Edmonton Restaurant Review: Splash Poke

The staff member who completed assembly of my bowl.

Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.

Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.

Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.

The Works, a Splash Favourite.

Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.

Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.

Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.

All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.

Visit Splash Poke when you have a chance!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: ALTA

The interior of ALTA.

About a month after ALTA opened, I finally had a chance to stop by Ben Staley’s new restaurant. With my friend in tow, we headed over right after work at 4:30pm. It was still early for the dinner service, so a number of the tables were empty.

I informed them of my reservation and they let us choose where we wanted to sit out of the available spots for two. With approximately 24 seats in the whole minimalist space, it’s not big; however, with the food requiring less preparation upon ordering, the turnover can be quick.

As we settled in, our server/chef brought over an open wooden box that housed our utensils, napkins and the menu. It was clear that everything had a place and a purpose. “Alta,” short for Alberta was given a nod with the shape of the menu card, which was folded and cut in a way that conveyed the province’s map outline. These little details are the types of things that should be appreciated because, if handled properly, those factors will make all the difference between an average experience versus one that goes beyond expectations.

The staff were very knowledgeable about the drinks and the dishes available. All of the wines selected are no or low intervention. As such, the flavours of the grapes are brought out more. My companion ordered a glass of the Eric Texier Chat Fou Grenache Blend from France. I had a sip of the red to get a sense of it. I thought it was smooth, slightly dry and likely would match a number of plates. Although, I’m no wine connoisseur and, unless a red wine is extremely dry or bitter, they are all alike to me. My beverage of choice to accompany my meal was a glass of the Antech 2014 Brut Mauzac, a sparkling white wine, that refrained from being overly sweet or carbonated. Rather, it was balanced in flavour and pleasantly effervescent. Both glasses were $10 each for five ounces of alcohol.

Moving back to the food, I should explain that ALTA only serves cold dishes. The only option on the menu that will arrive to the table warm is the freshly baked Sourdough & Cultured Butter. All other items are either pre-cooked, raw or preserved (often a combination of those various forms of preparation) and presented at room temperature. Once assembled by a chef on staff, the chef then brings it over and provides an exceedingly detailed description of what you’re going to eat. While we dined, I tried my best to absorb all of the information I was given. Admittedly, I’m positive I missed some of the finer points as there was so much to learn.

What I did discover is that a cold menu can be quite satisfying. I had my apprehensions about an establishment that wasn’t going have any warm dishes. Yet, the Nordic influence of foraging (in this case, using only local ingredients) and fermenting works here. In the end, we sampled a handful of items. I think the chefs were careful to time out the dishes properly, but for the most part, they were brought out as soon as they were ready.

Malted Hazelnuts

We began our journey through ALTA’s offerings by nibbling our way through a small bowl of the Malted Hazelnuts. The chef, showing his youth, described them as an adult version of cocoa puffs, which isn’t far off. After what sounds like an arduous and time consuming process of hand peeling the hazelnuts, they are then malted to amplify the taste. These little balls, upon hitting the tongue, have a grittiness on the outside and give off a coffee-like flavour that subsides to a slight saltiness as opposed to an anticipated nutty essence. Like the act of smelling coffee beans between tasters of wine, these seemed to be a great snack to have periodically as a way to refresh the palate.

Salted Pork Belly

In my mind, the Salted Pork Belly was going to be prepared in a more traditional way with thick pieces of meat and crisp edges giving way to a buttery level of fat. Of course, after seeing the concept of the establishment in motion, I completely understand that the pork belly would have to be done differently than I’m accustomed to. If served conventionally, without being hot or fried immediately before eating, the pork belly runs the risk of being subpar because it’ll lose its crispiness and become limp (think about bacon that has sat out too long). That’s why the thin slices of cured pork belly made so much sense when I saw them laid out over pieces of crostini that had been covered with walnuts and diced apple that had been cooked in overgrown coriander. The meat looked like delicate, semi-translucent strips of prosciutto. The apples were a little tart and helped to offset any salt from the pork. As a side note, I recommend that these be eaten with utensils. We attempted to devour these as if they were finger food, but the pork belly isn’t the easiest to bite apart with your teeth. If you want to maintain your grace in front of other diners, use a knife and fork.

