Edmonton Restaurant Preview: Salz

One of the main dishes.

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I attended a Sunday pop-up dinner. In preparation for the anticipated fall opening, owner Nate Box decided to run an event to get Edmonton foodies excited about his latest business, Salz. It will be the youngest sibling to his current trio of eateries — Elm Cafe, District Cafe and Little Brick — and the focus will be on pickles, bratwursts and beer (or, as the logo says: Brine, Bier, Brats).

The meal was presented at District Cafe with chef Allan Suddaby at the helm. For about $20 per person, diners were treated to a starter of pretzels with honey mustard, a main dish of our choice of one sausage with house pickles and German salads, and a dessert of apple strudel. Extra sausage was just $4 for one or $7 for two. Drinks were also an additional charge.

To make the most of our night out, we opted to split all three sausage flavours (Classic, Käsekrainer and Spicy Hungarian) between us by tacking on a second bratwurst to one of our orders. My boyfriend also ordered a pint of the Blindman Saison to pair with his dinner. Box’s plan is to serve German/European-style beers made by local brewers.

While we waited for our entrees, we snacked on the pretzels. These were puffy, but also dense. They had been brushed with a bit of butter or oil on the top and were just a tad salted. The accompanying honey mustard was the perfect dip to go along with them. My only wish is that these had arrived at the table warm. Had they been fresh from the oven, it would have elevated them that much more.

My dinner and my dining companion.

Before we knew it, our sausages were placed in front of us. The plate itself consisted of my Käsekrainer, coleslaw, potato salad, tomatoes with pumpkin seeds, pickled beet and cucumber, macaroni and cheese, and a whole grain mustard. All of the salads were unique, yet each one complimented the others. The coleslaw was fresh, crunchy, and easily, the most subtle of the bunch. The potato salad had a light, creamy dressing and dill sprinkled throughout. My favourite was probably the baby tomatoes with the pumpkin seeds though. The seeds must have been roasted or toasted, giving a smokiness to the sweetly tart tomatoes. I also appreciated their version of mac and cheese. It could have been served hotter as I found that the sauce seemed to have curdled slightly at room temperature. Still, it was packed with cheese, and I couldn’t really complain. Compared to the creamy honey mustard we had with the pretzels, the whole grain mustard, with yellow, brown and black seeds intact, packed quite a punch with a lingering pepperiness. I loved it.

Sausages galore!

Granted, the sausages weren’t super strong in terms of taste, so I could make an argument that too much of the mustard would almost have masked the flavour of the bratwurst. The Käsekrainer was a pork sausage stuffed with Sylvan Star gouda. It fell in the middle in terms of juiciness. The cheese certainly helped it to retain some moisture. It reminded me of when I was younger and I got to eat Mitchell’s cheese smokies. The Spicy Hungarian was a mix of pork and beef, and it happened to be the smallest and driest of the bunch as it must have shrunk during the cooking process. Any expected heat, or hints of pine and citrus from the Szeged hot paprika spice and marjoram herb didn’t really come through. Hands down, the best of the trio was the Classic pork sausage. It was the perfect example of why one shouldn’t mess with a good thing. Succulent and plump, it was truly delicious.

The meal was completed with a dessert of apple strudel and fresh whipped cream. I have to say that I wasn’t all that impressed with it. Mainly, I was not a big fan of the layered filo pastry shell. In this instance, the sheets didn’t flake apart as I assumed it would, and the sugar on the top could have been caramelized more. The whipped cream was divine though.

For the most part, the two of us thoroughly enjoyed the Salz Pop-Up Dinner. I took my time savouring every single bite, and I’d do it all over again. The details of the actual restaurant — location, opening date, hours, menu, etc. — have not been released. I’m hoping all of that information will be presented sooner than later. When it does launch, I think they should stick with the beer hall pricing. They should even have a set menu available like the one we experienced this weekend. Not only was it affordable, but it also gave diners a chance to try a little of everything. I’m wishing Nate Box and his team the best of luck as they prepare for this new addition.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pho Boy

The interior of Pho Boy.

Aiming to bring authentic pho and Vietnamese street food to Edmonton, locally owned and operated Pho Boy opened on Whyte Avenue and 100 Street in December of last year. They focused on a soft launch menu until the restaurant’s official grand opening in February, meaning the time was taken to hone their selection.

