Roping Some Mexican Grub in Alberta’s Cattle Country

 

There's a real general store here in Twin Butte, along with a fine Mexi-American restaurant

There’s a real general store here in Twin Butte, along with a fine Mexican restaurant

I’m deep in the heart of southern Alberta ranching country, sitting in a character, low-ceiling diner and listening to a country soundtrack. So of course, at Twin Butte Country General Store, l’m dining on… steak? Burgers? Um, actually, Mexican cuisine.

There’s a story here, about how a transplanted southern Californian, Larry Davis, renovated this historic general store, started cooking primarily Mexican food and then turned things over to his daughter, Jeny Akitt, who carries on the tradition, along with hosting good live music from touring musicians. Just trust me, it works.

The lunch/dinner menu includes enchiladas, chimichangas, burritos and tacos. But I’m here at breakfast, deciding on a Mexican scrambler but abandoning my initial choice of a “senorita” size for the more manly full size, with a side of grilled tortillas. This combination of scrambled eggs, melted cheese and chorizo sausage over nice home potatoes arrives in a little, scalding cast-iron skillet, ensuring everything stays hot for the duration of inhaling. Why don’t more breakfast places do this?

A Mexican scrambler served piping hot in a cast-iron frying pan

A Mexican scrambler served piping hot in a cast-iron frying pan

Twin Butte is along a gorgeous stretch of Highway 6 that winds through lightly treed foothills and front-range mountains south of Pincher Creek. Most folks follow it hell bent for Waterton Lakes National Park. But it’s worth pausing, however briefly, at this little slice of Mexico.

Twin Butte Country General Store
Highway 6, Twin Butte, Alberta
Daily 10 am-10 pm, closed Tuesdays in winter
Twin Butte General Store Restaurant on Urbanspoon

An Elk to Go With the Syrah in Jasper

A complimentary elk sausage appetizer starts things off right at Syrahs of Jasper

A complimentary elk sausage appetizer starts things off right at Syrahs of Jasper

What often separates great from good dining is the little extras. And what could be better than something you didn’t order or pay for, at least not directly?

At Syrahs of Jasper, it’s the complimentary items the server delivers while you’re deciphering the menu. First, there’s the flavourful slice of elk sausage, with a shaving of apple and some sauce, artfully presented on a little ceramic spoon. Then there’s the melt-in-your-mouth, wee cheese and salt biscuit with soft butter. Only a couple of bites but a delightful alternative to the typical basket of bread.

Of course, the main event has to live up to the expectations created by these charming starters. And chef/owner Jason Munn—competing in the crowded world of fine dining in touristy Jasper—pulls things off nicely. I lick up every morsel of a succulent smoked bison ragout on house-made gnocchi ($18), while a vegetarian friend tears with gusto into a lentil loaf cloaked in roasted tomato gravy ($20). Of course, as the restaurant name suggests, there are half a dozen listed syrah wines to complement your dinner.

A moist flavourful lentil loaf

A moist flavourful lentil loaf

All things considered, it’s not that expensive, especially if you steer clear of high-end items like the $55 elk tenderloin (I wonder if tourists mistakenly think it’s from the same critters grazing along nearby roads). If nothing else, it’s a chance for road trippers to step up in class and celebrate a five-day backpack, without anyone looking askance at our soiled hiking pants. Because we sure didn’t have warm biscuits served on linen in the backcountry.

How about a succulent smoked bison ragout on house-made gnocchi?

How about a succulent smoked bison ragout on house-made gnocchi?

Syrahs of Jasper
606 Patricia Street, Jasper, Alberta
Daily 5 pm-10 pm
Syrahs of Jasper on Urbanspoon

Chicken Sandwiches and the Chicken Man in Jasper’s Patricia Street Deli

Patricia Street Deli owner Glen Leitch is a fun-loving guy

Patricia Street Deli owner Glen Leitch is a fun-loving guy

I’ll make things simple for you. When you walk up to the counter at Patricia Street Deli, in Jasper, Alberta, just order the chicken sandwich. Roasted on a back-wall rotisserie, the meat is moist, tender, delicious. It’s a most reasonable $8.25 for a substantial sandwich in a Canadian Rockies’ resort town.

Going down the sandwich assembling line

Going down the sandwich assembling line

Where you’ll have to make decisions is the toppings you load on the house-baked wheat or white bun. Maybe shredded beats and carrots, pickles, lettuce, sprouts, five kinds of cheese…. you get the idea. Make sure to add one or more of their spreads—say, cranberry chutney, pesto or chipotle.

