The Road Less Eaten
Sharing my experiences traveling and integrating my surroundings through local vegan cuisine.
THE BIG CHEESE POUTINERIE
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Food style: Poutine, Pountine and more Poutine, fast counter service
Veg Scale: serves meat, vegetarian options, a few can be made vegan
Part of town: 17th Avenue AKA “The Red Mile”
Set in a small countertop atmosphere with rough wood planked walls and tables, The Big Cheese is a post punk option brimming with self-aware humor. Lining the rustic walls are framed black and white photos from eras past depicting the caricatured face of the place’s mascot superimposed within each setting. Conscious of the environment and their impact on it, they have well-labeled disposals encouraging you to recycle and separate your waste before you leave. Down the hallway and through to the back lies a peaceful enclosed patio from which to enjoy the fresh air while gorging on your poutine of choice.
Poutine, a very Canadian dish, some would even say Canada’s National Dish, is a sizeable portion of French fries smothered in thick gravy and topped with a glob of tart cheese curds. Not the picture of health, but health isn’t what I was after on my search for an authentic vegan poutine. I had heard a rumor that The Big Cheese in downtown Calgary had just that even though it’s not listed on their main menu, which is displayed on a quirky chalkboard above the counter. I had to know what to ask and ask I did! Not only do they have the ability to make a few of their poutines vegan, but they can also swap out the regular, locally grown Yukon Gold potatoes (GF) for their exotic cousin sweet potato fries! Inquiring further led me to the knowledge that they sauté their vegetables in butter so all the delicious-sounding veggie toppings were out for me, but would still be suitable for any vegetarian. I ordered small vegan versions of their Veggie Nacho Poutine (GF), which I built on top of the regular fresh cut fries, and the Yamtastic, a classic poutine atop crisp sweet potato fries. I learned too late that the sweet potato fries are not 100% gluten free, but it was such a minor amount that I was only slightly bothered after the meal.
The Nacho Poutine consisted of homemade chunky guacamole and fresh salsa plopped atop a stack of potato wedges smothered in vegan gravy and shredded Daiya mozzarella cheez. Sprinkled on top were slices of fiery jalapeños. Normally served with a large dollop of sour cream, they offered to give me extra guac and salsa as a replacement and they didn’t even charge me extra to veganize it! The potatoes became perfectly soggy under the weight of their toppings, making for a deliciously messy meal. The jalapenos added a delightful kick that was perfectly balanced by the creamy guacamole. In fact the further I got into the pile, the more mixed and messy it got! Forgo the fork and just get in there for an authentic experience and a finger-licking good time!
The flavor and texture of the delicious toppings on the Nacho Poutine dwarfed the traditional gravy and “curds” underneath so I was glad that I ordered the classic version for comparison. Unfortunately I found their version of a Classic Poutine left something to be desired. The sweet potato fries were very good, however a little too crispy for the traditional dish. The Daiya cheez was good as a curd replacement, but they didn’t put nearly enough on top to get the authentic consistency experienced by the traditional gob of curds plopped right in the middle of the pile. The gravy was by far the weakest link as I found it watery and overly salted without much flavor. I have made many types of gravy over the years, two of the big winners being Miss Isa Chandra’s Chickpea Gravy and Savory Mushroom Gravy from the vegan-cooking bible known as Veganomicon. These gravies are thick and creamy, each with its own personality, texture and flavor profile. The gravy made at The Big Cheese added nothing to the dish and as the make-or-break element, I highly recommend they work on their recipe. As a “voodie” (vegan foodie) I think it would be a shame if this is what vegans and non-vegans alike are exposed to as the height of vegan poutine. I know you guys can do better and I challenge you to do just that! I also encourage The Big Cheese to sauté their veggies in a more heart healthy option like coconut or avocado oil so that carnivores, omnivores and herbivores alike (every “-VORE” in fact!) can fully enjoy their offerings. I see the potential for this place to become a melting pot for the dietarily divided, where the meat lovers rub elbows with those of the conscious cuisine movement. Build bridges with your dishes, guys! Make peace, not just poutine!
HEARTS CHOICES – Thai Vegan Café & Store
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Food style: Authentic Thai
Veg Scale: 100% vegan, GF labeled
Part of town: South McLeod Trail
What started as a retail stand in the Calgary Farmers Market in 2011 has now blossomed into a delicious, quick-serve restaurant located in a strip mall right down the street from Calgary’s iconic country & western bar, Ranchman’s. This hidden gem more than makes up for it’s lack of ambiance with a plethora of authentic and light vegan Thai dishes cooked with love by Thai chef and owner Nan. Lining the back wall is the “store” part of the establishment: fridges filled to the brim with vegan take home goodies like countless types of faux meats and other imported Thai items, homemade fermented cashew cheez spreads and vegan bars and treats including various brands of kombucha.
