Really, is there a nicer, cozier place to have lunch on a winter’s day than *River Café, in Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park? The imaginative and immaculately prepared food is usually beyond my road tripper’s budget. But during downtown Calgary’s Big Taste week (on until March 16), I can savour a three-course, scratch-made lunch for the bargain price of $15.
$13 for a sandwich? That’s why Caffé Mauro, across the street from downtown’s Mountain Equipment Co-op, didn’t make my list of top places to eat in Calgary for under $10. The sandwiches themselves were, and are, superb, reflecting owner and cook Sal Malvaso’s long-time commitment to first-rate ingredients and made-to-order freshness. You can watch him assemble a short list of sandwiches including a beef brisket Reuben and the top-selling prosciutto and bocconcini, piled high on a baguette.
Two things changed my mind. First, my sister sends me this email: “Seriously, this meatball sandwich is maybe the best lunch in town. Soft, peppery meatballs, sautéed mushrooms, in the softest baguette. YUM!”
Second was the math. When I took home an outstanding meatball sandwich and plopped it on the scale, it topped 1.3 pounds. Unless I wanted to gorge myself, it was plenty for two lunches. So $13 divided by two equals $6.50, which turns into a high-quality bargain.
Caffé Mauro makes a slightly smaller version of said sandwich for $10. Either way, add it to my list of great Calgary cheap eats.
When I hit a lunch buffet, I’m squarely focused on three things: quality, volume and price. Service? Just point me towards the groaning tables of steamer trays. But *Inti Restaurant, a fairly new Peruvian restaurant in a northeast Calgary strip mall, nails all aspects of a great buffet dining experience, for only $16.
First and foremost, there’s the excellent and rather exotic Peruvian cuisine. It starts with what, for me, is the meal’s highlight, a spicy chicken soup with peas, which I accompany with a tangy squid and shrimp ceviche. Of course, this is followed by two platefuls of pork stew with potatoes and peanuts, rotisserie chicken, savoury kidney beans and fried yucca. Surprisingly, there’s also a tray of ginger beef, a nod to a post-World War 2 influx of Chinese immigrants to Peru; who knew?
Purple corn makes an appearance in a house-made fruit drink, chicha morada, and a fruit dessert. Apparently, purple corn is good for high blood pressure. Need more dessert? A friend sings the praises of the coconut rice pudding, but I’m too stuffed to join in.
Good as the food is, it may be topped by the interaction with our lovely host, Consuelo. Her son, Hans Puccinelli, officially owns the family-run place, but he’s ensconced in the kitchen. That leaves Consuelo to come by with clean plates, menu explanations and suggestions. By the time we leave, we’ve heard about the family’s migration from Peru to Canada, and Consuelo is imploring us to come for a future pisco sour tasting.
Note: Inti is a favourite hangout for star chefs John Jackson and Connie DeSousa, when they’re not busy running their Charcut Roast House.
208, 3132 26 Street NE, Calgary
Lunch Tuesday to Saturday 11:30 am- 2 pm, Sunday noon-2 pm, dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5 pm-9 pm. Closed Monday
Hey, I’m hitting the road for a trip down the U.S. west coast (you know, Washington, Oregon, California), and the beast must be fed. If you have any good eatery/drinkery suggestions of places I “must” hit, please let me know. In the meantime, one last healthy Calgary meal.
I don’t know why, but I hadn’t eaten at Community Natural Foods in a number of years. Maybe it was the oh-so-serious vibe I was getting, at Calgary’s flagship health food outlet, about what people were putting in their bodies. But when I glanced into the store’s busy Community Café the other day, there were lots of relaxed-looking, regular folks (okay, there was one guy with dreadlocks) filling their lunch plates from the cafeteria-style stations. Better yet, there was a diverse selection of fresh, healthy food at reasonable prices. It all passed my eye test, to the point where I couldn’t decide between a $3 small slice of pizza, an $8 meat sandwich (yes, MEAT), wild rice cabbage rolls or one of the best salad bars you’ll find in the city. Both the hot dishes and salads are $2.49 per 100 grams, so there’s some incentive to not overeat, which is kind of the point, I guess, at a health food emporium.
