Would You Like Chips With Those Fries?

Plate of fries a full-meal deal at Calgary’s Holy Grill

I once worked a summer cleaning clubs at an Edmonton golf course. The pay was poor, the work monotonous.

About the only perk was being able to order, from the clubhouse kitchen, an overflowing dinner plate of steaming fries and gravy, for the princely sum of, I think, 50 cents. Best fries I ever ate and a complete meal, even for a hungry 17-year-old.

Which is by way of explaining why I’m including an order of fries at Calgary’s Holy Grill as a complete lunch in this Calgary under-$10 lunch series. First, an order of hand-cut fries is only $4.95, a buck extra with a house-made garlic, chili and sour cream dip.

Second, you get a generous mound of fries, enough to satisfy a moderate noontime appetite. Third, these are damn good, hot, salty, made-to-order fries, worthy of your full attention, not some accompaniment.

The flagship Holy Grill location is across the downtown street from MEC

Yes, there are a few other, healthier under-$10 items—including a bacon, avocado, fried-egg crisp and a half, roasted beet salad (both $9.35)—on Holy Grill’s menu. Just missing the mark are an impressive blackened chicken burger ($10.70) and a solid list of paninis (all $11).

But when fries are this good, it’s sometimes worth moving them from a side-of-the-plate afterthought to starring attraction.

Note: The only place in all my road-trip food travels where fries were the featured attraction was Boise Fry Company, in the potato capital of Idaho. There you can order five types of potatoes in five cuts, including shoestring and curly.

Holy Grill
827 10 Avenue SW and three other Calgary locations
Opens weekdays at 7:30 am and weekends at 10 am

Succulent Strawberries Grown in the Dead of Alberta Winter

Fresh Dutchess strawberries galore at Sunterra Market

I’ve written recently about the growing trend of Calgary-area grocery and convenience stores selling a variety of locally produced foods. Now, Sunterra Market has taken things a step further with the introduction of superb strawberries grown locally in the dead of Alberta winter.

Actually, the provincial grocer aims to produce its Dutchess strawberries year round in greenhouses on the company’s farms near Acme in central Alberta. Unlike strawberries grown in, say, southern California or Mexico and picked when wooden and insipid tasting for their long journey to Canada, the Dutchess varieties are vine ripened and shipped to Sunterra outlets within a day of being hand picked.

Yes, they cost a little more than their industrial competitors. But one bite into these bursts of flavour, and you’ll never go back.

Bite into these succulent beauts and you’ll never go back

Let’s add up the advantages. Great flavour, locally produced, drastically reduced transportation emissions. I think we have a winner.

The Dutchess strawberries, like Sunterra’s pork products, are the latest instance of the company’s vertical integration; i.e. they control the entire process from farm to grocery shelves. Another recent example is vine-ripened tomatoes grown in Sunterra greenhouses.

Can’t beat these vine-ripened tomatoes

Sunterra’s nine Alberta grocery stores are also offering local veggies—like fabulous heads of lettuce from other local producers like Lyalta Gardens and Clearwater Ridge.

Local, living lettuce is all the rage

Promoting locally produced foods is hardly a new idea, witness the long-standing farm-to-fork and 100-mile diet movements. But given all the global disruptions from the pandemic to war in Ukraine, I foresee a much greater preference for buying local, whether it’s smart phones or vine-ripened strawberries.

Sunterra Market
1851 Sirocco Drive SW, Calgary, and eight other Alberta locations
Daily 8 am-9 pm

Calgary Lunch Under $10: Lina’s Italian Mercato

Lovely little pizza at Lina’s Italian Mercato in southwest Calgary

At Lina’s Italian Mercato, my challenge isn’t finding a tasty dish for about $10. It’s choosing which of many bargain items to order.

Consider just some of my lunchtime options: Veal parm on a bun ($11), a half dozen types of eight-inch pizza (starting at $10) and nine sorts of paninis (starting at $9), all of high quality.

I’ve been working my way through some of these bargain items, including a wild boar pizza, a stuffed porchetta meal and a ridiculously humungous breakfast sandwich. I’ve written about these great deals to honour the recent opening of this third Lina’s Calgary location, along Britannia’s Elbow Drive.

Stuffed porchetta meal

But there’s still plenty of room for yet another offering to squeeze into this cheap-eats lunch series. It’s a fabulous three-meatball hero sandwich, in a house-made focaccia bun—with tomato sauce, a balsamic glaze and a sprinkling of baby arugula—for only $10.

Update: I must note that in the nine months since I last had this sandwich, the price has gone up about $1 and the number of meatballs has shrunk from three to two (see photos below). Now, I don’t mind paying more as costs go up, especially during this pandemic.