Lamb Tartare

This was followed by our favourite of the evening, a Lamb Tartare. I’m a sucker for a good beef tartare, and lamb is one of my preferred types of meat. Therefore, to find this uncommon take on a fairly common dish felt like a real treat. Oftentimes, people dislike lamb due to the gamey, earthy flavours often associated with the meat; however, that didn’t come through as I ate it raw. My taste buds really honed in on the salty and savoury taste of the chickpea “miso” that also created a smooth texture typically endowed by the addition of egg yolk in a usual beef tartare dish. Pickled baby peaches added a bit of acidity and dried flowers sprinkled over the meat supplied extra texture and a floral aroma. Served with the lamb was a bowl of house made potato chips. Unfortunately, I thought the chips were a tad too greasy. What I did love about the lamb tartare was that all of the components combined created a zestiness that couldn’t be duplicated by any single ingredient in the recipe. I think it goes to show that each element that went into the dish is needed in order to produce something entirely innovative.

Salmon

After polishing off the two heftier plates of food, we decided that we had room for another main, so we opted to split the Salmon. This was an excellent choice and highly recommended if one is hoping for a lighter meal that gratifies. Not only was this a beautifully composed dish ─ the sauce was gorgeous in colour and provided visual appeal ─ it was one that introduced a new method of preparing cucumber (lightly cooked and charred). Dill was a huge part of the plate as it was done three ways: laid atop the fish in its natural form, as flavouring for the pickles and as a creamy buttermilk sauce. Most importantly, the salmon was cooked to perfection with the meat moist and flakey as it practically melted in my mouth.

Tart of Black Malt

No dinner is complete without dessert. With only a couple of options on the menu, we chose to go with the Tart of Black Malt. It hadn’t occurred to us that the malt was actually the malted hazelnuts eaten throughout the evening just pulverized and blended with beeswax and butter to give it the consistency of a chocolate ganache. The mixture was set over a crust made of crushed pumpkin seed. If we’re going by size, this half moon tart is excellent for sharing as there’s plenty to go around. Still, by far the greatest part of this dessert had to be the coating of finely granulated freeze dried black current on the top (sparsely accented with flakes of salt), which not only gave it a rich magenta colour, but also a sweet tartness that played well with the deep and aromatic flavour of the malt.

While this may not be a meal that I’d crave on a regular basis, I found it to be pretty inspiring and unique. Ben Staley and his team at ALTA should be commended for attempting to keep the business as localized as possible. Finding alternative ways of creating flavours that come from ingredients grown only outside of Canada (I’m talking about the malted tart alternative to chocolate) is impressive and really a testament to their kitchen’s talent.

The final bites of Salted Pork Belly and Lamb Tartare.

All in, our bill came to $77 for food and $20 for wine plus tax. The restaurant is one of a few in Edmonton that has a no tipping policy. Even though I knew that going in, it still came as a nice surprise when I saw the receipt and was reminded of that. In all honesty, I hadn’t planned to order a glass of bubbly that night, and when I thought about it, the money I would have spent on the tip essentially went towards my drink. Is it a better value over other downtown establishments? Possibly. Most likely not though. The gratuity is probably already reflected in the price of each dish. What’s beneficial with it being a no tipping establishment is that what you see is what you get when it comes down to the cost.

That idea is almost the opposite to the menu. Tiny details and layers of intricate flavours lead to this sense of there being more behind the curtain. Where can they continue to take their offerings? How is it going to change with the seasons? That’s what I’m interested to find out.

Paired with attentive service, food that is more filling than expected and an experience that currently cannot be found elsewhere, I’m certainly inclined to revisit ALTA soon.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rocky Mountain Icehouse (2017 Update)

What’s an Icehouse?

Midway through March, I received a note from Rocky Mountain Icehouse. They had noticed that my previous review was a couple of years old and they decided to extend an invitation to me and a few friends. The meal — consisting of several plates from their revamped menu ─ would be complimentary. In turn, I’m now providing an update on my thoughts of their food.

