Friday, January 8, 2010

Memphis Blues - Meaty Goodness

While some restaurants are willing to broaden their menus as far as possible to attract a wide audience, others have a very clear idea of what they are and remain utterly unrepentant for it. Memphis Blues is one such restaurant. A southern-style BBQ house, Memphis Blues is a temple to meat, with absolutely gargantuan portions of pork, chicken, sausage and ribs slathered with sauce and covered with mountains of fries. This is not a place that even thinks of catering to vegetarians and health-conscious diners. And frankly, that’s just the way I like it!

Taken from user Greedy Guts on Urbansoon

About the restaurant: The inspiration for Memphis Blues struck in 1999 during a stopover in Memphis; the two founders tasted a pulled pork sandwich for the first time and fell in love with the taste. Since then, they have made an effort to bring “authentic southern barbeque” to Vancouver. This extends not only to the food but to the décor and atmosphere. The interior is simple and welcoming, with warm wood tones and blues music playing in the background. The meals are presented in baskets lined with wax paper, and customers are encouraged to eat with their hands. No pretentions of grandeur here! On occasion, some of the restaurants feature live blues music; check ahead of time for availability.

The food: All the dishes at Memphis Blues share certain qualities in common; they are all hearty, meaty, and absolutely gigantic in terms of portions. Everything has a very southern flare, with cornbread and beans a common fixture along with fries and coleslaw. The pulled pork is very popular, as are the ribs and brisket. The meat itself is moist and succulent, and slathered generously with BBQ sauce. And when I say “slathered”, I mean “slathered”. Expect sticky fingers by the end of the meal… if you ever get that far! There is so much in terms of meat, fries and corn bread that I have yet to meet a single person who can get through an entire platter. Not only is there a ton of food, but all of it is extremely rich and, in some cases, fried. As a result, it’s not uncommon to stagger away from the table, still reeling and feeling as if you’ve been shot with a tranquilizer gun. This is the sort of food you eat if you want to hibernate, or at least curl up in your hotel room and digest happily.

If you are a vegetarian, or are seeking healthier or more varied meal options, you may want to give Memphis Blues a miss; it does not have a lot of variety other than giant BBQ meat dishes. However,  if you are a meat lover, the quality is excellent, and you’ll definitely eat your fill.

My favourites:  Pulled Pork, ½ slab o’ribs

Cost: Prices are a little higher here than other places, with the cheapest, smallest sandwiches going for $7.50 and most entrees going for $15-25 (a pitcher of beer is $10). However, it should be noted that since the portions are so large, you do end up getting your money’s worth… though good luck being able to finish the whole thing!

Take-out?:  No, although you can take leftovers away with you.

Delivery?:  The Commercial Drive location has delivery within a 2km radius. There is a $2 delivery fee, and you must order a minimum of $20.

Licensed?:  Yes. Beer is available on tap, and a selection of bourbon is on offer.

Location(s): There are two Vancouver locations, one on Commercial Drive and one near Broadway and Granville (a major transit hub). There are also a few out in the suburbs. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: Here. 

Summary: Sometimes you want a fancy dinner… and other times, you want to go somewhere where you eat with your hands, get sauce everywhere, and wolf down half a pig/cow/chicken. For times like those, Memphis Blues is a perfect, unpretentious place to indulge.

Memphis Blues Barbeque House (Broadway) on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cafe Crepe - A quick version of a French classic

A popular franchise found downtown and in other parts of Vancouver, Café Crepe is a bit of an oddity. Is it a respectable sit-in establishment for European cuisine, or is it a fast-food restaurant ideal for people in a hurry? In the end, it aims for both, and although the atmosphere and service may suffer a little as a result, it still succeeds in providing an extremely wide variety of delicious (and portable!) crepes, making it a perfect pit stop for hungry Olympic visitors on the go.

Taken from user oumtulip on

About the restaurant:  There are two types of Café Crepe restaurants: regular and Express. The former have a reasonably robust seating area where wait staff will bring you a menu, take your order, and so on. The Express restaurants, on the other hand, are focused more on a fast food model and thus play “quick and dirty”; the menu is trimmed down, the seats are fewer and less elaborate, and you must order and collect food from the counter yourself. All Café Crepe restaurants have a large open front window where you can place take-out orders. There is a large circular grill lined with glass where the chefs will prepare your crepes while you watch; it’s quite an entertaining show in its own right and will keep you occupied while you wait for your takeout.

