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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: New Dragon Palace

Peking Duck

For as long as I can remember, my parents and I have been frequenting New Dragon Palace Seafood Restaurant (17743 98 Avenue). I suppose it’s just one of those places that becomes a standard, so much so that my fiancé had to ask me why we go there so often. But, it’s family-run and, the owners know who we are, which offers that feeling of familiarity. Plus, as with most Chinese eateries, they’re always open, even when every other business is closed.

Our most recent occasion to visit was over the Chinese New Year weekend. We went in on the Family Day holiday Monday. Walking into the establishment is like stepping back in time to the late eighties or early nineties with washes of muted pinks and greens. Still, they’ve kept it up okay and the space is quite tidy and clean. Although, I do find that their utensils and dishes can feel kind of filmy from washing, I just give them a quick swipe with a napkin and let it go.

We never veer far from our usual menu items: deep fried chicken, sizzling beef, sweet & sour pork, and Chinese broccoli when we want to incorporate some veggies. When we really want to celebrate, we get Peking duck. This time, we made sure to pre-order the latter dish to ensure that we wouldn’t miss out.

It didn’t take long for our food to start making its way out of the kitchen. The fixings for the duck — hoisin sauce, julienned carrots and cucumber, and shreds of scallions — were laid out first while the bird was being prepared. When the wraps and sliced duck came out, I was ready to pounce. While everything looked and tasted great, I was somewhat disappointed because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of meat on the skins. In fact, there was a lot more fat than anything else, turning the wraps into grease pockets. I had to scrape a lot of the fat off to make them more edible. It was a far cry from our last Peking duck at New Dragon Palace, which was perfectly cooked and meaty with a minimal layer of fat and super crisp skin. Of course, I don’t completely blame the restaurant as it’s hard for them to know how the duck will turn out until they actually prep it and take it apart.

What I do love about Peking duck is that the whole bird is used. Along with the wraps, the kitchen also makes a wonderful duck soup using the bones. The cream-coloured broth is savoury and smooth, improved even further with wilted greens and chunks of tofu. I will usually have at least a few bowls during my meal. Additionally, the remaining meat of the duck is sauteed with bean sprouts and carrots into an earthy stir fry that goes so well with a bowl of white rice.

A half order of the deep fried chicken.

The deep fried chicken is always a delight because they get the skin so crispy, yet the meat is still tender inside. The dark garlicky soy-like sauce is a must to drench chicken and rice in. My only wish is that there were more pieces of white meat in each order as, lately, I have found the pieces of half chicken to be rather bony.

We all enjoy the sizzling beef as it comes to the table so hot. Aside from a slice or two that were too chewy to eat, the meat was, otherwise, thick, succulent and well-marinated with plenty of sauce.

The sweet and sour boneless pork.

Last, but never least is the sweet and sour boneless pork. The meat is battered and fried until crisp and then it’s mixed into a sweet and sour sauce with peppers, onions and pineapple. The balance of flavours and the retention of the crisp outer shell of the pork is why we keep going back to it.

To finish off the meal, a complimentary tong sui (sweet, warm soup) is provided. It typically ranges from red bean to tapioca, neither of which are my favourites, at least the way they prepare it. For the new year, I was in for a treat though. We got bowls of almond soup with black sesame dumplings (filled glutinous rice balls), often served during special occasions. These were a real treat. When my fiancé opted not to eat his, I happily helped myself to seconds.

I was so excited to eat at New Dragon Palace again for Chinese New Year. The kitchen had hit it out of the park on our previous visit. However, comparatively, I wasn’t as impressed in February. Each dish seemed smaller in size, more sloppily made, and less fresh than before. It’s possible that someone else was running the show, which could account for the difference in quality. Consistency is probably one of the restaurant’s main issues. The problem is, customers can’t tell ahead of time what they’re going to get on any given day. They basically have to hope for the best.

What is great about the eatery is the value. Five of us ate that day for about $110 after tax and tip was included. Not only did everyone leave with their bellies full, we also left with a handful of containers to take home, too. If the cost justifies the caliber, then I think things are on par here.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Old Spaghetti Factory

Place settings haven’t changed for as long as I can remember.

