I grew up in Edmonton in the 1960s and ‘70s, a pretty bleak era for eating out. Things have improved considerably (other than the potholes; my God, the roads are so bad, you don’t need to visit a chiropractor). The city, topping 800,000 in population, now offers a varied, multicultural food scene, though a notch below its bigger, richer Calgary rival. I’d give it a B rating overall, with still lots of room for improvement. For the value-seeking traveller, there are decent options but few standouts, with prices higher than you might expect. One exception, as you’ll see, is a surprising number of good dessert places.
Road trippers go to or through Edmonton for a variety of reasons including shopping at West Edmonton Mall, working up north in the oil sands or heading to the stunning, glaciated mountains of Jasper National Park, a four-hour drive to the west. The city also has a fabulous arts scene, especially its summer festivals, headlined by the Edmonton Folk Festival in early August.
I still spend enough time in Edmonton (family and work) to have tried out many of its eateries. Thus this rather lengthy post has been broken into two parts, with most of the best places (*) described in part one.
*Elm Cafe is about as modern minimalist as it gets, even for a predominantly takeout spot. The physical space—on the ground floor of a medical office building—is tiny, the four window stools nearly matched by the three people bustling behind the counter. The chalkboard menu is equally spartan: excellent, strong 49th Parallel coffee, a few fine, fruit muffins and the choice of two morning and two lunchtime “craft” sandwiches. The sandwiches change each day, and the best way to find out what’s on offer is to check the restaurant’s Twitter account. I go for a fried egg sandwich (the egg cooked alongside the rest of the sammy in the panini grill), with thick slices of bacon, black bean salsa and melted provolone. The available seating is pretty much taken up by a guy with two toddlers, so I have to dash back to my car on a chilly winter’s morning, unfold the butcher wrap and dig in. Fortunately, the sandwich is still warm, with the soft contents contained inside a first-rate ciabatta bun. All things considered, it’s one of the better breakfast sandwiches I’ve had. I return a few days later for an equally good muffaletta sandwich thick with Italian deli meats, artichokes, provolone and tapenade.
100, 10140-117 Street, Edmonton
Monday to Friday 7 am-5 pm, Saturday 8 am-4pm, Sunday 9 am-3 pm
You’ve gotta love a restaurant where the owner greets you at the door, takes your order and then heads to the kitchen to cook it… from scratch. Such is delightfully the case at the new *Nosh Cafe, where co-owners Jag and S. Vermaz both ask if it’s my first time in and patiently explain the South Indian menu. I’m particularly drawn to the novelty, for me, of a dosa—a plate-engulfing, slightly crispy crepe made from rice batter and lentils. My choice of a paneer masala dosa ($10) is loaded with spiced peas, potatoes, corn and cottage cheese cubes (the paneer). A knife and fork is provided, but S. encourages me to break off chunks of the dosa with my hands and dip it in what might be the best part of the meal: small dishes of slightly spicy chutneys, including a creamy coconut mix and a mint-cilantro blend, along with a tamarind sauce. It’s a three-napkin job, washed down with a fragrant mug of milky chai.
10049 156 Street, Edmonton
Weekdays 8 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm
An authentic, first-class taco joint in downtown Edmonton? Hard to believe, but it’s true. *Tres Carnales Taqueria is owned by three buddies—one Mexican, one Filipino and one Edmontonian. The other twist is that, other than the red snapper, all the meats, tortillas and breads are locally sourced, and the excellent guacamole and various salsas made from scratch. The result is fresh, first-class food, witness a healthy lunchtime lineup forming by 11:30. But things move quickly as people order at the counter then retreat to a handful of small tables or a long common table and wait to be served. The menu is simple: four tacos (three if it’s fish), three quesadillas or a large torta, ranging in price from $10 to $12, respectively. For the tortas and tacos, there’s a choice of eight, mostly meat, fillings; my only complaint is you can’t mix and match. My Al Pastor tacos are succulent, marinated and slow-roasted pork, topped with a lovely pineapple salsa. Add a shared order of thick guacamole and tortilla chips, the latter served in a cone of butcher paper, and you’ve got a fine, contemporary version of Mexican street food.
