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LA chowhound visiting calgary: looking for local specialties

  • m

ill be in calgary from the 15th-22nd of march.
i live in LA where we have strong ethnic communities and representative foods (thai, vietnamese, japanese, chinese, korean, armenian, persian) these are the foods i eat most frequently.

however, i want to check out what calgary has that is indigenous. i really know very little about the city. i imagine there must be the quintessential calgary steak house experience, with beef aging in glass windows or something like that. i dont need high end dining. just good grub. ill still check out foods that we have in la if its really special.

any other populations that might be better represented than los angeles?

essentially im looking for something that is really special. ie. a lithuanian church that serves sunday lunches, polish pani's who make sell kielbasa out of their home that kinda thing. doesnt have to be high end foodie, but very local calgarian. might be wishful thinking on my part.

ill also be skiing lake louise and banff so if theres anything there thats good that would be cool too!

cheers in advance. i know its kind of a wishful and demanding list.

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  1. Your question is a great one; it's very hard to answer.

    There is a quintessential Calgary steak house: it's Caesar's, on 4th Avenue S.W. It's worth going for the steak and not a lot else to my mind. The small filet, or the 12 oz rib eye is what i'd probably have. It's also in the best tradition to eat in the bar with the oil service guys at lunchtime. Never order the bearnaise; the last time i had it it was made by the knorr-swiss company, I think.

    I think you really must eat at the River Cafe, because of the ambience, and the fact that you must walk there. It's got the most lovely setting of any restaurant I've ever been to.

    You MUST have lunch at Spolumbo's, in Inglewood. They started the local Italian sausage craze; also check out Lina's on Centre St North for fantastic Italian food.

    I'd make sure I went for at least one Vietnamese meal, and the my favourite two places are Trong Khanh, on Centre St North, and Sunny Vietnamese, on 2nd Ave in Chinatown.

    Speaking of Chinatown, Calgary has a venerable one, and the best restaurant IMO is the Harbour City. Go at night, and take the waiter's recommendation. Last time, we had snow pea tips which were fantastic. You should probably order some ginger beef, as it is a Calgary specialty, although it's not my favourite thing.

    The best Central European food I know is at Ukranian Fine Food on Cleveland Cres SE; it's only open for lunch weekdays, but they have the best borscht, great perogies, and large and flavourful cabbage rolls.

    For Indian food, you should try Glory of India downtown, but my absolute favourite place is the Skylark, on 17th Ave. SE. It's wonderful, and their spinach is out of this world.

    Out of town, in Canmore you must go to the Quarry on Main Street, Crazy weed kitchen, and also check out Valbella meats, which has the best cold meat around.

    If you're going to go crazy one night, splurge at Eden, at the Rimrock hotel in Banff. It's the best restaurant in Southern Alberta, for my money. It's probably better to order the wine directly from the list though rather than order the wine / food pairings.

    Have fun; it's great eats here now, and it wasn't always.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Miles
      Zucchini Mama

      I'm from Vancouver and every time I visit Calgary I have to go to the River Café. It's got such an elegant and relaxed atmosphere and the food is incredible. I also love the Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff. The secret to a great meal there is that if there's only two or three of you, you can sit in front of the fire in the lobby under the antler chandelier-can't get much more Albertan than that!

      If you're flush with cash-stay at the Lodge and soak in the outdoor hot tub after dark. Sneak in a flask of your favorite whiskey and reeelax!

      As for ethnic-the first Moroccan food I had was in Calgary. Is that joint still there?

      1. re: Zucchini Mama

        l will be in Calgary for a day and a half in May prior to a Canadian Rockies tour, coming from LA as well and staying at the Palliser.
        Are any of the above recs withing a walking distance and since l won't have a car, how does one get around in Calgary.
        l will only have time for one b/l/d. . . although l love ethnic snacks.
        What's the "le must de Calgary"?
        Thank you in advance.

    2. Calgary is a very multicultural city (the cowboy stereotype is one of the most inaccurate of any place I have ever lived or visited), and the largest "visible minority" ethnic communities are Chinese, East Indian, Filipino, and Arab; living in SoCal you have doubtless discovered that Filipino has not evolved as a restaurant cuisine to the extent of other ethnic options, but Chinese, Indian and Middle-Eastern restos abound here and there are absolutely outstanding examples of all three. However the ethnic cuisine par excellence in Calgary is Vietnamese, ranging from cheap and homey noodle houses like Co Do on 17th Ave SW (my fave, and having just moved house I am a block away!) and too many others to mention, to upscale Viet and Viet fusion places like Passion and The Orchid Room.

