The ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Café in southwest Calgary is one of my favourite eating spaces. I say space, instead of restaurant, because that’s what it is: an architecturally gorgeous building with high, vaulted wood ceilings, tables scattered throughout its 100-metre length and light streaming in the side windows.
It’s a terrific place to just savour a cappuccino by a fireplace on a snowy December day, surrounded by tall Christmas trees. The breakfasts and lunches are also first rate and inexpensive, such as the voluminous steak BLT, a bargain $10 when last offered.
I say all this with more than a pang of nostalgia, because this splendid spot has been closed for more than a year’s worth of pandemic restrictions. Unlike other Calgary restaurants, the cafe didn’t reopen even temporarily, in large part to protect ATCO workers in the attached office buildings.
Well, the good news is the Blue Flame café is once again in operation. True, the splendid space is still closed, but the kitchen is offering takeaway meals from a somewhat different menu.
Here’s how it works. You order and pay online, show up at the appointed hour, announce your arrival by cell phone and then wait a minute or so for someone to emerge from the building and deliver the meal to your vehicle. You then take said meal home, heat and eat. It’s like a meal kit, without all the chopping, sautéing and cleaning. The café also offers delivery within 10 kilometres.
I ordered a $12 vegetarian green Thai curry (heated in a home microwave) and a spicy, hamburger-filled Jamaican patty (a snack-sized $5, heated in the oven). Both were nicely spiced and flavourfully sauced, though the curry’s rice was a little dry.
Larger meals, like braised beef meatballs with pasta ($24 for two-plus) or Peking duck for two ($25), are also available, perhaps chased with a four-pack of local craft beer or bottle of wine.
I certainly miss being inside and chowing down on a fresh sandwich. But for now, this is a pretty good substitute.
To non-cognoscenti old timers, KFC stands for Kentucky Fried Chicken. But for those in the know, it’s also shorthand for Korean fried chicken, a usually spicy, crunchy take on a classic.
Like the Colonel’s buckets, Korean fried chicken is generally found in fast-food outlets, with the requisite counter orders and plastic furniture. But in the hands of chef Jinhee Lee, northeast Calgary’s Jin Bar definitely takes that concept upscale.
A graduate of Calgary’s SAIT Professional Cooking Program, Lee has earned national renown, winning gold medals at the Canadian Culinary Championships and becoming a finalist on Top Chef Canada.
At Jin Bar, Lee brings those skills to a refined yet comfort-food menu that includes appetizers like sautéed kimchi mac and cheese, crispy chicken skins and braised pork belly tacos. But it’s the fried chicken ($16) that takes centre stage: crispy yet tender boneless thigh marinated for 12 hours. It comes in a variety of flavours and heat, with sauces ranging from sweet and buttery to dragon-breathing hot; my choice was a delightfully savoury Korean chile glaze.
The fried chicken (there’s also a sandwich) shares the spotlight with a short list of Korean-styled, thin-crust pizzas featuring toppings such as beef bulgogi and fried buldak. Bartending guru Christopher Choi rounds things out with an award-winning Caesar and Korean-inspired and ginger-infused cocktails.
Jin Bar is located in Bridgeland’s de Waal Block, a 111-year-old heritage building with red brick walls and an original pressed-tin ceiling. Previous tenants included the celebrated Il Sogno and Whitehall restaurants.
With in-house dining currently verboten because of pandemic measures, I couldn’t treasure eating in this fabulous space. But I was able to step inside and take in the historic architecture while picking up my takeout bag.
I did chow down, however, a couple of hundred feet away in my parked car. There was no way I was waiting till I got home.
Jin Bar 24 4 Street NE, Calgary Sunday to Thursday 4 pm-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 4 pm-10 pm. Closed Monday 587-349-9008
I’ve eaten a lot of great burritos during my road-food rambles.
The best? Undoubtedly, the family-run La Azteca Tortilleria, in east Los Angeles, with its sublime insertion of a meringue-battered, roasted poblano chile.
There’s a multitude of fine burrito shops in San Francisco’s Mission district, including La Taqueria and Taqueria El Farolito. And I had to track down the so-called California burrito, stuffed with French fries, at San Diego’s La Playa Taco Shop.
But I wasn’t expecting a Calgary spot to be pushing the burrito boundaries. Yet, that’s exactly what they’re doing at Oddball Burrito, in the city’s southwest Marda Loop neighbourhood.
Other than a few sides, Oddball’s menu is strictly devoted to burritos. There are 10 offerings, each an experiment in what you can toss inside a rolled tortilla. A cheeseburger? Why not? Perogies, poutine, mac and cheese? Join the party. Breakfast is even covered with the Loco Moco: fried eggs, grilled spam, ground beef and kimchi mayo… oh, and a side of gravy.
I opt for the Low Country Burrito, boasting the rather unusual combination of jumbo shrimp, Andouille sausage, potatoes, sweet corn, Cajun butter and something called comeback sauce. It’s a holy, two-napkin mess.