As a general rule, the sitting area is nothing to write home about in either type of Café Crepe; the décor mostly consists of black walls and Toulouse-Lautrec posters. The Express restaurants can seem a little uncomfortable as well compared to the cozy leather seats of the regular branches. In my experience, however, they have always been decently clean, and the food more than made up for the unimpressive ambiance… doubly so if you are only getting takeout! As for service, some people have complained about slow or unhelpful servers, but my experiences have only been positive.

Taken from user oumtulip on

The food: There is a common assumption that crepes are a sweet dish, and as such many people imagine Café Crepe as a dessert café. On the one hand, the franchise certainly does have a great selection of dessert crepes, with every possible permutation of honey, nuts, chocolate, Nutella, chocolate and maple syrup as well as a few speciality crepes such as rum and banana, or strawberries and cognac. I rather like the caramel cream crepe, though it may be a bit sweet for others. However, Café Crepe also has an equally respectable selection of savory crepes that are warm, filling, and mellow. Most of the flavors are analogous to sandwiches (e.g. tuna salad, chicken and egg) the use of a hot crepe as the wrap gives everything a more satisfying texture. Many of the selections use European cheeses such as emmenthal, giving a more high class taste and presentation. 

Taken from Geoff Peters via Urbanspoon

Besides the crepes, there is also a selection of baked goods, Panini, etc. One of the most popular non-crepe dishes is the Hot Dog Parisien, a long sausage served on a 30 cm (12 inch) baguette and topped with emmenthal cheese and béchamel sauce. There’s also a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks, including the best milkshake in the entire universe: Nutella milkshake. It’s sweet and rich and super thick, and any fans of Nutella, chocolate or hazelnut should give it a try.

Be aware that not all dishes will be available at Café Crepe Express; they do not serve milkshakes, and some of the more elaborate crepes are missing. The food they do produce, however, is easy to wrap up and eat on the run, with most crepes simply wrapped in a cone and ready to eat with one hand.

My favourites:  Chicken and egg crepe, caramel crepe, Nutella milkshake.

Cost: As befits its hybrid nature, prices are slightly higher than a fast food outlet but lower than a sit-in restaurant. Savory crepes and baked goods sell for 5-7 dollars, with sweet crepes going from $3-7. Soft drinks are a little more expensive than vending machine prices, and teas are $2.

Take-out?:  Yes. This is actually a big draw of the place, and food is prepared so as to be eaten easily while on the go.

Delivery?:  No.

Licensed?:  Yes. Beer is available.

Location(s): Several places in Vancouver, but mostly concentrated downtown. Link to Google Maps

Website and menus: Not available.

Summary: While the atmosphere and service may not be particularly impressive, Café Crepe still wins people over with its variety, its excellent quality, and its convenience. If you have a few minutes between Olympic events, grab a crepe to go; if you have a bit longer, sit and enjoy a little taste of France in the heart of Vancouver.

Cafe Crepe on Urbanspoon
Cafe Crepe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tsunami Sushi - Japanese Novelty

Vancouver is famous for its varied ethnic cuisine, but one country’s cuisine in particular has caught on in a big way. No matter where you are in our city, you’re guaranteed to find at least one sushi bar or other Japanese restaurant. As a giant fan of Japanese food, I have had several years to amass a list of favourites, and I think it’s time to share some of them with our Olympic visitors! My first recommendation is Tsunami Sushi, a slightly pricier but truly unique way to enjoy some good sushi. Floating boats and fresh fish... a perfect combination!

About the restaurant: Tsunami Sushi is actually a type of restaurant known as “kaiten zushi”, or “conveyor belt sushi”. A popular alternative to regular sushi places in Japan, the idea is to have small plates of sushi on a circular conveyor belt that passes around the sushi bar area. Customers sit at the bar and grab whatever plates catch their fancy as they pass by. At the end, the bill is calculated based on how many plates you’ve eaten, and what colors they are (certain colors correspond to certain prices). In essence, it is a moving buffet of sushi where you eat as much or as little as you like and pay accordingly.

Taken by user rubytue on Urbanspoon

Tsunami Sushi takes this concept but goes one step further with it. Instead of a mechanical conveyor belt, the bar is ringed with a miniature moat with constantly flowing water. The plates of sushi rest on charming little wooden boats that float on the water, taking a slow course all the way around the sushi bar. The result is very atmospheric and interesting; I usually end up sitting for ages just watching the boats go by! I found a YouTube video of it from user ladyjame:

Apart from the unique sushi bar, the rest of the establishment is unremarkable but perfectly welcoming, with plenty of seating, good views over Robson street, and cheerful service.

