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.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Little India Cuisine

Our table covered with traditional Indian cuisine.

Groupon struck again with a lunch voucher for Little India Cuisine (9250 34 Avenue). Knowing that it was valid towards the buffet ($14.99), which is available daily, I couldn’t pass it up.

My boyfriend and I decided to do a walk-in on a Sunday afternoon. When we stepped through the doors, on the right hand side, I noticed the decor with draped fabrics, hand-carved wooden doors, lantern lights hanging from the ceiling and traditional paintings. It looked stylish and classy from afar; it was a little run-down on closer inspection. On the left hand side was the payment counter and their sweets shop.

We didn’t have to wait for a table as they were able to seat us immediately. However, I did not appreciate where we were placed. We were taken to the back room where the bar is situated. They had modified the tables in that area to accommodate a large party of people who basically took it over and didn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space. It felt like I was sitting in a cafeteria, not a relaxing restaurant. I do realize that probably isn’t the norm there, but it really dampened my experience on this occasion. Had we managed to get a table out front instead, I think it would have been much quieter and more comfortable.

That aside, we helped ourselves to the buffet and it was superb. There was a decent amount of variety, including a salad bar, soups, rices, appetizers, mains, and a few desserts. I only managed to consume one large plate of food (I can’t eat as much as I used to) that was comprised of Aloo Gobi, Mutter Paneer, Lamb Curry, Tandoori Chicken, Butter Chicken, and Saffron Rice.

Papri Chaat and my plate from the lunch buffet.

Everything was marinated well with the flavours saturating and soaking into the veggies and meats. The Tandoori Chicken was actually succulent compared to some I’ve had at other places where it often ends up dry, especially when it can be sitting out for a long period. I love that they serve lamb as part of their lunch buffet because a lot of other Indian restaurants tend to save it for the dinner lineup. I managed to scoop up a few tender pieces of the lamb. It was all meat with very little fat or tendon to be found (although, the bowl had a lot of bones left behind). My absolute favourite thing at any Indian eatery is butter chicken, mainly for the sauce. This was a creamy, slightly spicy and incredibly tasty rendition. In fact, a small pot of the sauce was the only thing I went back to get a second helping of. I dipped our fresh naan bread into that dish and it was worth each and every additional calorie.

I was also surprised to find a plate of Papri Chaat sitting at our table when we first returned from gathering our food at the buffet. I can’t ever recall eating it anywhere else, so it was new to me. The recipe consists of crispy chips, potatoes, chickpeas, and yogurt chutney. Before we were able to ask one of the servers what it was, I took a chance and had a few bites. It was delicious! There are a lot of different textures and I liked the cooling sensation of the yogurt on the palate. Personally, I like it way more than the Papadam that is often offered as a starter.

Mango Custard

Usually, I skip dessert at Indian buffets. After all, I’ve never been a fan of Gulabjuman (milk balls in hot sweet syrup) as they’re way too sugary. Yet, this time, they presented a mango custard and I had to give it a try. It was, admittedly, a slight disappointment. The only reason I say that is due to the number of pieces of custard skin that ended up in my bowl. Those had a sort of unpleasant mouthfeel, like crumbly gelatin. I picked my way around them and ate the smoother custard on its own, and that turned out to be pretty good. Honestly, it could almost pass as a replacement for those wonderful lassi drinks.

When we were finished, we went up to the till to pay our bill. It took forever for the woman to assist us. She seemed more preoccupied with answering the phone than anything. But, her main issue was that she didn’t know where we were sitting and she was apparently trying to get the attention of the servers to ask them before she finally just inquired with us. The staff definitely came across as a bit disorganized. Otherwise, the service was alright while we were dining.

This visit left me with mixed feelings about Little India Cuisine. To go out for a meal is a treat (even if it’s something I do more than the average person). As a customer, I’m spending my hard-earned money by choosing to eat at your establishment. Therefore, it’s not just about filling my body with food. I want to be able to have an enjoyable lunch with my significant other without having some child run into our table, knocking over our stuff. I want to be able to pay my bill in a timely manner. I just want it to be a nice escape from my typical day. In this case, the ambience didn’t do the kitchen’s work any justice, and I couldn’t wait to leave.