      My faves for the others:
      Chinese: Harbour City for Hong-Kong style especially dim sum; Han's for Taiwanese including the best spicy beef noodle soup I've had at a Taiwanese joint;
      Indian: I now live close enough to Moti Mahal that I can smell it on my front porch and so I've rediscovered it and its baigan barta is amazing... I also like Glory of India and Dawat.
      Middle Eastern: For shawarma, Shawarma King, Felafel King, Pita Express (Burns Bldg by Olympic Plaza), A and A; for non-shawarma (ie, stews, plates, matluba and the like), Aida's and Babylon.

      Calgary ain't all steak, not by a long shot.

      1. Here are a few spots in the downtown area or close to that not only offer wonderful food, but great service and a great atmosphere:

        -River Cafe- located downtown in Prince's Island Park. Serves both lunch and dinner as well as weekend brunch. Unique, upscale (not too expensive), great food and a wonderful atmosphere. "We seek out the best of our region, serving organic and free-range products from local farmers and producers and from our organic garden at Highwood Crossing in High River". See menu and highlights at:


        Any of the CRMR restaurants are very good. http://www.crmr.com/. My favorite is CILANTRO (located on 17th ave SW) A very upbeat, trendy atmosphere with outstanding food - my favorite is the Fresh pear & gorgonzola cheese pizza @ $13 has to be one of the best deals in town. For more information on Cilantro see link below.

        For a quick, cheap bite to eat try SPOLUMBO'S Italian Deli. It is located in Inglewood and offers the best sandwich is town. A few highlights: Calabrese Salami Sandwich, Spolumbo's Spicy Italian Sausage served on a crusty bun with fresh tomato sauce. The menu is endless. They offer daily specials as well as salads, pasta's and you can also create your own sandwich. They serve lunch Monday - Saturday from 11 - 5:30. For more information and to read up on the history of Spolumbo's check out their website at:


        Link: http://www.letsgofordinner.com/Calgar...

        1. Being fairly familiar with LA's food scene, im going to go a bit against the trend and suggest that you *not* bother with foods you are familiar with. While Calgary is definitely growing into a more metropolitan, more culturally diverse city, the quality of certain types of food just do not exist - whether it's for population reasons, or because of the lack of fresh ingredients.

          For example, i wouldn't waste your time on Chinese food. You won't experience the diversity of styles, dishes, or the value you would find dining in LA. It's not to knock the Chinese restaurants here, but there's likely hundreds of better alternatives in LA. Mexican, Ethiopian, Korean, Taiwanese and probably a few others I would also avoid.

          Now, not all is lost. There are several things that Calgary does very well. And these are definitely worth trying.

          Firstly is meat: beef is the best known, but the quality of the lamb, and of farmed game (bison/buffalo, ostrich, elk, moose, deer) rivals meat from anywhere else in the world. Primarily grain-fed, the meat is tender, with good marbling, and phenomenal flavour.

          I would recommend a few experiences - one for beef, and one for game.

          For beef, I agree with Miles that Caesar's is the quintissential experience. I'd go with the Rib-Eye as well, but I do not think it is the best prepared beef in Calgary. In many heated arguements, I've heard Hy's Steakhouse (which i dislike), Carvers, Gaston's, and the Owl's Nest all thrown out as the best place in town. Regardless of where you choose, know it won't be cheap nor expensive, and will be of good quality.

          For game, there are several options. I think JWh recommended the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resort restaurants - and they have some excellent choices. Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff has an excellent selection of game, but is not cheap. I personally like Divino better than Cilantro's, but that's a lot like comparing different taco stands - it's all great, but all personal preference. Murietta's, not a CRMR restaurant but of good quality, often carries game on the menu as well.

          River Cafe is both a great Canadian dining experience, with some excellent canadian-fusion dishes (with Game available). It's on everyone's list, and is well deserved though i find it a bit pricey for the quantity. The quality can't be argued though.

          Other places that serve excellent game is the Ranche, Bear's Den, and Wildwood. Wildwood is a brew pub/restaurant, and is very Canadian. I'd recommend sitting downstairs in the pub, having a few pints of your favorite malted beverage, and eating some solid regional cuisine. I've heard mixed reviews about Bear's Den, but it's supposedly quite good. I like the Ranche, but it can be a bit inconvenient to get to.