My friend and co-worker has been a fan since the beginning, and I would see her food posts from Pho Boy on social media frequently. Everything always looked so good. Therefore, when I happened across a Groupon deal, I jumped on it. Rather than use it immediately, I set the voucher aside until August. I knew I’d be hanging out around Old Strathcona during the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, so it’d be the perfect time to go. Plus, by then, I hoped that any and all growing pains would have worked themselves out of the establishment.

The entrance is tucked away past the somewhat hidden front patio space.

Between shows on a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I ambled towards the address. I had recalled driving by the building on a previous occasion and seeing their round, bright yellow sign hovering above the sidewalk, but as we proceeded east, it didn’t stand out. In fact, I almost passed right by. The entrance is kind of masked by a somewhat gated front patio space. It’s actually a cozy sort of outdoor dining area that’s a bit tucked away from the pedestrians and traffic. However, it wasn’t nice enough that day for us to sit there, so we headed inside. One of the servers saw us a minute after we arrived. She seated us along the booth bench. Being later in the day, no more than a few of the other tables were occupied.

Playing the Street Fighter II arcade game.

The space is fun and well thought out. A sunset mural of Vietnamese farmers covers the one wall, while the other is plastered with vintage looking posters and the “Pho Boy” scrawl. The furniture consists of heavy, dark woods that keep the focus on the rest of the art and the unique lighting. There’s even a Street Fighter II arcade game sitting in the corner with a large TV screen hanging above it for other diners to watch players beat the high score.

Design aside, I was there for the food. At first the menu confused me because the Legend Vermicelli was listed under two different pages, but after consulting with the server, she pointed out that one included the regular spring roll with pork and the second was a vegetarian version without any meat. Either way, I was somewhat dismayed at the shortage of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp options that one would typically see at a Vietnamese joint. The only way of getting anything like that was with the Hero’s Feast ($17; it includes lemongrass beef and a shrimp skewer), which I was warned about in terms of portion size.  Regardless, I went with the latter. My boyfriend opted for the regular size Pho Boy Phoenix Special ($10).

While we waited, two other plates were brought out. One had a couple of large shrimp chips on it. The other had the usual pho garnishes: basil leaves, bean sprouts and a wedge of lime. Each ingredient looked fresh.

Our dishes arrived shortly after. To my dismay, the Phoenix Special was covered in cilantro (it’s my nemesis). Although the herb isn’t my boyfriend’s favourite either, he said he didn’t mind it this time. He stated that the heat of the soup made the flavour less apparent, and it worked well with the shredded chicken. I also think that his generous dousing of Sriracha sauce into the chicken broth may have helped to mask it. When I first took a spoonful of the soup to try it, I thought to myself that it had quite a pleasant kick of spice to it. That is, until I put two and two together and realized he’d already mixed in the Sriracha, so to be honest, I have no clue what the true broth tastes like. It seemed pretty clean though. There weren’t any grease bubbles in the bowl; it was just an aromatic and savoury soup that was perfect for a somewhat chilly day.

When it came to my Hero’s Feast, I was bracing myself. I thought that there was no way I’d be able to finish it. From what I was told, it would be huge. But, it showed up and I knew it wouldn’t be much of an issue. To start, I will contend that they do not skimp on the rice noodles or the veggies. There was a mountain of bean sprouts and julienned cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, and lettuce sitting atop the vermicelli. Yet, I had my eye on the prize. After I poured every last drop of the fish sauce into the bowl and tossed the components together, I worked my way through the dish. Admittedly, the shrimp were lackluster. The texture of the crustaceans was rubbery. The kitchen fared much better with the lemongrass beef; well-marinated, a little bit charred, thinly sliced and still tender, the meat, along with the crispy Legend Rolls were the star of the show. Initially, I didn’t understand why the eatery would offer the Legend Vermicelli with nothing other than spring rolls. From all past experiences, the spring roll is sort of the after thought to a vermicelli meal. Here, they were pairing it with the noodle bowl as the single source of protein. After trying the Legend Rolls, I get it. They are succulent and they provide that umami flavour to the dish without having to go the distance that other Vietnamese restaurants so often do. On my next visit, I know that the spring rolls will be enough to satiate my hunger.

