Nanton Bolsters Its Food Scene

The Hive is a collective of local vendors in Nanton

One of the things I always liked about Trader Joe’s, on western U.S. road trips, was the ability to mix and match when buying a six-pack of beer. That way, I could try a variety of local beers in one purchase.

So I was delighted to find the same concept at work in The Hive, a hub of local vendors and artisans in Nanton, 40 minutes south of Calgary. Here, I can mix a tall four-pack of craft beers from breweries in nearby High River, Black Diamond, Lethbridge and Fort Macleod, the latter featuring the fine Stronghold Brewing.

A mix-and-match six-pack of southern Alberta craft brewers

That seems to be the geographical range for the 250-plus vendors selling their wares at this little spot at the south end of Nanton, on the west side of Highway 2. A quick glance at fresh and frozen foods and drinks reveals this diversity: Coco Brooks fabulous pizzas (Calgary), El Papolete tomatillo dips (High River) and Tin Star roasted coffee (Nanton).

High River’s El Papolete makes a fine tomatillo dip

The sit-down dining options have been in flux, but the kitchen will now be run by The Buzz-Nanton, featuring sandwiches and daily soups.

All in all, The Hive is a big step forward in Nanton’s food scene.

The Hive
2517 21 Avenue, Nanton, Alberta
Wednesday to Monday 10 am-6 pm. Closed Tuesday

Gasoline Alley Farmer’s Market Adds Pizzaz to Red Deer Food Scene

The new Gasoline Alley Farmers’ Market in Red Deer

In the four decades I’ve been driving between Calgary and Edmonton, there’s been little incentive to pull over in Red Deer for a coffee or a bite to eat. That’s because the choices have been uninspired, to say the least, both along Highway 2’s Gasoline Alley and within the city. You know it’s a bad sign when the nearby community of Lacombe (population 14,000) has better cheap-eat options than a city of 100,000.

But maybe things are looking up. The Gasoline Alley Farmers’ Market recently opened, boasting more than 50 vendors. And there’s enough going on here to make me figure out the rather circuitous approach for drivers heading north along said Highway 2.

It’s an indoor market, kind of a mini Calgary Farmers’ Market in appearance, albeit with smaller crowds to date. It shares at least a couple of things with its more famous southern counterpart: fabulous Beck’s carrots (Innisfail Growers) and Luc’s fine cheeses.

Oishidesu Ramen Shack is one of 50-plus vendors in the market

But it’s the local food and drink vendors I’m interested in, and there’s a number that grab my attention. In the Market Kitchen, at the building’s north end, is a wall of beer taps, mainly showcasing a collective of central Alberta craft breweries, under the name Craft Beer Commonwealth. Indeed, it’s the only farmers’ market in Alberta with an in-house brewery and taproom.

A nitro cold brew on tap at Birdy Coffee

Sharing the space is Birdy Coffee Co., pulling shots from beans roasted in a wee machine around the corner. The bird illustrations on its bean packages are the most beautiful I’ve seen.

Divine coffee bean packages

In the two times I’ve stopped at the market, I’ve also sampled a nice focaccia at Dovganyuk’s organic bakery and dug into a delightful, bountiful sirloin burger and fries (a bargain $13) from Ponoka-based Longhorn Eatery.

Scrumptious burger and fries at Longhorn Eatery

Something tells me, I’ll be stopping in Red Deer more often in the future.

Gasoline Alley Farmers’ Market
558 Laura Avenue, Red Deer (I’d use Google maps to figure out directions; it’s a few blocks southwest of Costco)
Friday to Sunday 9 am-5 pm, Market Kitchen open every day except Monday

Claresholm Institution For Sale

Roy’s Place has long been a Claresholm institution in southern Alberta

As a road-food eater, perhaps the worst thing I can encounter is a “for sale” sign outside a little, independent establishment. Usually, it means the business has failed, a sadly familiar outcome during all the pandemic shutdowns.

But that’s not the real issue at Roy’s Place, a local institution in the farming community of Claresholm in southern Alberta. Indeed, there’s a bit of a lunchtime lineup in the spacious restaurant when I visit recently. Double indeed, it has gained widespread acclaim since appearing on Canadian TV’s You Gotta Eat Here not that long ago.

