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!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Panini’s Italian Cucina

Pasta comes piping hot in foil pans.

I’ve never once set foot into the physical space of Panini’s Italian Cucina. However, I’ve now ordered their food through SkipTheDishes enough that I feel I can justify writing this review.

My co-workers were interested in having lunch delivered one day, so we started to peruse the options on the app. I decided to search based on current restaurant ratings and fees. Panini’s Italian Cucina came right to the very top of the list. Not only do they offer free delivery with purchases of $20 or more, they also had a Skip rating of 9.9 out of 10. It was either going to be them or the Italian Centre Shop. What really pushed Panini’s over the edge was the extent of their options.

That initial order included a Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini ($12) for me, and a Deluxe Calzone ($16), Ciambella Doughnut Balls ($6), and a Build Your Own Pasta ($4.75) for my friends.

Pastas are packaged in large round foil pans. The Build Your Own pasta is simply a base of either spaghetti, fettuccine or penne with their signature tomato sauce. There were no additional toppings or upgrades, hence the low cost. Supposedly, it’s meant to feed one person, yet the portions are quite sizeable. The Deluxe Calzone was also big, but still devoured by my co-worker in one sitting. Since she didn’t have room for dessert, she shared her doughnuts with me. At first, when I picked up a ball, I thought the outside was a bit too firm. Nevertheless, it gave way to a soft, springy center, and it was delicious when dipped into the container of Nutella that came on the side.

Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini

The original version of the sandwich I chose comes stacked with prosciutto, bocconcini, artichokes, spinach, and tomatoes. What I love about Panini’s is that there’s an opportunity to customize for free, so I opted to swap out the latter two toppings for arugula and sun-dried tomatoes. I even added roasted red peppers as up to four veggies can be selected. Condiments of pesto mayo and lemon garlic mayo were bonuses. All of this was pressed between a hearty whole wheat bread. The sandwiches are actually perfect to be split into two separate light lunches. I too finished off my panini, eating the whole thing in one go. They don’t skimp on the ingredients. Everything was fresh, and the bread was buttered and toasted to perfection, giving it a good bite.

Subsequent deliveries have yielded us more pastas and sandwiches: Spaghetti & Meatballs ($13.25), Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo ($11.50), Penne Alla Boscaiola ($12.75), and Montreal Smoked Beef Panini ($12).

Penne Alla Boscaiola

As my friend noted, the Spaghetti & Meatballs — signature tomato sauce with two large beef and pork balls — was able to provide her with sustenance for three days straight, making their dishes a fantastic value. Even my Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo was hefty and split into a few meals. The sauce was creamy and all of the pasta was well-coated. The grilled chicken had ample flavour. This only thing is this option is not the healthiest by any means. It’s not as noticeable if eaten immediately after it’s made, but, rewarmed, the paper plate I had put my pasta on was just drenched in an abundance of oil that soaked through. Yikes! The latest pasta I tried was the Penne Alla Boscaiola. It consists of a rosé sauce. Basically this is the best of both worlds since it marries a traditional tomato sauce with white cream sauce, and I found this to be lighter than the alfredo. Copious thin slices of spicy Italian sausage had been placed into the pasta with mushrooms and peas dotting the pan as well. Again, there was plenty to spread this out over a few lunches.

Montreal Smoked Beef Panini

As far as Montreal Smoked Beef sandwiches go, this one hits the spot. It’s not outrageously stuffed with meat like the ones sold at true Montreal delis, but there’s just the right amount of beef. This one is supposed to be served with mozzarella, arugula, pickled eggplant, spicy pepper mayo, and mustard. I pretty much keep it as is. The only things I add are artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. The smokiness of the meat plays off the acidity and bitterness of the veggies while the sauces bring in a savoury-sweet combo and a little spice.

