All too often in Canada, restaurant burgers are cooked to the edge of shoe leather. It’s no doubt the result of kitchens not wishing to violate government health regulations that stipulate burgers must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 71 C. (160 F.), eight degrees Celsius above medium rare.
So it’s a pleasure to discover a place like Chuck’s Burger Bar, in an industrial area of Sydney, B.C., near the Victoria airport and ferry terminal. Chucks manages to walk the fine line between burgers that are regulatory acceptable and still juicy and flavourful.
As the name suggests, it’s a spot owned by a guy named Chuck, and the predominant, half-pound burgers (about $9) are from fresh-ground Angus chuck, “grilled to medium.”
From a plethora of complimentary toppings, I choose pea shoots, sautéed onions and roasted garlic mayo, along with some sautéed wild mushrooms ($2.50 extra). It’s a delightful combination, with a shared mountain of Yukon gold fries ($5) and a local pint.
Chuck’s is a small space that usually fills up quickly, this night with young locals. It’s a great, affordable place to get a last-minute bite before boarding a ferry or airplane.
Chuck’s Burger Bar
2031 Malaview Avenue West, Sidney, B.C.
Monday to Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Sundays
Fast-food chains are the antithesis of what I promote in this road-food blog, which is good, independently owned, affordable restaurants.
But a western U.S. hamburger chain, In-N-Out Burger has long attracted a cult-like following among hip food lovers. And when I saw Anthony Bourdain extolling the virtues of In-N-Out’s thin, crispy patties, I figured I had to check it out.
After a couple of years of procrastinating, I finally find myself pulling into an outlet in Kingman, Arizona during a long drive between Tucson and Las Vegas. And I must say, I’m suitably impressed.
Now, don’t expect a gourmet burger made from freshly ground sirloin, cooked medium rare and topped with blue cheese and charred hot peppers. But this California-based, family run southwest U.S. chain is definitely a good step above the usual fast-food suspects.
The first thing I notice when entering the spotless premises is the 10 or more cheerful staff behind the counter, each wearing a white shirt, paper hat and red aprons secured at the back with a giant safety pin.
My companion says the place reminds her of the 1950s. Which makes sense, considering In-N-Out was founded in 1948 and has kept many of its practices and ingredients unchanged over the years.
The second thing I notice is the concise menu: three types of hamburgers along with fries, shakes and a few other drinks. That’s it!
I order the double cheeseburger, for a whopping $3.60. When the most-pleasant attendant asks if I’d like onions, I jokingly ask if they’re caramelized. “No, but would you like them grilled?” he responds.
To me, this indicates the burgers are cooked to order—a suspicion confirmed by the several minutes it takes for the food to be ready. Everything is nicely presented, with the burgers half exposed above the paper wrapper.
The burgers are straight forward—adorned with lettuce, tomato and sauce—but well executed with toasted buns and flavourful, nicely crisped thin patties. The thin fries could be hotter but are otherwise tasty, as is a vanilla shake you could stand a spoon in.
My overall impression is “fresh”, both for the food and the fresh-faced staff. Simple, but simply well done.
1770 Beverly Avenue, Kingman, Arizona
Daily 10:30 am-1 am, except 1:30 am closings Friday and Saturday
As a longtime Calgarian, it pains me to promote any import from Vancouver, even though I briefly lived there many years ago. But when said import considerably elevates Cowtown’s sandwich game, who am I to protest?
The sandwich shop in question is Meat & Bread, which I enthusiastically reviewed shortly after it opened in Vancouver’s Gastown district in 2010. It delivered everything I look for: delicious, innovative sandwiches, made to order yet produced so efficiently that the lunchtime line moves swiftly.
Such a sandwich shop was sorely lacking in Calgary, at least until a Meat & Bread location opened in June in the historic Grain Exchange Building, along downtown’s busy 9th Avenue. While it’s a franchise (there are currently two other locations, in Vancouver and Seattle), it’s in the capable hands of Eric Hudson and wife Bao Nahn. Most importantly, the experience and quality is essentially the same as at the flagship restaurant in Vancouver.
The keys to success are deceptively simple. First, there’s a very short menu of sandwiches—on fresh ciabatta buns—including a few standards, such as the outstanding signature porchetta, with its crunchy cracklings, and a barbecue beef. On a recent Friday, I opted for the special: three substantial, moist pork and beef meatballs topped with parmesan aioli, a chopped herb condiment and kale ($9.50).
Second, everything is freshly made each day by skilled “chefs, not sandwich artists,” featuring quality ingredients. Indeed, there’s no freezer on the premises.
Finally, and crucially at lunch hour, there’s a highly efficient crew assembling these four or five sandwiches. Such that our counter order is delivered to a high table in scant minutes.
The sides are similarly limited—a daily soup and a salad and a handcrafted chocolate bar for dessert. Nice to see a small selection of beers from Calgary microbrewers.
“It’s simple,” the company’s mantra goes, “we make sandwiches.” What more do you need?
Meat & Bread
821 1 Street SW, Calgary, Alberta
Monday to Saturday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday
I’m sure there are some fine, inexpensive places to eat in Whistler, B.C. Indeed, I often head to purebread, which produces perhaps the best bread and baked goodies on the west coast. Mind you, I always stop at their little Function Junction location, a little ways south of the madness that is central Whistler.
Whistler is certainly not organized for the road tripper looking for a quick bite or beverage. Between the tourist hordes, all the side streets off the highway, the confusion about where to park and the baffling naming of pedestrian retail spaces—Village Square, Village Stroll, Village Lane, Village Green, Village Idiot—I usually just give up and get the hell out.
Instead, I often head 30 km north on Highway 99 to Pemberton, where I can easily locate, and find nearby parking at, my favourite restaurant in the region, Mile One Eating House.
Yes, there’s a growing lineup on a weekday night in late September (Tip: get there early). But it’s well worth the short wait at this family-run, chef-driven spot that produces fabulous, locally sourced burgers (they recently even bought their own, historic cattle ranch), upscale poutine and the best, gourmet mac ‘n cheese I’ve ever tasted.
I normally go for the divine Southern Comfort mac ‘n cheese—B.C. chicken breast, smoked bacon and brocolini in a creamy aged cheddar/mozza sauce. But there’s a Wednesday night special: a burger and craft beer for about $12. How can I resist?
My Mile One burger features a five-ounce Cache Creek natural beef patty, smothered in smoked bacon, aged white cheddar and beer-braised caramelized onions, all stuffed inside a house-baked buttermilk bun. It’s so thick I have to cut it in half to funnel it into my gaping mouth. Still, it’s a messy, two-napkin job, washed down with a fine bottle of Russell Brewing’s Punch Bowl IPA.
Mile One’s got everything I’m looking for: high standards, excellent ingredients and hard-working cooks, in an open kitchen. And despite the crowd, there’s enough of a personal touch to keep things casual and friendly.
Right across the street, with parking right in front, is another road tripper’s delight: Mount Currie Coffee. Yes, they also have a Whistler location. But when it might take me 10 minutes just to find it, is there any comparison?
Mile One Eating House
7330 Arbutus Street, Pemberton, B.C.
Wednesday to Sunday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday
Mount Currie Coffee
7331 Arbutus Street, Pemberton
Monday to Saturday 6:30 am-6 pm, Sunday 7 am-6 pm
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.
Woodlands Inn & Suites
3995 50 Avenue, Fort Nelson, B.C.