Category Archives: burgers

Perfect Pre-Concert Drink-and-Dine Spot in Downtown Calgary

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Lamb burger and lentil soup at Sandstone Lounge in Calgary’s Hyatt Regency Hotel

It’s a familiar conundrum. You’ve got tickets for a downtown concert or play and want to meet for a drink and a bite before the show. But where to go that’s not too expensive, formal, busy, slow or loud?

Well, in downtown Calgary, my go-to place is the Sandstone Lounge in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a hop and a skip from the cultural hub Arts Common. It ticks all the boxes of what I’m looking for in a pre-show drink-and-dine spot.

First, it’s casual and comfy. Seating is at small tables, by the fireplace, at the vintage long bar (especially if you’re flying solo) or, in summer, on the outdoor patio amongst historic sandstone buildings along Stephen Avenue Mall.

Second, you don’t have to shout to be heard, with quiet jazz on the sound system. Third, the service is always understatedly professional. On a recent visit, the waitress subtly unwrapped just the soupspoon from the napkin-wrapped utensils.

The critical fourth, Sandstone’s food and drink, is consistently good. There’s a whack of cocktails and wine selections, and it passes my craft-beer test with a nice list of local pints, including a fine, not-to-hoppy White Raven IPA from Edson’s Bench Creek Brewing.

The varied lounge menu ranges from house-spiced nuts to charcuterie to haddock bites. I go for a great lamb burger—featuring all-natural meat from Lambtastic Farms in Vulcan, Alberta—topped with balsamic onion relish, cumin gouda and tomato garlic aioli. This time, my side is a piping hot lentil soup, though the rice-flour-coated fries are darn good, too.

For downtown dinner-time Calgary, it’s reasonable value: $25 for burger/soup and a pint. All in all, an efficient yet relaxed prelude to a fantastic concert, featuring Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and special guest icon Ian Tyson.

Sandstone Lounge: Hyatt Regency Hotel
700 Centre Street SE, Calgary
Daily 10:30 am-midnight
403-717-1234

Fast-Food Gourmet Burger in Victorville, California

Just your basic, fast-food sirloin, brisket burger at Apollo Restaurant in Victorville, California

Just your basic, fast-food sirloin, brisket burger at Apollo Restaurant in Victorville, California

Talk about false first impressions. I initially figure Apollo Restaurant, in Victorville, California, is just another faded burger drive-in joint in a dusty desert parking lot.

When I step inside, though, I’m quickly overwhelmed. I can negotiate the seven burgers on the big board, ranging from a fiery Mexican to a two-patty Narcissist. But I’m then handed a sheet listing a dozen other burger permutations, which can be further customized to please.

Help! Finally, I take the path of least resistance and order a basic Classic ($3), adding just crispy bacon and caramelized onions.

But the surprises aren’t over. I’m told the burger meat is ground in house each day from sirloin, chuck and brisket and then hand formed. With this purity of patty, is there any choice but to go medium rare?

My only quibble is the bun quickly falls apart. Oh well, all the better to savour the superior beef without many distractions.

As I’m about to tuck in, a woman at a neighbouring table sees me typing notes on my iPad. “You a reporter?”

“No, just a burger blogger.”

Her companion admits to eating here three times in the past week. Her parting advice: “Get ready to enjoy life.”

Apollo Restaurant
14950 7 Street, Victorville, California
Monday to Wednesday 10:30 am-8 pm. Thursday to Saturday 10:30 am-9 pm, Sunday 11 am-7 pm
760-245-4900

Not Going Slow as We Can in B.C.’s Slocan Valley

Lovely garden patio at Mama Sita's Cafe in Winlaw, B.C.

Lovely garden patio at Mama Sita’s Cafe in Winlaw, B.C.

Things are decidedly laid-back in southeast B.C.’s Slocan Valley, labeled Slow As You Can by locals.

So we’re quite prepared for leisurely service at Mama Sitas Cafe, a colourful, highway-side spot in tiny Winlaw. We use the time, after ordering, to soak in the culture, such as folks in dreadlocks wandering in and out of the attached natural foods co-op.

Still, we’ve just completed a punishing, six-day backpack in nearby Valhalla Provincial Park and are rather famished. Thus, we’re pleasantly surprised when our server promptly delivers teeming, affordable plates of taco salads and burgers fashioned from local, organic beef.

Working up an appetite boulder hopping in Valhalla Provincial Park. Photo: Marg Saul

Working up an appetite boulder hopping in Valhalla Provincial Park. Photo: Marg Saul

It’s all good stuff, wolfed down in record time. No way I’m going slow as I can.

This burger disappeared in about five seconds

This burger disappeared in about five seconds

Mama Sita’s Cafe
5709 Highway 6, Winlaw, B.C.
250-226-7070

All-Natural Meats Make This Small-Town Alberta Stop a Winner

Despite the looming presence of a Tim's, Meadow Creek Sausage & Meat is doing just fine in Claresholm, Alberta

Despite the looming presence of a Tim’s, Meadow Creek Sausage & Meat is doing just fine in Claresholm, Alberta

In small-town Alberta, it might be considered the kiss of death for an independent food joint to be located right next door to a Tim Hortons outlet. Yet in Claresholm—a town of less than 4,000 folks astride Highway 2 an hour south of Calgary—Meadow Creek Sausage & Meat is not just surviving, it’s intent on expanding.

“We’re a completely different market” from iconic Canadian juggernaut Tim’s, explains Meadow Creek owner Chantal Blokpoel. While the former is a national chain built on hyper efficiency, the latter is firmly focused on local and made to order, witness the little grill where all the meals are prepared.