Still, the meal was affordable and executed well enough that I’d be willing to give Little India Cuisine another shot. Hopefully what we went through that day was a one off and it’ll be better next time.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mai Vietnamese Fusion

The exterior of Mai Vietnamese Fusion.

Had I not strolled by Mai Vietnamese Fusion along West Edmonton Mall’s Bourbon Street earlier this year, I never would have known of its existence. Intrigued, I searched for it online and found that the restaurant itself had no website or Facebook page. The only trace of it came through reviews left by patrons on Yelp and Zomato. Their only social media presence was on Instagram and even that hadn’t been updated since the summer of 2016.

Those reviews I’d seen weren’t very flattering either. Yet, a Groupon deal was all I needed to forgive any negatives and give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a try. I waited almost the full four months before I went to redeem that voucher on a Saturday night. When my boyfriend and I walked up to the host standing outside the front of the establishment, we indicated that we needed a table for two people. She seemed disorganized and asked us to wait while she ran inside to find an empty space (shouldn’t they have a seating chart at their disposal?). When she came back, we were told that there wasn’t anything available, but something would be ready within ten minutes or so.

The entrance into the restaurant.

As we waited, my eyes explored the room, and I have to say it was designed well. A giant Buddha greets patrons as they come in through the door. To the left hand side of the entrance is a whole wall of smaller figurines of the same in a variety of colours. On the main level, there are a couple of semi-private rooms for larger groups as well as some more intimate tables for couples. Up a few steps on the right hand side are a number of large velvet-lined booths overlooked by a handful of portrait paintings. Overall, the aesthetic was modern with just a touch of the traditional.

Condiments at the table along with fresh basil and bean sprouts.

Once we were seated, we reviewed the menu. Initially, I thought it was a bit expensive in comparison to other restaurants that serve the same type of food. However, I do understand that the cost of rent at WEM is much higher than it would be anywhere else, so I’m assuming that is reflected in their prices. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the large Pho with Steak ($15.70) and I went with the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli ($16.20).

It didn’t take much time for them to prepare everything because, before we knew it, our bowls were brought out to us, along with a plate of fresh basil and bean sprouts. Then we went to work devouring it all.

Pho with Steak

The Pho with Steak was very generous in size. There were plenty of noodles in the bowl and enough steak that my boyfriend nearly failed to finish off the meat (unheard of). The soup wasn’t particularly hot, but it was warm enough. Fattiness was apparent in the broth with bubbles of oil at the top, yet it didn’t seem greasy when consumed. It was a nice, simple soup. I wish I could give a true sense of what it tasted like on its own though. Unfortunately, I only had some after my boyfriend added in a bunch Sriracha sauce to it. Arguably, that added a delightful heat that also elevated the flavour of the dish. Of course, I won’t know for sure how pure the soup is until I go back and try the pho again without that alteration. In any case, it was good enough for me to want to keep drinking the broth.

Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli

My portion of the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli did not disappoint. Sure, it wasn’t as big as the pho, but it was all noodles, veggies and protein. I almost had a hard time stirring the components together for fear of anything jumping ship out of the side of the bowl. In the end, I managed to get the fish sauce mixed in well though. Again, they did not skimp on the noodles (as a cheap ingredient, they shouldn’t be). The ratio of vermicelli to beef was almost perfect. I especially enjoyed the meat as it was marinated really well; the lemongrass flavour definitely came through and there was a pleasant charring from the grill. The two spring rolls were deliciously crisp and filling, too.

Our only issue with the restaurant was the service. Each staff member that we encountered came across as friendly, and, as I mentioned before, our food was presented pretty quickly. Despite that, there was still a sense of mismanagement. With several people working that evening, two tables, including ours, never received our requested glasses of water. Both of us had to ask random employees for our drinks towards the end of our meals because we couldn’t find the person who was supposed to be our server.

Otherwise, it turned out to be a decent dinner out. I think I understand why the restaurant doesn’t necessarily have the greatest reviews out there. Nonetheless, if someone can see past possibly subpar service and they happen to be at West Edmonton Mall with a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine (and other Asian-style dishes), I would tell them to give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a chance.