Chicken sandwich with a lot of fixings on a house-baked whole wheat roll

Chicken sandwich with a lot of fixings on a house-baked whole wheat roll

As good as the sammies are, they may be eclipsed by an irreverent crew headed by chief jester and owner Glen Leitch. Have your wits and comebacks at the ready. The only bad news is you’ll likely have to eat your meal outside of earshot of this hole-in-the-wall, mostly takeout joint.

Actually, Patricia Street Deli keeps pretty simple hours... at least I think they do

Actually, Patricia Street Deli keeps pretty simple hours… at least I think they do

Patricia Street Deli
610 Patricia Street, Jasper, Alberta
Daily 10 am-5 pm
Patricia Street Deli on Urbanspoon

Clean Clothes and Great Java at SnowDome Coffee Bar in Jasper, Alberta

Wash your clothes while you savour a fabulous java at SnowDome Coffee Bar in Jasper, Alberta

Wash your clothes while you savour a fabulous java at SnowDome Coffee Bar in Jasper, Alberta

It’s such an obvious concept, I’m surprised more enterprising businesspeople haven’t thought of it. I’m talking about a laundromat combined with a coffee shop. You’ve got a captive market of folks waiting an hour or more to clean their clothes. Might as well sell them a cuppa and maybe something to nibble on.

But Coin Clean Laundry in the mountain resort town of Jasper, Alberta has taken things a step further. The java in their SnowDome Coffee Bar is so good, you can happily go there with no intention of putting a load in—the quiet hum of all those stainless machines just an interesting backdrop while you’re sipping in a comfy chair.

You know owners Shelley and Sam are serious about their coffee when they’re using a high-end, custom-made Slayer Espresso machine, with its walnut paddles. (Slayers are made in Seattle by a company headed by Jason Prefontaine, whose family owns the Calgary-based Fratello coffee business; no surprise, Fratello beans are used here.) The robust Americanos were so good, I could never stop at one.

Comfy chairs with a barista operating the exacting Slayer Espresso machine in the background

Comfy chairs with a barista operating the exacting Slayer Espresso machine in the background

SnowDome also bakes some fine fruit muffins and cookies (try the Warden). They do charge for Wifi and to use the in-house computers but, hey, they are dealing with the tourist crowds. If you need to clean your body, too, after a weeklong backpack, there’s  coin-operated showers in back.

SnowDome Coffee Bar
607 Patricia Street, Jasper, Alberta
Daily 7:45 am-8 pm
SnowDome Coffee Bar on Urbanspoon

Across the street from SnowDome, Jasper Liquor Store & Wine Cellar seems a misnomer. I mean, sure, owner D.J. Bowen’s got a couple of thousand wine labels on hand. But what hooks me is the 700 kinds of beer in a spacious, refrigerated room. It’s one of the best beer selections I’ve seen in Alberta.

Just a small sampling of the 700 types of beer available at Jasper Liquor Store and Wine Cellar

Just a small sampling of the 700 types of beer available at Jasper Liquor Store and Wine Cellar

I’m enthralled with so many compelling ales, lagers, IPAs, lambics and stouts that I’m shivering when I emerge. The biggest find is a hopped mead from Water Valley, Alberta’s Fallentimber Meadery, the honey smoothing the hoppier tones and producing a drink that’s delightfully different.

Jasper Liquor Store and Wine Cellar
606 Patricia Street, Jasper, Alberta

Pie and More Pie at Hilltop Diner Cafe in Langley, B.C.

 

Who can wait to tuck into this decadent flapper pie at Hilltop Diner Cafe in Langley, B.C.?

Who can wait to tuck into this decadent flapper pie at Hilltop Diner Cafe in Langley, B.C.?

It’s 11 am, and we’re just finishing a fine breakfast: Thick slices of cinnamon-swirl French toast and bacon and eggs with beautifully crispy hash browns. Burgers and hand-cut fries are just starting to appear from the kitchen.

Thick slices of French toast

Thick slices of cinnamon-swirl French toast

But the real show is just getting started at Hilltop Diner Cafe, in Langley, B.C., just east of Vancouver. Six-inch-high slabs of pie—lemon meringue, pecan, peach, strawberry-rhubarb and a fabulous flapper—are being loaded into cardboard takeout boxes, lifted onto plates and shoveled down gullets. Eleven varieties in all, plus some cheesecakes.

Sisters Andrea Zaiser and Sandie Parley are carrying on the operation of a diner that dates back to 1945, when the Fraser Highway was a major thoroughfare. It’s now a little off beaten track, though not far from the busy Trans-Canada east of Vancouver and along the way if you’re going to or from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal via Highway 10. It’s a good place to step back in time and enjoy a home-cooked meal, finished, of course, with a generous helping of pie.