Did Pho Boy wow me? They excelled in some ways (the crunch of the Legend Roll was unlike any other spring roll I’ve had) and there’s certainly room for improvement. Overall, I’d say it was decent. The food was satisfying, the prices were fairly reasonable and the service was stellar. Like their menu, Pho Boy is just slightly off the beaten path, but it’s one that is worth taking at least once.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips

The letter board menus on display at the entrance of the restaurant.

Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips has been on my radar since they opened in early spring of this year. As the sister restaurant to The Common, located just next door, the concept couldn’t be more different from the older gastro-lounge in terms of style. Rather than elevated comfort food, the seafood laden sibling leans heavily on the idea of traditional London street fare served in a fast-casual setting.

When I went for dinner in mid-August, I noticed that the entrance of the shop places the customer right at the counter where the menu is laid out across three letter boards. My friend, who had been there before, thought we would have to order at the front. But, a sign indicated we could seat ourselves, and one of the servers came by with a couple of menus as soon as we had settled in at our table.

I quite like the space. The design incorporates an understated look with a lot of natural wood throughout, vintage lighting and nautical rope accents. Yet, the bold navy and white colour scheme does add some punch. I especially love the wallpaper, which was illustrated by local tattoo artist Heath Smith. His images really tie the ocean and prairie elements together in a unique and creative way (my personal favourites are: the half horse, half mermaid and the whale with the barn on its back).

Atmosphere aside, I have to say that narrowing down my choices on the menu was a difficult task. I really wanted to try as much as possible. While I did get to sample my dining companion’s Haddock & Chips ($14), I wasn’t able to split much more with her. Because of her shellfish allergies, the only thing I could share was my bowl of Fried Brussel Sprout Bubble & Squeak ($5). We didn’t want to chance her having a reaction to anything else. Therefore, when it came to eating my half order of the Seafood Chowder & Cheddar Biscuit ($8) and the Fried Escargots & Tartar Sauce ($9), I was on my own.

After we ordered our dishes, they arrived pretty quickly. I suppose there isn’t a whole lot of prep time required when the majority of the food served is fried in some form or another. However, I would like to note that there are three ways to enjoy the fish: classic, gluten free (still breaded), or pan-fried (the lighter of the trio).

The Haddock was cooked with a classic crisp batter. The filet itself was quite large, spanning the entirety of the plate it came on. It seems like Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips doesn’t really offer the option to add extra pieces of fish, and I could see why. It isn’t necessary when the first portion is already so large. Accompanying the haddock was a bed of Kennebec chips, coleslaw, a small cup of tartar sauce and a lemon wedge. The meat refrained from being greasy; it was succulent, flaky and pulled apart easily with a fork. I always like the zest of citrus juice cutting through the fish, and the tartar sauce they provided gave it some savouriness. The chips (fresh cut fries) consisted of large, evenly cut strips of potato with a crunchy exterior and fluffy center. Even without any dip or seasoning applied, they were delicious. I found the coleslaw to be pretty good as well. The cabbage and carrots were lightly dressed, so the texture of the veggies weren’t hindered at all.

Half order of the Seafood Chowder & Cheddar Biscuit

With my trio of plates delivered at the same time, I had to assess what would be best to eat first. The obvious choice was the small bowl of Seafood Chowder as I didn’t want that to get too cold. A half size Cheddar Biscuit with a generous helping of butter was served on the side. The cheddar biscuit lost its warmth quickly and came across as a tad dry and salty. Because of the latter characteristic, I probably should have avoided dipping pieces in the soup and applying the butter, but both of those, at the very least, helped to moisten the baked good a bit. The chowder seemed to congeal rather quickly as well. Although, once I stirred it up, the subtle soup became thick and creamy. Also, for the size of the cup, there was a lot more seafood than I expected; about three or four mussels along with cuts of fish filled the bowl. They paired so well with the soup base.

