Thank God for persistence. Or pig headedness.
Last summer, we drove 1,000 kilometres from Calgary to near Tumbler Ridge, in northeast B.C., for a backpack. Just past Grande Prairie, Alberta, we stopped at a recommended lunch spot, called Soups, in Beaverlodge. Closed for the week. Strike one.
The bad luck continued when at the very trailhead, after a long gravel-road drive, was a hand-made sign: trail closed because of wildfire. On our way back through smoky Beaverlodge, a week later, we stopped again at Soups. Still closed. Strike two.
Because we’re dim-witted creatures accustomed to suffering, three of us headed back this summer for another crack at said backpack. Of course, we stopped at Soups for a mid-morning break. Closed for a staff break. Strike three.
The smoke in the mountains was still rather thick, but the Monkman Pass trail was open and we persevered through a wonderful week of waterfalls and alpine lakes. So things were looking up when we stopped at Soups, on the way home. What do you know, it was open.
Packed to the rafters, in fact, at mid-week lunch. Who knew so many people lived in little Beaverlodge? Or made it their favourite place for a bite out?
We grabbed the last free table and watched the bustling staff deliver house-made soups and hefty sandwiches to the expectant diners. Many of the sandwich meats are made in house, as is the thick, soft bread; customers are, charmingly, asked if they want their sandwiches on “white or brown.”
What we wanted, after a week of hiking and dehydrated meals, was big, fresh and tasty. And Soups delivered on all counts, serving up honking sandwiches of roast beef and bayou chicken. Chased with a fresh-baked cinnamon bun.
And then into the line at the till, where long-time owner Luvie Castro chatted with all the customers, at least the ones paying the bill.
Who knows if I’ll ever go through Beaverlodge again. But if I do, it’s definitely worth a stop to see if Soups is open.
908 2 Avenue, Beaverlodge, Alberta
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm. Closed weekends
I walk into Bubba’s Big Bites, in Chilliwack, B.C., with a deer-in-the-headlights look as I survey all the lunchtime dining options.
“Your first time here?” co-owner Julie asks after a glance at my slack-jawed face.
“Yeah. What’s your signature sandwich?”
Let’s see: pulled pork, ham, crumbled bacon, a couple kinds of melted cheese, bbq sauce—all squeezed inside a thick, half loaf of bread and, if that’s not enough carbs, served with a side of potato wedges. Having just backpacked about 100 kilometres, I’m feeling rather piggish, so let’s go.
Sadly, I’m still not up to the task. The five wedges, from a rather large potato, are a meal in themselves. And thank goodness there’s a hefty serrated knife thrust inside the sandwich, because there’s no way I’m getting my jaw around the whole thing.
It’s all great, fresh stuff. Still, I take half to go, and that wonderful sandwich is still feeding me a couple of days later.
Bubba’s is a fun, lively place, thanks to the energy and personalities of its owners, Julie and Sascha, who run the whole show. It’s only about five minutes off the Trans-Canada Highway, traffic willing, and is a great, tiny place for a quick bite, or a hundred, before hitting the “don’t want to get off the highway” mob scene of greater Vancouver.
Bubba’s Big Bites
101, 5885 Vedder Road, Chilliwack, B.C.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 11 am-7 pm, Thursday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm. Closed Monday
One of the unexpected pleasures of getting to obscure food and drink establishments is driving through interesting neighbourhoods you’d otherwise never discover.
Of course, heading into the boondocks means occasionally getting lost or turned around. And in every new city I explore for great, cheap eats, there’ are at least a couple of times I mutter, “This café can’t possibly be located on this residential/industrial street.” Until suddenly, there it is.
Such thoughts come to mind as we’re trying to find Roma Imports, an Italian deli and grocery southeast of downtown Tucson. We’re driving around an industrial district, with no sign of any place selling food. Just as I’m thinking we’re lost, thar it be, all by its culinary lonesome.
This is definitely the right place, judging by the line of cars out front and the stream of customers emerging with plastic bags of takeout. This impression is confirmed as soon as we enter the front door.
The building is narrow but goes on forever. On the right are coolers filled with fresh Italian meats and cheeses and scads of interesting appetizers (roasted garlic, prosciutto-stuffed figs, balls of fresh mozzarella, cauliflower fritters). The long left flank is jammed with frozen takeout items: lasagna, tiramisu, curries, cookies, saag paneer.
Way at the back are tables, where we tuck into hefty Italian sandwiches ($8), featuring plentiful meats and cheeses stuffed into crusty slabs of baguette. There’s enough for two meals here. We then load up on sufficient marinated goodies for a light supper of appetizers.
As we head out, I ask our server how long Roma has been in this out-of-the-way location. “About 18 years,” she says. So, if you build the best Italian deli in Tucson, people will find you, even if, like me, they’re not sure where they’re going.
627 South Vine Avenue, Tucson, Arizona
Monday to Thursday 9 am-6 pm, Friday-Saturday 9 am-8 pm. Closed Sunday
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
A woman peers over the high counter as I enter Mollie’s Cafe in Snowville, the last Utah outpost on the I-84 west before it enters Idaho.
“Are you a salesman?” she asks, perhaps noticing the nylon briefcase slung over my shoulder. “Because if you are, I’m not buying.”
“But, hey,” I counter, “aren’t you selling something? Like, maybe, food?”
“I’m just the cook,” she laughs.
Mollie’s is the kind of place you enter as much for the colour, the character and the conversation as the food—and the food’s pretty damn good for a classic country kitchen.
I go for a classic BLT on sourdough, lots of crunchy bacon to offset the tomatoes. Nicely done, with a side of chunky vegetable and beef soup. There’s nearly a dozen fresh fruit and cream pies to tempt, but with hours still to drive, I don’t want to fall into a food coma.
15 Main Street, Snowville, Utah
Daily 6 am-10 pm