Sponge Bill’s Road Trip

Overlooking Strait of Georgia on Mayne Island

Overlooking Strait of Georgia on Mayne Island

Normally on a road trip, I overnight in Walmart parking lots, quiet campgrounds, government forest lands or fleabag motels. Anywhere, really, where I can lay my head, and it’s free or sufficiently cheap that I can focus my resources on what matters most, namely good food and drink.

So it’s nice, for a change, to take a summer’s journey where aesthetics are paramount, as are lingering, poignant conversations and much laughter. In other words, landing on the doorsteps of friends and relatives and not paying a cent for accommodation on a two-week holiday from Calgary to Vancouver Island and all the way back again. Let’s call it for what it was: Sponge Bill’s road trip.

Apparently, I’m not alone. An Angus Reid poll indicated 38 per cent of travelling Canadians planned to avoid hotels or other lodging expenses by staying with friends or family this summer.

We stayed with such hosts in uniformly spectacular B.C. locations, overlooking oceans, straits and rivers, often with just the sound of water lapping on beaches to lull us to sleep. Throw in outstanding home-cooked dinners and breakfasts that exceeded the quality of any restaurant meals we consumed, and I don’t think you could ask for a better trip. Well, maybe not as much so for our hosts, though we were careful to stay a maximum of two nights at all but one destination and arrive with offerings of artisan food and drink. Though without exception, they wouldn’t less us take them out for more than one lunch or dinner.

The following pictorial tour attempts to illustrate the scenic and gastronomic splendour of our trip. The names of our hosts and their precise locations are not indicated, to protect the innocent and keep other moochers at bay. We want to keep this gig to ourselves.

There were up to eight hummingbirds around this feeder in the north Okanagan Valley

There were up to eight hummingbirds around this feeder at our host’s house in the north Okanagan Valley

Eggs Benedict with turkey bacon for breakfast

Which we enjoyed while eating eggs Benedict with turkey bacon on the deck

Overlooking English Bay in Vancouver

Overlooking English Bay in Vancouver

Homemade devilled eggs

Homemade devilled eggs, featuring an old family recipe for mayonnaise

Canyon stream in Qualicum Falls Provincial Park in central Vancouver Island

Canyon stream in Qualicum Falls Provincial Park in central Vancouver Island

Slow-cooked ribs and smoked salmon salad

Followed by slow-cooked ribs and smoked salmon salad

Beach walking near Saanich, outside of Victoria

Beach walking near Saanich, outside of Victoria

Fresh-from-the-water crab

And then fresh-from-the-water crab

Shafts of sunlight on Georgia Strait from Mayne Island

Shafts of sunlight on Georgia Strait from Mayne Island

Lunch salad spread

Lunch salad spread

Burgers cooking in a forno oven

Plus burgers cooking in a forno oven

Hiking above Long Harbour on Salt Spring Island

Hiking above Long Harbour on Salt Spring Island

Steak and garden vegetables

Chased by steak and garden vegetables

British Columbia’s Exquisite Summer Produce

Super sweet mid-July corn from Silver Rill Farm in Saanich, B.C.

Super sweet mid-July corn from Silver Rill Farm in Saanich, B.C.

There are numerous reasons people buy property on, or retire to, B.C.’s west coast. It rarely snows, a big consideration for winter-enslaved Canadians who have ruined their backs shoveling sidewalks six months a year. An oceanside view is generally no more than a saunter away. And for food lovers, fruits and vegetables not only ripen much sooner than on the windswept prairies (think mid-July) but are generally so superior you’d gladly forsake the local farmers’ market back home.

Fresh from the ocean crab in Saanich, B.C.

Fresh-from-the-ocean crab in Saanich, B.C.

Early-season corn, from Silver Rill Farm in central Saanich, that's as sweet and tender as you'll ever taste

Early-season corn, from Silver Rill Farm in central Saanich, that’s as sweet and tender as you’ll ever taste

Super-sweet carrots at the weekly market in Ganges on Salt Spring Island in B.C.

Super-sweet carrots and baby beets at the weekly market in Ganges on Salt Spring Island

How about a bouquet of basil from the weekly market in Sidney, B.C.

How about a bouquet of basil from the weekly market in Sidney?

What more do you need than fresh treats pulled from the land and sea?

What more do you need than fresh treats pulled from the land and sea?

Finished by some fresh berries.