In true café style, you enter and walk up to the counter, where you can see all of the dishes on the menu displayed before you. You have the option to order a la carte or assemble a Choose One or Choose Two combo plate. Along with a fresh organic mixed salad topped with crisp raw shredded beets and carrots and tossed with homemade dressing, Thai Jasmine Rice comes standard. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can opt for Coconut Rice or a Brown & Red Cargo Rice Blend for a small upcharge.
As I try to avoid processed soy and gluten products as much as possible, we opted for faux-meat free dishes all around. However, based on the fridges’ homemade contents, those items may very well be the house specialty!
I ordered the spicy Som Tam Salad (GF), a flavorful blend of shredded, crunchy green papaya, tomatoes and carrots marinated in aromatic garlic, palm sugar, lime juice, tamarind and hot chili. This was served on its own little dish next to a larger plate that held my Thai Green Curry (GF) in a bowl accompanied by the Red & Brown Rice Blend. I was warned that both my dishes were spicy, but I love a good Thai sinus flush and that’s just what I got! The herbal coconut curry was the perfect creamy balance to the slices of soft eggplant, Thai-spiced broccoli, savory carrots, fluffy cauliflower, and crisp bamboo shoots. Poured over the rice mix, this would have been enough of a meal on it’s own! The crispness of the bamboo shoots in each dish impressed me the most as it can be easy to overcook in such a mélange of veggies. Another great thing about the menu at Hearts Choices is that Nan makes sure to use as little oil as possible so that the fresh flavors of the vegetables are the highlights of each dish. This is apparent in the lightness yet full flavor of each dish we tried. (pic below)
Chris went for the Bamboo Basil Stir Fry (GF), a perfectly seasoned blend of shredded bamboo shoots, carrots, celery and onions lightly pan-fried in a spicy Thai red curry paste with basil. This arrived alongside Chris’ second dish of Tom Kah Pak (GF), a traditional spicy coconut soup with kaffir lime leaves, galangal , lemongrass, cauliflower, carrots and crisp bamboo shoots. The Coconut Rice was a delicious, fluffy mound of sweet white rice cooked in coconut milk, the perfect, creamy accompaniment that I could have eaten continuously for the rest of the day! The rice is so soft and delicate yet delivers the most robust coconut flavor and creamy texture that I’ve ever had! (pic below)
A sweet surprise was the raw coconut macaroons, handmade at home by the owner, Eahly’s mom. Also available were cupcakes by a local vegan, gluten-free bakery. (pic below)
THE COUP, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Food style: Farm To Table
Veg Scale: all vegetarian, very vegan friendly, GF labels
Part of town: 17th Avenue AKA “The Red Mile”
My mission on this, my second trip to the Beef Capital of Southern Alberta: find a deliciously ironic veggie restaurant at which to expose Chris’ family to the delights of true vegan cuisine. The Coup & Meet Restaurant and Lounge delivered just that and Chris’ mom even said she would come back for another meal with her boyfriend! Beyond their incredible menu, their forward-thinking, sustainably green mindset blows me away.
The Coup sticks close to the heart of its surroundings, basing its menu on the seasonal output of the local, organic farm that supplies the ingredients for it’s satisfying offerings. Most impressive to me is that they are able to run a farm in this varied climate year-round that sustains the restaurant through all the seasons including the harsh winters.
Situated in a young, trendy part of town, it’s not wanting for clientele, but we were able to walk right in on a Monday afternoon and grab a table on their cozy front patio in order to enjoy some people watching with our meals.
The ambiance is modern with a comfortable, indie vibe. Tattooed, dreadlocked hipsters sit next to manicured young businesswomen lunching with friends and colleagues. Locally brewed kombucha from Happy Belly is on tap and the daily smoothie is a secret that will be disclosed as you arrive at your table. Placed in front of you will be a seasonal menu complete with an assortment of both classic and specialty cocktails inspired by local produce. It was a breezy day and I was craving a warm drink, so I ordered a mug of the Hot Ginger Pear Cider. Warm and comforting, the tart tang of the ginger was perfectly balanced by the sweetness of the pears and the impossibly thin slice of sugared ginger rimming the glass was an excellent chaser. (pic below)
The three of us ordered the Eggplant Sleeping Bags (GF) to start, mostly because the name was so adorable. I always wonder if the kitchen knows how many people are at the table when this happens, but exactly three pieces arrived arranged neatly on a colorful plate. (pic below)
Delicately thin slices of chargrilled and chilled eggplant wrapped around a savory tapenade of fresh herbs and spicy cashew pesto nearly explode over your tongue on the first bite. Their tiny size belies their massive flavor, the seasonings bringing to mind the rolling hills and robust scents of northern Italy. Somewhat saddened to only have a small taste, my gluttonous tendencies were quickly assuaged as my main entrée arrived.