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: TW’s BBQ Smoke House

Beef brisket, Montreal smoked meat, Caesar salad and mac & cheese

Beef brisket, Montreal smoked meat, Caesar salad and mac & cheese

Southern barbecue has become a favourite meal of mine over the last few years. It’s homestyle cooking at its finest, and while I’m not that hard to please – give me pulled pork doused in sauce and slapped on a bun any day – you know good BBQ when you taste it. Down south dishes are becoming more and more pervasive on restaurant menus around Edmonton. Chicken and waffles are almost a staple nowadays. But, what’s the best way to experience true southern food? I’d argue it’d be without the need to batter or deep fry the meat.

This city doesn’t really come to mind when you think of Texan food or smoked meat. Montreal maybe, Edmonton likely not. However, my love of a deal led me to Groupon where I found a voucher for a restaurant called TW’s BBQ Smoke House. This is a place that wasn’t anywhere near my radar. Located in High Park just east of the Mayfield area at 152 Street and 111 Avenue, it never really occurred to me that there would be a restaurant there for me to try. So, feeling adventurous, I clicked on the “Buy!” button and planned for a new dining excursion.

My parents joined me there at the end of June. As we drove down 111 Avenue, it was pouring rain as we kept our eyes peeled for a sign of the establishment. I spotted it a short distance away tucked between Tumbleweeds Texan & Latin Grill (same ownership) and a liquor store. An old strip mall, the outside isn’t that appealing. However, we parked the car across from the door and dashed inside to get out of the rain and I was pleasantly surprised by the interior. Decorated in neutral browns and taupes, it was simple. Clearly, it had been renovated and painted, and the upkeep looked good. Some metal cutouts in the shape of flames provided a slightly stylish flair and separation from the kitchen.

Their entree menu.

Their entree menu.

We were greeted quickly by a very friendly server who guided us to a booth by the windows. She was great with the recommendations throughout our decision making process and she was attentive during our entire stay. Being me, I opted to go with the Pulled Pork sandwich. My parents decided to share a half chicken with one additional meat and two sides.

My pulled pork sandwich was delicious. The meat had shed itself from the bone while cooking and was tender and succulent. It came on a garlic toasted kaiser bun with the pork smothered in their signature hickory mesquite smoked BBQ sauce (apparently it goes with anything). A side of coleslaw was provided as well, which I added to my sandwich for a little extra tang and texture. I chose the cornbread muffin as my side and that was slightly disappointing. It tasted quite nice, but it was a bit dry and kind of small compared to everything else included with dinner.

The half chicken my parents ordered was roasted to perfection; the meat was incredibly juicy and melt-in-your-mouth. My only qualm is that there wasn’t enough hickory apple smoked BBQ sauce to go with it. Any chicken not covered by crispy skin lacked a bit of flavour that would have been compensated with just a bit more sauce. For the additional meat, the choice was beef brisket. Again, the meat was prepared so that it fell apart easily without the use of a knife. The portion size was huge with the slabs of meat each almost an inch thick. On top of all that, they also received a side of caesar salad and five cheese baked mac and cheese. The caesar salad was kind of run-of-the-mill, but pretty tasty nonetheless, and the mac and cheese was better than I expected, especially when it’s piping hot as the sauce is creamier and the cheese melty the way it should be.

All-in-all, I would say that the meal was a home run. The food was savoury and the service was excellent. I even went back again in July and, this time, with a couple more people, we managed to try a few more things including their slow smoked St. Louis ribs and Montreal smoked meat – I’m not usually a fan of Montreal-style smoked meat, but this was fantastic. The beef brisket on this occasion was, unfortunately, a little dry, but still flavourful, and the leftovers were yummy when put into my noodles and soup at home the next day. We also tried each of their desserts including crème brûlée, apple pie and deep fried cheesecake. Between the five of us, we polished off each plate, but we all agreed that the cheesecake was the best.

Having never been to the deep southern states, I can’t truly give a good comparison of Edmonton Texan barbecue versus actual Texan barbecue, but I can say that I enjoyed both of my visits to TW’s BBQ Smoke House. If anything, you should go and form your own opinion of the restaurant. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.