Finished by some fresh berries

Even if you can't eat it, you can admire the exquisite beauty of an $11 bouquet from Farm Gate Store on Mayne Island

Even if you can’t eat it, you can admire the exquisite beauty of an $11 bouquet from Farm Gate Store on Mayne Island

Triple D Shines a Light on SLC

Lone Star Taqueria has everything Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives loves: it's funky, affordable and delicious

Lone Star Taqueria has everything Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives loves: it’s funky, affordable and delicious

A sure sign you’re culinary funky is the ubiquitous presence of the bleached-hair god,  Guy Fieri, ruler of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Well, when some 10 Salt Lake City eateries have appeared on the show (plus endless reruns), you know you’ve arrived on the road-trip food map.

An appearance on Triple D can easily double the turnout of diners, leading to long lines, the bane of road trippers. But with a bit of careful planning, I’m mostly able to slide right into three Salt Lake City restaurants that have graced DDD.

Does it count that I ate at *Lone Star Taqueria a good decade ago, before it became discovered by the outside world? Didn’t think so. Back then, it was an insider hotspot, recommended to us by a local backcountry skier we met while making powder turns in the nearby Cottonwood Canyon mountains. It was certainly funky, a brightly painted old drive-in with a decorated junker out front and cold beer served in cowboy-boot shaped glasses. And the fish tacos…. oh, my. There certainly wasn’t anything like that back in Canada.

A pre-noon line is starting to form at Lone Star Taqueria, but I've already eaten

A pre-noon line is starting to form at Lone Star Taqueria, but I’ve already eaten

So I’m curious to see what it’s like now. I’m delighted to report it’s still dishing out great tacos and monster burritos ($7.69), with only one guy at the counter in front of me at 11 am. It’s still also laid-back quirky: cowboy boots on the fence posts, little metal tables and lots of natural lighting.

My pescada tacos ($3.49 per) are loaded with grilled fish, shredded cabbage and jalapeño mayo, the double corn tortillas needed to keep everything intact. On a side table are four bottles of house-made salsa to add more flavour and heat, if desired. On my way out the door, I pick up a little bag of their addictive, crispy tortilla chips to munch on during the long drive north to Canada.

First-rate fish tacos with jalapeño mayo and crispy, house-made tortilla chips

First-rate fish tacos with jalapeño mayo and crispy, house-made tortilla chips

Lone Star Taqueria
2265 East Fort Union Blvd, Salt Lake City
Monday to Thursday 11 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Sunday
Lone Star Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Oh Mai Vietnamese Sandwich Kitchen was recently featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, so cue the lineups. But when I walk in at the strategic opening hour of 10 am, I’m the first customer, and they’re still getting set up for the lunch-hour rush.

I'm the morning's first customer at Oh Mai Vietnamese Sandwich Kitchen

I’m the morning’s first customer at Oh Mai Vietnamese Sandwich Kitchen

Having already watched the dish being made on TV, I immediately know what kind of banh mi (Vietnamese sub-style sandwich) I want: garlic butter ribeye steak on a toasted eight-inch baguette. It’s an unusual combination, the tender meat enhanced by the crunch of house-made pickled carrots and a flavourful black pepper onion vinaigrette. I must say it’s one of the best Vietnamese subs I’ve had and a hefty bargain at $5.68.

Delicious, innovative ribeye steak banh mi at Oh Mai. Oh my, indeed

Delicious, innovative ribeye steak banh mi at Oh Mai. Oh my, indeed

Oh Mai Vietnamese Sancwich Kitchen
3425 South State Street, Salt Lake City
Monday to Saturday 10 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
Oh Mai Vietnamese Sandwich Kitchen on Urbanspoon

After a very short wait on an outside stool at *Red Iguana, I’m beckoned by host Mitch: “Grandfather always said: Time to eat!” But what to eat? I’m here for the signature Mexican moles (all $16), but there’s no fewer than seven styles to choose from. No problem.

My server, Jesus, simply brings me a little plate with samples of all the rich, complex sauces to try. After careful deliberation, I go for the mole negro—featuring chile mulato, negro pasilla, raisins, walnuts, bananas and, of course, Mexican chocolate. During the scant minutes before the main event arrives, I scoop up the sampler vestiges with the complimentary tortilla chips. Who needs salsa?

Can't decide which mole sauce to order at Red Iguana? No problem. They'll bring you samplers of each to try

Can’t decide which mole sauce to order at Red Iguana? No problem. They’ll bring you samplers of each to try. Oh, and they make great dips for the fresh tortilla chips

The mole negro is a heaping plate of brown deliciousness over turkey, packing enough heat to start my lips a tingling and my brow perspiring. I scoop up the remaining sauce with warm corn tortillas, scarcely touching the accompanying rice and beans. Believe me, you won’t go hungry here.