          Other good options in Calgary are Vietnamese (though not significantly different than LA), Mediterranean, and Italian. The Vietnamese is pretty much on every block, and of varying quality. There is a very large immigrant Italian population, which has resulted in some phenomenal regional Italian cuisine. From Tuscan, to Mediterranean, to the heavy-handed Sicilian dishes, there's a lot of Italian variety here, many of good quality. I wouldn't bother with Greek - for the most part, i find it a bit too formulated, and predictable (except for Piato - which is Greek influenced fine dining, and very excellent). The lebanese however, more than hold up their side of the sea. Sahara (restaurant), and the multitudes of Falafel/Shawarma places are all excellent.

          Eastern/Central European is a fairly large presence, primarily Ukranian in Alberta, but is sadly better represented in Edmonton. Ukrainian Fine Foods is the only place i also know of in town, and i find quite inconvenient to eat there.

          For things that don't really fit, I'd recommend Spolumbo's for sure. I'd also try and find some things that are Canadian - poutine (fries, cheese, and gravy - better than mayo folks!) is a must try when in Canada. Grab breakfast at the Siding Cafe, Diner Deluxe, or Pfffantastic Pannenkoek House. They are all worth trying. The Grizzly House in Banff is European Fondue (something not readily available in the SoCal region), and heavy, expensive, but a good dining experience.

          As for Canmore, im a big fan of CrazyWeed, and of Chef Studio Japan. It's probably my favorite restaurant in all of Alberta. The quality of the fish is phenomenal, and the presentation, and cooked foods are awesome.

          Anyway, I hope that helps. If you have additional questions, fire away. Don't forget to try the wide variety of local beers. From micro-brews, to products from Wild Rose, Big Rock, we produce some of the best ales and lagers around.

          1. Well, you've gotten great replies from all the Calgary heavyweights. I hope to hear back a report from where you ended up going here in town. In the spirit of your request I would add the following recco's:

            Despite Yen's statement about ethnic cuisine, I would still promote Vietnamese in general as a good quick lunch. Our Korean isn't going to touch on LA, but our vietnamese will likely outshine.

            Adding to that, the greatest local "downlow" cuisine that I can think of:

            Udon at Cafe De Tokyo off Centre Street. It's a great, dive restaurant with a mom and pop owner/operator team.

            Divino, Divino, Divino. It's a "CMR" restaurant, with local game, fortified by a strong set of wines and the best dessert in town.

            Farmer's Market at the Currie Barracks. Not for the crappy and overpriced hot food merchants. Or even for the unbelievably good Belgian Pastry (I am of the firm opinion that breads/pastries made at this altitude can not compare to those made closer to sea level). You go to the Farmer's Market for the cold smoked trout.

            As well, keep in mind Calgary is a (relatively) small city. Big restaurants suck azz in this town. The staff do not exist to fill them, the patrons do not exist to make them profitable. Avoid Murrietta's for this reason. Hell, avoid Teatro, Owl's Nest and any restaurant that has over 100 seats. The best steak in town will be cooked for you on a backyard bbq. Purchased from The Better Butcher (Heritage Dr. S.E.) and with nothing more then a bit of salt and pepper and a cheap white roll. I don't know if you'll be able to get it, it's the best (and hardest) food experience to achieve in Calgary

            1 Reply
            1. re: Gobstopper

              Actually, i didnt exclude Vietnamese in my list (Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese if my memory serves me correctly). Vietnamese is good here. I just havent had enough exposure to it in LA to adequately compare - i'd rather eat things that Calgary doesnt have when I go.

              And you're bang on regarding where the best steak in town is - at someone's BBQ. Do I understand that you're inviting us all over for a steak dinner? :)

              Im assuming you're the same Gobstopper that's over at eGullet?

            2. I'm surprised no one mentioned Jonas' Restaurant. It's certainly not high end, and is reasonable and affordable, and down home-y. find a review here:


              another interesting calgary haunt might be the ironwood stage and grill on a weekend when Tom Philips or one of the local bands are playing. I don't know what kind of music you're into, but Ironwood showcases some of the finest local and regional folk and roots artists (the cowboy legacy does live on in excellent roots blues and country). the food is southern influenced and quite good given the environment. i used to go there all the time for lunch before they started only being open for dinner. http://www.ironwoodstage.ca

              modernist wrote:
              "a lithuanian church that serves sunday lunches, polish pani's who make sell kielbasa out of their home that kinda thing. doesnt have to be high end foodie, but very local calgarian"

              1 Reply
              1. re: marco

                The reason i didn't mention Jonas' is because the quality of Hungarian food i've had in Los Angeles far exceeds anything i've had in Canada. My understanding was the scope of the recommendations were based upon things not readily accessible, or of better quality of anything in the greater LA region.

