Edmonton Business Review: Awake Coffee House

The cafe side of Awake Coffee House.

I’ve been on a bit of a coffeehouse kick lately. They’re just really great places to go for meetings, and, since I’ve had many a get together over the past month, it’s ideal to have multiple options. One that I visited recently is called Awake Coffee House. Located at 11029 9 Avenue, it’s easily accessible for those on the south side. If coming from the Henday, just exit on 111 Street heading north, and it’ll be the first turn on the right hand side.

When my fiancé and I drove up to the building on a Saturday afternoon, it was incredibly quiet. The parking lot only had a few cars in it. We also immediately noted that it was attached to Twin Brooks Medical Clinic. Upon walking into the actual coffee shop, I did take in the clean, modern space of the cafe, but I also thought that the pharmacy on the other side was a bit odd.

The spacious seating area separates the cafe from the pharmacy on the other side.

The medical clinic has a door that connects into Awake Coffee House, so that patients can easily come in and put through their prescriptions. While that’s convenient, I have to say I’m not super keen on hanging out in a cafe where there’s greater potential of people who have succumb to illness hanging out there. Yet, that is apparently a strategic business decision of the Song sisters who own both the cafe and the pharmacy. As registered pharmacists, they wanted a more welcoming spot for people to wait as their prescriptions were being prepared. While I see it from their side, it’s not exactly my cup of tea.

I really liked the touches of mint/teal throughout.

Luckily, it was pretty empty that day. We were able to sit almost anywhere we wanted to. Some of the tables were more communal. Others were smaller and could be grouped should that be required. They have a suitable selection of beverages. In my case, I ordered a Small Chai Latte ($5), which was presented in a larger than expected simple teal mug. I found that to be a nice touch since the colour matched the rest of the design scheme seen throughout Awake Coffee House — greys on the floor, natural woods on the tables and counter, whites on the seats and lights, and teal/mint on the stools and chair bottoms.

Small Chai Latte

I’ve read mixed reviews about the drinks served at Awake Coffee House with the majority of the negative coming from around the time they opened over a year ago. Most people cited watered down beverages. This was my first and only visit so far; however, based on my Chai Latte, I think they’ve made improvements because it was really good. Not only was the size decent for the price (most places charge a similar amount for this beverage), but it was incredibly flavourful. They certainly didn’t skimp when preparing the latte. It also had a pleasant amount of foam action on the top and they dusted it with an extra helping of spice before serving, adding to the overall taste once it was all stirred in.

There’s a wall of greeting cards near the door.

Awake Coffee House also makes bubble waffles on the weekend! I refrained from getting one this last time. Nevertheless, it’s on my list of things to try when we return. I have my eye on the dessert style Pina Colada Bubble Waffle that I saw on their Instagram page a while ago, so I hope they keep it on the menu. Although I probably won’t be back super often, when and if I do go, I’ll probably stick to weekend afternoons, especially Sundays when the clinic isn’t open. For a germaphobe like me, it’s just preferable. Otherwise, there’s no denying that Awake Coffee House is super cute, and the idea behind it is certainly commendable.

Edmonton Business Review: Escape City

Friends and escape rooms = fun!

I’ve been hooked on escape rooms ever since they were initially introduced to Edmonton back around 2014. I lapped them up and I would go on gaming sprees, usually dragging along a newbie or two. When we left, they were addicted as well. For those who don’t yet know, an escape room is an immersive experience whereby a group is “locked” in a themed room and they have to work together to solve riddles, clues and puzzles in order to breakout. They typically range between 45 to 60 minutes in length and cost about $25 per person to play.

About a year after I delved into that world, more businesses in this vein finally started to pop up, including one of my all time faves, Escape City. Located on 59 Avenue and 104 Street (Calgary Trail), it’s tucked away in the corner of an old strip mall. Walking through the doors, there has always been someone sitting behind the counter to greet patrons. Otherwise, it’s a very minimalist space with white walls, a couple of long benches, and cabinets for lockers. A large bulletin board next to the till showcases the teams who have broken out of their rooms in record time (Note: the times listed are remaining minutes in the game, not total minutes played). On the opposite side of the room is an accent wall with “Escape City” scrawled in red, which is great for photo ops.

