Serving Up Pie in Alberta’s Remote Foothills

Loading up plates of pie at The Miners’ Cafe in Nordegg, Alberta

I’m not sure there’s a foolproof formula for a successful restaurant, especially after all the shutdowns and draconian regulations of the past two-plus years. But if there is, I’m betting it has something to do with pies.

It’s hard to resist the temptation, and aroma, of fresh-baked fruit pies, witness the allure of places like Shuswap Pie Company in Salmon Arm, B.C. or Pie Junkie, and their butter-rich crusts, in Calgary.

But to prove that a pie-laden concept can work even in the boondocks, I present as evidence The Miners’ Café, in the forested foothills of west-central Alberta.

Where? An hour’s drive west of Rocky Mountain House. Where’s that? More than two hours north of Calgary.

Let’s put it this way. Nordegg is a former coal-mining town that’s been elevated from ghost town to hamlet, population less than 100.

And yet, there were half a dozen people in line ahead of me, when I pulled into The Miners’ Cafe on a recent summer’s weekday.

A diverse lunch menu

Some, like me, were ordering mid-afternoon soup, sandwiches and coffee. But it seemed pretty much everyone was also getting a wedge of peach-apple or strawberry rhubarb to stay or to go. Others were loading up on whole pies, fresh or frozen, of blackberry-apple or ginger-pear.

But it’s the pie menu that captures most people’s attention

I mean who’s going to compete with $22 for a whole, frozen pie? Or a deep-dish pie that packs in nine cups of fruit?

It’s enough to make you jump in your car and drive a long, long way north and west.

The egg salad sandwich is darned good, too

The Miners’ Cafe
619 Miners Crescent, Nordegg, Alberta
Daily, mid-morning till 4:30 or 6:30 pm
403-322-0314

A Shelter in a Storm

Six hours holed up in Coastal Kitchen Cafe gave us time to work through the menu

I’ve never been kicked out of a coffee shop.

I’m sure I should have been. And not because of any bad behaviour.

It’s because of the countless times, throughout western North America, I’ve nursed a cup of coffee over two hours of catching up on email, doing online research, writing blog reviews or just killing time.

But I certainly set a personal best/worst recently, although arguably with good reason.

We had just come off the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a four-day backpack in the southwest corner of Vancouver Island. The last day, we had started hiking, sans breakfast or coffee, at 5 am because of a predicted heavy rain beginning around 7 am.

The Juan de Fuca Trail was certainly wet, muddy and rooted

It was a good call because the rain started in earnest just after we hit the trailhead. Still, we were reasonably damp by the time we walked the 2.5-kilometre road into the small community of Port Renfrew.

Normally, not a big deal. But because of our super-early start, we had about eight hours to kill before our shuttle bus arrived. And standing still for that long—even under a protective awning or tree and even with a change into dryer clothes—would be a chilly experience or worse.

So thank God for Coastal Kitchen Café, one of only a couple of restaurants in Port Renfrew. We dumped our packs on the patio, then marched into the mercifully warm café and set up camp, so to speak, at a far table.

Hot coffee and an excellent pulled-pork breakfast sandwich were the first order of business

There we sat for the next six hours—warming up, drying out and watching the steady rain out the window. Every half hour or so, one of us would venture up to the counter and order something to eat or drink. Just to show we were paying customers.

How about a bowl of fries? Sure, why not?

It was also a great way to work through a menu. Everything was first rate, from a breakfast sandwich featuring house-smoked pulled pork to a spinach-fruit smoothie to a bowl of hot fries. And lots of cups of good, steaming hot coffee.

Chased by a smoothie

Throughout these six hours, no one asked how long we were planning to stay, even during surges of activity that filled all the indoor tables. They pretty much just ignored us.

We finally did pack up and leave, near closing time, but only to move across the street to the Renfrew Pub, where we knocked back celebratory pints of beer along with local rock-cod fish and chips and poke bowls. Here, too, we were treated graciously, albeit for only a couple of hours until we dashed out into the unceasing rain to finally catch our bus back to Victoria.

A final meal of rock-cod fish and chips and poke bowls at the Renfrew Pub

So, a big thank you to Coastal Kitchen Café and Renfrew Pub for saving our bacon.

Coastal Kitchen Cafe
17245 Parkinson Road, Port Renfrew, B.C.
Daily 4:30 am-3 pm

Renfrew Pub
17310 Parkinson Road, Port Renfrew
Daily 11:30 am-8 pm

Revelstoke Rules!

Terra Firma is the latest in great Revelstoke bakeries

It hardly seems fair that the B.C. mountain community of Revelstoke enjoys such advantages. Aforementioned mountains. Stellar powder skiing. Charming houses with steep metal roofs to shed all that snow.

Okay, there are a few downsides. Often gloomy skies in winter. Soaring real estate prices (like many B.C. cities and towns). High-density developments threatening the charming neighbourhoods. Lack of affordable housing for tourism-industry staff.

But there’s a reason for this Revelstoke boom. It’s simply a great place to live.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of this unfairness is an abundance of places to eat and drink for a town of 8,200 residents. A quick sampling: fabulous Woolsey Creek Bistro, Paramjit’s Kitchen (Indian), Village Idiot pizza and Mt. Begbie Brewing, one of B.C.’s early craft beer makers.

But it’s the plethora of bakeries that pushes Revelstoke over the top. Modern Bakeshop & Café has been churning out great baked goods since 2005. And I’ve stopped at La Baguette more times than any other place in all my Marathon Mouth travels. Indeed, it’s one of my favourite bakeries in western North America.