I go for a hearty plate of mole Negro over turkey

I go for a hearty plate of mole negro over turkey

The consistently fine food is one thing. The atmosphere is another: vibrant walls of orange and green in the rabbit’s warren of rooms, the outgoing, casually efficient staff, the families with wailing infants, just discernible above the happy din of people having a good time.

The excellent food is just half the show at colourful Red Iguana

The excellent food is just half the show at colourful Red Iguana

There’s a reason this place is usually humming. The Cardenas family has been doing it right for three decades, long before there was a Food Network.

Red Iguana
736 West North Temple (two other Salt Lake City locations)
Opens 11 am weekdays, 10 am weekends
Red Iguana on Urbanspoon

Finally, here’s a Salt Lake City place you won’t likely find on TV, or on the Internet for that matter. But local cognoscenti can steer you to this one-of-a-kind Mexican joint.

Tired of the typical taco stand or truck? Just drive on down to Victor’s for something truly unique: a tire shop (“no credit check”) that doubles as a Mexican restaurant.

I can’t say I’ve ever ordered tamales in a room rimmed (another bad pun) with gleaming hubcaps. If you’re waiting for wheel work, you can sit in the small, attached restaurant and enjoy some fine, inexpensive pork skin tacos, Milanesa tortas (a breaded steak sandwich), genuine horchata drinks or green salsa pork tamales, the latter at $1.50 a pop. But seeing as how this business is dedicated to tires, I think I’ll take my meal to go.

Here's something that's unique: a tire shop that doubles as a taco joint

Here’s something that’s unique: a tire shop that doubles as a taco joint

Victor’s Tires and Restaurant
1406 South 700 West, Salt Lake City (just off the I-15 near exit 305)
Monday to Saturday 7 am-7:30 pm, Sunday 7 am-3 pm
Victor's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

A Hearty Pancake Sandwich and a Gigantic Meat Sandwich in Salt Lake City

 

They're rightly called "Heavenly Hotcakes" at Penny Ann's Cafe. These have bacon and eggs in the middle

They’re rightly called “Heavenly Hotcakes” at Penny Ann’s Cafe. These have bacon and eggs in the middle

After eating a tofu scramble in Salt Lake City the day before, I’m ready for some real eggs and bacon, better yet piled between two pancakes. At *Penny Anns Cafe, they’re called “Heavenly Hotcakes”, with good reason. Yes, they’re platter big but fluffy and flavourful, thanks to the use of sour cream in the scratch-made batter. So good that even after I’m full and the remains have cooled, I can’t help nibbling. Though I must draw the line when I’m offered a slice of one of the many pies baked in the kitchen each day.

Penny Ann’s is a cozy, friendly place, with more than half a dozen family members, over three generations, running the place; it’s named after the middle sister. “We weren’t popular in school, but we sure are now,” says another smiling sister, Cindy, noting they’re planning to open a second location to accommodate the demand.

Lovely Cindy is just one of half a dozen family members who run Penny Ann's Cafe

Lovely Cindy is just one of half a dozen family members who run Penny Ann’s Cafe

Penny Ann’s Cafe
1810 South Main Street, Salt Lake City
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm, weekends 7 am-2 pm
Penny Ann's Cafe on Urbanspoon

It’s only a block south to my next meal, at *Grove Market, where the fresh Ambassador rolls are mercifully a little late arriving, giving me a few extra minutes of digestion. I’m here for their famous sandwiches, or should I say small loaves of bread stuffed, and I mean stuffed, with meats. Consider the Big John, a combo of ham, turkey, roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, salami and bologna (am I possibly missing any deli meats?), along with Swiss and American cheese and a long list of fixings.

The sign isn't the only old-fashioned thing about Salt Lake City. So are the splendid deli sandwiches

The sign isn’t the only old-fashioned thing about Grove Market. So are the splendid deli sandwiches

“How much does it weigh?” I warily ask my assembler. “Oh, about a pound,” he says, straight faced. Right. I order half a Big John ($7), sans bologna, and sit back to watch the laying on of meats. After a flurry of activity, he hands me the wrapped sandwich, which I immediately place on a professional scale. It’s just shy of 1-3/4 pounds. One-and-three-quarter freaking pounds for half a sandwich. That’s almost the weight of a litre bottle of water.

This "half" sandwich at Grove Market is threatening my wrist

This “half” sandwich at Grove Market is threatening my wrist

Needless to say, it’s delicious, though I can’t spot a famished family to share it with. “Call your cardiologist,” someone wrote in an online review. I believe he’s on standby.