My next course was The Sacred Lotus (GF), deceivingly listed under the salad portion of the menu. I’m always more comfortable ordering a salad at a vegan restaurant because I find they are much more balanced and fulfilling than at most non-vegan restaurants. After all, we’re vegans, not rabbits :). This place was no exception.
More of a deconstructed veggie stir fry than salad per say, the wilted Asian greens consisting of flavorful baby bok choy, crunchy broccoli rabe (rapini) and sweet cherry tomatoes were warmly tossed with a light chili-lime ponzu sauce and topped with crisp shaved carrots, toasted pine nuts, fresh pea shoots and black and white sesame seeds. Leaning up against this delicious emerald mountain were perfectly steamed slices of lotus root drizzled with the same ponzu sauce. On the other side of the plate stood two triangular slices of some of the most dense, flavorful tofu I’ve ever tasted. Described on the menu as “crispy tofu”, these three-cornered pockets of protein were coated in what tasted like a mix of corn and coconut flour then baked, not fried thus avoiding the typical over-oiling I’ve found in similar dishes elsewhere. All the flavors and textures of this dish complemented each other perfectly and left me feeling highly satiated. (pic below)
Chris ordered the vegetarian Grilled Panini (one of the MealShare options on the menu) with a side of the Soup of the Day, vegan Cauliflower & Roasted Garlic (GF). His plate held two rustic slices of ciabatta bread overflowing with a tangy cherry confiture slathered atop a layer of oozing St. Angel Brie and Avonlea Cheddar cheeses. Leaves of peppery arugula added a splash of green. The hearty soup wasn’t overly heavy and had a satisfyingly creamy texture broken up by soft pieces of cauliflower and zesty roasted garlic – the perfect balance for a garlic lover such as myself. (pic below)
Barb ordered the Grilled Treehouse Sandwich, served open-faced on slices of rye bread and accompanied by a spring mix side salad tossed with a light house dressing and topped with raw shredded beets and carrots and a sprinkling of pine nuts and pumpkin seeds. A generous shmear (or “spread” for all you non-Jews out there) of pesto aioli was topped with an avalanche of smoky, house-made coconut bacon (one of your three choices including smoked tofu or egg) partnered with lettuce, red onion and slices of tomato seasoned with ground peppercorns. A final layer made up of thick shavings of 4-year Canadian reserve cheddar top this sandwich off. For a sweet finish, Barb ordered the savory, thyme-infused Chèvre Cheesecake that was served deconstructed in a mason jar drizzled with local honey. Spare the rose shortbread cookie and this dish becomes a gluten free, vegetarian option! (pics below)
For dessert I took the waitress’ suggestion of the Chocolate Torte (GF), a drool-inducing chocolate mousse pie held together by a chickpea brownie crust. The mousse filling had a decadently smooth consistency with a milky chocolate flavor that was not quite as dark as I usually like, but would most likely be rich enough for most chocolate lovers. I am one of those loonies who go for the 99% cacao bars after all – the more bitter the better! The crumbly yet gooey brownie crust almost had the mouth-feel of a fig bar and was the perfect dark chocolaty complement to its milkier chocolate stuffing. Topped with fresh organic blueberries and chocolate drops and accompanied by seasonal fruit preserves, one slice of this delectable dessert could have been a meal on its own but luckily for me, I have a second stomach entirely for dessert! (pic below)
Worth a trip to Calgary solely for vegan foodie tourism’s sake alone, this place is a great stop both for the local culinary adventurer or vegan Calgarian alike. Needless to say this establishment will be a regular haunt for yours truly on my visits up north to visit Chris’ family. I’ll split a smoothie of the day with you next time out on the sidewalk patio!
I am an actor/writer/content creator based in Los Angeles. I travel extensively both as the host of the new vegan food travel show The Road Less Eaten and on my own. This blog will chronicle my journey around the globe as I hunt down all the vegan options in every part of the world, no matter how big the city nor small the town.
Copyright © Ally Iseman 2016. I own my awkward. Thanks for enabling me.