I alternated between the rest of my food, taking an escargot here and a sprout there. The escargot was pretty lightly battered in tempura and, again, didn’t seem greasy despite being fried. They were tossed over the same tartar sauce as the fish & chips, giving my taste buds a kick. My one dislike when it comes to eating snails is that sometimes they can have a gritty, sandy texture. Out of the whole batch in this dish, there was only one that ended up falling into that category. The remaining dozen or so were ever so slightly chewy (as they are), but still tender. Mostly, I think the price is more than reasonable for the quantity. Additionally, they did not get at all soggy as they sat there throughout the meal. The Fried Brussel Sprout Bubble & Squeak is actually a combination of deep fried Brussels sprouts, potatoes, turnips and onions. They’re heavily flavoured and have a little crispness. Wonderfully tasty during the initial mouthfuls, both dishes resulted in salt overload by the time I was finished.

Walterdale Pudding

That feeling was the perfect excuse to cleanse my palate with a dessert. I opted for the Walterdale pudding ($7), the latest offering on the menu. Served in a stemless wine glass, it’s supposed to be comprised of grapefruit, pistachio, marshmallow, and coconut ice cream. On this occasion, it was modified to include both orange and grapefruit slices. The two together helped to offset any potential bitterness from the latter. The rest of the ingredients were layered throughout. I’d note, too, contrary to how the ingredients may be read, the ice cream is not a combination of marshmallow and coconut flavouring. It is, in fact, fresh marshmallow pieces with dollops of coconut ice cream (an example of the importance of the oxford comma). I could have done with a few less marshmallows as they were quite sugary, and I would have preferred more ice cream instead. Regardless, each spoonful was different, and overall, it was a refreshing way to finish off a summer dinner.

Before we left, the server who put our payments through asked me about the photos I was taking. I was honest about being a blogger and planning to review the restaurant. She was very sweet and started talking about following more of the local writers on social media, and she wished us a good evening as we departed. I do believe that Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips is filling a niche market in the city. Other than some eateries and Irish pubs that happen to serve fish & chips, there aren’t a whole lot of alternatives when it comes to seafood done casually. Admittedly, I wasn’t all that enthralled with my choices after realizing just how much of each dish I was working through. Over the duration of the meal, the flavours melded and turned one note. On the other hand, I do think that this is truly a place where sharing multiple plates with several people is the way to go. With a large variety and less of each item, every bite will pop that much more.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urbano Pizza Co.

Portable pizza ovens that fast-fire pies in under 2 minutes!

The first time I tried Urbano Pizza Co. wasn’t at one of their storefronts. It was actually at last year’s Sturgeon County Bounty Culinary Cookout. As one of the participating partners at the event, Urbano was well prepared to serve the masses. They brought with them a couple of their portable pizza ovens (fast-fired in under two minutes) and were cooking up their meat (The Italian Stallion) and vegetarian pies as fast as they they could manage.

Urbano ended up being our favourite vendor of the night. Not only did they provide reasonable portions for the tickets redeemed, but their pizzas had a lovely thin crust and a mountain of toppings. In fact, my only complaint was that the toppings were so heavy that the crust couldn’t withstand the weight, making it tough to keep my slice together.

Fast forward a year later and I was contemplating where my co-workers and I could go for a quick lunch together. The light bulb in my head went off and I suggested Urbano Pizza Co.

The day we went, we arrived at the original downtown shop (at 102 Avenue and 103 Street) a little after 1 o’clock. It was quiet. There were a few staff members lingering behind the counter and one other customer perched on a stool in the seating area.

The menu displayed on a few screens.

We all took a few minutes to review the menu, which consisted of several Signature Pizzas and Pastas as well as the choice to build your own dish ($11.95 each; $7.95 without toppings). Although it was tempting to consider the latter option because I could pick whatever I wanted (similar to LOVEPIZZA and Blaze Pizza), I wasn’t in the mood to put a lot of thought into things. I ended up taking the lead by ordering The Vegetarian pizza.

I watched the staff as they put my pizza together from start to finish. When not in use, they always pull down the cover of the case to keep the toppings fresh. As they went along, I had the opportunity to let them know if I wanted anything excluded or switched out or added on. There are no extra charges for changes made, so it’s completely customizable.

A view of the prep counter from the seating area upstairs.