What I like most is that it never seems to take too long to get our food from Panini’s Italian Cucina. Despite the lunch rushes, we’ve received better service from them being fifteen blocks away on Jasper Avenue than from a restaurant that was literally a few blocks down the road. Everything I’ve had the chance to try from Panini’s has been better than expected, and I often find myself thinking about my next Panini’s lunch. When a single dish has the ability to cover multiple meals at such an affordable price, it’s a winner in my books.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

Our table was full of dishes and plates!

Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya is the newest Japanese option in downtown Edmonton, and, after eyeing Instagram posts for a while, I finally made it there after work on an early Friday evening.

I had made a reservation for two people using the OpenTable app. When we arrived at around 5 o’clock, it turned out we were the first joining them for dinner service; the restaurant did start to fill up a bit as we dined. It’s a nice space with lots of warm woods and pleather upholstered chairs. They even have a decently sized waiting area, so it’s not cramped should there ever be a delay for a table.

The interior of Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya.

The staff on hand was minimal that night. There was only one server and a couple of other staff behind the bar (not including whoever was in the closed off kitchen). Still, the service was pretty good. My only issue is that the server became less attentive after dessert and it was actually difficult to wave her down for the bill. Perhaps that’s because this place is an izakaya. The whole point of casual pubs like this is the slower pace and the extended meal where shared plates are ordered throughout the evening. She may have thought we intended to stick around longer and that’s why she didn’t disturb us or ask if the bill was wanted right away.

In any case, we lingered at Let’s Grill Sushi for almost three whole hours. In that time span, we sipped on drinks (I stuck with a simple ginger ale for $2.75 with free refills) and snacked on a handful of dishes, including a complimentary salad, skewers, two rolls, hot stone meat, and something sweet.

Complimentary Noodle Salad

A cold noodle salad was brought over and offered on the house. We were told it was a refreshing bite to help cool off on a hot day. The noodles were slightly transparent white, not quite glassy, but not opaque either. They were slippery and a tad chewy. Topped with kelp and thinly sliced cucumber, it was super simple with a hint of acidity.

As part of happy hour (Monday to Friday, 2pm to 5:30pm), Let’s Grill Sushi offers a few different skewer options. We opted to try a half-dozen of the Honey BBQ Pork, which are usually $8.50 per order, but only $5 on special. Wings and Sapporo pints are also the same price. I’m so glad we tried these. The skewers were prepared very well. Most of the fat had rendered from the meat, leaving a small amount of juicy crispness on the pork. The well-seasoned meat was slightly charred, adding to the overall flavour before they were finally garnished with green onion and nori.

We split two of the maki rolls: Crunchy Spicy Salmon ($14) and Yellowtail Fry ($13). The reason why we went with the former off of the Chef’s Specials of the Week menu is because, unlike the tuna version, the salmon roll replaced avocado with cucumber instead. My friend’s sensitivity to the healthy, fatty carb is avoided when possible, and, rather than asking for substitutions, it was easier to try the Crunchy Spicy Salmon. I actually didn’t find these to be all that spicy. Although, I did like the texture, and they were the lighter of the ones we sampled. The Yellowtail fry consisted of the fish, cream cheese, jalapeno and shiitake mushroom rolled in rice and nori. The roll was then battered, fried, and drenched in sweet truffle mayo. While I did enjoy them, there was almost too much to take in at once.

The eatery features a few hot stone meat options, too. I remember going to a Japanese grill in Kyoto where my friends and I tried this fantastically tender beef tongue. When I saw the Premium Beef Tongue ($16) on the Let’s Grill Sushi menu, I thought it’d be great to give it a shot. In Japan, the beef tongue was served like a filet of meat. Here, they had thinly sliced the tongue like carpaccio. It allowed the meat to cook super fast on the hot stone slab. Unfortunately, it had a chewier consistency than I hoped for. Regardless, I loved the three dips (salt, ponzu, sesame-type sauce) provided alongside the tongue. Next time, I may go for their duck though.

