Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mexico Lindo Tacos & Grill (Sherwood Park)

Our feast was enough to feed double the people!

I’d had my eyes on Mexico Lindo Tacos & Grill for a while now. The online reviews have been stellar. So, when I noticed that Groupon was, again, offering discounts on a meal for two, I decided to snap up a voucher. Kirk and I redeemed our deal in Sherwood Park on a Sunday night.

It’s a well-designed venue with a spacious, open layout. When Kirk and I walked in, I will say that I received a lot of extended stares from other patrons. I got the sense that they don’t typically see a lot of Asians dining there regularly. It felt a little awkward at first, but the staff were friendly (it’s clearly a family run business). In the vein of knowing a Chinese or South Asian restaurant is authentic when you see others of that ethnicity happily spending their hard-earned cash there, it was the same at Mexico Lindo Tacos.

Complimentary chips with dips while we perused their menu.

Once we settled in, we perused the menu. Although the beverages we saw at other tables looked wonderful, we opted to stick with water for the evening. Instead, we split a few dishes between the two of us, including the Queso Fundido ($16.50), Quesadilla de Tres Quesos ($8.50) with Al Pastor Meat ($4), and Tacos Dorados ($12.99).

I love a stretchy cheese pull, and the Queso Fundido with Mushrooms did not disappoint. I swear the layer of Oaxaca cheese was about an inch thick. The cheese combined with the sautéed mushrooms and homemade Mexican chorizo was deliciously satisfying, and plenty, if you want to make it a meal in itself. I do recommend that you eat this first and quickly. Once the hot skillet cools down, it’s not as good because the cheese will no longer be stringy enough to scoop out easily. I’d also suggest ordering extra flour tortillas because the three that come with the dish aren’t quite enough to go with the abundance of stuffing in the pan.

Quesadillas stuffed with cheese and Al Pastor pork.

You definitely get a decent value for your money at Mexico Lindo as the Quesadilla de Tres Quesos with Al Pastor Meat was huge. I was expecting smaller flour tortilla shells as I’ve had at other eateries around Edmonton, but the plate we received held two large 8 to 10 inch wide tortillas filled with a three cheese mixture and a generous amount of shaved Al Pastor meat. The vertical spit-roasted pork was super juicy and a little bit crispy on the edges. Served with in-house guacamole and crema, this was fantastic and perfect for sharing. With the two items that we’d tried so far, there was already enough food to feed about three people.

Tacos Dorados

To finish off our meal, we had the Tacos Dorados. Unlike the other dishes we had sampled, this was prepared differently. The corn tortillas were stuffed with chicken and rolled into tubes before being fried until a crunchy shell was created. The four tortillas were then covered with shredded lettuce, crema, and queso fresco (soft, smooth, mild unaged white cheese). I have to say that the chicken tasted a tad bland inside the tortillas, but was much improved as long as it was eaten with all of the toppings.

Fresh tortilla chips with salsa

Additional to the plates we chose, Mexico Lindo Tacos also provided complimentary tortilla chips with salsa and dips to start. The salsa was refreshing on the palate and the dips featured varying degrees of heat. All of them were excellent accompaniments to the rest of our items.

 

We enjoyed ourselves and the atmosphere (FYI, they also have live music on Saturday nights). Perhaps another outing is required to take advantage of happy hour on weekdays between 2pm to 4pm, or their many daily deals, which are always so tempting when they come up on my social media news feeds. This is a restaurant that I’d certainly be inclined to revisit as the food and service exceeded our expectations.

Meal Kit Box & Recipe Review: HelloFresh

HelloFresh’s welcome booklet.

This year, I’ve been on a meal kit subscription kick. So far, my boxes from Chefs Plate and MissFresh were discussed in previous posts. Both Canadian businesses provide delivery across the country. Today, I’ll be talking about option number three: HelloFresh.

Unlike Chefs Plate and MissFresh, launched in 2014, HelloFresh emerged out of Berlin, Germany back in 2011. Within five years, they expanded to the UK, USA, The Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and then Canada. It is one of the largest scale meal kit delivery services in the world.