If there are any restaurants I’d be likely to avoid, Old Spaghetti Factory would fit the bill. At the very least, the one at West Edmonton Mall checks all the boxes. There’s almost always a wait to get a table, it can be crowded, and it’s often filled with the din of noisy children. In spite of those downsides, it’s really hard to say no to a fully inclusive meal for under $20 per person or under $15 when it comes from the lunch menu.

Where else can one spend that much and get unlimited bread, a soup or salad appetizer, a main, dessert, and coffee or tea? The answer is a resounding “nowhere.” For that reason, Old Spaghetti Factory has become one of my family’s favourite meeting spots. We’ve been going there more regularly since last year when the restaurant offered holiday deals on their gift cards over Christmas (purchase $25 worth and receive a bonus $10 to be used by mid-March). This year, my fiancé and I received a couple sets and, at the beginning of February, we got together with my parents to redeem the first $35.

Sourdough bread with whipped butters!

We already had plans earlier in the afternoon on the Saturday that we dined, so we ended up arriving just in time to take advantage the lunch specials that run until 4:00pm. My mom and dad had both placed their orders already. They were snacking on a loaf of sourdough and that heavenly whipped garlic butter. Seriously, I don’t even know why they still pass out the regular butter. Do customers even bother using the latter? Between the two options, it’s not even a competition. Whenever our table is cleared by the servers, it is, without a doubt, going to be strewn with pots of unused regular butter that are probably destined for the garbage bin.

Regardless, it didn’t take long for us to get our coffees, teas and starters. Everyone else at the table chose to go with the Minestrone Soup while I decided on the Crisp Green Salad with ranch dressing. The soup has a hearty tomato base seasoned with herbs and filled with conchiglie (shell) pasta and veggies. The salad is a mix of lettuce, red cabbage and julienned carrots. It’s fresh enough, although nothing too special.

For our mains, my dad opted for the Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich with Fries ($11.50), my mom and my fiancé both selected the 6 oz. New York Steak Sandwich ($14.25 each) — hers was medium rare with a side of spaghetti in clam sauce, his was medium served with fries — and I got the Lunch-Size Fettuccine con Pollo ($11.95).

Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich with Fries

Everything looked pretty appetizing. I’m a fan of their regular Chicken Parmigiana, so I assumed that having the breaded chicken topped with marinara sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese in sandwich form would be just as good. Perhaps it would be a bit starch heavy considering the ciabatta bun and the fries, but the fundamentals of the dish would still stand.

The New York Steak Sandwich comes open-faced with the meat sitting atop a slice of garlic bread. Again, it’s quite a starchy dish when the fries or pasta are accounted for. The steak looks large as it covers a decent amount of surface area. However, it’s actually cut thinly, which means the kitchen has to be careful not to overcook it. Despite the meat appearing to be prepared as requested, it was somewhat tough when I had a few bites of my mom’s steak. Honestly, it’s hit or miss at Old Spaghetti Factory whether or not the meat will be okay. I prefer it to be more succulent. Occasionally, that’s what one will get there. Other times, it’ll have more chew. Yet, it’s hard to blame them when it’s such an inexpensive outing.

I’m not entirely sure how I forgot to snap a photo of my Fettuccine con Pollo. Nevertheless, I can describe it. Sautéed chicken and mushrooms are tossed in a tangy white cream sauce with the pasta and then laid in a ceramic dish and topped with mozzarella and cheddar cheese before being baked in the oven. My lunch stayed hot the entire time we were eating. The cheese was gooey and in abundance, and the sauce coated everything evenly. There was more chicken and mushroom than I expected, too.

Spumoni Ice Cream; I almost forgot to take a photo of this, too.

Next up, after our entrées were polished off or packed up, was the dessert. This is my favourite part of eating at Old Spaghetti Factory. Spumoni ice cream — chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio swirl — is kind of tough to come by at the grocery store (I do know that Chapman’s now has a gelato version), so I definitely consider this to be a real treat. It has the right consistency where it shows up at the table perfectly firm. And, for me, the green pistachio portion is what makes it special, so I tend to eat around it and save that flavour for last.

