

When it came to the food, we were pleased, too. The quality is on par with what we’ve had at the rest. On this occasion we sampled more than a handful of their items: a glass of Raspberry Ginger Beer ($4.65), the skillet of Cauliflower Artichoke Dip ($12.35), a bowl of Mac + Cheese ($14.65), the Italian Pulled Beef Sandwich with Caesar Salad ($16.35), a Create Your Own 5-Topping 12″ Pizza ($18.35), and a jar of White Chocolate Panna Cotta ($6.65).

My glass of Raspberry Ginger Beer and a bottle of Peroni.

The Raspberry Ginger Beer is a non-alcoholic beverage that includes one refill, so the value isn’t too bad. It’s made with fresh lime, bitters, house-made ginger syrup, soda, and raspberry syrup. Initially, I found it to be subtler than I expected (not overly sweet). As it turns out, I should have mixed everything together because the last few sips were quite sugary. In terms of the flavour, my second glass was better balanced when I made sure to stir the ingredients regularly.

Both of us loved the piping hot — let it cool for a bit first — Cauliflower Artichoke Dip. It’s a new take on the ubiquitous spinach dip with the greens replaced by roasted seasoned cauliflower. The majority of the texture still comes from the artichokes. Oven-baked cream cheese, cheddar, and smoked mozzarella created that gooey yet smooth consistency. Even though I ate all of the tortilla chips, I will admit that they were not my favourite. I thought they’d be more crisp. Somehow, they weren’t. In any case, the garlic flatbread is where it’s at.

I was curious about the Mac + Cheese. Again, this wasn’t my top pick. It was passable though. My recommendation is to eat the whole dish when it’s made fresh. Don’t take it home as leftovers because it’s not as good when warmed a second time. They use a beer cheese sauce as the base and then it’s topped with cheddar, herbaceous gremolata, green onions, and prosciutto crisps. It’s garnished with crunchy bread crumbs as mac and cheese should be. The taste was there; however, it lacked enough sauce. The amount provided coated the pasta, but it didn’t leave much else.

We were surprised by the Italian Pulled Beef Sandwich (I believe this is a seasonal item). Sure, the house-roasted hand-pulled beef was a tad overcooked and dry as if it’d been reheated. Nevertheless, all of the other elements of the sandwich were superb. The crispy prosciutto, provolone cheese, caramelized onions, pepperoncini, lettuce, tomato, horseradish aioli, and the butter grilled brioche bun added layers of texture and flavour, so that every bite was slightly unique. The side of Caesar salad was alright. They utilize a very light house dressing that was barely noticeable on the romaine lettuce. What improved the salad was the spritz of lemon juice along with the exorbitant helping of Grana Padano flakes and prosciutto crisps.

In the past, whenever I went to Famoso, I would typically order one of their signature pizzas straight off of the menu. While it’s still tempting to do so as there are some fantastic choices, my fiancé and I now prefer to build our own 5-topping pizza. We started with a parmesan crema base and added sun-dried tomatoes, fresh feta, chicken, soppressata, and fresh prosciutto. Basil and olive oil were included at no charge as well. It leans on the salty side with the cheese and cured meats, but the chicken is so succulent and I love the sweet-tart flavour and chewy texture of the preserved tomatoes. My fiancé and I refer to this creation as “The KC” (our initials). If anyone is ever inclined to try this pizza, let me know what you think of it! Oh, and don’t forget to order tzatziki to dip the crusts.

White Chocolate Panna Cotta for two.

Dinner out is never complete without dessert. I chose to go with one of the lighter selections for the two of us to share. As White Chocolate Panna Cotta goes, this was decent. The sweet is house-made with the panna cotta set in a mason jar. Strawberry sauce and shaved dark chocolate are placed on top to finish it off. I would have liked to have seen extra strawberry sauce to pair with each bite of the white chocolate panna cotta. I also found the dark chocolate shavings to be harder than expected. This is probably because the dessert was prepared earlier and refrigerated, which solidified the dark chocolate. I think adding the chocolate shavings right before the dessert is served would improve it because the dark chocolate would more easily melt in the mouth.

It’s funny. When we sat down for our reservation at Famoso WEM, it was quiet in the restaurant. Only a few other tables were occupied. It matched what the manager told me about how slow business could be. Yet, when we left, it was a packed house with customers waiting at the front to be seated. The realization that it was spring break kicked in, and that time off for families certainly made a big difference. In fact, the majority of diners had young children in tow. Even though the restaurant wasn’t staffed appropriately for the rush they received, they didn’t seem to miss a beat. Every table with kids was greeted by the manager who asked how many dough balls he should bring for the kids to play with. Is this a new thing at Famoso? Or, do they just do this at WEM? Either way, it’s an ingenious way of preoccupying the children, so everyone can eat in peace.