Soup and sandwich special

The problem is more likely something that’s afflicted many a successful restaurant: burnout. Co-owners Kieth and Brandi have run the place for 14 years, putting in 60-hour weeks for her and 80 hours for him, while raising young children. So it’s not surprising to see the for-sale ad on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Hopefully, they can find someone as talented and committed to take over the business. It will be one thing to duplicate the famous menu, which includes king-sized cinnamon buns, bowls of dill pickle soup (Thursdays only) and Angus beef burgers.

Every order comes with a generous helping of humour

But it will be difficult to replicate the pizzazz and personality the couple bring to Roy’s. Throughout my meal, Brandi is kibitzing with locals, several sporting hard-used cowboy hats. “That’ll be $10 million for your lunch,” she tells one customer and “I will not be responsible for her” another. Meanwhile, Kieth is steadily prowling the restaurant, delivering bulging plates of food.

The challenge for the next owners will be to keep the good times rolling. As the Facebook ad states: “Here is your chance to be the beacon of good food and love on Highway 2 for the next 15 years.”

Roy’s Place
5008 1 Street West/Highway 2, Claresholm, Alberta
Tuesday to Saturday 11 am-7 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday

An Uprising of Fabulous Bakeries in Small-Town Southern Alberta

The Uprising Bakeshop in Banff and Canmore

When I first published Day Trips From Calgary in 1995, it was hard to get a decent cup of coffee in most Alberta towns, let alone a muffin or sandwich that hadn’t been wrapped in plastic hours earlier.

My, how things have changed. Nearly every self-respecting town or small city now boasts a craft brewery and coffee roaster. In the past year or two, you can add craft bakeries that rival anything the big cities can produce, well except for Edmonton’s ethereal Duchess Bake Shop and maybe Sidewalk Citizen Bakery in Calgary.

While updating the aforementioned book, I’ve come across a handful of such bakeries in southern Alberta, far from the metropolitan food scene. Why, I’m not sure, other than owners willing to put in the long, early-morning hours that a well-rounded bakery demands. Here are some of the brightest examples, starting with the smallest centres.

The Heart of Bragg Creek

Mouth-watering, healthy treats at The Heart of Bragg Creek

Bragg Creek is a hamlet of about 600 people, albeit on the doorstep of a million-plus Calgarians looking for somewhere to go on weekends. The Heart of Bragg Creek is a yoga centre that also runs a café. I didn’t see any loaves of bread during a recent visit, but the baked goods were exceptional, including a berry crumble bar with lots of seeds, which I messily tackled without a fork. This is proof that healthy can also be delicious.

Sublime berry crumble bar
The lunch menu is begging to be explored

Homestead Bakeshop, Fort Macleod, population 3,000

The Homestead Bakeshop is on a historic downtown street in Fort Macleod

A decade ago, this historic brick-walled spot was the home of a European bakery that made delectable butterhorns. Fast forward to today, and there are still great butterhorns but now being produced by the talented Kimberly Vanden Broek and Julena Schipper, both graduates of the SAIT baking and pastry arts program.

Gotta love the brick-walled space

The apple rosemary sourdough bread, soft and chewy, is to die for, as are the almond croissants and the fruit turnovers and danishes. The artisan, sourdough bread roster also includes an oat porridge loaf and one with sprouted grains.

How do you choose?

Uprising Bake Shop, fairly recently opened in Canmore (population 17,000) and Banff (8,200)

This Uprising Bake Shop is on busy Banff Avenue

By mistake, I order the large size of the focaccia and cheese bread. No matter. I destroy the whole beast while driving through Banff townsite, each tangled bite inspiring another until there’s nothing left but bread crumbs embedded in the upholstery.

I demolished this cheese focaccia loaf in 20 minutes

Seeing as how I can pick up these hand-crafted breads and other baked treats in either mountain town, I’m strongly opting for the Canmore location. That’s because (rant alert), Banff has recently implemented a paid parking policy so byzantine for visitors that I’m questioning my need to ever go into the town again.