By the time I’d paid at the till, my pizza was already out of the oven and had been transferred to a wooden pizza board. I guess the staff members typically bring the food to the customer’s table, so the guy who had my pizza was a tad reluctant to hand it over to me at first. Yet, after checking with another person, he passed it over to me and I made my way up the stairs to grab a table.

The rest of my party followed and their pizzas showed up a few minutes later. I didn’t sample everyone else’s lunch. However, I was told throughout our meal that they all enjoyed what they had selected: The Piri Piri, To the Greek, and Pork & Pineapple.

The Vegetarian pizza with a bottle of Root Beer.

I loved my Vegetarian pizza. It’s a bit different from others as the base doesn’t consist of the usual tomato sauce. Instead, it’s replaced with a puree of eggplant curry. Then it’s topped with roasted cauliflower, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Flavourful and filling despite the lack of protein, I’d be inclined to get this one again.

In fact, the pizzas are quite large for the price. None of us were able to finish the whole thing. One of the employees passed by and came back carrying takeaway boxes without us even having to ask. The leftovers served as my lunch the next day.

Just this month, I went back to Urbano for dinner with a friend. We each ordered a pizza. I still didn’t opt to build my own, but I made sure to try something new. This time, I chose the Salmon. I opted to omit the red onions though. What remained of the toppings was Hollandaise sauce, white sauce, smoked salmon, capers and arugula. I will say that the salmon loses a bit of it’s appeal from an appearance standpoint since the fish turns more of a brown colour after being cooked in the oven. Nevertheless, it’s quite delicious. The smoked salmon still had a tenderness to it along with the salty flavour, and the creamy sauces worked well to balance out the slight bitterness from the greens. The one issue I did have, and maybe it’s due to the amount of sauce and the moisture from the salmon, is that over time, the crust can get a bit soggy as it sits. Still, I ate the whole thing.

My friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza on the right.

I also had a bite of my friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza. It’s not one that I’d usually go for, but it was decent. Made with tomato sauce, roasted pork loin, pineapple and Camembert cheese, it was certainly more traditional in flavour. Personally, I do think it was missing a little something; it needed an unexpected punch of flavour to add an element of surprise. Regardless, those who like Ham & Pineapple likely won’t be disappointed.

Urbano Pizza Co. is the sister to the upscale Sabor Restaurant. Owners Christian Mena and Chef Lino Oliveira took a sharp left turn when they decided to go the fast-casual route. Yet, it’s a concept that works. With others like it popping up all over the city, it’s obvious that they were on the right track. Perhaps it’s because I’m often going there before or after the lunch and dinner rushes, but I’ve experienced nothing but friendly faces, quick service and tasty food each time I’ve visited Urbano. Plus, it’s fairly affordable for a relatively healthy meal with fresh ingredients, many of which are made in-house.

They’ve also got a great deal on their Pizza of the Day. Ask for details when visiting!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Montana’s BBQ & Bar

Plaid for lunch at Montana’s seemed appropriate.

I’ve never put much thought towards the Montana’s BBQ & Bar restaurant chain. There are four locations that dot the south side of the city and two relatively close to my home. Yet, for some reason, they never really appealed to me.

I’m going to chalk that up to the fact that I didn’t grow up going camping or lodging, so the very rustic cabin atmosphere didn’t seem to lend itself to the idea of a great meal out. However, my boyfriend had mentioned time and again to me that Montana’s makes some pretty good wings. Plus, I just happened to get a coupon in the mail.

We ended up going to the South Edmonton Common branch for lunch on the August holiday Monday. We arrived just as they opened and one of the servers greeted us before she walked us to a booth nearby a few other customers.

The interior of the South Edmonton Common Montana’s location.

My first impression was that the joint was just as I imagined it would be. High ceilings with wooden beams (essentially wood everywhere), a stone fireplace, mounted animal heads, classic truck facades and a full-size canoe were among the decor choices I noticed.

Crayons and kraft paper provide entertainment at the table.

All of those things truly set a tone. Although, I don’t know that they scream barbecue. Either way, I didn’t actually mind it. The casual setting is great for a family outing, especially if one has children. We don’t have kids, but the kraft paper placemat that covered the entire table and the cup of crayons provided are arguably entertaining for adults as well.

