How Did Edmonton Ever Get So Lucky?

Between the venerable standbys and competitive newcomers, E-Town is blessed with great food

Edmonton, you never fail to amaze me with your beguiling mix of unvanquishable old standbys and frequently refreshed array of scrappy newcomers to the restaurant scene.

How does a city so hopelessly addicted to drive-thrus and big-box middle-brow food factories also sustain such a diverse, wide-spread banquet of inventive, independent culinary artistry or its comfort-food equivalent? This enigma is the reason for my emphasis here not on the local institutions you readers have thrown your weight behind, but on a few of the diamonds in Edmonton’s sprawling rough.

To start things off, I’m going to salute Pho King (9103-118th Ave.) as Edmonton’s best cheap breakfast — it’s one thing to put scrambled eggs, bacon and melted cheddar cheese between two thick, syrup-drenched buttermilk pancakes and call it the Breakfast Stack, and quite another to charge a mere $5 for it, and that puts them over the top. Value-priced breakfast is a human right, as far as I’m concerned, and Pho King (which also provided the fodder for this year’s Most Juvenile Restaurant Review) is doing its bit for Alberta Avenue. The King also makes very creditable Vietnamese food and excellent onion rings.

You may not be aware but our embarrassment of riches in the Vietnamese restaurant department is not a situation enjoyed in all western capitals. Why they picked Edmonton to bestow their delicious cuisine upon in such abundance is beyond my ken.

All I know is that little Thai Binh (11220-109th Ave.), deep in the heart of Queen Mary Park, makes the best pho I’ve had in Edmonton — the best broth, the best noodles, the best beef, the freshest fixins — and they’re the only place I’ve found that serves bot chien: fried rice cakes scrambled with eggs and green onions, served with a savoury drizzle.

The service is friendly and fast, fast, fast. Please make sure to take cash.

Come to that, Edmonton has also long reaped the benefit, food-wise, of the Lebanese diaspora. Newcomer Castle Bake (16845-109th St.) has my vote for best Lebanese (northside), for its fresh baked flatbreads, satisfyingly unique breakfasts and exemplary pita wraps at unbeatable prices.  On the southside, Sam Tabet at Cafe Beirut (10812 Whyte Ave.) puts remarkable care into every dish he prepares and the house-made baklava they just added to their menu must be sampled to be believed. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my perennial co-diner, a sage counsel in such matters, calls the shawarma from Dahlia’s Bistro (10235-124th St.) the best in the city.

Three visits in one week — and a few subsequent attempts — make Noodle Maker (9653-102nd Ave.) the obvious choice for best new find in both vegan and omnivorous categories. The food is inventive and intriguing (pan-Asian with lots of veg options, plus apple pulled pork and house-made bagels), the atmosphere charmingly erratic and the proprietor/maitre d’ personable and informative. Even better, it’s on the affordable side for the downtown lunch crowd. I’ve been dreaming of my next encounter with Flying Buddha Nun Ramen — grilled noodles tossed with tofu and sprouts in a sesame-vinegar sauce.

This past year marked the welcome return of Pharos Pizza as part of the Haven Social Club (15120 Stony Plain Rd.) music-food-booze synergy, making Pharos’ inimitable Popeye pizza — with sauteed spinach and feta — on whole wheat crust the most welcome comeback of the year (pizza division).

The past few years have been exceptional if you’re partial to downtown wine bars, which seem to keep cropping up with fancy menus to accompany their oeno-copia. So far my brushes with LIT (10132-104th St.) have been consistently pleasurable, for their extensive and varied wine and food choices, educational pairing suggestions, cavernous mod vibe and for the wonderful friends who keep suggesting that we meet there.

My best food court kiosk, on the other hand, possesses all the glamour inherent in its subcategory. Westmount Centre’s former Angelo’s, a food-court quality pizza and pasta joint, has been taken over by the culinary family behind the late, lamented Kamil’s Turkish Cuisine on 118th Avenue.

Now instead of pasta, Angelo’s serves chicken shawarma on a bun, velvety Anatolian lentil soup and lamacun, which is Turkish pizza, in which meat sauce is baked on homemade flatbread, which is then rolled up around an oniony, garlicky salad and bestowed on you for a mere $3. How did you get so lucky?

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