Living in the southwest side of Edmonton, Famoso WEM is never going to be our location of choice for their Neapolitan-style pizzas. It’s too out of the way for us to go there regularly. Nonetheless, our experience was a good one this week. So, if we’re ever in the neighbourhood, this spot will definitely be on our list of options for a delicious meal and great daily specials.

Current daily specials are listed in the drink menu.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (Magrath)

Korean BBQ Chicken Pizza

Famoso‘s original Jasper Avenue location was one of the first handful of local restaurant reviews I wrote on this blog. I’ve been a loyal customer over the years, but with the introduction of delivery service through SkipTheDishes, I started having the food dropped off at my condo and I stopped going into any of the physical locations.

Fast forward to January. I had a Groupon on hand for the Magrath Heights Famoso at Rabbit Hill Road and 23 Avenue. My fiancé and I popped in for an early supper on a Sunday afternoon. When we arrived, the server indicated that we could sit wherever we liked. We ended up grabbing a cozy booth and she dropped the menus off.

I took a look at the space and thought I’d make note of the table number, so I’d know what to tell them at the till during our order placement. As it turns out, the number was missing. I asked the server if the restaurant was now full-service and she confirmed what I thought. The manager mentioned that they switched to that template about a year and a half ago. This is actually preferable because it never really made sense to me to have customers get up from their seats. In the long run, they were still paying for staff to work the restaurant during the remainder of the meal and I don’t think it really saved anyone much time.

On this occasion, we opted to get two 12″ pizzas: the white Cavoletti ($17.35) and the seasonal Korean BBQ Beef ($18.35).

Cavoletti Pizza

The Cavoletti is my all-time favourite pie at Famoso and, ever since I introduced it to my fiancé, it has become his as well. The combination of the soft, chewy, slightly charred dough topped with prosciutto crisps, oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, Gorgonzola cheese, dates, walnuts, and honey is always satisfying with its balance of saltiness and sweetness. I call it a game changer.

Korean BBQ Pizza

Our second choice of the Korean BBQ Beef was actually surprisingly good. There was a generous amount of oven-roasted hand-pulled beef covered in house-made Korean BBQ and hoisin sauce. It was sweeter than expected. Yet, the duo of a mild fior di latte and a stronger cheddar cheese, along with chopped green onions, helped to tone that down.

This was a really enjoyable dinner that was speedily prepared (we were in and out within an hour) and provided leftovers for lunch the next day. We even received a couple of vouchers to come back for half off our bills during their Gratitude Week that ran from January 21 to 25, and we took them up on the offer twice.

As usual, the Cavoletti pizza was a staple. However, we also decided to try some different items: a New World Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza, a half order of the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls ($11.95) and the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta ($16.35) with added Chicken ($3.35).

Sweet BBQ Chicken Pizza

Admittedly, the Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza was disappointing. We did alter the recipe by asking them to omit the cilantro as neither of us likes the taste of the herb. That left roasted chicken with honey smoked BBQ sauce, fior di latte, smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, and onions. I don’t think there was enough of the sauce or that the mozzarella tasted like it was smoked at all. If it’s smoked properly, that scent comes off the plate immediately and the flavour packs a punch, but it was missing completely. Maybe in place of cilantro, some spinach would have been good to bring in a little bitterness. That, or a more intense cheese such as feta.

Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls

Regarding the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls, these were decent. Their Campania tomato sauce is so fresh and tasty. I love that they drown the mozza balls in the stuff. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to the garlic flatbread. Our only issue with the dish was that it wasn’t warm. While we could tell the cheese had melted as it was still soft in the middle, it wasn’t all that gooey and it had cooled considerably by the time it made it to us.

Pistachio Pesto Primavera Pasta

I was quite impressed with the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta. Although I would have liked to have seen more of the linguini pasta on the plate, they certainly did not skimp on the roasted zucchini and mushrooms, green peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken. The house-made pistachio pesto cream sauce was lighter than what might be found at other places, but there was enough to ensure that everything was evenly coated. We didn’t think we’d manage to finish our bowl of pasta and whole pizza that night. Yet, both items were so good that we polished it all off.

It seems that the best time to visit is in the middle of the afternoon on weekends though. We never had a problem finding a table at those times and the service was always more attentive. On our last visit, we went after work on a Tuesday night and the location was packed with people, mostly families, out for a meal. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait as we managed to grab the only available table for two. Despite that, the service was still pretty quick and friendly.

The Famoso chain of restaurants is one that I’ll keep recommending to people because there’s a comfortable consistency. Plus, it’s a local success story and I think that patrons appreciate that aspect of the business.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nando’s (Brewery District)

The plate I put together for myself from everything we ordered with our Variety Platter.