Matcha Creme Brulee

Prior to even eating anything else, I already had my mind made up on dessert. Whenever Matcha Creme Brulee ($7) is on the menu, there’s no question. This sweet ending is made in-house. The only thing I would have preferred is a thinner sugar seal. My spoon practically bounced off the caramelized top with my first attempt to break through. A second harder tap managed to crack it. I tend to enjoy a lighter caramelization that provides just a little crunch while being thin enough to melt in the mouth as opposed to worrying about the deterioration of my teeth as I bite onto thick sugar. Thankfully, on the plus side, the creamy custard base had a strong enough matcha flavour; it’s the worst when places serve halfhearted matcha desserts.

 

Aside from the slow service that most of us aren’t used to, Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya definitely checked off a lot of boxes as a hang out to start the weekend. I do worry that maybe they’re attempting to do too many things on their menu, but we tried several items, and I found all of them to be satisfying to some degree. I was particularly happy with those skewers and the rolls. It’s also a huge plus that they offer happy hour and daily specials, so I’m excited to go back to take advantage of those deals again.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cactus Club Cafe

A couple of my favourite things at Cactus Club.

For the past few years, I’ve been sharing my top 24 picks for the best eateries in Edmonton (check out the 2017 list here). Even though I have never reviewed it until now, Cactus Club Cafe has been a mainstay within the rankings. A favourite ever since 2009 when they entered the city’s food scene with their West Edmonton Mall location, it’s interesting to see how their brand has developed and been embraced.

Cactus Club’s Retro Logo; Photo courtesy of their Instagram page.

I don’t know if anyone else remembers, but I recall going down Jasper Avenue as a child and seeing this big sign with a drawing of a smoking cow on it. That was the original Cactus Club logo from when they first attempted to expand into Alberta in the 90s. Should my memory serve me correctly, the building that once housed that iteration of the restaurant is now the Rexall pharmacy on 118 Street. My family never went there, and it seems many others in the city avoided it because it closed soon after.

The dining room of the Jasper Avenue location.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that Cactus Club decided to give this market another go. This time, it was the place to see and be seen. On its best nights, patrons would willingly wait hours just to get a table for their large group of friends. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. The chain had gone from a funky eatery to a sleek establishment that served consistently upscale food and drinks. It was so successful and busy (it literally took away business from nearby competitors like Joey and Earls) that I’m actually surprised it took another four years before the company launched a second eatery on Jasper Avenue. About six blocks east from the one that failed in the nineties, it’s become a popular spot for locals to hang out as well.

Having frequented Cactus Club for almost a third of my life, I’ve developed a love of specific dishes. Some, such as the BBQ Duck Clubhouse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, are signatures of Chef Rob Feenie who joined the business as a “Food Concept Architect” in 2008 just before their foray back into this province. Sadly, I don’t make it to the restaurant as much as I used to, and, when I do go out, I really appreciate good deals.

The recently updated happy hour menu.

They’ve long offered happy hour specials at Cactus Club (available from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to close, Monday to Saturday). However, they recently revamped the menu, a la Earls, to cover a greater variety of their dishes and drinks at a few stellar price points (I’ll be listing the lower prices here, so check their online menus for the regular costs). Therefore, when my fiancé and I wanted to celebrate our second anniversary together, we chose to go here. We still ended up spending over $100 on our meal for two, but we certainly didn’t skimp on anything (we ordered a lot). It gave me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with plates that I hadn’t eaten in a while.

As far as my significant other goes, he’s quite content with a beer, so he alternated between the Udder Pale Ale and Longboard Lager ($3 per sleeve). Those are brewed specifically for Cactus Club and have been staples for quite some time. I started with a Whiskey Ginger Smash ($5) cocktail. I really didn’t taste a whole lot of ginger. I enjoy it when you get the spice from the root, but it didn’t come through so much as the rosemary. My second libation of the night was their classic Bellini ($4). It’s basically an adult version of a slushie that tastes like a fuzzy peach in liquid form.

