Favourite Road-Trip Dining Spots: The CBC Listeners Weigh In

Listeners to CBC Radio's Alberta noon program weighed in on their favourite road-trip food picks

Listeners to CBC Radio’s Alberta noon program weighed in on their favourite road-trip food picks

I was on CBC Radio’s Alberta at Noon show the other day, talking about my new Marathon Mouth ebook on great road-trip eats in the western U.S./Canada.

But the real stars were the province-wide listeners who called in or tweeted to champion their favourite food stops near or far from their homes. And despite my extensive research trips, many of their picks were places I’d never heard of. So this post is dedicated to their suggestions (I hope my spelling guesses of their names is reasonably accurate).

Bernie won a free download of the book for suggesting The Last Straw in Libby, Montana. How often do you find hand-pressed, fresh burgers made from your choice of Angus or longhorn beef or bison? Or, at breakfast, corn beef hash for under $7? It’s apparently great stuff, especially for a small town off the beaten path on Highway 2, between Bonners Ferry and Kalispell.

Many Albertans travel to adjoining British Columbia, so it’s no surprise places in the western province featured prominently in listener picks. On his drive west along the Trans-Canada Highway to Vancouver, Ralph often stays overnight in Sicamous at Joe Schmuck’s Roadhouse so he can partake in both dinner (ribs and deep-fried pickles are menu features) and breakfast before hitting the road again.

A delicious breakfast sandwich at Big Bang Bagels in Fernie, B.C.

A delicious breakfast sandwich at Big Bang Bagels in Fernie, B.C.

There are also some great finds on less-travelled B.C. roads. An hour north of Kamloops on Highway 5, Little Fort is a wee place on the long drive to Blue River and Valemont. Glenn likes pulling over here at friendly High Five Diner for a healthy feed of burgers, pie or maybe stew and warm biscuits. In the southeast corner of B.C. on Highway 3, Fernie is an active outdoors community. When visiting, Pat frequents Big Bang Bagels for its fresh-baked bagels, perhaps converted to an eggy breakfast sandwich.

Of course, this being an Alberta radio program, there were several callers promoting places closer to home. I hadn’t found a good, affordable place to eat in Claresholm, south of Calgary on Highway 2. So I was delighted to hear Carol Anne nominate Meadow Creek Sausage, where the fresh, natural meats can turn up in, say, a chorizo burger or a flame-grilled sausage served on a pretzel bun. At the other end of the province, just east of Grande Prairie on Highway 43, Kendra likes pausing at tiny Crooked Creek Store for hot-from-the-oven doughnuts.

Hey, if you’ve got a favourite place for road-trip cheap eats, let me know, in a paragraph or so, either through the comment box below or by emailing me at billcorbett907@gmail.com. I’ll share the results and select one entry for a free download of my Marathon Mouth ebook.

Grocery Games: The Beleaguered Canadian Version

Buying in bulk is one good way to trim rising grocery bills

Buying in bulk is one good way to trim rising grocery bills

You know things are grim when #$8Cauliflower becomes a trending hashtag. Such is the perilous state of Canadian grocery prices, which have soared recently thanks to a plunging loonie (much of our produce comes from the U.S.), distressed growing conditions and tight beef markets.

Add never-ending layoffs in the oilpatch and, lately, the newspaper business, and more Canadians are inching towards Food Bank handouts to feed their families. But there are some cheapskate solutions (beyond clipping coupons) to trimming one’s grocery bill.

So for today, Marathon Mouth’s traveling, eating-out blog post is being handed over to his stay-at-home brother, Mister Miser. Note: All prices listed here are from Loblaws Superstore, unless otherwise indicated.

Tofu is a healthy, dirt-cheap source of protein. If you doll it up, it's even palatable

Tofu is a healthy, dirt-cheap source of protein. Why, if you doll it up, it’s even palatable