Never one to pass up a good deal, I found it imperative to use a direct marketing coupon received for the new Nando’s location at the Brewery District. After all, thirty percent off of a meal doesn’t come up too often.

My boyfriend and I made our way to central Edmonton for dinner on a Saturday at around five o’clock. When we arrived, there were tables occupied; however, much of the eatery remained open for walk-in guests. I overheard one of the servers say to another set of diners that their busiest time usually occurs a couple of hours later in the evening at around 7:00pm.

The interior of the Nando’s Brewery District location.

We were seated at the far end of the restaurant, providing me with a full view of the interior, which was well-designed, modern, spacious, comfortable, clean, and efficiently organized. As we settled in, the staff member quickly gave us the rundown of how it worked at Nando’s. Ultimately, it’s similar to a number of fast-casual establishments that restaurant-goers are likely familiar with (i.e. Famoso or Via Cibo). First, spend a bit of time leisurely perusing the menu at the table. When ready, get up and head over to the till where someone will take the order and process payment. Before sitting back down, grab water, napkins, utensils, and extra sauces or dressings from the center station. Then, build up an appetite while waiting for a server to bring the dishes over.

I have to say that, prior to visiting, I had no clue what exactly PERi-PERi was. As it turns out, it’s a specific Portuguese marinade, baste, or sauce with origins that come out of Africa, specifically Mozambique. The base is the hot African Bird’s Eye Chilli (a.k.a. piri-piri). Mixed with lemon, garlic and salt, it becomes PERi-PERi. Nando’s has stuck by the belief that simple is best, keeping artificial colours or flavours and any preservatives out of their recipes. The company has also refused to outsource their supply of chillies, and instead, they work with small-scale farmers in Southern Africa to grow them specifically for their use. They’ve created a business that has not only gone global, but also made a wonderful impact on a more local level with initiatives such as these. That’s certainly worth a commendation on its own.

The Variety Platter: Half Chicken, 5 Wings & 2 Skewers

Our food didn’t take too long to arrive. The pair of us opted to share a Variety Platter ($32.95) intended for two to three people. It included a half chicken, five whole wings, two skewers, and two regular sides. On their menu is a scale called the PERi-ometer. It’s to be used to decide on the amount of heat appropriate for one’s taste buds. There were several choices, starting on the low end with Plain…ish to the high end of Xtra Hot. Although we’re quite comfortable with spice, I still wasn’t sure what to expect of Nando’s, so we opted for Medium on the half chicken and the wings. For the skewers, we chose Mango & Lime.

According to the Nando’s website, their chicken is marinated for at least twenty-four hours to allow the seasonings to soak in and to fully tenderize the meat before being cooked over a flame grill. While I cannot attest to that statement, I will say that my overall impression of the chicken and its preparation was that it was superb. Every single bite packed a wallop without burning the mouth. It wasn’t even necessary to utilize any of the additional sauces available (unless more heat was required). The meat was incredibly tender as well. Shreds of chicken pulled right off the bone without much effort. Yet, I think, out of all the options we tried that day, my favourite had to be the Mango & Lime skewers. They were just so flavourful with an intense natural mango taste.

For our sides, we went with the Garlic Mashed Potatoes and the Spiced Rice. The garlic mashed potatoes were warm, smooth and garlicky with skins and herbs still clearly visible. It seemed as though the mashed potatoes were freshly made. I really enjoyed the spiced rice, too. Bright yellow in colour, it had been seasoned with several herbs, spices and peppers. Both were excellent accompaniments to the chicken because they complimented the meat without overpowering it.

Their traditional Portuguese custard tart.

Before we left, I insisted on getting a Pasteis de Natas ($2.50). This is otherwise known as a traditional Portuguese custard tart. I love eating Chinese egg tarts at dim sum and these are somewhat similar. Flaky crusts provide the foundation to hold the filling, but the difference comes down to what’s in the middle. The Chinese version is made with more egg and less cream, so it finishes with a brighter, glassier and smoother consistency. The Portuguese tart is closer to a sugary crème brûlée with a caramelized top. I enjoy either iteration of this type of dessert. Regardless, I was rather disappointed with the one at Nando’s. While its aroma was intoxicating, the custard itself was slightly gummy as if it’d been sitting out too long and the top looked as though it was a tad over-burnt. Therefore, I don’t think I’d be very inclined to order that again.

I have yet to go back after this first visit. Nevertheless, I’m going to call myself a fan. I’ve often thought of their chicken since, and I find myself craving it at times. Even better, I just found out that their food is now available to be delivered through SkipTheDishes, and I will surely be taking advantage of that. Whatever Nando’s is doing, they’re doing it right!

This is one happily satisfied customer!

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.

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!