We briefly interrupt the Colorado road trip to bring you this lengthy post from my hometown of Calgary, Alberta (that’s in Canada for you American readers).
Calgary has a boatload of “middle-class” millionaires, many who toil in the city’s behemoth oilpatch. When they’re not zooming off at 130 kph to their weekend condos in Canmore and Invermere, B.C. or the ski slopes of Lake Louise, they’re heading for brunch, a power lunch or a fashionably-late dinner at one of the trendy, chef-driven new restaurants that keep popping up in Calgary. Which is a long-winded way of saying restaurants are generally rather pricy, and a cheap-eats meal is considered anything less than $20.
Well, for the benefit of penny-pinching road warriors and residents alike, I’ve scoured the city for what I call bargain-basement eats—tasty, filling and generally quick meals for less than $10. Yes, these are mostly one-course offerings, often served on disposable plates and devoured on lonely stools, at wobbly tables or behind the wheel. But if you value quality and affordability over ambience, these spots might quickly become your go-to places. There actually is a certain charm to many of these unadorned places, where you’re often dealing directly at the counter with the owners, who might also double as the cooks. Indeed, a friend says he prefers places like these, where there are no “middleman” waiters to deal with.
Forget, for a moment, all your prejudices about fast-food courts: steamer pans, Styrofoam plates, plastic cafeteria trays, concrete floors, harsh lighting and noise ricocheting around a vast, soulless space. Yes, Jackie’s Thai can plead guilty to all these charges, certainly given its location in downtown Calgary’s long-embattled Eau Claire Market, with food-court chain neighbours like Subway, Taco Time and Jugo Juice. But let’s instead focus on the surprisingly outstanding cuisine, as good as you’ll find in many long-established Calgary Thai restaurants and at much cheaper prices. I’m indeed stunned by my first bite of tender chicken breast in a coconut green curry with lingering complexities of flavour and middling spiciness. The made-to-order papaya salad—featuring chiles, carrots, long beans, tamarind and fish sauce—is equally as good. (The excellent pad Thai is also made to order, other than during the lunch-hour rush.) A large, combination plate of the green chicken curry and papaya salad costs me all of $8.50.
Growing up in Thailand, Jackie was apparently the best cook around, preparing lunch for 200 classmates at her junior high school. Her expertise shows in about a half dozen authentic, fresh Thai dishes in this new “restaurant”. So if you’re looking for a quick, affordable and delicious fresh lunch or early dinner and don’t mind the sterile ambience, Jackie’s is about as good as food-court dining gets. Actually, from spring to fall, leafy ambience is only a short, take-out walk away at Prince’s Island Park, alongside the Bow River.
181, 200 Barclay Parade SW (Eau Claire Market), Calgary
Weekdays 11 am-6 pm, weekends noon-6 pm
Calgary boasts an astonishing 190-plus Vietnamese restaurants. While everyone has their favourite, I particularly like Pho Binh Minh. For one thing, it’s located not far from Deerfoot Trail/QE 2 on the ethnically rich 17th Avenue S.E. (aptly known as International Avenue), with an acre of parking in front of a nondescript strip mall. For another, the steel pot of unordered Jasmine tea is plunked down on the Formica table almost before my seat hits the chair. A couple of minutes later, my steaming bowl of medium-rare sate beef noodle soup arrives, distinguished from most pho (Vietnamese noodle soups, pronounced “fuh”) by the flavourful beef broth.
I make two mistakes, though. One is wearing a dress shirt, which forces me to ignore dining etiquette and stick my slurping mouth scant inches above the bowl to avoid being whipsawed by the dripping noodles. The other is ordering the large bowl, when a “small” would have been plenty. But it was only 80 cents more, for the princely sum of $6.75, one of the city’s best deals.
Speaking of bargains, Lily Vietnamese Submarines (near the Trans-Canada Highway at the west end of town) offers arguably the best, freshest such food in Calgary. At least, so says my friend Doug, who’s been there maybe 50 times (What can I say? When he finds a quality, bargain place he likes, he goes back, and back and back.) His advice is to head straight for the Lily’s Beef & Chicken Satay Sub. At $7.45, this foot-long sandwich is a couple of dollars more than ones with only beef, chicken or meatballs. But it’s loaded with two kinds of meat marinated in a house-made satay sauce and accompanied by generous helpings of pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, green onion, ground peanuts and homemade teriyaki sauce and butter; this isn’t the skimpy fare you’ll find hiding in many Vietnamese subs. Lily’s is a family-run, hole-in-the-wall joint, doling out mostly take-out Vietnamese subs, soups and excellent rice vermicelli dishes (try the grilled shrimp, beef and chicken). But Doug and I sit on two of the restaurant’s few stools, peel back the wax paper wrap and munch on our subs while watching mother Lily scurry around the back of the narrow kitchen.