Their Canadian branch is based out of Toronto and, from what I’ve received, it’s apparent that the meat and most of the produce is sourced through partnerships with local farms. Smaller items such as a packet of Bonne Maman honey comes from a family-owned French company and Colavita balsamic vinegar as well as a pack of orzo seem to be from Italy.

Similar to the other services, all of the food arrived in an insulated box shipped through FedEx. Vacuum sealed meats were ice packed at the bottom and then partitioned to separate them from the remainder of the items. All of the other ingredients were sorted into heavy paper bags that were closed and labelled with stickers that indicated the meal to which they belonged. Welcome info and recipe cards were placed at the top of the package.

Surprisingly, even though only three of the week’s available recipes were selected for my order, they provided all five cards in my box. I suppose if I’m ever inclined to try out the other options, I can actually do that. My fiancé thinks HelloFresh prints the sets as a cost saver to the company because they can just toss them into every box. They don’t have to spend the time separating the cards out or printing a specific number for each recipe. He’s probably right. Either way, it’s a tiny thing, but I kind of appreciated the extras.

The individual meals and items were all packaged really well. Greens that needed to breathe were placed into resealable baggies that had perforated holes on the backside. Everything else came in sealed plastic. All components were clearly labelled. Some of the veggies had even been prepped ahead of time, shaving off several minutes of washing, cutting, chopping and dicing. Butter, oil, milk, salt, and pepper is assumed to be a staple at home already, so those are not supplied.

For my first box of three meals for two people (regularly $79.99, including free shipping), my fiancé and I picked the following recipes: Moo Shu Pork Tacos, Crispy-Skinned Chicken, and Seared Steak. Each of them took 30 minutes or less to cook and the calorie count ranged between 520 to 1,000 per portion. However, a full nutritional breakdown is not to be found unless viewing through their website.

Moo Shu Pork Tacos shifted things into gear. These were simple to make. The process pretty much required just a single pan and a couple of dishes, which is ideal when it comes to cleanup after dinner. We both loved the depth of flavour from the spice (Note: Moo Shu Spice Blend is a mix of garlic powder and ground ginger, if you want to recreate this) as well as the Sriracha mayo. With three meat and cabbage stuffed 6-inch tortillas allotted for each person, this was actually an incredibly filling meal. I can definitely see why the calorie count is much higher for this dish. My only issues with this kit were the sliced radishes (too thick) and the lack of Sriracha and mayo to make the sauce. Had there been enough mayo, it may not have been necessary for us to add extra cheese to taste. Still, after a minor change or two, this is a recipe that we’d happily make again. This selection deserves an 8 out of 10.

The Crispy-Skinned Chicken was likely our favourite of the week. This consisted of skin-on chicken breasts, smashed potatoes, roasted green beans, leeks, and a rosemary pan sauce. I did find that the chicken was a little bit greasy as we may have drizzled a bit too much oil into the pan when roasting the meat and beans. Yet, the texture of the chicken skin and flavours from the sauce and leeks helped to elevate the dish further. This was hearty without being heavy. We award this recipe an 8.5 out 10.

As experienced with Chefs Plate and MissFresh, the steak dishes were always one of the best in the bunch. Therefore, we left the Seared Steak and its accompanying roasted broccoli and warm caprese orzo salad for last. Unfortunately, HelloFresh truly disappointed. The cut of meat was sub par; even though it was cooked to medium, it was much chewier than we like our steak to be. It was also incredibly bland as they instructed the steak to be pan-seared using just a drizzle of oil and nothing else. The orzo pasta had a decent dressing made using a honey and balsamic vinegar base, but the only added pop to the entire dish came from the tart grape tomatoes and basil. Bocconcini cheese, which has an okay mouthfeel is rather flavourless without some sort of heavier dressing to go with it. Sadly, this supper only warrants a 6 out of 10.