Hilltop Diner Cafe is a good place to enjoy an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal

Hilltop Diner Cafe is a good place to enjoy an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal

Hilltop Diner Cafe
23904 Fraser Highway, Langley, B.C.
Daily 8 am-2:30 pm
Hilltop Cafe Diner on Urbanspoon

Superlative Salt Spring Island

The Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery is what Salt Spring Island is all about

The Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery is what Salt Spring Island is all about

Salt Spring Island is the largest and most populous of the Gulf Islands, with 10,000 somewhat itinerant residents and this lovely description: “An argument surrounded by water.” No surprise, it’s home to an abundance of artists, witness a 30-studio tour spanning the island. The tour includes such epicurean delights as Salt Spring Island Cheese, Gulf Islands Brewing and Heather Campbell’s Salt Spring Island Bread. All the fixings for a great, waterside picnic.

To sample the many good eats without the driving, head to Ganges (the island’s biggest community), park your car and amble around. The spring-to-fall Saturday Market—vendors must “make it, bake it or grow it”—is famous but mobbed with people and cars. I prefer the smaller Tuesday version, which still features plenty of fabulous produce, such as Foxglove’s bursting-with-flavour orange cherry tomatoes and strawberries.

Perhaps the most colourful place for a meal is Tree House Café, where the outdoor tables are wrapped around an enormous plum tree, with stacks of blankets to stave off the harbour chill. Somewhat pricy lunch highlights include the veggie burger and lamb meatball stew.

The tables at Tree House Cafe are nestled beneath the branches of this huge tree

The tables at Tree House Cafe are nestled beneath the branches of this huge plum  tree

Tree House Cafe
106 Purvis Lane, Ganges, Salt Spring Island
Daily 8 am-10 pm
Tree House Cafe on Urbanspoon

In artsy Ganges, you’ll find good coffee shops on nearly every block. My aesthetic picks are Cafe Talia, in a lovely old, wood-sided telephone exchange, and Blue Coffee Can (aka Slow Espresso), a mini-shipping container, owned by Mt Maxwell Coffee Roaster (“We roast coffee as an excuse to drink more coffee”). Salt Spring Coffee‘s roasting operations have been kicked off the island, but they still run a shop in town, featuring a killer apple-blackberry pie. In a nod to islanders’ health consciousness, many of these coffee emporiums serve power spheres, delectable little uncooked treats featuring carob, peanut butter, coconut and the like.

Cafe Tali is in an old telephone exchange building

Cafe Talia is in an old telephone exchange building

Mt Maxwell Coffee is served at this little Ganges shack

Mt Maxwell java is served at this little Blue Coffee Can shack

All hands on deck for this luscious blackberry pie at Salt Spring Coffee

All hands on deck for this luscious apple-blackberry pie at Salt Spring Coffee

At Jana’s Bake Shop, the wonderful smell that greets you at the door makes you want to order pies, butter tarts or chocolate walnut brownies. It’s small-batch baking, so get there early before it’s all gone. Just south of town, El Loco Taco is a Mexican food truck, in the Seabreeze Inne parking lot, serving up bountiful burritos like a marinated pork with lime-pickled onions, pineapple and a Baja sauce that packs a punch.

At Jana's Bake Shop, this fragrant fruit pie has already been sold, alas

At Jana’s Bake Shop, this fragrant fruit pie has already been sold, alas

In Gulf Island communities like Salt Spring, folks must often pursue two or more occupations to make ends meet. For Fernwood Road Cafe co-owner Jennifer Shaw, it’s more about the lives she left behind, including one as a corporate lawyer, to fulfill a dream of running an eatery with husband David. Sure, it means 16-hour days, but she still gets to practice her cake-decorating skills, wear shorts and Crocs and enjoy an “office” view overlooking a seaside pier.

Co-owner Jennifer Shaw is running the espresso machine and tiny kitchen at Fernwood Road Cafe

Co-owner Jennifer Shaw is running the espresso machine and tiny kitchen at Fernwood Road Cafe

Good, reasonably priced breakfasts here include baked egg dishes and thick slices of whole-wheat French toast. Oh, and if you see a regular without a shirt, don’t worry. It’s just one of the island characters.

Whole-wheat French toast at Fernwood Road Cafe

Whole-wheat French toast at Fernwood Road Cafe

Fernwood Road Cafe
325 Fernwood Road, Salt Spring Island
Daily 9 am-5 pm, except a 10 am opening on Saturday
Fernwood Road Cafe on Urbanspoon