CALGARY - When my wife, Stephanie, and I descended on this city for a week in July during the Calgary Stampede, it took me four days before I had my first taste of Alberta beef.
Blasphemous? Perhaps. But it shows how much the food culture has changed in Alberta’s biggest city of late. It’s not all about the white-linen, dark-leather steakhouses of yesteryear. Despite the city’s recent economic struggles, restaurants of all kinds are having a moment.
“Calgarians will eat anything, as long as it’s good,” Chef Rogelio Hererra tells me with a smile as we played nine holes of golf one morning with fellow Calgary chefs Duncan Ly and Jan Hansen.
Hererra is at the helm of Alloy Restaurant, a funky Latin-inspired room about five minutes from the Stampede grounds. Ly is just about to open his latest venture, Foreign Concept. Hansen, with 30-plus years in the industry, took over Ly’s old spot leading the Hotel Arts group of restaurants.
As we walk the pristine fairways of Country Hills Golf and Country Club – about 20 minutes from downtown and the host club of an event on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada schedule – I can’t help but think how strong the camaraderie is between these three chefs.
They say it’s just a part of Calgary’s robust food scene. Everyone is helping everyone else.
It mostly has to do with the short growing season for local produce, they agree. The chefs usually connect with other chefs in the area to see what they’re using, how they’re using it, and how to get the best out of their short time with fresh goods. This is not the first time I’ll hear this mentioned on this trip.
Hererra then points to a moment six years ago that really kick-started the foodie movement in Calgary.
Above: Trendy Calgary has some exciting new restaurants.
Rouge, a farm-to-fork spot that specializes in those aforementioned local ingredients, is in a historic home near the Bow River and opened in 2001. By 2010, Rouge was named to the coveted San Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants list — it was 60th.
Six years later, the dining culture in Cowtown is exciting, even if it’s not cow you’re ordering. Calgary now has plenty of new, international cuisine options that are too good to pass up.
Arriving in Calgary midday on a Thursday, the day before the Stampede began, I’m met by a sea of cowboy hats, boots, plaid shirts and jeans that were just a little too tight. And Native Tongues Taqueria, a hip Mexican joint that just opened a year ago, was bustling.
The cozy spot on the main floor of the Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites was very busy the night we visited. John, the manager, told us the rustic dine-in and take-out cantina has been just as busy every night since it opened.
“Everyone loves tacos. They’re recession-proof,” he said with a smile.
I enjoyed a margarita – of course – and we indulged in tacos and house-made guacamole with chips. The tacos, filled with local produce and buttery-soft braised meats, were certainly a standout. However, much of the menu was a twist on your usual Mexican fare like Barbacoa de Cordero (slow-roasted lamb neck).
The next day we ventured to the up-and-coming East Village neighbourhood for brunch at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery – a spot so nice we went there twice. It’s part of a three-restaurant complex that sits in a refurbished mattress factory.
Michal Lavi, one of the owners, told us they are undeniably committed to using fresh, local ingredients. Their locations have expanded to three in the last few years, and the open-concept dining area in East Village – floor-to-ceiling windows open to views of the Bow River – has already been incredibly popular. The baked goods at Sidewalk Citizen, like the sinfully sweet pear tart, sit on display in front of a steady stream of patrons. The menu is filled with Israeli-inspired dishes like garlicky organic hummus and pitas (made on site, every day), which, on this particular day, was filled with grilled cauliflower, halloumi cheese, cucumber and za’atar.
Before a night out at the Chuckwagon races, we visit the pleasant Bonterra Trattoria. We sat next to the fireplace, which is adjacent to the bustling kitchen, as it was an unusually cool evening for July. The terrace is usually the place to be at Bonterra, but enjoying perfectly paired white and red wines with our multi-course menu eased any pain we may have felt having to sit inside.
Although the meal felt like it was never going to end, neither Stephanie nor I wanted that to happen. From fresh salads – both warm and cold – to veal carpaccio (something neither of us had tried before), to pasta dishes like carbonara with boar bacon, to elegant halibut atop ricotta gnocchi and a velvety leek cream, the meal at Bonterra Trattoria was more of an experience than a dinner.
Above: Restaurants like Native Tongue have everyone excited.
As our trip was nearing its conclusion, we had yet to visit one of those spots that made Calgary so famous in the first place.
Enter Charcut Roast House.
Connie DeSousa, the co-owner and a Top Chef Canada finalist, greeted us with a big smile and as we were sitting, proclaimed that she hoped we liked meat.
DeSousa continued to tell us about her love for the local food scene, and made mention of how, when Charcut was just starting out six years ago, they hosted a backyard barbecue for as many local chefs as they could to just “break bread” (or meat, I guess).
Left: Bonterra is a hot new restaurant in Calgary. Right: Bonterra chefs offer up mouth watering dishes.
They also visited 40 farms in 40 days, including an artichoke farm 100 kilometres away where they gleefully told them about how they could sell their artichokes to local restaurant owners. The farmers were otherwise uneducated on the marketability of their fresh produce.
We enjoyed a chef’s choice appetizer inspired by DeSousa’s Portuguese heritage – a sizzling dish of sausage, egg and hot pepper that she said she ate for breakfast numerous times growing up – and then a salad of burrata cheese with homemade bread and peppery arugula.
We both ordered sandwiches as our mains (it was lunch, after all) and smiled in agreement that they were tremendous. Mine was a baseball-sized meatball sandwich with a rich Bolognese sauce accompanied by their famous Parmesan fries, which had been cooked in duck fat. Stephanie enjoyed warmed rotisserie chicken on a homemade focaccia, topped with boar bacon.
As we strolled around the Stampede grounds one last time, I couldn’t help but think about the meals we consumed in Calgary and realized there was only one or two where it was all about the beef. And that was totally fine because, as we discovered, there’s plenty of other options.