The rest of our dinner was a free-for-all. We ordered two Mini Burgers and two Mini Crispy Chicken Sandwiches ($4 per slider), one for each of us. On the side, we shared a bowl of the Truffle Fries ($4). We split the Ravioli + Prawn Duo ($8), Pesto Chicken Quesadilla ($8), and the Blackened Creole Chicken ($20).

Honestly, of all the things we selected, we weren’t sure that the sliders were of great value. Sure, a few bucks are saved in comparison to the regular appetizers, but they’re pretty small on an individual basis. Despite the size and amount of meat, the flavour was there. I did remove the pickles and onions as I’m not a fan. Still, the chicken was clearly white breast meat, the sambal mayo gave it a little bit of a kick, and the mild, nutty Swiss cheese provided a balance. What made the mini burgers delicious was the red pepper relish and Dijon mayonnaise atop the perfectly charred Angus beef.

I almost forgot to include the Truffle Fries. Thankfully, I remembered part way through our meal. These were so yummy. The potatoes were fried to a golden brown and then doused in truffle, herbs and grated Grana Padano cheese. A small saucer of garlic aioli accompanied the fries, taking them to another level.

Ravioli + Prawn Duo

Instead of a trio of ravioli, the happy hour deal offers a duo of the dish. Two large pockets of pasta hold butternut squash and mascarpone. It’s cooked in a decadent truffle butter sauce and then served with a sautéed jumbo prawn placed on each square. Pine nuts and fried sage leaves garnish this masterpiece. The shrimp was plump and juicy. The ravioli and sauce is rich. The sage and pine nuts give it an air of earthiness. This is one of their standards for a reason.

Pesto Chicken Quesadilla

It’s funny to find something as simple as a quesadilla on a menu where they seem to lean more towards high-end than casual. Yet, the one at Cactus Club works. Admittedly, I’ve never much appreciated the triangles and strips of tortilla chips that anchor the plate (I’d rather fries or a salad without the additional cost to upgrade). Nevertheless, the Pesto Chicken Quesadilla is on point. It comes down to the combination of ingredients. There’s the herbaceous zestiness from the basil pesto, sweetness from the sundried cranberries, melted cheesy goodness, smoky grilled chicken, and a slight sweet-sour flavour from the light honey lime dip. This is something that I used to emulate at home because it’s a recipe that was accessible, easy, and satisfying.

Blackened Creole Chicken

The final entrée we shared was the Blackened Creole Chicken. I’d never tried this one before, so it was new to me. Outside of happy hour, it’s usually over $25, so there was about a twenty per cent savings on this dish. I’m not sure it was worth the money though. It was a decent amount of food, for sure. However, a lot of it consisted of the buttered mashed potatoes. Also, while I could eat asparagus for days, the stalks we received were overgrown with the woody ends still there. Proper preparation calls for the bottoms to be snapped off, leaving only the tender portion of the greens behind. Other than that, the chicken (skin on) was well-seasoned and succulent.

Beef Carpaccio

We must have been done by now, right? For my fiancé, that would be a yes. For me, that was a hard no. Before leaving, I indulged in an order of their Beef Carpaccio. It’s been a favoured Cactus Club item of mine, and it’s one that I always return for. On this occasion, a few pieces of the crostini were a tad too toasted. Nonetheless, they tasted wonderful with baked-in garlic, drizzled in olive oil, and sprinkled with herbs and cheese. The super thinly sliced peppercorn-crusted beef tore apart at the sight of a fork. I carefully curated each bite with meat, Dijon aioli, a fried caper, pickled onion, arugula, and a cut of Grana Padano. This is truly the best.

When all is said and done, Cactus Club does a ton of things right. From a mix of atmospheres within the same restaurant (patio, lounge and dining room are all different) to the magic that happens in the kitchen to the well-trained front of house staff, it’s clear that this homegrown company is here for the long haul. They’ve learned from mistakes made early on and they’ve taken those lessons to grow this chain into a Canadian empire that appears to have the legs to go even further should they choose to. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cactus Club name on an international scale. For now, I’m happy to have it in my backyard.