The first thing I’d like to note is that I’m not certain of when the menu was redone. I was simply told that it was new. Yet, I’d been there almost a year ago for a friend’s going away party and, from what I can recall, the options are pretty similar. Some identical selections were even discussed within my initial blog post back in 2014. Perhaps they’ve kept the most preferred and replaced the others with fresh picks. Although I’m not entirely positive of that, what I do think may have drastically changed are the recipes for a couple of the dishes I’ve either had or seen previously.

Kelsey was the staff member who organized this tasting event for us and she also acted as our server that afternoon. Once everyone was settled in with their drinks, Kelsey began to bring the plates over to our table. All items were selected by the chef, so we were constantly being surprised throughout our time there.

Spinach & Garlic Dip with Housemade Potato Chips

Our first offering was a Spinach and Garlic Dip with their house-made potato chips. I found this to be an interesting choice because the chip and dip combo seemed to be missing from the menu completely. The potato chips alone, however, are provided as a side to any of the sandwiches and they’re large, crisp and not overly greasy. Against the lighter dip, they held up well. I’m just not convinced they’d stay whole with a dip of a thicker consistency.

Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies

Next up was the Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies, which turned out to be a favourite among the group. This starter consisted of six fritters made using a mix of pasta, corn and peppers. Deep fried and golden brown in colour, these were then drizzled with chipotle aioli. Cheesy with a bit of heat (both in temperature and taste), it meant that each of us jostled to get our fair share before they all disappeared.

Steak Bites

An order of the Steak Bites continued our foray into their appetizers. This dish was comprised of eight skewers of tenderloin tips wrapped in bacon. According to the description on the menu, these steak bites were to be served with a lemon tarragon dip. Even though I couldn’t quite distinguish those exact flavours, I did enjoy these immensely. The meat was cooked to a medium rare and was tender enough. We especially loved the bacon. Still crispy, we guessed that the bacon strips must have been cooked separately from the steak to ensure that both meats were prepared properly. Balsamic vinegar added a touch of acidity and sweetness.

Signature Crab Cakes

The round of starters finished with their Signature Crab Cakes. These two generous patties of shredded Alaskan crab claws mixed with Boursin, feta and cream cheese came out batter and fried with a decent helping of garlic aioli on top. The menu made mention of a roasted tomato sauce that was to accompany the cakes; save for a few halved grape tomatoes, there seemed to be nothing of the sort. We ladies leaned towards this appetizer as we appreciated the quantity and the mix of cheese. It was particularly appetizing with a spritz of lemon. I also liked the texture as I could tell that real crab meat had been utilized. My boyfriend was on the fence. Granted, he’s from the east coast where seafood comes straight from the ocean and nothing in landlocked Edmonton can truly compare.

BBQ Pork Ribs

With barely any time to sit and digest, our first main dish showed up at the table. The BBQ Pork Ribs were a feast for the eyes and the belly. Just as described on the menu, this huge half rack of ribs was slow cooked until the meat fell right off the bone when touched. A knife wasn’t even necessary. The pork was succulent and the bourbon BBQ sauce was deliciously smoky and rich. Sides of garlic mashed potatoes, homemade baked beans and roasted seasonal vegetables ─ each delectable ─ were included as well. For less than $20, this was a superb value and something I’d definitely be sure to have on a return visit.

Half Size Jambalaya

Entree number two was the half size of the Jambalaya (only $12 and a huge portion for the price). This also came with a couple of the Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies. I’m not sure they were really necessary. Nevertheless, I suppose it’s a bonus as they are tasty. Otherwise, the jambalaya was a combination of rice, onions, peppers, chicken and spicy sausage sautéed in a southern sauce. My friend’s husband couldn’t get enough of it and managed to polish off what remained towards the end of the meal. Personally, I found it to be okay. While I was pleased with the consistency of the sausage and there was a good amount spice, which provided a bit of a kick, I couldn’t imagine eating the full plate as a main on my own. Because everything is cooked in the same sauce, I think it eventually becomes too much of a singular flavour. Sharing this dish helps to sidestep this issue by allowing for a smaller sampling among a handful of other offerings.