It’s ideal to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to pay and sign the waivers (if you’ve played here before, they do keep them on file, so you don’t have to sign it again). As with any other escape room place, you are not to bring in any of your belongings. Phones, especially, should be locked away as it’s all too easy to cheat or make the game easier with them on hand. Plus, it’s important that photos aren’t shared of the room and its puzzles because the whole point of playing is to be challenged. Where’s the fun in knowing in advance what’s going to happen?

When the team is ready to go, a staff member will lead the way. They’ll present the house rules: no lifting carpets, no pulling on things that are nailed down, no climbing, etc. Then, a video introduction is played before the countdown starts and the game begins.

As an early subscriber to Escape City’s newsletter, I was invited to beta test for them. The very first room I got to experience was Keller’s Magic Emporium. At the time, I didn’t realize it was rated as their easiest room. Admittedly, I found it to be too quick to work through as we got out with probably 20 minutes to spare on an available 45 minutes (sometimes I don’t care about breaking a record; I just want to be entertained for as long as possible while still breaking out). What I did like was that they found a way to personalize the game a bit. Everything was quite linear, and the design was superb. They utilized some locks in the room, but there were a lot of other styles of puzzles, too. This one is best for beginners.

A taste of The Cabin. Photo courtesy of Escape City.

My second go at one of their rooms was with The Cabin. This was a well-though-out game and our group was literally a minute away from solving the whole thing. Alas, we failed, but it was very close. While it is considered to be one of the more difficult challenges at Escape City, I believe our ultimate downfall with this particular room was the size of the space and the number of players. Most of the time I struggle to get more than four or five people to come out. In this case, I recall having seven or eight in all. With limbs everywhere, visuals were blocked, hindering our ability to fully grasp everything we were supposed to see. My recommendation with the majority of places I’ve been is to have no more than six people.

Room number three at Escape City was The Inheritance. I’d only just started dating Kirk at the time. He was so enamoured with The Cabin that, on a whim as we were passing by one night, he decided we should zip into the front doors an hour before closing to ask if we could play an impromptu game. The staff was happy to oblige. I feel like we used a lot of hints (you can have up to two, if you want your time to count towards their rankings; otherwise, you can have as many as needed). But, what do you expect when you only have two brains trying to decipher stuff like this at 10 o’clock in the evening? We managed though. There were a couple of puzzles that we solved without doing it the way the room was planned (it happens on occasion). We also wouldn’t have gotten out within the actual 45 minutes. Thankfully, the employees working that night were nice enough to give us extra time. It’s been designated with a three out of five star difficulty rating and I think that’s a fair assessment.

Adventure four was The Great Discovery. It’s no longer running, but this one had a lab storyline and made sure to encourage the use of multiple senses in order to solve the puzzles. Our team worked well together as each person brought something to the table, and we felt really accomplished when we escaped this room.

The Hunt for Arms Magee (previously known as Quarterback Sneak) was the fifth room played at Escape City. It’s also classified as middle of the road in terms of the overall challenge. I have to say though, this was most likely my least favourite out of the handful of games we’d played here at this point. I didn’t think the quality of the room itself or the production value was as high as the others. Mainly in the first half (the second portion had a fun element), the premise felt silly and oversimplified in comparison. This room was a joint effort between Escape City and Explore Edmonton. It was originally meant to tie into the Grey Cup and pitted the idea of the Edmonton Eskimos against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I thought they just tried way too hard to tie in Edmonton elements. They’re best left to making rooms where the imaginations of the designers aren’t hindered by the tourism board’s vision.

We excelled at Neurological! Also, this is apparently my lucky shirt.

