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 Business Review: Hansen Distillery

A bit of family history before being led into the production area.

Opened mid-December of 2016, Hansen Distillery was, by a slim margin, the second producer to enter the Edmonton market. Strathcona Spirits beat them to the punch by just a day. Although, to their advantage, Hansen Distillery has been welcoming customers through their doors from the very start.

Located in the west end of the city at 174 Street and 111 Avenue, their warehouse and retail space sits in the middle of a largely industrial area, which would be easy to miss. Nevertheless, the shop’s sweet lounge (available Tuesday to Saturday) as well as the tour and tasting offered Thursdays to Saturdays have given locals a great reason to pop by and expand their knowledge and palates.

Back around the Christmas holidays, I was given a certificate for two people to attend a tour and tasting at Hansen Distillery. I had been meaning to redeem it for a while, but I ended up holding onto it. Upon researching potential wedding venues in the new year, I came across their retail space as an option. I decided to reach out to owner Shayna Hansen to inquire about renting it out. Since I’d never been there, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to use my voucher and to preview the place in person at the same time.

My fiancé and I were scheduled in for the 2:00pm slot on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, there were no formalities. We were simply asked if we were there for the tour and when we nodded in confirmation, we were told that we could just relax until the rest of the group made it in. As we waited for things to start, I walked around the room snapping photos. For a business that has only been open for a little over a year, they have certainly done a fantastic job with the branding. The custom logos, signage, metalwork and bar are a perfect mix of rustic and industrial design. Along with that, history and Albertan roots are hammered home here.

Several minutes later, our tour kicked off with Shayna talking about her family’s long tradition. Moonshiners go back four generations to her great grandparents who made it through World War I only to have to deal with the Great Depression. In those years, the spirits were made as a means of trading for food to keep the family fed. Fast forward to a framed photo of her grandparents driving a 1928 Ford Model A (the same vehicle sits in the showroom) in a parade with “Moonshiners” blatantly painted on the side. Things certainly have changed from then to now where moonshining has become a legitimate business. The trade passed down to Shayna’s parents and, after some hesitation, down to Shayna’s now husband, Kris Sustrik, who handles it all from the distilling down to the bottling at Hansen Distillery.

When we passed through the doors into their production area, we got our first glimpse of the gorgeous copper still, named The Mistress. It happened to be distilling a batch of their Barn Owl Vodka on that day. Unfortunately, I didn’t retain the exact details of the distilling process. I will chalk it up to the fact that I’m encouraging everyone who reads this to book their own tour and tasting in support of this local business. Yet, I can relay that we were allowed to taste vodka directly from the machine by dipping our finger into a tiny pool of the liquor. I probably wouldn’t do that under normal circumstances. However, Kris assured us, at 98 to 99 per cent alcohol, it was extremely sterile. The lick of vodka was strong, but also quite sweet.

Each ingredient used for their spirits are natural and/or locally sourced. The single fake ingredient (Kris was very honest about this) is the stabilizer in the cream used for their cream liqueurs, giving the products about a year of shelf life. As soon as a batch of liquor is ready, they bottle it right there. On a typical day, they’ll likely be able to do 500 bottles and labels, although the record stands at over 700. It’s actually such a small crew, that Kris pretty much has his fingerprints on every single item that leaves the warehouse.

Expanding their current line of vodka, rye, gin and moonshine, they’re just over a third of the way to finishing their first batch of rye whiskey, which by Canadian standards must be mashed, fermented and then distilled in a wood cask for a minimum of three years. When the barrels are ready, they’ll bottle and sell everything through the shop to ensure fans of Hansen Distillery get to be the first to try them. Explaining the steps and how the wood of the cask affects the flavour, I could tell that Kris is incredibly passionate about the craft. A year in, they’ve already won a couple of awards. Call it beginners luck, or perhaps it’s a real knack. Either way, Hansen Distillery seems to have a good thing going for them. If anything, they’ve come into it at the right time, acting as influencers in a new and burgeoning industry.

The tasting begins.

As the tour came to a close, we were led to a long table laid out with popcorn, water, and taster cups sitting in specially made horseshoe-shaped trays. While most of the hard liquors were quite smooth, admittedly, I’m not inclined to drink them straight, so I only had small sips of their vodka (a bit like disinfectant), Border Crossing Rye (a decent precursor to an aged whiskey), and Trouble Gin (lots of juniper berries with a hint of citrus). They absolutely knocked it out of the park with their seasonal spirits though. After initial tastes of the two cream liqueurs (Saskatoon Berry and Chocolate Hazelnut), Ring of Fire, and Cherry Rye, I went back to finish each of those off as they were all delicious on their own. The one that took me by surprise the most was the Ring of Fire. As a rye spirit, I was fully expecting not to like it, but the cinnamon really comes through and the chilli peppers provide just the right amount of heat to warm the body.

For about an hour and approximately three ounces worth of alcohol, the usual price of $7 per person for the Hansen Distillery tour and tasting is well worth it. Plus, if inclined, grab a bottle of a favourite as they’ve recently lowered the prices of their bottled spirits, passing along savings incurred when the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Corporation reduced the markup for small manufacturers who self-distribute products. When the tour and shopping spree is over, the cozy lounge space is ideal to relax and chat over a cocktail, too. Heck, it’s so adorable that I really could picture having a wedding reception there. At about thirty seats, including the bar, it would be quite intimate. A few extra tables could be squeezed in though. It may not work for me and my fiancé. Yet, it could be another couple’s dream spot.