Blackened Bison Burger

The finale to our mains was the Blackened Bison Burger. I was actually astonished to bite into meat that was juicy and not dry as the latter is often found to be the case with bison. Despite the burger being made using a prefab patty, this was still pretty satisfying on my part. The combination of jalapeno jelly and jalapeno havarti cheese won me over. Additionally, as expressed by one of my dining companions, the bun also held its own; it was soft yet strong enough to keep the layers of the burger intact.

Southern Gumbo

The kitchen’s single misstep during our entire lunch was the Southern Gumbo. It can be ordered as an individual cup or bowl of soup or as an upgraded side for $3. The cup came with our burger and, disregarding my fullness, I felt an obligation to try it. Now, in my first review of Rocky Mountain Icehouse, I quickly referred to the gumbo since my friend had eaten it when we dined there together. From what I recall, it looked like a hearty broth with plenty of fillings. On this occasion, the soup was incredibly thick with a gravy-like mouthfeel and slices of Italian chorizo sausage that felt oddly dry and off-putting. Maybe it was meant to be that way. Maybe not. Regardless, it’s safe to say that it’s doubtful we’d to give that one another go.

Bailey’s Chocolate Ganache Pie

Last was the dessert. Kelsey let us choose between the two options available. Warm apple crumble called to me, but after Kelsey mentioned that it was the sweeter one, I changed my mind and we went with the Bailey’s Chocolate Ganache Pie. I expected this to be quite dense, yet it turned out to be slightly lighter, albeit a bit sticky. Overall, it was still sugary. What made it seem less so was the balance of bitterness from the chocolate and a tinge of tartness from the raspberries infused into the ganache.

All in, this meal would have cost us approximately $110 plus tax and tip (drinks extra). That much food between five people is a total steal. Everyone left happy and no one left hungry. In fact, we ate as if we were royalty. Out of nine items, there was merely one that we disliked and those are decent statistics. As a local gathering place, Rocky Mountain Icehouse presents patrons with a great atmosphere and a casual menu that was created to please.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tapavino

The interior of Tapavino including the impressive bar.

The interior of Tapavino including the impressive bar.

Previous plans to visit Tapavino had been thwarted, but I decided, when I found a deal on Groupon, that I would make more of an effort to try it out. After all, I’d already spent my money to buy the voucher, and with an expiry a year down the road, I had plenty of time to make sure I used it.

I usually procrastinate until the very end. However, I’m proud of myself. Just seven and a half months after purchasing the deal, I invited my friend to join me for dinner.

We were the first to arrive on a Tuesday evening earlier this fall. When we walked in, the solo server working the front of house checked my OpenTable reservation and allowed us to seat ourselves wherever we liked. It’s a pretty cozy, rustic looking eatery with about 25 seats or so (about a third of them at the bar). Since it was still sunny out, we decided to sit by the window in the corner booth.

The server was very attentive. As we got settled, he brought us some water and menus. Both of us opted to drink tea with dinner. When we asked what kind of tea was available, we were brought a whole box of a variety of tea bags to look through. Some may think that’s kind of casual. Yet, I think it was nice of our server to let us take our time and select something we really wanted.

A close-up of the Patatas Bravas.

A close-up of the Patatas Bravas.

Moving along to the food, it made sense at a tapas restaurant to share a handful of dishes. Being that my friend has allergies to shellfish, a number of the options were omitted off the bat. But, we were still able to select a good mix of dishes, which included: hot artichoke dip, patatas bravas, spinach pies, spicy chorizo sausage and Spanish meat balls.

Our server did his due diligence by asking if we wanted to add any pasta and garlic bread to our feast (according to their site it’s free on Tuesdays when you purchase an a la carte item; although, I don’t believe that particular daily special applies when you’re using a Groupon). It seemed like we were ordering a lot of food, so we asked if what we picked would be enough for the two of us. Because he quickly told us that it would be plenty, we skipped the extras.

The three “sharing” vegetarian plates came out to our table first, but the two meat dishes followed soon after. It was a large spread that made it a little bit difficult to maneuver around the table as a few things were just a tad out of reach for me without having to pass the dishes back and forth. Really, if you think about it, it’s a testament to the portion sizes provided. The eatery did not skimp on any of the items we went with. I also liked that everything was essentially served to us at the same time because it allowed for us to make our own combinations of meat and sides as we ate.