Approximately ten months later, I finally found an excuse to go back. This time, we were celebrating Escape City’s third birthday (August 2018). It’s crazy to think that they’ve graced us with their presence for this long and even weirder to realize I hadn’t played any escape rooms in over half a year. We tried our hand at Neurological, one of their hardest. I’ve been told by many people who tackled it before me to go with a large group (eight to ten). In the end, I managed to wrangle together a total of five people. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that we didn’t have enough brain power. Turns out, that worry was unnecessary. We demolished this room! Unlike the others, you start with 60 minutes on the timer, and we completed it with 11 minutes left to go. This one splits the team up at the beginning and the goal is to come back together to alight all the senses. It required clear communication and a lot of teamwork to succeed. We were told at the end that only 14 per cent of of the people who play this one break out, so we felt like superstars.

For those that want to hang out a little longer, you can either get there early or stay for a bit at the end and commiserate over a drink because, surprisingly, Escape City does sell cans of beer and a few other non-alcoholic beverages. Basically, it’s a great option for parties of any kind. While I’m not likely to throw a shindig here myself, they sure do know how to reel me back in. Seeing as how I had pretty much tackled all of their rooms, I wasn’t expecting to be return again any time soon. But, lo and behold, for their anniversary, they’ve just launched a new one called Frank’s Revenge about an uncle looking to even the score. If I have my way, curse be damned. Our winning streak has to live on! I’ll be back with friends in tow!

Edmonton Business Review: The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

It’s hard to miss The Colombian when driving west on Stony Plain Road.

Today, I thought I’d give a shout out to The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery. Those who know me well may be wondering why I’d be so bold as to write about a coffee shop when I don’t actually drink the beverage. Yet, this relatively new business is located in my old neighbourhood of Glenora and I thought I’d shine a light on it. Situated on 134 Street and Stony Plain Road, it sits right next to Vi’s for Pies, an area favourite.

When Kirk and I arrived at The Colombian on a Sunday afternoon, they were just a couple of hours away from closing up for the day. The place was packed with the majority of tables already taken. It’s a very long, narrow space, and they’ve done a pretty good job with it, so it doesn’t feel tight and claustrophobic. The high, open ceilings painted white definitely help. Otherwise, it’s pretty basic with minimal colours, simple wooden tables, chairs and benches, and industrial style pendant lighting.

The narrow space of The Colombian’s interior.

Once we ordered our drinks and my snack, we, at first, sat along a bench that faces their store shelves. T-shirts, cups, and bags of their house roasted coffee were up for grabs. It was sort of an awkward spot though. With tiny built-in tables, it kind of reminded me of the pop-up desks found in auditorium classrooms throughout university. Eyeing an empty back corner with a bench and a big tree stump table, we made a beeline for that instead.

Although there is a decent amount of seating in The Colombian, I don’t believe it’s necessarily meant to be comfortable. The solid benches are hard and most of the chairs are more like miniature stools without backs, offering little to no upper body support. Maybe that’s on purpose. Maybe it was just a cost saver. Regardless, I got the sense that the setting was more conducive to quick stays.

Drip Coffee and a Chai Latte ready to go, if needed.

Still, I enjoyed our time there and would be very interested to see how their coffee is made (the back of the shop is cordoned off and that is where they roast). Kirk ordered a simple Drip Coffee ($3.75 for a large). It smelled lovely, but he admitted he overdid it on the milk and sugar, so the true flavour was masked. Therefore, I can’t even give a proper second hand account of the coffee. From what I’ve read of other reviews, they have plenty of fans, so I’d recommend trying them out for yourself, if there’s an opportunity to go.

I sampled their Chai Latte ($5.50 for a large). It’s somewhat pricey; however, it was brewed and mixed with the milk well. Served at the perfect temperature for me, I thought the spices they used were super flavourful. They even garnished the light foam with extra cinnamon to give it some added oomph. I appreciated that as a serious cinnamon lover.

For those who are just hanging out with friends and would prefer something stronger, they offer a few draughts on tap and house wine. The options are few, but at least they are there.