French 50 Bakery, Okotoks, population 32,000

French 50 Bakery takes over this historic Okotoks patio on Saturdays

French 50 is essentially a pop-up bakery—on the patio of a historic, pressed-tin building—open only on Saturdays for in-person shopping or online pickups. There are breads that are naturally fermented and cold proofed as well as treats like cinnamon brioche rolls and three-cheddar scones. But my eyes and tastebuds are drawn to a berry cross of a croissant and muffin, called a cruffin. Bliss ensues.

An elegant space inside, too
More choices

The Heart of Bragg Creek
12 Balsam Avenue, Bragg Creek
Weekdays 9 am-4 pm, weekends 9 am-5 pm

Homestead Bakeshop
228 24 Street, Fort Macleod
Monday to Saturday opens at 7 am. Closed Sunday

The Uprising Craft Bakery
735 9 Street, Canmore and 202 Banff Avenue, Banff
Monday to Thursday 8 am-4 pm, Friday to Sunday 7 am-7 pm

French 50 Bakery
52 North Railway Street, Okotoks
Saturdays only 8 am-1 pm

Beating the Crowds on a Mountain Long Weekend

About to devour a Timber Wolf pizza at Lake Louise Inn

Pulling into Lake Louise for a post-backpack bite to eat on Monday of the recent August long weekend, I was bracing for lineups—on the roads and in the restaurants. But what we instead encountered was a bit of an eerie ghost town, especially in the hamlet’s eateries.

First stop was the Lake Louise Hostel for a burger and beer at the Bill Peyto Café. Nope. Closed.

Second stop the Post Hotel’s basement pub, the Outpost. Also closed, until further notice. On a summer long weekend!

Last shot, the Lake Louise Inn, where for once I was happy to see a wee early-dinner lineup. What’s going on? I asked our upstairs server.

“Staff shortages,” she said. Thanks to a pandemic that kept nearly all Alberta restaurants closed or relegated to takeout, all those Aussies that wait on tables are still locked out of the country. Even the Lake Louise Inn was half staffed this holiday Monday and dealing with all the hungry diners that couldn’t get into the hostel or the Outpost.

After gorging on pizza, we were happy to leave a generous tip.

Timber Wolf Cafe, Lake Louise Inn
210 Village Road, Lake Louise
Tuesday to Saturday 6 pm-11 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday

High River Cafes Fully Back in Business

Evelyn’s Memory Lane Cafe is a busy High River diner

Other than Fort McMurray and its devastating wildfires, it’s hard to think of an Alberta community that’s suffered more over the past decade than High River.

First, there were the devastating floods of 2013, which for weeks swamped the aptly named town of 14,000, a 40-minute drive south of Calgary. Then the pandemic hit, with the Cargill meat-packing plant, on the town’s doorstep, recording 950 Covid cases, the worst outbreak in Canada.

So it was nice to recently visit High River and see a bustling downtown, with lunchtime lineups at a couple of landmark cafes.

Evelyn’s Memory Lane Café is a hopping 1950s-style diner, complete with swiveling stools and a menu that features thick sandwiches, interesting salads, house-made ice cream and deep-dish pies.

How’s this for a loaded roast chicken sandwich?

I went for an Evelyn’s classic, a roasted Hutterite chicken sandwich with cranberries and mayo on house-made bread. It’s an outstanding meal—they certainly don’t skimp on the chicken—which at $8 would rival any of my Calgary cheap-eats sandwiches. For another $6, I could have added a generous broccoli or beet salad, but the sandwich alone was certainly a sufficient lunch.

Colossi’s Coffee House next door

Next door, the graffiti-clad Colossi’s Coffee House was serving good hot beverages along with paninis, loaded bagels and baked treats. Not far away, the Whistle Stop Diner offers a unique dining experience: lunch in a historic, refurbished rail car.

The historic Whistle Stop Diner

Unfortunately, it wasn’t open this day. But it was great to see so many long-time High River restaurants (including the Hitchin Post Drive In) still chugging along.

Evelyn’s Memory Lane Cafe
118 4 Avenue SW, High River, Alberta
Weekdays 10 am-3 pm, Saturday 11 am-3 pm. Closed SundayH

Colossi’s Coffee House
114 4 Avenue SW, High River
Weekdays 7 am-6 pm, Saturday 8 am-5 pm, Sunday 9 am-5 pm