The large size is $17 but weighs in at a hefty 1.6 pounds. Half is plenty for a good feed.
It’s going to take me a few trips to work through the menu. Next up is probably the Alabama Picnic Burrito, featuring house-roasted chicken and crinkle fries.
Oddball Burrito is the creation of Tara Barker and Shaun Taylor, who opened last summer after coming to Calgary by way of Kamloops and PEI, where they ran a food truck. It’s another great addition to Marda Loop.
Oddball Burrito 2006 34 Avenue SW, Calgary noon to 8 pm Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 9 pm Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday 2006 34 Avenue SW, Calgary 403-685-1444
Back when I could freely do road trips from Alberta into the western U.S., I would often stop at Trader Joe’s, a so-called “national chain of neighbourhood grocery stores.” Among other things, I would pick up a couple of bottles of Two-Buck Chuck ($2 red wine) and a few packages of freeze-dried raspberries, for my backcountry oatmeal.
But I was most enamoured by Trader Joe’s policy of letting customers mix and match craft beers. I could fill a little cardboard six-pack carrier with individual bottles or cans. That allowed me, while travelling through a new city, to sample a diversity of local brews with a single purchase. Thus was born my joy of drinking “solo”.
While most beer vendors sell some individual cans (usually 16 ounces) and bottles (usually 22-ounce bombers), it’s rare that one can curate a selection without buying a lot of brews. And there’s nothing worse than buying a six pack and discovering, on the first sip, you don’t like it.
So I was delighted, when I started ordering pandemic grocery deliveries from SPUD, that I could a) include liquor and b) choose from a lot of individual beer cans. Indeed, most of the 80-some, primarily local beers that SPUD offers are available only in individual, 473-millilitre/16.5-ounce cans. Sure, they cost a little more individually—ranging from about $4 to $5 plus—but that’s still a lot cheaper than ye old crapshoot of a four- or six-packer. And the selection is pretty darn good, including top local brewers like Annex, Cold Garden, Blindman, Dandy, Cabin and Banded Peak.
While I’ve tasted a lot of Calgary-area craft beers, there are simply too many available to keep up with. So it’s nice that through SPUD, I can fill in some gaps without filling my fridge.
The only downside to ordering online beer is I have to stick around home for up to 12 hours on my delivery day, just so I can show proof that I’m 18 years or older. In my case, much older. But at least I can cry in a variety of beers.
Strong is not a word I associate with Calgary these days. Take your pick of metrics: the economy, oilpatch, unemployment rate, downtown office vacancies, real-estate prices. None are strong. And let’s not forget the ravages of the pandemic.
Yet there’s one Calgary sector where “strong” is not a misplaced adjective. That’s the local craft beer scene.
Even before Covid, I wondered how many of the tsunami of new local breweries would survive. Certainly, the pandemic—with its shifting closures, lockdowns and regulations—didn’t help these fledging businesses. Yet here we are, a year-plus later, and the resilient local beer business is still chugging along.
But today, I want to focus on a different aspect of strong: local brews labeled as “strong beer.” While somewhat subjective, strong beer is generally considered to have an alcohol content (or ABV) of at least 6%.
Such beers are often more intense and complex, which is why I like them, much like I prefer strong coffee or undiluted whiskey. Given the punch strong beers pack, they are perhaps best sipped at home, which is where most of us are doing our drinking these days anyways. As a bonus, many of these local breweries are currently offering doorstop deliveries.
Fortunately, local brewers—perhaps in mad-scientist mode while locked in their laboratories—are doing a fine job of feeding innovative strong beers to the market. Some of these are seasonal or even one-time offerings, so get them while you can.
Here are some of the strong local beers I’ve been sampling lately.
Annex Ale Project is one of the most innovative breweries in Calgary. Retracted Resolution is a 7.7% Belgian dubbel—a dark beer with double the amount of raw materials—with notes of dark berries, toffee and cloves; a surprisingly smooth drink. It’s already gone from the brewery website but I managed to snag a four-pack at my nearby Co-op Wines and Spirits store.
Outcast Brewing is another favourite Calgary brewery. They hit it out of the park again with The Forgetful Brewer, a double-dry-hopped double IPA (8%) with plentiful citra, mosaic and simcoe hops. Twice a Canadian Brewing Awards winner.
The Dandy Brewing Company is another bold explorer, surprising my taste buds with its Tumbling Tide, an 8.5% Belgian tripel, a high fermentation brew traditionally marked with three crosses on the barrel.
Blindman Brewing is an outstanding small-town brewery—located in central Alberta’s Lacombe—that delivers to my Calgary doorstep. Its Wet & Dry Hop Double IPA (8.8%) fabulously captures the flavours of just-picked hops.
Cabin Brewing’s flagship Super Saturation is hopped up here to produce Super Duper Saturation, a lovely 8% Imperial New England pale ale. A seasonal beer, here’s hoping it makes a return soon.
Bonus coverage: Blindman’s Perepllut (see image at top) is an extra strong barley wine ale that, weighing in at 10.35%, frankly knocked me on my ass. Fortunately, it only comes in 355-ml/12-ounce cans. And, believe me, one is enough.