As for the food, I’ve heard that they make a mean avocado toast. Personally, I’m a a tad weary to order it because there’s cilantro in the recipe, and I don’t want to throw $7 down the drain if I end up disliking it. Yet, anyone who doesn’t mind cilantro should give it a shot and let me know what they think.

The Pain au Chocolat was delectable.

Alternatively, I opted for a Pain au Chocolat ($3.60). It was freaking delicious and I had to ask where they came from. The answer was that they are baked in-house daily, but the pastries themselves are made in France. The company that prepares them flash freezes the dough before shipping them out to their vendors. They tasted fresh as if I bought it at a bakery in Paris. The pastry was soft and just a bit flaky, so everything still held together with each bite. The dark chocolate was divine, too. I’m not sure if the rest of their pastries are made in this manner as well. Either way, eat them all because I’m fairly certain they’ll be just as wonderful.

Part way through our time there, a server brought over a couple glasses of water for us. I thought that was a nice touch as we didn’t ask for anything. When I looked around, I noticed that they had done the same with everyone else. Talk about service! Before we left, one of the owners even popped by to do refills.

The coffee bar inside The Colombian.

The Colombian is most definitely a fantastic addition to Glenora. This is a neighbourhood that is pretty devoid of local cafes. Short of going another ten blocks to the east on 124 Street or about nine blocks in the opposite direction to 143 Street, there isn’t anything else like it in the vicinity. If our brief visit was any indication, The Colombian will be a staple here. I lost count of the number of people who came in and out in the hour we were there, and that’s a really great sign.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: State & Main

State & Main Windermere

Prior to State & Main Jasper Avenue opening, this restaurant was not a regular haunt for me. The Southgate Mall location was a place I visited only when I needed a relatively accessible spot to catch up with friends, and, being right along an LRT line, it fit the bill.

When State & Main was first introduced to the city, it was, for the most part, a duplicate of it’s older sibling, Original Joe’s. In fact, much of the menu was exactly the same. Many of the sandwiches could be found on either one, and it made me wonder what the point of having two chains under different names was. I suppose it could be argued that State & Main has a slightly trendier feel to it than the casual Original Joe’s, but it needed something more than that.

For me, that used to be the brunch. It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to go to State & Main for that, but I definitely have a fondness for their Banana Bread French Toast ($13.50). I think it was the first place I’d ever come across that served a dish like it. Add a side of bacon and I got the best of both worlds when it came to satiating my early morning salty and sweet cravings.

At one point, I was even a huge fan of their veggie burger. Although, I’m by no means a connoisseur of vegetarian patties, I thought theirs had a great consistency with a beef-like texture, juiciness and a lot of flavour. It used to be topped with some sort of guacamole and halved grape tomatoes. Served with it would have been my choice of two of their extensive sides. However, more recently, I noticed that they changed the description of The Veggie ($15.50) on their menu. A friend of mine opted to go for a “healthier” lunch one day and gave it a go. She was severely disappointed. Visually, the burger didn’t look appetizing, so I can’t imagine it was much better eating it. I just don’t understand. They had a good recipe already, so why change a good thing?

Jalapeno Mac & Cheese with Bacon

Nowadays, State & Main downtown has become our scene for workplace gatherings (usually when another co-worker has abandoned the rest of us for something better). Within the past few months, we’ve probably been at least four or five times. My typical order is the Jalapeno Mac & Cheese ($11) with added Bacon ($2) off of their Start & Share listings. It’s affordable and it’s the perfect amount of food for the lunch hour. Sometimes it can get a little greasy, but overall, it’s got a nice creamy sauce. I enjoy the cavatappi noodles (spiral tubes) and the spice from the jalapenos is just right. It’s best when they put on a lot of panko bread crumb to get that baked crust on top, too. The bacon is usually good as I prefer it crispy. Aside from the last time, when I’m certain they forgot to put the bacon in (don’t worry, I got them to bring me a side of it), I always leave satisfied with this item.