Compared to the other meal kit subscriptions, this one is more expensive. While the others work out to $10.99 per portion for the basic plan of three meals for two people, HelloFresh is ringing in at a lofty $13.33 per person for each recipe. We found the quality of the packaging to be fantastic, but the quality of a few of the ingredients to be less than expected. On the one hand, it’s certainly convenient. On the other, the dinners were hit or miss. Should there ever be a chance for me to try a second HelloFresh box at a discounted rate, I’d be delighted to give them another go. Until then, I will have to pause deliveries as the savings aren’t quite there. If it’s feasible for you, I’d recommend testing HelloFresh yourself, so you can see if it’s a good fit for your life.

This review is in no way affiliated with HelloFresh. I purchased these meal kits on my own and have chosen to share my thoughts here. If anyone is interested in signing up for a subscription, please use my HelloFresh referral link at checkout to receive $40 off of your first delivery.

Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2015

Last year I decided to begin working my way through The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014.  There are still places that I haven’t made it to, and the challenge has only become harder with the release of the 2015 list this past March. Not to mention, new restaurants continue to spring up and compete for my attention. Needless to say, I wasn’t as on top of trying different places this year, but my second annual breakdown of my personal favourites in Edmonton does have some variation from my choices in 2014.

I still stand by the belief that any eatery is capable of blowing me away. Whether it’s an independent restaurant or part of a chain, there’s a reason why these places have lasted and continue to bring customers through their doors.

All of my selections are based off of the dishes that I’ve tried, so I by no means can vouch for the entire menu at each restaurant. However, I do feel that whatever I’ve eaten at these establishments are good indications of their brilliance or potential.

If you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a great meal at the following locations, you’ll understand why they’ve made the cut. Otherwise, this list is my way of nudging all of you to step outside of your comfort zone to try somewhere and something new.

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1. Cibo Bistro
Still my favourite place in 2015. Everything is made from scratch. Delicious arancini, amazing cured in-house salumi, and fresh pasta with the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

2. Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen
The official grand opening took place in November and the food really impressed me and my friend. Absolutely fantastic bone marrow agnolotti and tender, smoked duck were the stars.

Review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

3. Woodwork
I recently visited again and it reminded me of why I like this place so much. Talented bartenders mix perfect cocktails, which are usually imbibed with plates of food that often consist of flavourful house-smoked meat.

Review of Woodwork

4. Canteen
The menu changes seasonally, but I still think about the duck breast I had. Visually, it was gorgeous, but it was also incredibly succulent. The chickpea fries and corn fritters are also great for sharing.

Review of Canteen

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5. Rostizado
A great place for gatherings, the platter of 2 consisting of juicy and tasty roasted Four Whistle Farms pork and chicken creates a family-like atmosphere during your meal. Make sure to order the caramel flan for dessert, which is arguably even better than the churros.

Review of Rostizado

6. Duchess Bake Shop
My mom’s first visit to Duchess took place this year, and she loved the desserts. She’s pretty critical, so if she says something is good, it is. The key lime tart is still my top pick here. The banana cream pie has a wonderfully flaky crust, plenty of banana and lots of fresh whipped cream.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

7. Corso 32
I was maybe a little harsh with Corso 32 last year. My expectations were very high after hearing all the rave reviews before trying it for myself. But, I concede that the fried short rib was a more than memorable dish.

Review of Corso 32

8. Tres Carnales
My quick and dirty review from last year still stands: “This is Mexican street food at its finest. Every time I have been to this establishment, the service has been quick and the food has been fantastic. The guacamole is a tasty starter for the table (I love it even though it contains cilantro). The various aguas – flavoured waters – are a must to quench your thirst on a hot day. If you ever have the chance to eat them, get the duck tacos! They are stellar, but a rarity nowadays. The al pastor quesadilla is a close second.”

Review of Tres Carnales

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9. El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar
I was skeptical of El Cortez prior to visiting in August. When it first opened, I had heard the food wasn’t all that great, but chef Lindsay Porter who took over a few short months later created a top notch menu. The fried cauliflower and the bulgogi steak tacos are awesome.