                I do agree with Marco that the Ironwood place is a good place for entertainment and atmosphere though. Some great bands play there.

              2. Hi - I've been here 6 months and am still struggling to find regular haunts. Must confess, I am a spoiled brat having lived in NYC, Montreal and Toronto in the last 10 years. On many occasions, I've just opted to eat at home.

                Most "high-end" places have good ambience and passable service. Divino's has been a good wine experience but I'd rather just get my own cheese at Janice Beaton and a good bottle and take it home.

                Wildwood has great service. Good game. I'm a big fan of Valbella's jerky.... worth the drive to Canmore.

                Mercato at 4th ST SW and 25 Ave SW has yummy Italian finds but overall I'd skip most of the Italian fare in this city.

                Vietnamese subs are a blast! Definitely a fun discovery. I must say that I've really enjoyed the Vietnamese in this city. I also had some really great Thai on 11 Ave SW... Thai Saon. And the wine list there is SOOOOOO cheap and SOOOOOOO good!

                The Lebanese is better here than in Toronto but doesn't touch Montreal.

                Good luck... and everyone... keep posting your finds. Calgary will get better every year! It's already come a long way.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Juberzilla

                  6 months- I'd give it more time before you dismiss Italian in cowtown. I will say again something I've posted before: Lina's Italian Market, the tavola calda eat-in part (which is strictly cafeteria style and strictly lunch), is my favourite Italian "restaurant" in North America. I have never had veggies so delicious, and the risotto croquettes- my God, I can live on those. I don't even LIKE Italian for the most part (having had too much crappy "pasta fazool" at home growing up, I came to find Italian the epitome of coarseness, but I'm learning) but I will suffer anything to get to Lina's. Having lived in what is, per capita and speaking only of population, the Italian capital of the continent (that's Toronto, not Montreal and not New York), I have never tasted just deliciousness anywhere else.

                  More Lebanese- my understanding is that Tazza will make you forget Montreal, at least for a while, and I want to check it out. Just today I had to pick up something at the Shaw bldg downtown and picked up a lunch box from the Leb buffet at Sahara- WOW, it was great! The first Leb buffet I've seen since the one at my old stomping grounds in the Annex (TO) closed. Sahara has superb, superb hummous, a dish done poorly more often than it's done well unfortunately.

                  1. re: John Manzo

                    I agree with John ... and you can't forget Scarpone's (aka the Italian Store) on Skyline Way NE; they don't have the tavola caldo selection, but the lunch is great, and the prices at the deli are fantastic (for some reason, Aurecchio Provolone is always on sale).

                    I prefer Say Cheese Fromagerie in the Crossroads Market to Janice Beaton. You can always find something wonderful; the most recent discovery was Irish farmhouse blue, which is a heavenly mixture of Stilton and Gorgonzola.

                    I'm not sure the souvlakis are as good at Crete Souvlaki on 17th Ave SW as they are elsewhere (I like the souvs at Souvlaki time in Westbrook mall better, but they were out of this world when he had a grill rather than a flat iron cooktop), but it's a genuine Calgary experience to fill up your car with gas, and buy some windshield washer fluid, some calamari and a souvlaki all at the same time.

                    The other Calgary classic restaurant experience must be a Ship burger, sitting outside on a day like today on the Ship and Anchor patio. Mmmmm.

                    BTW had the A&A on 20th ave and 13th St NW yesterday for lunch ... not to gloat or anything.

                    You should really try Sandro for Italian. It's the best trattoria in the city, esp. the Seafood linguine.

                    For Korean, and I admit I haven't been in ages, the Bow Bulgogi House on 17th Ave. has fantastic food.

                2. best polish food (especially kilebasa)to purchase is POL-CAN in the acadia shopping centre at 347 Heritage Drive phone (403) 258-0228 - best cabbage rolls at Heritage Bakery and Deli on 37th St. SW - 686-6835For Alberta beef (steak) try Hy's Steak House downtown on 3rd of 4th street.