At Meadow Creek, everything is built around the sausage and beef produced in the attached, federally inspected meat-producing/packaging facility, run by Chantal’s father, Peter. Indeed, the Texas Longhorn beef is from the family’s nearby ranch.

Meadow Creek produces its sausage in its attached, federally inspected facility

Meadow Creek produces its all-natural sausage in an attached, federally inspected facility

These ain’t your generic sausages. They’re produced with no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no nitrates, no fillers… nada. Just all-natural pork, spring water, sea salt and in-house spices.

You can buy these meats in Meadow Creek’s deli or at the Saturday Millarville Farmers Market, where they’re a big hit. Or you can sit yourself down at the 10-table restaurant and order, like I did, a fabulous whiskey garlic pork burger on a pretzel bun. Or Longhorn BBQ beef on a bun, with fried onions and melted Monterrey Jack.

A whiskey-garlic pork burger on a pretzel bun. Yum!

A whiskey-garlic pork burger on a pretzel bun. Yum!

With a couple of years under their belts, the Blokpoels are looking to expand into a full-scale restaurant, among other plans. In the meantime, it’s heartening to see folks with a vision and high standards pursue their dreams in small-town Alberta, where these days more independent places are closing than opening.

Of course, I had to take some all-natural chorizo sausage home

Of course, I had to take some all-natural chorizo sausage home

Meadow Creek Sausage & Meat
33 Alberta Road, Claresholm, Alberta
Monday to Saturday 8 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday
403-388-0155

7 Great Cheap Eats in Offbeat Las Vegas

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Viva Las Arepas owner Felix Arellano delivers some awesome Venezuelan areas near downtown Las Vegas

This is from my new ebook Marathon Mouth, available to purchase from online booksellers Amazon (Amazon Canada), iTunes, Kobo and Chapters/Indigo.

Las Vegas  has plentiful fine cuisine in the top-end hotels/casinos. But you have to venture off The Strip to find the best cheap eats. The bonus is these places are often in far more colourful, less sanitized parts of town.

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The most colourful area of Las Vegas is just a few minutes drive removed from The Strip

Only a five-minute drive removed from the tourist hordes is a decidedly more downbeat neighbourhood with colourful signs reminiscent of the 1950s. Here, you’ll find the fabulous Viva Las Arepas, where friendly owner Felix Arellano can often be found cooking chicken and beef over a mesquite-fired grill and then stuffing the meats inside cornmeal Venezuelan pockets splashed with house-made hot sauce.

Not far away, chef Josh Clark is making innovative, epic sandwiches (like seared bratloaf and smoked whitefish) at The Goodwich and charging less than you’d tip a bellhop at a strip hotel. Note: The Goodrich is currently moving to a new location, so check the website for the opening and hours of operation. In the meantime, their old food truck, next door to Viva Las Arepas, is now an incubator for a rotating series of talented young chefs and is definitely worth checking out.

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Best BLT I’ve ever eaten, thanks to the house-cured bacon at The Goodwich

More culinary adventures await in an even less polished part of downtown. Inside the marvelous, new LGBTQ Center, with its impressively landscaped front patio, is the Bronze Café. While much of its creative fare is vegan, there’s a maple-glazed bacon sandwich, slathered in bacon jam, worthy of a carnivore’s trek.

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The Bronze Cafe serves up some great vegan and carnivore meals

Away from the city center, Bachi Burger brings an Asian twist to American classics. Would you believe fabulous oxtail chile fries, wagyu burgers with caramelized bacon and Peking duck sliders, all washed down with a unique black milk tea or yuzu soda? To the near west, Chile Verde Express is a one-man show, pumping out inexpensive burritos, tacos and the like, inside a gas station.

There are more fantastic cross-cultural things happening at Komex Fusion. Throw some Korean, American and Mexican cuisine into the blender and what emerges is, say, bulgogi fries topped with melted mozza, meat, pico de gallo and Korean hot sauce—a big, tasty plate of food at a most affordable price.

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Hungry for a multinational dish? How about bulgogi fries at Komex Fusion?

If you’re looking for a good caffeine fix, visit Sambalatte Torrefazione at two cafes in the Vegas hinterlands and one in the Monte Carlo Casino on The Strip. It small-batch roasts beans and turns them into fine espressos, pour-overs and ice coffees.

 

Las Vegas

 

Viva Las Arepas
1616 South Las Vegas Boulevard, Suite 120
Daily 8 am-midnight
702-366-9696

The Goodwich
900 South Las Vegas Boulevard (upcoming location. Check for hours)
702-910-8681

Bronze Cafe
401 South Maryland Parkway
Weekdays 7 am-10 pm, weekends 10 am-8 pm
702-202-3100

Bachi Burger
470 East Windmill Lane, Suite 100 (two other Las Vegas locations)
Sunday-Monday 11 am-11 pm, Tuesday to Thursday 11 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 11 am-1 am
702-242-2244

Chile Verde Express
8095 South Rainbow Boulevard (Choice Sinclair Gas Station)
Monday to Thursday 8 am-7 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday
702-260-7758

 KoMex Fusion
633 North Decatur Boulevard (one other Las Vegas location)
Monday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm. Closed Sunday
702-646-1612

 Sambalatte Torrefazione
3770 South Las Vegas Boulevard (two other Las Vegas locations)
Daily 7 am-10 pm
702-730-6789

Taking an Affordable U.S. Road Trip With the Battered Canadian Loonie

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.

By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.

But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.

Fill er up

The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.

It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.

Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.

You can't fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won't cost any more than in Canada

You can’t fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won’t cost any more than in Canada

The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.

Skip the hotels and motels

I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.

I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.

Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.

Affordable dining

Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.

Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

  1. Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
  2. Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
  3. Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno's Delicatessen in Monterey, California

This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno’s Delicatessen in Monterey, California

I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.