Great Mexican Tacos in Grande Prairie, Alberta

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Great fish tacos at El Norteno in Grande Prairie, Alberta

I keep finding great Mexican food in the strangest of places. Like Idaho, home of my two favourite Mexican road-food stops: the incredible one-woman show in tiny Hamer and the fantastic fare at Morenita’s in Idaho Falls.

You can add to that list El Norteno, way up yonder in the northwest Alberta city of Grande Prairie. As an oil and gas/farming centre, GP is well stocked with steakhouses, pizza places and lounges. But tucked inside a downtown farmers’ market is a little stall churning out tacos.

Now, these aren’t just any tacos, but Ensenada Baja-style tacos, which apparently means corn tortillas, batter-fried fish and no lettuce. The most impressive thing for me is that once you place an order, the sole guy running the show grabs a mound of masa harina (corn dough) and runs it through a tortilla press before flipping the resulting disks on the grill. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.

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Fresh-pressed corn tortillas with every order

Meanwhile, he’s flash frying basa filets and charbroiling pork loin, which are placed inside the grilled tortillas and topped with onion, cilantro and house-made salsa and guacamole. Good, flavourful stuff.

At about $12 for three, filling tacos, it’s not Mexican food-truck cheap, but still good value for northern Alberta. And yes, the corn tortillas start falling apart as they are crammed into our gaping mouths. But for me, that’s just a sign they’re truly authentic.

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It’s a little one-man show

El Norteno
10032 101 Avenue, Grande Prairie, Alberta
Monday 11 am-3 pm, Tuesday-Friday 11 am-8 pm, Saturday 10 am-3 pm. Closed Sunday
780-832-8093

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Primed for a big burger in Fort Nelson, B.C.

Woodlands Inn, Fort Nelson

A perfect post-backpack prime-rib burger at Woodlands Inn in Fort Nelson, B.C.

Fort Nelson is in the middle-of-nowhere northeast British Columbia. Yeah, it’s on the Alaska Highway, and there’s lots of oil and gas activity. But it’s more than 1,000 kilometres from the nearest big city, Edmonton.

So when we pull into the town of 4,000 people after a week-long backpack in nearby Stone Mountain Provincial Park, I’m expecting it to be easy to find a place to eat, even on a Saturday night.

But the pub we go into is crawling with people attending a fundraiser. Strike one! Across the street, the local Boston Pizza is full to the rafters with folks watching the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather “fight”. Strike two!

It’s now pouring with rain, and we’re starving for a pint, or two, and something with lots of carbo calories to wolf down. Almost in desperation, we head across the highway to a hotel, Woodlands Inn & Suites, with odd concrete hallways.

The lounge is quiet—not a promising sign—and the two beers on tap are definitely generic. Finally, the food prices are rather northern expensive.

All that is except for a prime-rib burger and fries for $15, which all five of us order. Sure, the extras, like bacon and cheese, are another $2 or $3 each. Still, there are enough fixings on the basic burger to keep the cost down.

Now, it’s always hard to objectively rate a restaurant when you’re ravenous and just off a big mountain trip. But we all agree these charbroiled burgers are excellent: juicy, flavourful and big. And lots of hot, greasy fries. Yum! Several of us even order a second pint of Kokanee Gold.

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A Fort Nelson highlight, an excellent new rec centre

Woodlands Inn & Suites
3995 50 Avenue, Fort Nelson, B.C.
250-774-6669

Cinnamon bun capital of the universe in northern B.C.

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The cinnamon buns at Tetsa River Lodge, in northern B.C., attract hundreds of hungry mouths a day

I’ve long believed  every restaurant should have at least one signature dish, something that stands out in a, hopefully, short menu. So much the better if that item is enticing enough to lure people off the road.

Tetsa River Lodge, in the far northeastern reaches of British Columbia, has certainly figured this out. It does have a breakfast and lunch menu that includes scratch-made soups and breads.

But what makes travellers slam on the brakes at Mile 375 on the Alaska Highway, west of Fort Nelson, is its cinnamon buns. During the short summer tourist season, it sells 200 to 300 of these sticky delights a day, enough to qualify for legendary status in this part of the world.

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Tetsa River Lodge is certainly an oasis along the Alaska Highway

Now, for that kind of success, the product has to be good. At Tetsa Lodge, it’s a sufficiently large, dense, sweet bun to appease the hunger pangs on a long stretch of the Alaska Highway with no other food options. And at $5 a pop, it’s an acceptable price point in these northern wilds.

But what really helps is that age-old marketing strategy: hand-made signs every kilometre or so before you reach the lodge. Forget “the world’s best.” These are trumpeted as the “cinnamon bun centre of the galactic cluster.”

That must be why aliens these days are looking a little pudgy.