Lily Vietnamese Submarines
4629A Bowness Road NW, Calgary
Monday to Friday 10 am-8 pm. Closed Sunday
If you’re not into messy meals, don’t bother checking out Jimmy’s A&A Mediterranean Deli, a converted convenience store with a delightfully dingy ambience. If you don’t fancy juicy chicken juices or creamy garlic sauce dribbling down your jowls, head instead to some dainty dining joint where you can dab away with an oversized napkin. But if explosive overflows of flavour outweigh propriety, then indulge in Jimmy’s chicken or beef shawarmas—shaved off a darkened row of spits—or falafels, wrapped first in a pita and then in a waxed paper holder, which you peel back like a banana if you want to keep things fairly intact. A small order of the shawarma ($7.50) is plenty for most appetites, chased with a baklava dessert, all eaten on an outside table or in the front seat of your car, if you don’t value the seat covering. A bonus for those passing through Calgary is that Jimmy’s is just off 16th Avenue NW, which doubles in the city as the Trans-Canada Highway.
Jimmy’s A&A Mediterranean Cuisine
1401-20 Avenue NW, Calgary
Monday to Saturday 9 am-10 pm, Sunday 10 am-8pm
If you’re in the city’s southwest, another good Middle Eastern option is Little Lebanon, where a mammoth, delicious baked chicken and vegetable pocket is only $8.75 and comes, as do all meals, with a complimentary piece of honey-dripping baklava.
3515 17 Avenue SW, Calgary
Monday to Friday 9 am-9 pm, Saturday 9 am-8 pm, Sunday 9:30 am-6 pm
Okay, starving students and dirtbag travellers. With the guidance of my bargain-hunting food friend Doug, I may have found the cheapest “meal” in all my road trip journeys. This tasty treat will set you back less than $2, unless you’re really hungry, in which case your bill might balloon to $2.50. And it’s available right in my high-priced hometown of Calgary, though not in a restaurant. It’s a Punjabi grocery store called Fruiticana, part of a B.C.-based family food empire that boasts its own Mexican mango farms and online radio station. Amongst store display cases teeming with clarified butter jars, Thai chiles and a strange, green-mouse-looking melon called karella, there’s a warming oven full of large, dome-shaped samosas. Sixty-nine cents apiece, and I’m guessing they tip the scales at over a third of a pound, obviously not the lightweight triangles you find in many Indian places. (At my Safeway deli, the samosas are $2.99 apiece, and they look smaller to me than Fruiticana’s).
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: deep fried, warming oven… give it a pass. But we’re delightfully surprised at this lovely package of potato, peas and a mildly spicy curry, all wrapped in a soft, flaky crust. I figure at this price and quality, they must fly out of the store pretty fast and are thus steadily replaced with fresh ones. Let’s put it this way: We each have no trouble devouring two of these hefty samosas in the five minutes it takes to drive from the far-flung northeast neighbourhood of Falconridge to Deerfoot Trail. Which is the reason I don’t have any pictures to show you. The only downside is it costs me $3 in gas to eat $1.38 worth of samosas.
5075 Falconridge Boulevard (two other Calgary locations)
Speaking of great baked treats, it’s worth hunting down a buttermilk biscuit or two (only $1.50 apiece) at Forage, a mostly prepared meals to go place in southwest Calgary’s Marda Loop district. They’re flaky, rich and utterly delicious, especially if you get them warm from the oven. The place, however, is only open weekday afternoons.
Forage — Farm to Fork Foods to Go
3508 19 Street SW, Calgary
Weekdays 2 pm-7 pm
Lest you think all bargain eats in Calgary are ethnic, here are a few gems that are not.