The food: The selection of sushi at Tsunami Sushi is often quite variable. The chefs at the bar will usually make a batch of one kind of sushi at a time, then load up the boats with the new selection. Don’t be surprised to see tons of California rolls one moment, then ten minutes later see them replaced by a set of tuna nigiri! It’s good to grab things you like the first time you see them, as you never know who else at the bar might end up grabbing the plate, and it may be a while before the chefs prepare another batch. In terms of quality, it ranges from excellent to merely passable. I find their fried dishes are juicy and satisfying without being overly greasy, and their inari zushi – rice wrapped in a sweet bean curd envelope – is always moist and tasty. Their maki sushi (the small rolls) are also very good. However, I find their nigiri sushi (rice with fish on top) tend to have too much spicy wasabi sauce for my tastes; be ready to have your sinuses cleared if you get too strong a bite! Also, in some cases, if the sushi has been floating around the table for a while, the rice can get a bit dry. All in all, however, I have yet to have any bad experiences and have generally enjoyed my meals immensely... often resulting in a lot of empty plates and a larger bill to match!

Taken by user rubytue on Urbanspoon

For those that don’t like raw fish or sushi, the boats usually have plenty of cooked items like gyoza and fried chicken available. You can also order basic items such as ramen and teriyaki chicken from the menu; while not particularly memorable, they are tasty and well portioned.

My favourites: Inari zushi, gyoza, tuna rolls, scallop and mayo rolls, tobiko rolls.

Cost: Tsunami Sushi can be a little on the expensive side, depending on how much and what you eat. The price per plate of sushi from the floating bar ranges from $1.70 to $4.00... but naturally, all the stuff I like is on the expensive plates! Each portion is small – a sampler, really – so expect to burn through several plates before you’re full. I’ve often staggered out with some rather large bills (approximately $20+ for just myself), but on occasion I’ve had the opposite experience (once I ate 4-5 plates for about $12). In the end, it really depends on the customer; just be aware that the prices are slightly inflated compared to other, less atmospheric restaurants.

Take-out?: No.

Delivery?: No.

Licensed?: Yes. Sake and Japanese beer are available.

Location(s): 1025 Robson Street, on the second floor (take the stairs with the signpost). Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: Not available.

Summary: While there are cheaper places for sushi, and even places with better sushi, there is nowhere in Vancouver that has the presentation and the quirky fun of Tsunami Sushi. If you’re up for a bit of a splurge, park yourself by the bar and watch the world sail by... along with your waiting dinner!

Tsunami Sushi on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tim Hortons - A Canadian Institution

At first glance, it may look like any other donut joint in the US, the northern equivalent of a Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme. But Tim Hortons is much more than a donut shop; it has become a truly Canadian institution, a quirky part of our unique culture and our day-to-day lives. Olympic visitors can share a taste of Canada... not to mention some really great food!

Taken from

About the restaurant: The franchise is named after Tim Horton, a hockey player – what else? – who started up the chain with a partner back in the Sixties. Since then, it has grown in leaps and bounds to become the largest Canadian fast food chain, with twice as many outlets as McDonalds. The restaurants are clean and cozy, usually with plenty of seating space. As with most fast-food places, orders are both placed and collected at the counter. Service is friendly and usually fast; even lengthy lunchtime queues move quickly. Eat-in Tim Hortons have come favourite gathering places for Canadians of all ages; expect to see plenty of locals chatting together over a warm coffee and bowl of soup.

The food: Tim Hortons initially gained fame for two things: its coffee and its donuts. But since then, they’ve expanded into hearty, simple lunch fare that’s winning over plenty of people. A selection of soups, sandwiches and bagels are on offer. My personal recommendations are the chilli – mild, but very meaty and flavourful – and the turkey bacon club sandwich – served with crispy bacon and a sweet and tangy honey mustard sauce. I especially love their bread rolls! A lot of my friends also swear by the bagels and other baked goods. Their breakfast sandwiches have also proven very popular. Their most recent addition to the menu, French Onion soup, is also gaining fans quickly. In general, expect to have an excellent breakfast or lunch no matter what your personal preference!

And what about the coffee and donuts? While the coffee has its detractors, it’s light years better than other fast food options, and its superior flavour combined with its low price has made it a mainstay of most Canadians; annual ad campaigns dwell lovingly on its universal appeal, and the phrase “double double” (a Tim Hortons coffee with two creams and two sugars) has become a part of our language. As for the donuts, they’re always fresh and tasty, with plenty of traditional favourites like Boston Cream and apple fritters, along with unusual choices such as maple cream and honey crueller (a light, melt in your mouth honey donut). The most famous offering is Timbits, a pack of donut holes in various flavours and sizes; they’re packed perfectly for travel, making them the ideal choice for a snack to take back to your hotel room!