Review of El Cortez

10. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza is a must.  I also highly recommend the ricotta with olive oil, which is indulgent, but light. Don’t leave without dessert. The homemade gelato is superb.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

11. Nosh Cafe
This restaurant moved to 124 Street within the last year and business has been slow to build at their new location. However, I’ve been several times and the traditional Indian dishes – palak paneer and butter chicken – are consistently good.

Review of Nosh Cafe

12. Cactus Club Cafe
I know this is a chain. But, arguably, they know what they’re doing when it comes to food and drinks. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either location. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio, the BBQ duck clubhouse and the calamari (the addition of the fried jalapeno slices is genius).

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13. Joey Restaurants
Don’t start rolling your eyes. This is the second chain on this list and there are reasons for it. I’ve been frequenting Joey for as long as I can remember. It was the place my friends and I would go for a night out. We’d feel like adults as we had long conversations over what we considered to be pretty fancy food at the time. Not much has changed. Joey has always been a mainstay for me. The menu has been revamped many times over the years, but I hope that they never remove that spectacular ahi tuna sandwich. I crave it.

14. Japonais Bistro
They have filling bento boxes that satisfy your belly and the matcha crème brûlée is addictive.

Review of Japonais Bistro

15. Izakaya Tomo
Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls. Gather a group of friends, order a bunch of plates and share everything!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

16. The Common
Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari. They also have a great selection of craft beers and tasty cocktails.

Review of The Common

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17. Three Boars Eatery
This tapas style establishment has an ever-changing menu that is meant to be shared. If you can catch them, the lamb neck croquette, roasted beet and carrot salad, oka tart and the pork belly are highly recommended. The intimate space also makes it feel a little more special.

Review of Three Boars

18. Lazia
They’ve recently shifted the focus of their menu back to more Asian influenced dishes, and I think that was smart. The kitchen pleasantly surprised me with gorgeously plated and flavourful dishes that rivaled their sister restaurant, Wildflower Grill, but with price points that are slightly more accessible.

Review of Lazia

19. Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus BBQ
I was greatly disappointed when I found out that Absolutely Edibles closed. However, their sister restaurant, Sloppy Hoggs, still exists just down the block on 118 Avenue and 95 Street. The barbecued and slow-cooked meat served here is great and the portion sizes are generous. To top it off, the Absolutely Edibles brunch menu transferred over to this location. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice.

Review of Sloppy Hoggs

20. Ampersand 27
A beautiful atmosphere with equally beautiful dishes made for sharing. Get the melt-in-your-mouth maple butter pork belly.

Review of Ampersand 27

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21. The Cavern
Giving the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build a cheese and charcuterie board that is healthy and filling, you’ll likely be surprised to find that you don’t actually require anything else. With cheese, meat, nuts, dried fruit, jellies and bread, this is a meal in itself.

Review of The Cavern

22. The Art of Cake
Cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies are just a few of the baked goods that they offer at their store. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. Tiramisu Bistro
With an extensive menu, there’s probably something to satisfy everyone. I particularly liked the salmone pizza. Even better, after 5pm on Tuesdays, pizzas are buy one, get one half off.

Review of Tiramisu Bistro

24. Belgravia Hub
Tucked away in the Belgravia neighbourhood, this is an easy restaurant to overlook. However, don’t miss out on their contemporary comfort food. The corn fritters, mac and cheese bites and the braised beef are worth a visit.

Review of Belgravia Hub

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2016!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

I first heard about El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar from a good friend of mine. She had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the restaurant and bar before it opened to the public about 15 months ago. It was the space, more than anything, that she said I should see. Even she conceded that the food wasn’t all that great at the time. However, the artwork and the basement (remains a mystery to me) were worth a visit.

As weeks, months and then almost a year passed by, I still hadn’t set foot in El Cortez. One of the big reasons being that Old Strathcona is just not all that convenient for me. But, from what I had gathered, the eatery had reassessed their menu and brought in new chef, Lindsay Porter, to revamp the offerings. My expectations went up.

Before I knew it, August was upon us. The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is the one annual event that is guaranteed to get me to Whyte Avenue, and, as it turns out, it also provided an excellent opportunity to finally try El Cortez.