Tres Carnales Taqueria
10119 100A Street, Edmonton
Monday to Friday 11 am-10 pm, Saturday 4 pm-10 pm. Closed Sunday
Ten minutes after opening for weekend brunch, the roomy *Highlevel Diner is pretty much packed. The university and middle-aged, upscale crowd at this Edmonton fixture, at the south end of the magnificent High Level Bridge, is here, in part, for the famous, oversized but not drippingly sweet cinnamon buns, a meal in itself at a bargain $4. They’re also savouring staples like eggs Benedict or bacon, potato and cheddar omelets, alongside healthy options like multigrain organic Alberta cereal and fresh fruit and yogurt. Another reason the Highlevel is so popular is the service. A pot of hot coffee continually swings through the darkened room, and my stack of wild blueberry buttermilk pancakes arrives steaming hot, complete with a requested sugarless syrup, in under 10 minutes. The Highlevel Diner also has a full weekday breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, with features like Turkey Tuesdays, Ukrainian Thursdays and a celiac-friendly menu. It’s not cheap dining, but it’s good quality.
10912-88 Avenue NW, Edmonton
Monday to Thursday 7:30 am-10 pm, Friday 7:30 am-11 pm, Saturday 8:30 am-11 pm, Sunday 8:30 am-9 pm
Going to Upper Crust Cafe is like homecoming week for me. It’s across the street from my junior high school, Garneau, and it’s been the scene of many family dinners. Indeed, it’s the kind of relaxed, affordable place that makes it a go-to restaurant for women meeting for lunch or families gathering to unwind. It’s a most pleasant spot, with high ceilings, lemony walls, artist-painted tables and large paintings by the talented Lynn Malin, a family friend.
But enough about me. Most importantly, Upper Crust has some of the best lunch deals in town. My bountiful chicken salad sandwich, for example, is encased in thick slices of house-baked oat bread and comes with a creamy scoop of potato salad, all for only $7.25. Another bargain is the chili con carne ($7.95 for a small bowl, $9.95 for a large, both with a slice of cornbread). Even the lamb stew special doesn’t crack $12. Upper Crust is also known for its pies and cakes (many purchased to go), but I can never resist ordering a mammoth, slightly tangy lemon square.
Upper Crust Cafe
10909-86 Avenue, Edmonton
Monday to Friday 11 am-9 pm, Saturday 9:30 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
Just outside downtown, on a traffic-choked stretch of 124 Street, is a hidden treasure: *Duchess Bake Shop. It’s the kind of place you’d take your mother or discerning friend for a mid-afternoon sweet and a pot of tea or pressed Intelligentsia coffee. The dining area is elegant but relaxed, featuring chandeliers and hanging lights, granite-topped tables and young, friendly servers with lipstick, fashionable eyewear and hair pulled back into buns. You can order scones and eau claires, but why not indulge in something more decadent and distinctive like a rhubarb galette, chocolate bread pudding, a lemon meringue cake or a raspberry-studded confection aptly called l’amour?
Duchess Bake Shop
10718 124 Street, Edmonton
Tuesday to Friday 9 am-8 pm, Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday 10 am-5 pm. Closed Monday
Six menu items. That’s it. And all of them tucked inside crimped, oil-brushed calzones. At Battista’s Calzone, there’s no pizza, no salad, no appetizers and no dessert, other than a strawberry-nutella concoction stuffed inside a, you guessed it, calzone. This has made restaurant life relatively simple for hands-on co-owners Battista Vecchio and Liv Vors, who have converted an old auto garage into a tiny place with a recognizable niche market. It should also make things easy for customers, but there’s the enduring dilemma of whether to order the spicy Italian sausage calzone, the Mama Mia Meatball (based on a Battista family recipe) or the Chicken Pesto Presto. Unlike the heavy calzones I’ve eaten in the past, Battista’s dough is thin and crispy, forming the perfect pocket for the baked, gooey cheese and meat or veggie middle. Battista’s is located in Edmonton’s northeast, not far from the Edmonton Oilers’ current home or Highway 16 headed east. But if that’s out of your way, they now have a seasonal food truck, the Calzonemobile, roaming the city.
Battista’s Calzone Co.
1745-84 Street NW, Edmonton
Tuesday to Saturday 11 am-3 pm