Overall, this was a fun, casual learning experience. Shayna and Kris have been hitting it out of the park. With more than twelve months under their belt, I wish them the best of luck as they continue building the family’s legacy. They are the true embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit in Edmonton and Alberta, and I look to them as an example for what can be accomplished here in my hometown.

A fun use of storage in their warehouse.

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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Milestones

Milestones Original Bellinis

I can’t exactly recall when Milestones first entered the restaurant scene in Edmonton. It has likely been at least a decade or close to. What I do remember is that my favourite dishes were once the signature Portobello Mushroom Chicken and the White Chocolate Cheesecake (that sauce!), both of which still hold a place on the menu today.

Despite all the love I had for the chain back then, I have to admit that the quality of the food has become a bit lackluster. It’s just not quite the same as it used to be, and, overall, much better, more consistently made food can be found at other casual dining establishments such as Cactus Club, Earls Kitchen + Bar, or Joey Restaurant. Regardless, I continue to visit from time to time.

Monday Girls’ Night Out Menu

The best reason for going can be summed up in four words: Monday Girls’ Night Out. The gist of the package is that four people can dine for forty dollars. It consists of one Milestones Original Bellini per person ($7.50 each) as well as four appetizers to be shared among the group. I believe the special is available from 4:00pm until close. There’s a list of seven starters to choose from. Some are relatively inexpensive on the regular menu, so I always opt for the ones that provide the best value. Of late, that includes the Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($13.95), Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter ($13.25), Coconut Calamari ($13.95), and Asian Chicken Bites ($13.95). Essentially, everything can be had for more than half off the usual price, making it a total steal. Also, as far as I know, for the guys, there is a male version of the deal that comes with a pitcher of beer instead of the Bellinis, although it might be best to ask ahead.

My boyfriend and I went on our own a few months ago to take advantage of this offering and the staff could have rolled us out the door by the end of our meal. The amount of food is kind of deceiving, but don’t be fooled. There’s definitely enough to feed two pairs of people without ordering anything extra.

When we were there in September (and again this month), our Bellinis were brought out without delay. One thing I always enjoy are the animal-shaped drink toppers. Typically, it’s a mix of different figures. In November, they placed little reindeer atop the mountain of Bellini slush. I found that to be quite festive.

Asian Chicken Bites

Our food arrived shortly after. Visually, they all looked appealing; however, I’ll begin with the Asian Chicken Bites. These were pretty ubiquitous at one point in time. Almost all of the casual eateries were serving some iteration of this plate. Milestones has stuck with it though. Why mess with a decent thing, right? The bites of chicken are well-breaded, the crisp wonton chips add extra crunch, and the cucumber is refreshing in the midst of all the sweet chili sauce. It’s pretty satisfying and at least it provides some protein as part of this dinner.

Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip

The majority of chain restaurants also tend to serve some form of dip. Milestones does a Hot Spinach & Artichoke version. I find theirs to be a bit runnier than others. Yet, it still holds up okay, and the artichokes aren’t pulverized too much; there are still some sizable chunks of the veggie, which is how I like it. With the dip, they serve red and white tortilla chips. Those are always crispy, if a tad too salty.

Coconut Calamari

Moving along to the calamari, this is actually a very tasty dish. What is disappointing about it is the fact that the squid is clearly processed. I understand the reasoning behind using a meat that is prepared in this way. After all, one of the main complaints diners often have about calamari is that it’s overcooked and rubbery. Well, rest assured because at Milestones, this won’t be a problem. The calamari strips are all super tender with a sponge-like mouthfeel. It’s just not the same as fresh octopus. Nevertheless, the way the kitchen marinates it in coconut and fries it to a golden brown makes it more than edible. The bed of crisp rice noodles and mango chili dipping sauce add dimension in terms of texture and flavour.

Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter

Out of the four appetizers, the best is definitely the Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter. It comes with slices of toasted focaccia bread (soft in the center), a mound of warm goat cheese topped with red pepper relish, a side of roasted garlic cloves, a pot of fig jam, and a pile of arugula. I like this starter since it’s possible to customize each slice of bread to one’s preferences. I’m an all in type of gal, so I start with a thick layer of the goat cheese and red pepper relish. Then I crush the roasted garlic and spread that on with some fig jam, and, at the end, I lay down some leaves of arugula. For it’s simplicity, it’s actually really decadent. The variety of flavours, along with the richness of the cheese and bread, is to die for.

With that said, I give Milestones a passing grade. I’ve been a customer for about ten years now. While I can’t say whether or not the south Edmonton location has improved as I haven’t been in some time, I will state that the one on 171 Street and 100 Avenue is more comfortable and the service is usually quite good (it’s never busy when I’m there). If anything, Milestones can be a relatively affordable place to catch up with friends. It’s truly hard to find another venue where approximately twelve dollars will buy a drink and food, tax and tip included. For that alone, Milestones can’t be beat on a Monday night.