  1. Tackle tofu – I know, tofu is bland, maybe even gag worthy. But it’s one of few protein sources that’s dirt cheap. Would you believe $1.99 for a 350-gram brick (57 cents/100 gm), enough to feed a family? Here’s a trick to make it more palatable: Cut into small cubes, marinate briefly—in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and hot sauce—place on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet and broil close to the oven flame till crispy. While that’s happening, sauté some onions and veggies and add some stock, tomato sauce or a splash of cream. Sprinkle with last-minute sesame oil, and you’ve got a nice stir-fry, ladled onto a bed of brown rice ($6 for a 1.6 kilo sack). An even cheaper vegetarian protein is beans or lentils (29 cents/100 grams dry or 49 cents/100 grams canned).
  2. Where’s the beef? – These days, beef is expensive, as in $37.48 per kilo ($3.75 per 100 grams) for a rib steak. A much cheaper red-meat option is pork, which sells for $11.28/kilo for rib-end chops. A more direct comparison is tenderloin: a whopping $42.99/kilo for beef versus $15.48/kilo for pork.
  3. Bulk up – You can potentially save lots of money by buying larger packages of meats and then freezing them. At Superstore, for example, a single t-bone steak weighs in at $31.98 per kilo. A Club Pack of three t-bones is a relative bargain at $22.98 per kilo.
  4. Cheaper cuts of meat are generally tougher but, unless they’re incredibly fatty, no less nutritious or tasty than prime cuts. A slow cooker or pressure cooker can render that inside-round beef roast ($9/kilo) fork tender and save you considerable coin. As for chicken, you’ll pay an arm and a leg for breasts ($10.48/kilo for bone-in, $13.20 for boneless), though it’s still a lot cheaper than beef. But the savings multiply if you instead choose one-quarter legs ($4.98/kilo) or drumsticks ($6.48), both which I find moister and more flavourful anyway.
  5. Frozen veggies are cheaper than fresh, with no wastage, unlike that bag of forgotten spinach slowly rotting in a back corner of the fridge. A three-kilo bag of mixed, frozen veggies is about $8, or 29 cents/100 grams, about half the price of equivalent fresh.
  6. Go generic – At Superstore, a can of Unico black beans is $1.48; the No Name equivalent is 97 cents. Could you tell the difference in a blind tasting? Or 57 cents/100 grams for Ketchup, versus 25 cents for the President’s Choice version.
  7. Consider Costco – Yes, there is an annual membership fee of some $50, but you’ll quickly recoup that in food savings. On the fresh greens front, for instance, it’s about $3 for a one-pound bag of washed spinach and $4 for two pounds of no-waste broccoli florets. Cheese, nuts, chips and in-store-baked ciabatta buns are all considerably cheaper than at the typical grocery store, as is anything with a Kirkland label. When cash flow is really tight, I’ll even succumb to a two-pound-bag of  Kirkland coffee beans (Starbucks) for $12, instead of about $18 for one pound of locally roasted. I get jittery just thinking about the savings.
Yes, it's not as fresh or flavourful, but a big bag of Kirkland/Starbucks coffee beans is certainly much cheaper

Yes, it’s not as fresh or flavourful, but a big bag of Kirkland/Starbucks coffee beans is certainly much cheaper

Taking an Affordable U.S. Road Trip With the Battered Canadian Loonie

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.

By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.

But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.

Fill er up

The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.

It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.

Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.

You can't fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won't cost any more than in Canada

You can’t fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won’t cost any more than in Canada

The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.

Skip the hotels and motels

I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.

I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.

Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.

Affordable dining

Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.

Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

  1. Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
  2. Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
  3. Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno's Delicatessen in Monterey, California

This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno’s Delicatessen in Monterey, California

I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.

Cutting the Calories (and Carbs) at Restaurants

Doesn't this salad bowl, at Canmore's Communitea, just scream healthy and delicious?

Doesn’t this salad bowl, at Canmore’s Communitea, just scream healthy and delicious?

It’s early January, so most New Years’ resolutions have yet to be abandoned. Among the most enduring of these early-season pledges are to a) lose weight and b) eat more healthy foods.

But how do you manage this on a road trip, when cafes and diners are seducing you with groaning plates of pizza, burgers, fries, pancakes and pints? Comfort foods, they certainly are. Slimming, definitely not.

So here are seven road-food strategies for keeping the calories, carbs and love handles at bay.

  1. Think outside the bun

After a gnarly hike or eight-hour drive, there’s nothing more rewarding than a juicy burger and fries, jolting your system with upwards of 1,000 calories. Diminish that stomach punch by asking for the burger without a bun and replacing the fries with a salad or some steamed/sautéed veggies. You can still load up the patty with fixings like caramelized onions, mushrooms, avocado, bacon and, okay, a slice of cheese. Hey, fat ain’t the culprit here.

You could chop maybe 1,000 calories here by foregoing the bun and fries

You could chop hundreds calories here by ditching the bun and fries

  1. Beware the breakfast bomb

There’s nothing like starting the day with a meal designed to put you in a coma. How about a stack of hubcap-sized pancakes or three thick slices of French toast drowned in syrupy toppings? Or a plate of eggs with the requisite double-starch dose of hash browns and toast? Please, just give me a two-egg omelette—with sautéed veggies and maybe some bacon and cheese. Nothing else, except a lethally strong cup of coffee.