There’s a healthy lineup of working-class folks when I arrive at Coco Brooks, alongside busy Blackfoot Trail in the city’s southeast. But this line moves with industrial efficiency—from the three order takers to the staff filling stacks of small cardboard boxes with pizzas. “How long will it take?” I ask, eyeing the crowd. “Twelve minutes,” my order taker confidently says. It actually takes 14, but, hey, the place is packed. You can get pasta or salad and eat it out of a disposable container with plastic utensils at one of some 30 small tables. But nearly everyone comes for the thick-crust pizza: four slices, served piping hot and sufficient for a healthy appetite. There are many pizza choices, but I can never resist the Egg n Bacon ($6.29). Sound horrible? It’s actually fantastic, the soft, puffy filling offset by just a slight crunch of smoked bacon and melted mozza and aged cheddar. Really, you’d hardly know there was scrambled egg in it. You can get unbaked pizzas, fresh or frozen, to cook at home. But I can never wait that long to sink my teeth into this not-so-guilty pleasure.
640 42 Avenue SE, #80 (two other Calgary locations)
Monday to Thursday 8 am-8 pm, Friday 8 am-9 pm, Saturday 9 am-8 pm
Not far away on another industrial street, there’s a shorter, definitely more hipster line awaiting the fabulous day’s creations at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery. It’s a tiny takeout place where you can watch a team of bakers (surrounding a huge mound of rising dough, from a four-year-old sourdough culture) create, say, Challah bread, long cheese sticks, sour cherry scones, rectangles of roasted vegetable pizza and blueberry-topped, glazed Danishes. Excuse me while I wipe the drool off my chin. I restrict myself to ordering an open-faced meat sandwich, featuring a thick layer of delicious, crusted smoked ham hock with aged cheddar and zucchini atop toasted house bread. At $8.50, it’s a more expensive, smaller lunch than other places on this list, but it’s good value for the excellent quality and creativity of anything they make here. The food at Sidewalk Citizen is matched by the story of owner Aviv Fried, who in car-crazed, sprawling Calgary had the stroke of genius, or madness, to start a bakery featuring inner-city delivery by bicycle. He has since expanded to include a bakery deli in Sunnyside (338 10 Street NW).
Sidewalk Citizen Bakery
5524 1A Street SW, Calgary
Tuesday to Thursday 10:30 am-2 pm, Friday and Saturday 10 am-3 pm (Sunnyside deli 7 days a week from 9 am, except 9:30 am Sunday)
It’s well enough to unearth cheap eateries in industrial areas, suburban neighbourhoods, food courts and strip malls. But certainly there’s no bargain-basement restaurant in the heart of high-rent downtown Calgary, right? In fact, there is. At Sunterra Market, you can get a filling, savoury Big Pan meal for $5.89. Sure, these stew-like meals are ladled out of enormous pans and the temperature isn’t always consistently hot. But my red Thai chicken curry contains tender chunks of chicken and strips of sautéed onions and red peppers in a creamy, slightly spicy sauce atop a bed of rice (Note: There are two big pan specials a day, with the offerings changing throughout the week). The newest and grandest, Keynote, of four downtown Sunterra locations is hopping at lunch, with office workers lining up for efficiently produced meals such as paninis ($5.60), four-slice pizzas ($6.99) and crepes ($6.50). A nice touch is the use of real plates, metal utensils and comfortable tables and booths. No, it’s not haute cuisine. But it is cheap, tasty and fast—you should have no trouble ordering and finishing lunch in half an hour. Downstairs, there’s a high-end grocery and deli for food to go or eat upstairs.
Sunterra is a rare Alberta company that’s vertically integrated. The Price family owns advanced beef and pork farms northeast of Calgary, processes the meat in their own plants and ships much of it to Japan and the U.S. But you can also find it in their 10 grocery/restaurant outlets in Calgary and Edmonton. Look for their sausages, bacon and other cured meats produced by Valbella Gourmet Foods in Canmore.
March 2013 update: Had Sunday breakfast at Sunterra’s busy 17th Avenue SW location and must say the bargains continue. Excellent omelettes and burgers, with sides of fruit and roasted veggies and potatoes, with nearly everything just over $6.
200 12 Avenue SE (Keynote, three other downtown Calgary locations serving lunch)
Daily 6 am-10 pm
If you’ve got some other bargain eats suggestions in Calgary, let me know. Just hit the “Reply” button.