But I’ve always been of the view that it’s better to increase prices than reduce the size of the meal (Unless it’s one of those monster meals fueling the obesity crisis). Your thoughts?

The three-meatball hero in June 2021
Down to two meatballs in March 2022

Lina’s Italian Mercato
5108 Elbow Drive SW, Calgary
Daily 9 am-7 pm

Look, Ma, No Water

Amaryllis flowers nearing their mid-winter apex

Every year at Christmas, my sister gives me an amaryllis bulb. You just plant the bulb in the provided soil inside a plastic container and water every day until, about a month later, the phallic stem rises and unveils up to four gorgeous, trumpet-like red flowers.

This year, things were a little different. There were three bulbs fixed in a linear box, but instead of being planted in soil, they were cloaked in a shell of hard wax. Most importantly, you were instructed to not water the bulbs at all (indeed you couldn’t water them if you wanted to), for the full six-plus weeks of the flowering process. Apparently, there was sufficient moisture in the bulb to not require any additional water.

Waterless amaryllis bulbs wrapped in hard wax

I was skeptical. But sure enough, the waterless amaryllis did their thing for nearly two months until the flowers finally withered, as per usual.

After seven weeks of no water

It got me thinking. Are amaryllis bulbs uniquely suited to not needing water? Or are there other plants—in particular edible ones—that require little or no water?

I’ve seen systems that more efficiently water plants, such as when the roots suck up water from a container below. But nothing approaching waterless.

It’s not an inconsequential thought in a rapidly warming world with sustained periods of drought.

Calgary Lunch Under $10: Pie Junkie

Pie Junkie serving up buttery goodness at its flagship Calgary location

There are a number of places in Calgary that make very nice pot pies, often for less than $10 for a single serving. So which to pick?

After sampling several versions, I settle on Pie Junkie and Bakery, in a charming little strip mall in the Spruce Cliff neighbourhood of the city’s southwest.

Their five-inch, individual pot pies aren’t the biggest or the cheapest. But they have something that sets them apart. Butter. Lots of butter in the delectable, flaky crust that envelops all their pies. Indeed, their instructions if oven heating at home are to bake at a slow and low 300 F. until a little pool of butter starts forming on the baking sheet.

A whole case of sweet and savoury pies

My second dilemma is deciding which pot pie to order from an extensive roster that includes Aussie beef, butter chicken, shepherd’s pie, goat cheese and tomato, and even brie and chutney.

I finally choose steak and sautéed mushrooms, a hearty $9 pie in a thick gravy seasoned with fresh herbs. Of course, it’s hard to resist not chasing this with a little hand pie loaded with Saskatoons, $7 when available. Sublime.

Steak and mushroom pie, heated until the butter melts

Pie Junkie and Bakery
Daily 10 am-7 pm
8 Spruce Centre SW, and three other Calgary locations

Calgary Lunch Under $10: Sunterra Market

The breakfast and lunch counter at Sunterra Market offers lots of bargain meals

At many lunch counters, there’s a mix of made-to-order and ready-to-go items. The former are generally far superior because they’re fresh. The latter appeal to the efficiency crowd, who eschew waiting more than two minutes for their order to be prepared.

Which is fine if you just need a quick heating in the oven, microwave or panini press. Where things start to fall apart, from a quality perspective, is when your prospective lunch has been sitting in a warming oven for an hour or needs nuking to be returned to life. Starchy items like bread fare particularly poorly here; never let a cold croissant head for the microwave!

Pasta usually falls into my “no microwaving revival” mantra. But while perusing Sunterra Market’s chalkboard menu, at its Sirocco location in southwest Calgary, I see the words “made from scratch” beside their pasta offerings.

When I ask my server if the noodles are cooked to order, she says they are blanched beforehand and then fully cooked once ordered. Double good news: fresh pasta and only a short wait. Indeed, I spend the final minutes watching a chef bring my dish together in a hot sauté pan. It’s a heaping plate of delectable prosciutto carbonara, featuring shallots and white-wine reduction and finished with eggs, cream and parmigiano reggino.

At $9.69, including a slice of garlic bread, it’s one of five such-priced pasta dishes on the menu; a Bolognese and pesto cream are two of the others.

A great plate of prosciutto carbonara

Sunterra is one of those markets where the groceries are fairly pricy but the hot meals a bargain, although sometimes spotty in their quality. The flatbread sandwiches are a little over $8, a burger and potatoes $9 and roast chicken on a bun a real steal at $8.59, with a choice of soup, potatoes, Caesar salad or roasted veggies on the side.

And you can’t beat the $5.89 cost of a house-made breakfast biscuit with eggs and seared Modena ham. Made to order, of course.

A fabulous, cheap breakfast sandwich

Sunterra Market
1851 Sirocco Drive SW and six other Calgary locations
Daily 8 am-9 pm