I have tried to change things up every once in a while by selecting different dishes. Sometimes it has worked out (Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl), other times not so much (The Grilled Cheese Burger). Still, after frequenting State & Main so many times over the years, it’s a bit surprising that I hadn’t reviewed them before. Therefore, with a generous gift card in hand, Kirk and I decided to pop into the newest Windermere location for an early happy hour supper on a recent weekend.

Available from 3pm to 6pm every day and 9pm to close from Sunday to Thursday, I love taking advantage of happy hour deals. It can be an ideal way to have date night while getting to sample several things and save money. On this particular occasion, Kirk stuck to the Amber/Red SM Draught ($4). It tasted fine to me; fairly smooth and not overly hoppy. My preference is for cocktails, so I chose to go with the Saturday special of White Sangria ($7). Made with Absolut vodka, lemon juice, stone fruit syrup, white cranberry juice, Sauvignon blanc, raspberries, peaches and topped with State slush, it certainly made for easy drinking. Nothing too out there, and it was neither bitter or overly sweet. I could actually have done without the State slush though. It’s like a poor man’s version of a Slurpee with ice that is harshly crushed and quickly clumps up into a solid ball.

To eat, we shared a handful of items, including the State Slider ($3 each), Truffle Parm Crisps ($4), Lamb Tacos ($5 each or regularly $15.75 for two and a side), Short Ribs ($7), and Korean Fried Chicken ($7 or regularly $13.50). I have a theory that the restaurant takes longer to cook things up during happy hour, so patrons don’t have a chance to order a second round of food before 6pm. What other reason could there be for such a delay? It wasn’t even all that busy. For a competent kitchen to get an order out, it should never be a 40 minute wait.

Lamb Tacos

Our patience paid off in the end. Everything was delivered to our table at once. I’ll begin with the worst item: lamb taco. I was kind of excited to try this one because I’d been eyeing it on the menu for a long time. Having been forewarned about the disastrous fish tacos at State & Main, I was hoping that the lamb tacos with no cilantro in sight would be the better option. Unfortunately, the lamb did not come across as fresh. It had a gamey flavour, but not in the way that I was used to. It was almost too prominent despite there being very little meat at all. The majority of the taco was comprised of the shredded lettuce and pickled pink turnip. A sad drizzle of tahini could be seen on top. Thankfully the side of harissa was there to amp up the taste a bit. Otherwise, this would have been awful.

State Slider

The State Slider was okay. It’s most likely a miniature version of The Main Burger, which stacks a small patty of Canadian beef with American cheese, ketchup, pickle and State sauce. They’re known for their dill dip and the State sauce is similar. Maybe a tad stronger on the palate. I had a single bite and left the rest for Kirk.

Truffle Parm Crisps

I’d definitely order the Truffle Parm Crisps again. As far as I can tell, they’re house-made potato chips garnished with grated and flaked Parmesan cheese. There were a few chips that had gotten soggy by the time we made our way down to the bottom of the bowl. Otherwise, they were thick and crunchy with plenty of cheesiness and a decent creamy dip to go with it.

Short Ribs with Tzatziki

Considering that the Short Ribs were fried, they refrained from being overly oily. The outside was crisped well and they were simply seasoned with salt and pepper. There tends to be more bone than meat with these ribs though, so that’s the one downside. Regardless, what does take them up a notch is the side of tzatziki sauce.

Korean Fried Chicken

Probably my favourite dish from our afternoon out was the Korean Fried Chicken. Turns out I’d had it before during a previous work lunch. It’s prepared with a mix of lightly battered pieces of chicken and cauliflower in a spiced gochujang glaze and sprinkled with sesame seeds and chopped green onions. These taste awesome. My only issue with the dish is that the cauliflower is definitely a way of masking how little chicken they actually give you. The majority of the plate was made up of the white florets in disguise. While I’m a fan of the veggie, I would have appreciated more meat, especially if I had paid full price.

All things taken into consideration, State & Main is alright. Mostly, it comes down to timing. It doesn’t matter the location, service has always a bit shoddy no matter which one. The food is also hit or miss. But, find something that is relatively pleasing and stick with it because, if anything, they’re at least consistent in their mediocrity.

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!