Grove Market
1906 South Main Street, Utah
Monday to Friday 10 am-5 pm, Saturday 10 am-3 pm. Closed Sunday
Grove Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

Salt Lake City Goes Funky and Vegetarian

This colourful flea market in downtown Salt Lake City coincided with the weekend pride festival

This colourful flea market in downtown Salt Lake City coincided with the weekend pride festival

It might be time to correct some misconceptions about Salt Lake City. Yes, it’s still a Mormon stronghold, though that grip is weakening, given only half the residents are practitioners of the faith. The weekend I visit coincides with a massive pride festival, in part celebrating a landmark court ruling that allows same-sex marriage in Utah; the decision is being appealed. There’s also great coffee and beer being brewed here, and poured down non-Mormon throats, plus more good taco shops than you can throw a sombrero at. One sure sign Salt Lake City has come of culinary age is the presence, in the city’s south, of a funky vegetarian cafe. Vertical Diner is in a casual, slightly grungy space, with stucco walls, old cement floors and a pulsing, industrial soundtrack.

Vertical Diner is a funky vegetarian place on a south Salt Lake City industrial street

Vertical Diner is a funky vegetarian place on a south Salt Lake City industrial street

My plant-based breakfast is La Mesa, a bountiful, colourful plate of hash browns, black beans and rice, melted cheese, guacamole and, a first for me, a tofu scramble. The fact the food is on my table by the time I return from a bathroom freshening indicates the tofu isn’t quite “scrambled” to order, but it’s nonetheless a nicely spiced and textured dish. Good enough that I might forsake eggs and bacon, well at least for a couple of days.

A colourful plate, featuring black beans and a tofu scramble, at Vertical Diner

A colourful plate, featuring black beans and a tofu scramble, at Vertical Diner

If a vegan breakfast seems a step too far, you can always order pancakes, which start at a bargain $1.75 each (a buck more if fruit is included). Of course, they can also come gluten free. Vertical Diner 2280 South West Temple, Salt Lake City Weekdays 10 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm Vertical Diner on Urbanspoon Continuing the vegan theme, the Barbacoa Burrito at Buds is highly recommended. Unfortunately, the little sandwich place is closed for renovations during my visit. Next time. Buds 509 East 300 South, Salt Lake City Monday to Saturday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday Buds on Urbanspoon

A Rare, Medium-rare Burger at Calgary’s National

Juicy, medium-rare burger at National in Calgary

Juicy, medium-rare burger and a side arugula-pear salad at National in Calgary

Here are seven words I wasn’t expecting to hear in a Canadian restaurant: “How would you like your burger cooked?”

You see, burgers up north are generally cooked till the critter is well and truly dead, devoid of the flowing juices one expects of another cattle product, namely a steak. It’s something to do with health regulations and fears of nasty e coli outbreaks.

Truly, I understand being on the safe side. But that hasn’t stopped many U.S. restaurants from offering flavourful medium-rare pucks, without accompanying trips to emergency.

Apparently, a way around these Canadian regulations is to freshly grind the meat in house and scrupulously clean the equipment used to do so. This allows National, a restaurant/pub with three locations in Calgary, to grind its chuck steak into burger meat and ask customers how they want it cooked.

I’d heard The National could be hit-and-miss about producing medium-rare burgers. But mine is perfectly tinged pink in the middle and all the more succulent for it. I add some American cheese and a runny egg, but really, this is a burger on a brioche bun that doesn’t need dolling up.

As if a medium-rare burger wasn't juicy enough, I added a runny egg

As if a medium-rare burger wasn’t juicy enough, I added a runny egg

You can get your burger with a side of what I’m sure are perfectly good fries. But just go for a sizable bowl of excellent salad, whether it’s arugula, pear and walnut or quinoa and bacon. If a burger’s not your thing, the open-faced short rib and oxtail ragu sandwich is also first rate.

The short rib and oxtail ragu is a good choice, too

The short rib and oxtail ragu with a quinoa-bacon salad is a good choice, too

National has an impressive 60 beers on tap, though at a rather pricy $8.50 a 20-ounce pint ($5 during weekday happy hour, 3-5 pm). But hey, this is Calgary, so the $15 tab for an unadorned burger is not surprising. And maybe worth it for one of the best in town.

The latest National outlet is in a bright, former Blockbuster video store in the West Hills shopping mall, with lots of windows, an expansive patio and shared, picnic-style tables.

National
180 Stewart Green SW, (and two other Calgary locations)
Weekdays 11 am-late, weekend 10 am to late
National Westhills on Urbanspoon

What are your favourite Calgary burger joints? Just hit the reply button at the top left of the page.