Horror story 1: There's another monster lurking under this platter-sized pancake

Horror story 1: There’s another monster lurking under this platter-sized pancake

Horror story 2: The typical double-carb dose of toast and hash browns

Horror story 2: The typical double-carb dose of toast and hash browns

How about a delightful a la carte omelette instead?

How about a delightful a la carte omelette instead?

  1. Minimize the Mexican

Whenever I go Mexican, I steer well clear of the ubiquitous all-inclusive platters, two-thirds of which are mounded with starchy rice and gluey, refried beans. These “fillers” are generally ghastly, gas inducing and guaranteed to provoke a midnight run to the bathroom. Much better to order a la carte items like tacos or a burrito smothered only in house-made salsa or green chile sauce.

  1. Sacrifice the sandwich

I must admit, the sandwich is my go-to lunch choice while on the road. All those layers of meats, cheeses and sauces make a delectable medley, especially when squeezed between two slabs of house-made focaccia bread. But if counting calories is paramount, I’ll ask to hold the bread and place those proteins atop a bed of greens.

  1. Go bowling

Salads are generally healthy, especially if you can avoid caloric-heavy dressings. But they are often a boring presentation of wilted greens adorned with sliced carrots and insipid tomato slices, finished off with an astringent vinaigrette. So I embrace the rising trend of bowls, filled with interesting, healthy, tasty things like warm brown rice, grated beets, toasted nuts and radish sprouts, all tossed with, say, a sesame-ginger dressing.

      1. Ditch the dessert

Cloyingly sweet. Excessive calories. Over priced. What’s to like? Declining dessert brings a bonus benefit: You won’t head into the night with a blood-sugar rush.

Why not finish things off with a six-inch-high slab of flapper pie?

Why not finish things off with a six-inch-high slab of flapper pie?

              1. Stick with spirits

Did you know a shot of whiskey contains zero carbs? A glass of wine maybe four grams? A pint of flavourful craft beer, on the other hand, might well top 20 grams of carbs and 200 or 300 calories… You know what? Screw it. No need to go overboard on these resolutions.

Pigging Out on an All-Meat Meal at Red Deer’s Red Boar Smokery

Red Boar Smokery is brining good barbecue to central Alberta beef country

Red Boar Smokery is brining good barbecue to central Alberta beef country

With all the starchy food I commonly devour on a road trip, I’ve been leaning towards a more slimming, low-carb diet when I can. So it’s a most pleasant surprise in the culinary wasteland of Red Deer, Alberta to discover a place that’s a) doing authentic barbecue and b) offering the option of going strictly carnivore.

To be sure, Red Boar Smokery features sandwiches and pig-out platters, both coming with at least two sides of such things as corn bread, baked beans, apple-ginger slaw and sriracha salad. But they also have a portion of their menu board devoted strictly to meat. These are quarter-pound orders of Piedmontese beef brisket, pulled pork, red boar sausage and candied pork belly, all for about $5 or less.

I go with the unadorned brisket, which is just a couple of naked slices of meat. But it allows me to concentrate, without embellished distraction, on a truly fine brisket with a lovely, charred smoke ring and a nice, fatty border. Good stuff.

Just give me the beef brisket, with no side-dish distractions

Just give me the beef brisket, with no side-dish distractions

The accompanying tomato sauce is flavourful and not cloyingly sweet like most barbecue offerings. Better yet, it’s served in a little side dish, so I can add it as I choose rather than have it slathered on before it leaves the kitchen.

Red Boar has only been open since last April, and there’s no doubt some barbecue educating to do here, even though it’s in the heart of Alberta’s beef country.

It’s just a few doors down from one of my only go-to places in Red Deer, City Roast Coffee, which pulls a fine Americano and offers bountiful salads and other hearty, healthy fare. In between, the Coconut Room features more upscale cappos, soups, salads and stews amidst a couple of art galleries in a renovated, historic building on downtown’s Ross Street.

Hopefully, this is all the start of some interesting, affordable dining in this Alberta cow town of 100,000 folks.

Red Boar Smokery
104, 4916 50 Street, Red Deer, Alberta
Monday to Thursday 8 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 11 am-midnight, Sunday 11 am-3 pm

Best Bloggers Blogging in 2015

Source: Best Bloggers Blogging in 2015