Now, there’s a third contender: Terra Firma Kitchen. Ostensibly, it’s a farm-to-table restaurant, with plentiful ingredients from its nearby farm. But it’s the bakery we’ve come to check out, specifically its naturally leavened sourdough bread, of course featuring local ingredients. I devour an excellent savoury scone and start tearing into the fabulous loaf before we even leave town.

Think you could refrain from tearing into this sourdough loaf?

Our last stop is at Local Food Initiative, a block-long, outdoor Saturday farmers’ market that can rival most big-city markets. There’s Stoke Roasted Coffee at one end and the lined-up Monashee Spirits Distillery at the other.

There’s a lineup to buy bottles of Monashee Spirits

In between are three or four (I lost count) vegetable growers, where we load up on big bags of various organic salad greens from market fixture Wild Flight Farm, out of Mara, and local First Light Farm. They’re harvesting these greens in early June, when the seedlings in my Calgary garden are scarcely peeking out of the ground.

A great mix of lettuces, harvested at Wild Flight Farm in early June

It’s really isn’t fair. Damn you, Revelstoke!

Terra Firma Kitchen
415A Victoria Road, Revelstoke, B.C.
Daily 7 am-4 pm
250-805-0646

Local Food Initiative Farmers’ Market
First Street East between Mackenzie and Orton Avenues, Revelstoke
Saturday 8 am-1 pm till mid-October

The Golden Age of Beer

We’ve never had it so good when it comes to local beer

I think most people would agree the past couple of years have been the worst of times. Let’s see: A never-ending pandemic, lawless blockades, travel restrictions, Russian invasion of Ukraine, through-the-roof inflation, out-of-control guns and courts to our south. Did I mention climate change and the threat of heat and smoke this summer? It’s all pretty depressing.

Which is why it was so cheering, the other day, to see the cashier at my nearby Calgary Co-Op liquor store look at the diverse selection of local ales I was buying (for reasons why, refer to the paragraph above) and declare: “It’s the golden age of beer.”

I can certainly drink to that.

Gardening’s been pretty great, too

Jimmy’s A&A Still an A-plus

Jimmy’s A&A still boast the best chicken shawarmas in Calgary

Usually, I’d rather crawl over broken glass than wait in line at a restaurant. My line-busting strategy includes showing up when the place opens, arriving at the end of a meal cycle (such as 2 pm for lunch) and never going for weekend brunch.

But as Covid restrictions reach their meaningful end, it’s kinda nice to see folks at 11:30 am lining up for lunch at Calgary’s beloved Jimmy’s A&A Mediterranean Deli. It’s a testament to the loyal following for the colourful Jimmy and his giant, excellent shawarmas. “It’s the bomb,” says a waiting fire fighter.

All walks of life line up at Jimmy’s

Not much has changed over the years, other than metal siding replacing the stucco of this former corner store. The long, darkened interior is still jammed full of Middle Eastern foodstuffs, more than most delis. Jimmy’s is also still primarily a takeout place, with most folks ignoring the smattering of plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk.

Just a smattering of the deli offerings

Like most restaurants post pandemic, prices have gone up. But when my “medium” chicken shawarma tips the scales at a kilo, the $14.75 charge still offers great value, especially when this food bomb essentially feeds two. But of course, I’ve devoured the whole thing within minutes of getting back in my car.

A one-kilo “medium” shawarma

Jimmy’s remains one of the best and most colourful cheap-eats experiences in Calgary.

Jimmy’s A&A Mediterranean Deli
1401 20 Avenue NW and one other Calgary location
Monday to Saturday 10 am-10 pm, Sunday 10 am-8 pm
403-289-1400

Not So Rapid Covid Test

The not so rapid Covid test kit

“You’re on your own now.”

That’s pretty much been the message recently for anyone trying to figure out if they have Covid and what, if anything, they should do to treat or recover from it.

This laissez faire attitude certainly applies to rapid self testing for Covid, which is essentially the only test you can get, unless you end up in emergency and get a professional (PCR) test instead. Even your family doctor doesn’t really want to see you in person.

So the rapid test is what most of us are stuck with. How accurate is it? Pretty good for indicating if you have Covid, but only middling if you test negative. In other words, you probably need at least two negative tests within a couple of days to be reasonably sure.

So, when I recently experienced a few ambiguous symptoms, I picked up a rapid-test box, which in exceedingly small type indicated there were five test kits inside. But the real shock was opening the box and discovering not just six bags of various gear but also a huge sheet of miniscule instructions.

Hope you brought a magnifying glass

Most of the verbiage, I’m sure, is to cover the manufacturers’ asses. But really, folks, isn’t the intention to make this test as simple and easy to understand as possible for people stressed out about if they have Covid?

Apparently not. “Insert the swab through the anterior nares in contact with nasal septum… until mild resistance is encountered at the middle turbinate.” Know what that means? Me neither, and I write for a living. How about “Gently insert the sterile swab into the nostril parallel to the palate… indicating contact with the nasopharynx?”

You have to sort through all this gear to perform the dozen steps of a “rapid” test

Good luck if English is your second language, you’re suffering brain fog from Covid and can’t concentrate, need to test without any hands-on help because, well, you might well have Covid or, like me, haven’t brushed up recently on the Latin names of nasal parts.

There is a laminated, illustrated card included in the kits, But I’d hardly call it a quick guide, as there are a dozen steps to be completed to find out, maybe, if you have Covid. And it still includes words like “nasal septum” and “middle turbinate”.

Thankfully, there are Youtube videos that more clearly, and in plain English, show the proper way to follow the numerous steps to a rapid-test result. On my Rapid Response box, there is a website (www.btnx.com) for finding said video, though again it’s in miniscule type.

And the instructional video is NINE minutes long. Good luck keeping up if you’ve got brain fog.