Our receipt decorated by our friendly server.

When I take in everything happening at the restaurant, I can see that it runs like clockwork with staff dancing between tables and chairs, dropping off meals, carrying dishes away and, all the while, they do it with a smile. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an unhappy server at Old Spaghetti Factory. In fact, on this particular day, ours joked around with us. When we got our bill, she’d drawn a giant heart around the total, written a “thank you” at the top of the receipt and stuck a smiley sticker to it as well.

I feel like that receipt is pretty representative of the eatery. Old Spaghetti Factory has been a mainstay in the city for as long as I can remember. Sure, the West Edmonton Mall location may have gotten a facelift a few years back, but it is ultimately the same friendly place with affordable food that people remember. It’s welcoming to anyone and everyone and it will continue to be (as will the Downtown spot) for years to come.

Daily drink specials at Old Spaghetti Factory.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Black Bull Kitchen & Bar

The interior of Black Bull Kitchen & Bar.

In mid-December, I took my boyfriend to Black Bull Kitchen & Bar (16642 109 Avenue) for dinner. It was our first visit and, again, it was all due to a Groupon I had on hand. We made our way there immediately after work, so we arrived pretty early at around 5:00 pm.

When we walked into the establishment, it was empty, save for someone hanging out at the bar. The single server greeted us right away though and let us choose our own table while she grabbed us some menus.

As soon as we were settled, I mentioned that I had the voucher that covered dinner for two people, and she took the time to explain how it worked. In our case, we were each able to order a virgin cocktail and an entrée valued at up to $32. The thing is, the majority of their dishes only cost about $13 to $25. Only one option would have maxed out the deal on its own: the 14 oz. T-Bone Steak. However, our server let us know that we could add upgrades to the plates until they totaled the full value, which was fantastic.

Virgin Pina Colada and Virgin Caesar

While my boyfriend sipped on his Caesar and I on my Pina Colada, we studied the menu. Ultimately, we both opted for the 10 oz. New York Striploin ($25). It comes with a side of veggies as well as a choice between garlic mash (the winner on that evening), home cut fries, or rice. He decided to order extra shrimp ($5) and I selected the lobster tail ($7).

The food was prepared in a decent amount of time. They weren’t plated super fancy, but the dishes had pretty pops of colour from the carrots, broccoli, shrimp and lobster. Atop the seafood was a big dollop of butter. Surprisingly, there was also a slice of garlic bread accompanying everything as well.

I’ll get the bad out of the way first. Although the lobster tasted fine, it was severely overcooked. It made it incredibly difficult to pull the meat from the shell and, when I did get any on my fork, it was relatively dry and rubbery. That was unfortunate. I probably should have mentioned it to the restaurant while we were there, but I didn’t do that.

On the other hand, my boyfriend told me that his shrimp were great (he ate them all so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to sample any). Our plates came out piping hot, too. The steaks were both prepared as requested — medium rare for me and medium well for him. They were succulent with very little gristle, meaning almost nothing was wasted. I especially liked the charring on the top and bottom of the steak that helped to sear in the juices, keeping the meat tender and flavourful.

I have to say that the vegetables were kind of pedestrian. They seemed to have been steamed and had little flavour. I doused them in the butter from my lobster to make them a bit tastier. I thought the bread was alright as it was a bit toasted and had enough garlic butter without being overpowering. The garlic mashed potatoes were excellent. They were creamy, the seasoning came through well and the herbs that had been mixed in just elevated them a little more.

In the end, I’d say that Black Bull Kitchen & Bar is a serviceable location. Nothing we had was out of this world good, and the chefs can certainly show some improvement when it comes to lobster. Otherwise, everything else was passable and the portions were generous. It’s comfortable, clean, bright, well-decorated and totally seems like the classic neighbourhood hang out. If anyone has a voucher, I’d definitely recommend giving this place a shot. If that’s not a possibility, still stop by and grab something more affordable than steak off of the menu. I’ve heard that their burgers and pizza are worth a visit.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mai Vietnamese Fusion

The exterior of Mai Vietnamese Fusion.

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

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

The entrance into the restaurant.

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

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

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

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

Pho with Steak

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

Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli

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

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

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