Going in, the only thing I knew we were ordering was a basket of the Double Dusted Chicken Wings ($13.79, but half price on Mondays). Otherwise, we had some decisions to make. Between the two of us, we finally settled on the lunchtime Reuben Sandwich ($15.99) and Mac ‘N Cheese ($11.99).

Double Dusted Chicken Wings

The wings didn’t take long to make their way out from the kitchen. The reason why my boyfriend enjoys them so much is because there’s a lot of meat. I have to say that he was right. The wings themselves were larger than what might be found elsewhere. The only thing is that these orders only have eight wings each. Other restaurants often serve wings by weight and instead of eight wings, there might be ten to twelve instead. It balances out. Also, even with half price wings when we went, they still work out to be almost $7. Compare that to Tuesday night at Original Joe’s where a whole plate of wings comes to $4.50, and I’d probably be more inclined to go to the latter. In any case, I tend to prefer wings that are cooked with dry rubs, so these were quite messy. But, the texture was okay (still slightly crispy despite all the sauce) and the medium flavour was savoury, a little zesty and had a small kick of heat at the end. Reach dip also helped to tone down any spiciness, if needed. On a side note, I will commend Montana’s on their excellent sourcing of wet wipes, which are supplied to diners. They’re some of the best I’ve ever used.

Reuben Sandwich with Chippers

Moving along to our mains, my boyfriend is the one who chose the Reuben Sandwich. Smoked pastrami isn’t my favorite kind of meat. Yet, I’ll admit that it was quite good. I think it comes down to it being made in-house versus anything I’d get at the grocery deli. The meat was plentiful and succulent. Combined with mustard, thousand island dressing, sauerkraut and cheese, it proved more complex than I expected. Our main suggestion for improvement would be to grill the buttery marble rye a little longer to give the bread more texture and flavour. For his side, my boyfriend chose the chippers, which are fresh made potato chips sprinkled with dried dill seasoning and served with a dill dip. These were surprisingly good on their own. The potato slices were big, crunchy and non-greasy with a hint of the herb. Personally, I found the dip to be too strong, so I refrained from eating much of it.

Both of our entrees actually showed up about half way through our devouring of the wings. The server even apologized that everything came out at the same time. It didn’t matter so much for the sandwich, but it would have been nice to get the Mac ‘N Cheese a while later. I wanted to finish the wings before they got cold, but it meant that I was delayed getting to my pasta.

Mac ‘N Cheese with Caesar Salad & Cornbread

Thankfully, the macaroni and cheese came plated in a hot iron skillet. By the time I got to working on the dish, it could still be considered warm. I liked that Montana’s utilized cavatappi (corkscrew) pasta. The shape picked up more of the cheesy bacon and white wine cream sauce, locking in all the flavor. The whole thing was then baked with additional cheese until melted and golden brown. I do wish that there had been more crispy bacon tossed on top, but overall, this was a passable mac and cheese. If anything, this lunch-size version is a great value; included with the pasta is a side of Caesar salad (an appropriate amount of dressing for me) and in-house baked cornbread (sweet, moist, not too crumbly). The cost won’t break the bank and all three components of the meal are definitely filling enough.

Skillet Cookie

Now, we could certainly have skipped dessert that day, but the coupon I had on hand required a $40 purchase in order to receive a $10 discount, so we went for it. Montana’s provides several options in the sweets department. We ultimately decided on the classic Skillet Cookie ($6.99). First, I’ll say that it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. Our idea of a skillet dessert is that it’s made right in the pan itself. When the dish was delivered to our table, it looked like two already baked chocolate chip cookies had been sandwiched together with caramel in between and then placed into the skillet to be warmed. The dessert was then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I did find it to be very sweet and I tapped out before it was finished. However, it wasn’t bad by any means. The cookies were soft and chewy with lots of melted chocolate. The semi-sweet chocolate chips probably even aided in balancing things out with a touch of bitterness.

So, is Montana’s BBQ & Bar going to be a place I visit regularly? Most likely not. Nevertheless, going forward, I won’t discount it either. Timing issues aside, the service we experienced was excellent at this particular spot, and the food, while not the best I’ve had, is of decent quality for the price.

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