Category Archives: Uncategorized

Going With My Gut in Nogales, Arizona

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Great, affordable Mexican seafood at Cocina La Ley in Nogales, Arizona

Before I hit a new town or city on a road trip, I usually do considerable online research on the best places to eat. But sometimes it’s best to just wing it.

Such is the case when we approach Nogales, a city of 20,000 on the Arizona-Mexico border south of Tucson. The critters in the car are hungry, and Nogales is only five minutes away.

Just time for a quick “best restaurants in Nogales” search on TripAdvisor. Up pops Cocina La Ley, where one reviewer said he was the only gringo in the place. Perfect.

So off a main street we turn onto a little gravel road past an auto body shop to a little slope-roofed concrete building, with a bunch of cars around it. Double perfect.

Inside, we join the fast-moving lunch line and order mainly shrimp and breaded fish tacos, for about $2 apiece; the place is also noted for its shrimp-laden cocteles (cocktails) and soups. No sooner do we take our seats at a table, than the food arrives on Styrofoam plates. We adorn our little tacos with toppings such as pico de gallo and squirts from bottles, ranging from mild to searing, and dig into our excellent fare.

 

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Delicious seafood tacos

Seeing our plates quickly cleaned, our sharp-eyed server/table cleaner orders us a few more tacos, which again appear out of nowhere. We hardly have time to soak in the busy atmosphere of local families enjoying their meals.

So, thanks to TripAdvisor for leading us to a wonderful, inexpensive lunch. But don’t take every review seriously. “This isn’t a place for ambience,” one visitor commented. Au contraire. The place is dripping with it.

Cocina La Ley
226 West 3 Street, Nogales, Arizona
Daily 8 am-4 pm
520-287-4555

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ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Now Has a Gorgeous Cafe

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Calgary’s ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen has a gorgeous setting

For more than 80 years, the heralded ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen has provided culinary advice, mostly over the phone, to generations of Alberta cooks. “How do I cook a turkey?” “Do you have a good recipe for beef stew?” “How do I salvage a burned pot roast?”

Now, it’s putting its money where its mouth is by opening a gorgeous café in south Calgary. There aren’t many restaurants anywhere that can match the architectural splendour of the ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Café.

The curving, 100-metre-long space has a vaulted wood ceiling, with tables scattered throughout and light streaming in the side windows. It’s a place you want to just sit and savour a cappuccino for an hour. Plenty of neighbourhood residents seem to be doing just that, mixing in with workers in ATCO Commons, the headquarters office of this global infrastructure company.

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It’s counter service and a concise menu

On the first of what will no doubt be many visits, I just order a reasonable Americano and an excellent bowl of mulligatawny soup ($5), packed with chunks of chicken. Other enticing items on the concise, affordable menu include an omelette-style breakfast sandwich ($5.50), a steak BLT on a sourdough baguette ($10) and a curried cauliflower bowl ($9).

Only two minor quibbles. Everything is served on disposable ware, though much of it is recyclable or compostable. I suppose this works well for those taking food up to their ATCO office; there’s also a grab-and-go section of the café.

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A fabulous $5 bowl of mulligatawny soup. Pity it’s not in a real bowl

Parking is also a bit of an issue. There are visitor spaces around the building (all full when I visited late morning), and you’re supposed to register with the building front desk if you’re using them. Otherwise, it’s street parking about a block away.

It might also help to use Google Maps if you’re not familiar with the area. ATCO Commons overlooks the south end of Crowchild Trail a few blocks north of Glenmore Trail.

It took me a few minutes of driving around to find it. But I’m glad I did. It might well become a favourite local haunt.

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The spacious cafe is inside ATCO’s global headquarters in southwest Calgary

ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Cafe
ATCO Commons Building, 5302 Forand Street SW, Calgary, Alberta
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm, Saturday 9 am-2 pm. Closed Sunday

Ranch of Dreams

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At the Crossed J Ranch, in southeast Arizona, you’re surrounded by vast swaths of mountainous grasslands

When I do stay in a motel on a road trip, I tend to pick generic chains that offer reasonable value, even if it costs as much as a couple of days of Marathon Mouth eating and drinking.

So it’s pure pleasure, for a bit more money, to stay at the Crossed J Ranch, just outside Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona. It’s a 10,000-acre working family ranch, raising polled Hereford calves on sustainable pasture.