I settled on a hearty chicken burrito ($8), which server Evan loaded with brown rice, mozza, spring mix lettuce, avocado, salsa, hot sauce and anything else my heart desired. It was a fine medley of flavourful food rolled tightly enough inside a large whole-wheat tortilla to permit only minor seepage down my wrists. My only criticism was the single cashier, causing a slight delay that could cool one’s food off during lunch rush hour. The only other problem was all the other dishes I could have eaten, like the pumpkin lasagna. Guess I’ll have to start making up for lost time.
The Community Cafe at Community Natural Foods
1304 10 Avenue SW, Calgary
Weekdays 9 am-7 pm, Saturday 9 am-5 pm, Sunday 10 am-4 pm
In honour of the 101st Calgary Stampede and those who moved mountains to put it on two weeks after the record floods. Where’s the beef? At the end of a shovel.
Southerners can get mighty particular about barbecue—about smoke rings, chopped or sliced, etc. Me, I don’t know much, but I do lean toward flavour, moistness and an absence of syrupy sauces. So, Calgary’s Holy Smoke BBQ hits pretty much all my bases. Its barbecue has a nice, smoky flavour and ain’t dry, with a dozen sauces in bottles, so I can add what heat and sweetness I want. It also hits my price point, $6 for a generous, regular chopped beef brisket, stacked inside a typical hamburger bun; better bread would kick things up a notch. Add buck-a-bone ribs for more protein or sides like coleslaw or a tiny piece of cornbread, and you still haven’t cracked $10. I avoid the lunchtime rush, so my car-to-car time, including eating, is an impressive five minutes, and I’ve got the vacuum turned off.
The flagship Holy Smoke is located in an industrial part of southeast Calgary, with outdoor picnic tables for summertime dining and indoor seating surrounded by bumper stickers. To wit: “If you’ve been married three times and still have the same in-laws, you might be a redneck” and “Dress code: four tooth minimum.”
Authentic BBQ at 51 degrees latitude? I’ll let the purists debate that. But for quick, affordable beef on a bun, it goes down fine with a little rodeo.
Holy Smoke BBQ
4, 4640 Manhattan Road SE (two other Calgary locations)
Weekdays 10 am-8 pm, Saturday 10 am-4 pm. Closed Sunday
In honour of Easter, here’s a short post on a terrific family-run operation at the Calgary Farmers’ Market. With its counter service, Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils in a small food court, Margarita’s Dishes may look like fast food, but everything from the sausages and cottage cheese to the jam and sauerkraut is homemade eastern European cuisine. Mother Margarita is supposed to be retired, but she can often be seen wearing an apron in back of son Danny Korduner, who always makes you feel welcome.
My brother-in-law and sister have been eating breakfast here for years, but it took my good friends and frequent customers Nancy and Dennis Stefani to prompt this post. Here’s their report:
“There are many excellent culinary delights at the Calgary Farmers’ Market, but it is hard to beat a comforting bowl of hot oatmeal from Margarita’s—luxuriously creamy and topped with loads of fresh fruits. They make it to order, so you’ll have several minutes to get your espresso from nearby Fratello Analog Cafe. By the time you return, your oatmeal will be hot and ready.
“Margarita’s makes the best sauerkraut we’ve ever tasted. If you think you don’t like sauerkraut, then you haven’t had Margarita’s. And there’s the incredible blintz with homemade cottage cheese filling – mmmmm! Also, they make pyrogies, latkes, schnitzel, bratwurst, and cabbage rolls made with Silver Sage beef. They make delicious borscht, too. All these can be taken home for later and some items can be purchased frozen. Enjoy!”
Calgary Farmers’ Market and all its vendors
510 77 Avenue SE
Thursday to Sunday 9 am- 5 pm
Hey, I’m heading off on an extended road trip to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Any suggestions for some great independent, affordable eateries I should check out on my trip?