What was left of the Spinach Pies when I remembered to take a photo.

What was left of the Spinach Pies when I remembered to take a photo.

To start, the hot artichoke dip wasn’t necessarily anything special when compared to what you might eat at other restaurants. However, the dip was creamy, thick and it paired well with the crisp pita chips. It hit the spot considering I hadn’t had a dip like that in quite a while.

Patatas Bravas is a native Spanish dish. We’ll call it a fancier version of hash browns. This particular rendition consisted of pan fried potatoes cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and drizzled with garlic aioli. It did have a bit of a kick to it that worked with the meat balls and chorizo.

I loved the spinach pies. A decadent version of spanakopita, the pastries were warm and the crust was super flaky. The spinach filling was especially good with a heavier hit of lemon that was made even more delicious with the accompanying yogurt dip. I think the last bite I ate during the meal was of the spinach pie as I always like to finish off with my favourite thing.

The Spicy Chorizo Sausage and the Hot Artichoke Dip.

The Spicy Chorizo Sausage and the Hot Artichoke Dip.

For our “mains,” the spicy chorizo sausage was cooked in a red wine tomato sauce and served with a few large pieces of crostini. Overall, it was a thinner sauce. Personally, a thicker sauce would have been more preferable with the crostini bread. It did help, though, that the sausage was served with a variety of sautéed veggies, providing the dish with different textures that otherwise may have been lacking.

Regarding the Spanish meat balls, they were large and succulent. These would probably have been fabulous with some of that pasta and garlic bread (I’ll be keeping this in mind for another visit). The balsamic marinara sauce provided a nice acidity to the meat, creating a great balance of flavour.

Their delicious Spanish Meat Balls in a balsamic marinara sauce.

Their delicious Spanish Meat Balls in a balsamic marinara sauce.

As much as we would have liked to, we weren’t able to fit anything in for dessert. It just wasn’t possible after polishing off all five plates.

The Groupon we had was valued at $50, and, all in, the food we ordered came to $55 before taxes and tip. If we had been less indulgent, this meal could have easily fed a third (maybe even a fourth) person.

Tapavino certainly makes it possible to have a nice time out on the town without breaking the bank. I’m looking forward to going back to try some of those seafood dishes and, perhaps, a dessert in the near future.

Edmonton Restaurant Review Duo: Joey Restaurant & Earls Kitchen + Bar

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

Nowadays, chain restaurants like Joey and Earls – both founded by the Fuller family – get a lot of flak. People say these establishments are too corporate, that they take away from the smaller, independent eateries. But, I beg to differ. There was a time, not too long ago, when those were the go to places in Edmonton. Always bustling with people, there could be lines of up to an hour (or more) for a table and patrons would patiently wait.

While still relatively casual, these places give off an upscale air. During my lifetime, the trio has become synonymous with living up to a standard in service (for the most part) and quality of food. No matter which city across Canada that a customer happens to be, if they walk into one of the Fuller offshoots, they’d likely come away satisfied.

Yet, in recent years, we’ve had a bit of a love affair with a smattering of great entrepreneurial chefs and business owners who have gone above and beyond in growing the food offerings available in E-Town. Why go to a chain restaurant when you can support something more local? However, let’s not forget that the first Earls opened in 1982 in this very city as an independent, local eatery. Sure, the chain’s headquarters is now situated in Vancouver, but its roots are here.

It’s not to say that we’ve all abandoned Joey and Earls. Far from it. They remain popular hangouts for the typical diner. There’s just a lot more competition from the single storefront eateries with their award winning menus that dot our city. Those who frequent these, arguably, awesome establishments on the regular seem to forget that the chains were once our saviors when it came to a night out on the town. Friends (a few, not all) sometimes turn their noses up at the idea of stepping foot into a chain restaurant, and it’s fine if that’s how they feel. I’ll even concede that the menus are relative carbon copies of one another, and sometimes the selection isn’t all that exciting or adventurous, but there are still things I enjoy about these places.