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The drive, past giant sycamores, to our studio (centre right)

Our cozy little ranch house studio is a base for hiking among Chiricahua’s amazing volcanic rock formations and for discovering Mexican blue jays, swarms of wintering sandhill cranes and foraging, raccoon-like coatimundi. But over a couple of days, the ranch itself becomes a major destination, not just to hang out in but to soak up the surrounding landscape of elevated grasslands, scrub brush, desert cacti and reddish summits.

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The ranch is 140 years old, but our rental studio has all the modern comforts

For one thing, there’s all that quiet, surrounding space, several miles removed from any pavement. The night before, we had stayed in a highway-side Motel 6, where our neighbour’s every cough and Spanish TV melodramas echoed through the paper-thin walls.

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Javelina trotting past our door

On the ranch, the loudest noise is a breeze sighing through sycamore leaves. We are treated to javelinas trotting past our door to a watering tank. And we soak up the morning light warming our front-porch coffee and the vast western sky turning orange and pink over a sunset beer.

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How’s this for a front-porch sunset?

At a motel, your principal and likely only interaction with management is during the lengthy sign-in procedure and bestowal of room card keys and Wi-Fi passwords. At the Crossed J, owners Jim and Janna Riggs come by to welcome us and point out native artifacts that Jim’s father unearthed many decades ago. The next morning, their young grandson, Nathan, cycles over with a friend to introduce himself and show off a vintage truck his father used to drive.

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Ranch patriarch Jim Riggs

Our second, and last, morning, we dally over breakfast, last viewings of displayed fossils and farewells to family members heading out to check distant pastures. We don’t want to leave.

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Grandson Nathan (left) and his friend Mark

Crossed J Ranch (VRBO)
Just outside Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona, about 30 minutes southeast of Willcox

Great Food, Service at Canmore’s Market Bistro

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Market Bistro is a casual, fine-dining spot removed from the Canmore crowds

Now, this is what I call service.

We’re sitting inside The Market Bistro, a lovely little dining room sheltered from the madding crowds of nearby downtown Canmore, Alberta. I order an Alberta craft IPA, which the server says has orangey notes. That it does, but without the hoppy bite I’m expecting.

Upon her return, she asks how I like said ale. I give an indifferent shrug. Immediately, she whisks away the beer and returns with two other options, including a more satisfactory (from my perspective) Railway Avenue rye IPA from local Canmore Brewing Company.

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A fine rye IPA from Canmore Brewing

The exceptional service, from sharp-as-a-tack Brande, is just one of the details that makes Market Bistro a fine destination for a quiet dinner in the mountains. Another is the open kitchen, from which French-born co-owner and chef Anthony occasionally emerges to chat with regular customers.

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Great service from Brande

Most of all, of course, it’s the bistro-style French cuisine. It’s a step up from my usual cheap-eats meals but quite reasonable for the skill and time that goes into dishes such as chicken tajine and duck confit. Consider my exquisite beef back ribs ($27), braised for hours to fall-off-the-bone tender and served with Gorgonzola polenta, mushrooms and braised kale.

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Fall-off-the-bone braised beef ribs

Of course, you can’t finish a meal at Market Bistro without a slice of its famous lemon pie. Brande cautions other diners that it’s not the overly sweet confection they’re probably used to. Indeed, it has wee slices of lemon rind and a pungent flavour that lingers on the tongue.

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You haven’t had a real lemon pie till you try Market Bistro’s distinctive version

Lemony tones, certainly. Definitely not sending this one back.

The Market Bistro
102-75 Dyrgas Gate, Canmore, Alberta
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 11 am-8 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Tuesday
403-675-3006

Chuck Out This Great Victoria-Area Burger Bar

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The bountiful burgers at Chuck’s Burger Bar, in Sydney, B.C., are juicy and flavourful

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.

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Chuck’s is in an industrial area near the Victoria airport and ferry terminal.

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
778-351-2485

Scenes From a West Coast Road Trip

 

Early morning light on Mount Temple near Lake Louise

Early morning light on Mount Temple, near Lake Louise

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The kiddies may be back in school but fall road construction in B.C. carries on

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Taken to its logical conclusion, doesn’t this mean no one should pass?

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How fruit muffins should be stuffed. The incomparable La Baguette in Revelstoke

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Only in Tofino

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No words required

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Must have arrived in the dark

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The best coffee shop mugs in the world: By Katy Fogg, at Tin Town Cafe in Courtenay

 

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Why I go to Vancouver Island’s west coast in the fall

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Beats this October 4 return to Calgary

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It’s been a strange fall