Over the past pandemic-sequestered year, most of us have been primarily cooking at home. This has inspired some with time on their hands to start baking sourdough bread or scouring the Internet for chicken mole recipes. Others—especially those with children underfoot at all hours—have become streamlined at putting meals on the table.
This reality prompted the New York Times to recently ask their food editors and reporters to share their most prized home cooking tips. These included basics, like doing all your chopping and other prep work before you start cooking; it’s known as mise en place. Some tips were new to me, such as putting chopped garlic and oil into a cold pan before turning on the heat. You can read the whole list of 17 here, hopefully.
This got me thinking about what “hacks” I use to expedite my home cooking. Efficiency is my mantra, and I can usually get a meal ready in 15 minutes, unless it requires oven time, which generally needs no hands-on attention. When I see a recipe with 17 ingredients and eight steps, I definitely turn the page.
Here are my top seven cooking hacks, plus a recipe.
Good kitchenware will last a lifetime, so spend as much as you can afford… and then spend 25 per cent more. This certainly applies to cutting knives, the backbone of any kitchen. You’ll devote thousands of hours to chopping veggies, meats and fruits, so you might as well have high-end stainless steel knives that hold a sharp edge.
Amongst the Germans, I prefer Wusthof to Henckels. I do have one of those razor-sharp Japanese knives, but I’m always leery about lopping off a finger. Actually, you really need only two kitchen knives: a bigger chopping knife, with a rocker blade for fast chopping, and a smaller paring knife. Throw in a serrated knife if you’re slicing much bread. Plus a good sharpening steel.
Considering all the time we spend chopping, most of us are amazingly bad and slow at it. The best $50 I ever spent was on a two-hour knife skills class; we even learned how to cut up a whole chicken in under a minute. So sign up at your local kitchen shop, or at least check out a chef’s Youtube video or two.
One Pot/Pan Cooking
I’m a master of the one-pot stir fry. I can have a meal of sautéed veggies, meat/fish and sauce ready in 15 minutes from the time I open the fridge. The cooking is all contained, and there’s only one pot to clean.
I have more recently graduated to sheet-pan cooking, in which seasoned veggies, meats and even cubed tofu are scattered on a rimmed, heavy-duty aluminum pan and oven roasted, generally at about 400 F (a cast-iron frying pan also works). I usually line the pan with a reusable silicon mat or parchment paper to prevent sticking. The roasting takes longer and requires knowing when to add different ingredients i.e. beets generally take 50 minutes, potatoes 35 minutes and Brussels sprouts or cauliflower 30 minutes. Once you’ve tasted the caramelized sweetness of roasted vegetables, there’s no going back.
Bathed in Butter
When I do steam or boil vegetables, such as pea pods or broccoli, I drain them, add a pad of butter, and maybe a sprinkling of sea salt, and put the pan back on the still-hot burner for half a minute until the veggies are hot and lightly bathed in melted gold.
I’ve recently become a fan of blistered vegetables. Here, you heat a pan (ideally cast iron) to high and add a splash of oil, your veggies and maybe a bit of salt and red pepper flakes, pushing everything around for a few minutes with a spatula till things are nicely blistered and still a little crunchy. This works great with green beans and also with sliced carrots, broccoli or even grape tomatoes. Just remember to turn on your stovetop fan to disperse the smoke.
Make double the quantity of your usual meal recipe. Other than a bit of extra chopping, there’s no more work involved, and you’ve got a second meal of leftovers that just needs to be heated in the next few days. I know of people who cook their whole week’s meals on, say, a Sunday and then freeze them, but that’s a little too organized for me.
Clean As You Go
Use the energy you generate from cooking to clean pots, bowls, knives, cutting board, counters etc. while stuff is sautéing or roasting. That way you’ll only have a couple of things to clean at meal’s end.
Add Some Sauce
A stir fry needs some sauce. Near the end of cooking, pour on some cream, salsa or even jarred pasta sauce and cook till slightly reduced. I often make a quick, fabulous tomato sauce in my Instant Pot, though stovetop cooking also works fine. It takes about 30 minutes and lasts for several meals, including as a fine sauce for pasta or rice. Here’s the recipe.
Instant Pot Tomato Sauce
Fine chop some onion, bell peppers, a stalk of celery and a medium-large carrot and cook with a tablespoon of olive oil in the Instant Pot, using the “Saute” function. Add salt, pepper, fresh or dry herbs and maybe a couple of bay leaves. After about five minutes, you can add about a pound of ground hamburger, chicken or pork for a meatier sauce, stirring till browned.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, ½ a cup or more of stock or water (or even a splash of red wine), 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, mixing with a whisk. Pour over the sautéing veggies (and meat), and throw in a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes.
Turn the Instant Pot to the high pressure setting for 10 minutes and then let the pressure naturally release for 10 more minutes. Done.
Those are some of my favourite cooking hacks. What are yours?