Tetsa River Lodge

If you don’t like the northern gas prices, you can always stay home

Tetsa River Lodge
Mile 375, Alaska Highway, 118 km west of Fort Nelson

Best of Vancouver, August 2017

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Sharing plates at Vij’s Rangoli

 

The biggest emphasis, of course, is on the food and drinks, but still a great place to hang out for a week

Best of Vancouver: A pictorial guide

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Street Legal IPA, from Twin Sails Brewing, Port Moody, B.C. Fabulous, not-too-hoppy IPA.

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Siegel’s Bagels: Montreal-style chewy, boiled then baked in a wood-fired oven, open 24 hours, $13 for a baker’s dozen

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Jericho Beach

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Best outdoor pool in the world

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Hawker’s Delight: deep-fried vegetable fritters, two for $1.20

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Mr. Red: deep-fried rice cakes with ground prawns and pork, Northern Vietnamese cuisine

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Go Fish: fish and chips, tacones, hanging out in the harbour

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Vij’s Rangoli: Puffy short-rib samosas

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Fireworks over English Bay: Photo Helen Corbett

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Peaceful Restaurant: Dan-Dan hand-cut noodles

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Chip’s simple garden: sunflowers and coleus

Worst of Vancouver

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Red sun at night… and in morning, obliterating all those million-dollar views

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Vancouver gas prices; they were under $1 in Calgary at the same time

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Platform 7: Cool atmosphere but thinnest pour-over coffee I’ve ever had. You could see further through this brew than the forest-fire haze.

When it rains, time for a pour

Fishing north of Courtenay

Salmon fishing in the Pacific, north of Courtenay, B.C.

“Periods of rain.”

Perhaps the three most devastating words ahead of an impending backpack. Other than the single, four-letter epithet: “Rain.”

What to do? You can forge blithely ahead, hoping the forecast is wrong or exaggerated. But extensive experience has shown me that simply “rubbing one’s nose in it” leads more often to misery than delighted surprise. A misery exacerbated when the trip involves a long drive or an expensive flight to get there.

Thus the importance of having a Plan B, especially if you’ve already arrived on the trip’s doorstep. Rather than simply return home, take the opportunity to explore a new area. It might even buy you enough time, if you’ve got some flexibility, to wait out the bad weather, perhaps camped out on a forgiving friend’s or relative’s floor.

This strategy paid off beautifully recently on a backpack along Vancouver Island’s west coast. Where waiting three days resulted in a lovely, largely dry hike, with the bonus of some fine day trips around the north-central part of the island near Courtenay. Of course, there was also the chance to investigate some great places to eat and drink.

More about that in subsequent posts. In the meantime, here are some photos of lovely diversions.

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I’d rather be fishing

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Beachcombing on Hornby Island

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Ocean front hiking in Helliwell Provincial Park, Hornby Island

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Tucking into pizza at Hornby Island’s funky Ringside Market

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Great Hornby Island Roasting coffee at Lix in Ringside Market

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From the suspension bridge at Elk Falls Provincial Park, Campbell River

 

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A great rainy day diversion: Campbell River Museum

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Fabulous, fresh fare at Dick’s Fish & Chips in Campbell River

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Spring hiking at Mount Washington ski hill near Courtenay. Okay, the boardwalk is a little buried in snow here

Edmonton’s Little Village offers great Greek-to-go

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Theo Psalios runs a great little Greek takeout joint in Edmonton

I could easily eat more Greek food. But there’s something about sitting down at tables covered in blue-and-white tablecloths and ordering platters of sleep-inducing fare that keeps me away.

So when a place like Edmonton’s Little Village offers quick, flavourful Greek food to go, I’m all over it.

As the name suggests, it’s a tiny, strip-mall-style deli. There are a few stools for in-house dining. But most folks, I suspect, are picking things up to eat at home or on the road.

They can choose from display cases brimming with chicken legs, lamb shanks and other Greek standards like spanakopita, moussaka, lemon potatoes and dolmades.

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Display cases brimming with great Greek food

We decide to eat in, allowing us to watch the action and chat with owner Theo Psalios, who has 20 years in the restaurant business and most recently migrated here from a food truck of the same name. The trucks still operates for some events like the Thursday night 124th street market, where we pick up an excellent lamb burger.

At the bricks-and-mortar location, I order keftedes—meatballs made of beef, pork, bacon and mint, smeared with tzatziki sauce and wrapped with some veggies in a pita ($8.50). My sister gets a slab of moussaka ($7.50).

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A marvellous medley of meatballs

What immediately stands out is the quality and freshness of the food and the skill that goes into its preparation. What I also like is ordering a la carte at the counter and being done in under 15 minutes. Which at a full-bore Greek restaurant might be the time it takes for just the retsina to arrive.

Little Village
14816 Stony Plain Road, Edmonton, Alberta
Tuesday to Saturday 11 am-6 pm, except 5:30 pm closing Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday
780-244-0885