Knowing that the area would be teeming with people during the festival, I decided to make an advance reservation through OpenTable. While the restaurant wasn’t entirely full when we arrived, I’m still glad that we did. Seats filled up rather quickly while we were dining . Some were there for a meal, others simply grabbed drinks as they waited for the basement to open up for whatever Fringe play was being performed that afternoon (El Cortez served as a new BYOV during the festival).

My first impression of the place was a good one. After all, you eat with your eyes first, and this was a restaurant that created a fun atmosphere that I was more than happy to spend time in. The look of El Cortez is meticulously detailed. There’s art covering each wall. All of them unique, but unifying in design. The lighting is worked into the art or is the art itself, casting shadows of colour everywhere you look. And that bar. The bar is gorgeous, housing bottles of tequila – the establishment is one of only nine in the world certified by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (The Tequila Regulatory Council) – backlit by an enticing blue.

Now, the question was whether or not the food would be up to par. My friend and I carefully perused the menu as we sipped on our beers. Eventually we decided to share orders of the Valentina’s fried cauliflower and the tuna ceviche. Since my friend wasn’t as hungry as me, I also opted to try a trio of the steak taco “bulgogi.”

The Valentina’s fried cauliflower was lightly breaded with the right bite, so there was still some crispness to the vegetable. The slightly tangy sauce coating the cauliflower was good on its own, but the crema dip on the side gave the dish that extra kick.

Sushi is one of my favourite cuisines, so it’s safe to say that I like raw foods. When there’s anything close to that on a menu, I usually like to sample it. The tuna ceviche sounded too good to skip. Chunks of tuna mixed with pineapple, mango, ginger, jalapeno, mint, cucumber and peanuts made this an interesting appetizer. My one qualm while eating it was that I came across a rather large tuna bone, so I was really cautious after that. However, the tuna was fresh and the flavours were really great. The ginger, mint and cucumber made it refreshing and light, and the peanuts helped to balance out the sweetness from the fruit. Jalapeno was added in to give it that necessary Latin heat without overtaking any of the other components. This was served with a tin of fresh tortilla chips and potato chips (I liked the latter more because they were seasoned and that worked well with the ceviche).

Tacos, when done properly, are a force to be reckoned with. Those little shells can hold any sort of meat or filling that you desire. Yet, we’d been without anything close to true Mexican street food for as long as I can remember. That is, until Tres Carnales popped up over four years ago. While I still love Tres, there are differences between the two. The major one being the type of taco that they use. The shells at El Cortez seem to be thicker and softer, and they might hold up slightly better. The dishes at El Cortez are arguably more aesthetically pleasing as well. Food is colourful at both, but there’s a bit more flair at El Cortez, which isn’t surprising considering the overall look of the restaurant. El Cortez is flashy, but Tres is a little more humble and its sister establishment, Rostizado, falls somewhere in between.

That leads me to the steak taco “bulgogi” dish. Damn, those were delicious. You only get three per order, and I wanted more when I was done. The steak was cooked perfectly. Juicy and tender meat with enough sauce in every bite and just a bit of crunch from the coleslaw meant this was a superb choice as my main.

Banana Custard for dessert

Banana Custard for dessert

With time left to spare before our next Fringe show, I opted for a dessert, too (I know, I know). I chose a banana custard with tequila marinated fruit and coconut granola. Honestly, I’m not sure I would order this one again. The texture of custard doesn’t really bother me like it does some people, but this one seemed watered down. I did enjoy the coconut granola, which also consisted of pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds. However, the tequila marinated fruit, interesting at first, felt like a misstep by the end.

All-in-all, I’d recommend El Cortez. The appetizers and the mains were all beautifully executed (minus the fish bones). Our server was friendly. However, she didn’t make it to our table as often later into our meal, so it was difficult to flag her down for dessert and the bill. Otherwise, the service was decent. If you can, you should also check out their Taco Tuesday when tacos are only $3 each and you can mix and match your order. Be sure to book a reservation though, or you could be in for a long wait. Plus, if this place wasn’t already cool enough, you should lookout for secret shows that take place every so often in the basement.