Personally, I believe that there’s room for the chains and the independents in my heart and my stomach. So, this is my review of and love letter to Joey and Earls.

Joey really does have a permanent slot in my heart. I have many memories of great meetings and conversations over delicious meals with friends and family within the confines of Joey walls. At one point, my parents and I were frequenting the Jasper Avenue location so much that we became well acquainted with a server named Ryan. In my younger days, a good friend and I would often takeover a table for the entire evening as we lost track of time. It was almost like a second home (slightly exaggerating), but with better food (sorry Mom).

I don’t make it to Joey as much as I used to anymore. The locations around town aren’t the most convenient for me. However, I always think it’s worth it when I get to go.

Although the menu has changed over the years to better suit whatever food trends pop up, I’ve never been truly disappointed with a dish. From the lettuce wraps, chili chicken and flatbread to the rotisserie chicken, salmon (used to be cooked with maple) and fettucine alfredo, it was/is all so tasty.

For at least a few years, they’ve had simply one of the best sandwiches on their menu. The Ahi Tuna. Grilled so that the middle of the tuna steak remains rare, it’s a good value for the portion at under $17. The tuna is topped with bacon, crispy onion rings and a flavourful sweet pepper relish. All the layers combine to make for an extremely delicious sandwich. If you’re a fan of sushi and burgers, you can’t really go wrong with this choice.

I’m also a fan of Joey desserts. They’re known for the Molten Lava Chocolate Soufflé and Baked to Order Apple Pie, both of which have been on their menu for as long as I can remember. Those two are tried and true classics that continue to belong because Joey does them so well. Recently though, they added in a key lime pie as a third option. I was a bit skeptical when I first saw it, but I tried it and I have to say that it’s another win. There’s a good balance of sweet to tart and if you like fresh cream, they put a very generous helping of the whipped topping on the plate, too. It’s not quite on par with what one would find at Duchess Bake Shop, but it’s better than the version on offer at Cactus Club.

I often can't pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

I often can’t pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

Moving along to Earls, who remembers the parrot décor (while I’m at it, don’t forget about the red and white checkered table cloths and giant tomato decor of Joey in its original form)? The Earls chain has come a long way since those days. The original Tin Palace on Jasper Avenue has shifted from the beer and burger joint it was to a fancier iteration of itself. It still has a wonderful, large patio for those short summer months, and a few burgers up for grabs, but the menu has expanded.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself at Earls (mainly the one by the U of A Campus) for many a book club meeting. I admit that, yes, I was getting a little tired of going to the same place so much, but I have to say that the food and the drinks are more than decent.

I do miss their old Thai flavoured chicken wings. Nevertheless, Mojito Friday and Saturday is the best. I also love their Dynamite Prawn Rolls and the Cajun Chicken Caesar Salad (the Pecan Chicken Rocket Salad is fantastic, too; sadly, I think it was replaced within the past season). The one misstep I made recently was ordering their Forager Burger. It was just okay. I’m all for a good veggie burger, but something was missing. Maybe the roasted mushroom patty wasn’t patty-like enough for me. The flavours didn’t pack much of a punch either.

Where the Forager Burger fails, Earls has plenty of other choices to fill its place. My friend has enjoyed their take on Korean Bibimbap a few times now. The Fettucine Alfredo or the Confit Chicken and Pancetta Fettucini are good for carb fans. The Jeera Chicken Curry is a mild dish for those who like Indian flavours without the spicy heat, and the Chicken, Brie and Fig Sandwich has become a mainstay for many.

Aside from the food, the appeal of Joey and Earls comes from the fact that, because each location is part of a larger corporate entity, they’re never quick to shoo patrons out the door. Sure, high table turnover on a busy night means a larger pool of tips for staff, but the bottom line is often determined by a few factors: affordability, service, atmosphere and flexibility.

Allowing customers to linger a little (or a lot) longer because they’re having a good time is something that these chains understand. After all, my friends and I, deep in conversation, have been prone to stay the night. It’s where we’ve shared many a story with one another, and where we’ll likely continue to do so as long as we always feel welcomed by the corporate exterior with the heart of a family who decided to start their business right here.