El Cortez's Twitter Image. I love this logo.

El Cortez’s Twitter Image. I love this logo.

Edmonton AYCE Sushi Showdown: Zen Sushi & Grill vs. Watari Japanese Cuisine

Sushi has become a mainstay in the culinary adventures of most cities. Whether or not the place is near water, you can bet money that there is at least one Japanese eatery luring people in with the deliciousness of maki and sashimi. Therefore, it has become commonplace to see at least a dozen establishments spring up over the last few years, all vying for a spot in Edmonton’s sushi scene. What was more of a rarity was the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Japanese restaurant. I only knew of maybe one or two businesses that fit the bill, but from what I had heard, it wasn’t worth the effort of going. Unlike what you can find in cities like Vancouver and Montreal, the AYCE buffet wasn’t really up to par when it came to price or quality.

My friend, however, had tried out Zen Sushi & Grill on 76 Avenue and 104 Street just south of Whyte Avenue and she suggested that we go for lunch one day. Personally, I was glad that we ventured to this location. They have another on 101 Street and 105 Avenue in downtown Edmonton, but I don’t feel particularly safe in that neighbourhood. This location has a parking lot right outside of the eatery, so parking is not only free, but a lot more convenient.

I walked into the restaurant expecting that it wasn’t going to be that big, yet, as it turns out, there is another room adjacent to the main area that houses a full bar and more tables. The windows along the front of the building really help to brighten the space, which is a mix of brick walls, wood floors and a black and brown colour palette. The look is nothing fancy, but it is modern enough and it is clean.

Lunch, I believe, was and still is around $20 per person on weekends. Once you’re seated, you receive a sheet where you can check off the items that you want to order. The menu is fairly extensive, including sushi, maki rolls, cones and an amalgam of cooked items. Sashimi, during lunch hours, is an extra $2 for 10 pieces.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

Since I had never dined there before, we splurged and added on a couple orders of sashimi (the pieces were thicker than I would have assumed). In addition, we got a mix of sushi – salmon, tuna, inari, masago and chop chop – some miso soup, bean sprout salad, agadashi tofu, veggie tempura and tempura cod, among other items. Surprisingly, all the fish tasted fresh and not like it was at all previously frozen. The options available were more than enough to satisfy my sushi cravings as it covered the typical gamut of choices. The agadashi tofu is usually fried very well, leaving a nice thin layer of breading on the outside that soaks up the sauce. Sometimes the tempura can be a little bit greasier than I would like and at least twice I’ve noticed that when they deep fry large pieces of broccoli, the batter doesn’t always cook all the way through, so inside the head of the veggie you might find a floury consistency.

Overall, despite a couple of missteps, Zen did exceed my expectations for AYCE sushi in this landlocked city. And, while I do not think it can quite compare to what I’ve tried across the rest of the country, having eaten there many times after this first occasion, I would still recommend going for the chop chop (raw scallop) sushi, the soft shell crab maki (fantastic the first time I ate it there, not as good lately, but you never know), their agadashi tofu and the green onion cakes. What I like is that they don’t overdo the rice portions for the sushi – the balls are small as they should be.

The service is good and the owner is especially nice. I’ve been there for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the last year, and I can tell you that they don’t up the price on holidays. Also, although I’ve never had an issue walking in and getting a spot, they do offer to take reservations, too.

Within a year, Zen had become my go to for sushi. It was perfect for those days when you’re craving anything and everything Japanese for an affordable price. Yes, there are plenty of great sushi establishments in town nowadays, but where else can you spend under $25 and eat as much as you can fit in your belly?

This is why I was ecstatic to see that a new AYCE sushi restaurant was to take the place of the recently vacated Matahari space on 124 Street and 101 Avenue. As quickly as Matahari disappeared, the banner sign advertising the soon-to-be open Watari Japanese Cuisine was hung. Every time I drove by I became giddy with excitement wondering when they would be ready for customers. Eventually in August I’d heard that they, indeed, were officially serving food. My friend joined me for dinner after work before we headed to a show at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.

I had never eaten at Matahari before the eatery closed, but I had seen photos, and I’m guessing it was a quick turnaround for Watari because they kept some of the decor the same. A number of raised booths sit along the wall closest when you enter the restaurant. There are also a handful of other booths opposite and bar height tables in the middle. Again, the look is nothing spectacular, but it is pretty comfortable and it is clean as well.

We stuck with tap water, which was incredibly refreshing because they toss slices of lemon or lime and sometimes mint leaves in for flavour. With dinner, you can have up to 30 pieces of sashimi per person, so the two of us ordered the maximum (40 pieces of salmon and 20 pieces of tuna – both fresh, but the salmon was melt-in-your-mouth and the better of the two) to split. No lie, I swear we had at least two full-size fish at our table because the slices were substantial. We also tried out the tacos, sushi including salmon, tuna, inari and red snapper, miso soup, a variety of maki rolls (their Target roll of tuna and green bean is good), beef tataki (awesome), Hawaii poke(y), bean sprout and seaweed salads, a combination of shrimp and veggie tempura (you order what you want by the piece), cream cheese (and crab) wontons and beef short ribs, all of which I would urge you to try.

You could literally have rolled us out of the restaurant, we were so full by the end. However, I can happily say that we triumphed and polished off every last piece of fish and rice. For the $27.95 weekday adult dinner rate, I think we more than got our money’s worth.

Watari is so close to my parent’s place that I’ve now eaten there a few times (the latest occurrences for lunch) and, I have to say, that while it was already good the first time with my friend, it has improved each time since. Also, with over 100 items to choose from on their menu, there is definitely something for everyone, even those who are not fans of raw.

Zen and Watari, in a competition, are fairly matched. The reason for that can likely be chalked up to the fact that, apparently, the owner of Watari was the previous co-owner of Zen until he decided to open his own restaurant. I find it hard to decide which should be called the superior place, if at all. Each one has a few items that are not offered by the other, so, for me at least, there’s always going to be the temptation to visit both.

For those of you who look at this as a numbers game, I will break it down for you though. Sashimi (15 pieces per person) is already included with lunch at Watari for the $22.95 price, making it pretty much equivalent to Zen should you decide to add sashimi to your meal there. If you happen to be a senior, the cost of eating at Watari is an even better deal at $19.95. They also have a lower price of $16.95 for children. Watari also recently added late night (10pm on) prices for Friday to Sunday and statutory holidays that equal the cost of lunch (reservations are recommended on weekends).  The menu between both restaurants is relatively similar, but there are minor differences. Watari includes tacos, Hawaii poke(y), beef tataki, cream cheese wontons as well as specialty rolls created in-house. They also have the option of the Monday to Friday business lunch, which does away with the sashimi and a number of menu items, but still leaves sushi, maki rolls and the majority of their kitchen and deep fried menu items up for grabs, all for the low price of $14.95, regardless of age. Zen has chop chop sushi and soft shell crab maki on the menu, two tasty items that are not available at Watari. Both restaurants have other options that are extra in cost, but I’ve never felt the need to order any of them because what is included in the set price is more than enough for everyone.

Watari's current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari's Facebook page.

Watari’s current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari’s Facebook page.

Watari and Zen both have excellent service that is quick and friendly, so you can make the most out of your two hour dining limit. Once in a while they may miss bringing an an item or two, but, as long as you remember that you didn’t get it, you can always order it again in the next round. As with all AYCE establishments, they are very conscious about eating responsibly, so be sure that you order only what you can finish. Anything that is left behind is subject to extra charges as it’ll likely have to be thrown away. Both restaurants offer free parking – Zen out front and Watari has a few rows of parking behind the building.

If I really had to choose, I would say that Watari bests Zen, but only by inches. In all honesty, you cannot go wrong with either of these places. The two are favourites of mine, and they’re definitely the top AYCE sushi restaurants you’ll find in Edmonton. I’ve left both happily gratified each and every time.