Taken from

My favourites: Turkey Bacon Club, Apple Fritter, Boston Cream, Honey Crueller, assorted Timbits.

Cost: Perfect for a tight budget. Coffee is just over a buck, and a sandwich combo (coffee, sandwich and a donut) goes for five to seven bucks depending on the size. A family of three can eat very well for under $20 Canadian.

Take-out?: Yes, at all locations. Also, many street locations have drive-thru.

Delivery?: No.

Licensed?: No.

Location(s): All over Vancouver, but especially in mall food courts. Link to Google Maps

Website and menus: Here. Note that the website menu does not include prices, as they vary based on region.

Summary: If you want to come home from the Olympics able to boast that you’ve been somewhere really Canadian, then a trip to “Timmy’s”  is a must.

Tim Hortons (Fairview) on Urbanspoon
Tim Hortons (Pacific Centre) on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sammy J Peppers - Great views and good food

At the gateway to Granville Island, a welcoming aroma of spice and steak wafts out from the doors to Sammy J Peppers. An unpretentious and friendly place, this restaurant offers warm and satisfying Western food, patio dining, a sports lounge with big screen TVs, and some pretty reasonable prices.

About the restaurant: A truly local establishment, Sammy J Peppers was founded in the Nineties by two men in Langley, half an hour or so out of Vancouver. Since then, it had enjoyed a respectable expansion into the rest of the Lower Mainland, even nailing an outlet on Granville Island, one of the trendiest areas of the city. The restaurants are well kept and clean, and seating is cozy and comfortable, if slightly snug! The staff is friendly and cheerful, always serving with a smile; they do have their hiccups, however, so don’t be too surprised if you need to ask for water once or twice.

All Sammy J’s have a lounge area along with several full screen LCD televisions that are visible from most of the restaurant. As such, it serves as a great place to have a few beers and watch Olympic events and other sports; be warned, however, that it can be a bit noisy. The Granville Island restaurant also has a heated patio area where you can look out over the waterfront and take in the beautiful sea views of False Creek. I think the atmosphere and attractive setting alone is worth a visit, especially if you are early enough to catch the setting sun.

The food: Like the name suggests, Sammy J Peppers has quite a bit of spicy food: aside from several Cajun inspired dishes, they have a wide variety of BBQ entrees like ribs, wings, and marinated steak (their honey bourbon BBQ sauce is excellent). However, most of the dishes are not overpoweringly spicy, and there are plenty of milder options for those of a more delicate palate; the variety of burgers, steaks and pizzas is very respectable, and the chicken dishes are quite exotic. There’s also a great selection of satisfying appetizers. The food quality is very good for the most part; the worst experience I’ve ever had was a slightly overdone burger. Other than that, the meat is juicy and flavourful, the sauces are hot and sweet without being overwhelming, and the veggies and seafood are fresh. If you enjoy a beer with your meal, I recommend washing things down with a locally-brewed Granville Island pale ale or lager.

My favourites: Bourbon BBQ Burger, Cajun Pacific Steak Sandwich, Seafood Linguine.

Cost: While the appetizers are slightly expensive ($10 per plate), the entrees are reasonably priced; with the exception of some of the steak dishes ($25 and more), most dishes won’t set you back more than 15-20 dollars per plate. While not as cheap as some of the fast-food or lower end options, the portions and quality make it well worth the price, along with the alcoholic beverages and lounge atmosphere. There is a $5 drink special every day of the week.

Take-out?: Not per se, but the wait staff are happy to bag up any leftovers you may have to take home.

Delivery?: None.

Licensed?: Yes. Beer and cocktails are available.

Location(s): Besides the entrance of Granville Island, there are several Sammy J’s in other parts of the Lower Mainland, such as Richmond, Burnaby and Surrey. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: Here.

Summary: If you’re looking for a warm and cozy place to watch the Olympic Games or take in the sea views with a beer and a plate of ribs, you’ve come to the right place. Sammy J Peppers has a little bit of something for everyone and is a great place for a taste of local flavour.

Sammy J. Peppers (Granville Island) on Urbanspoon

Olympics, Vancouver, budget restaurants, oh my! Welcome to Cheap Eats 2010!

The 2010 Winter Olympics are almost upon us, and Vancouver is abuzz with anticipation. In a few short weeks, visitors from all over the globe will be coming to our city, ready to watch the events, take in the sights… and eat! Vancouver has a huge variety of restaurants, and there’s something for every taste and budget level.

Which leaves visitors with a rather large question: where to eat?

There are plenty of Vancouver restaurant guides available on the Internet, and many of them are well worth a look. However, one problem common with such guides is that they focus more on the top end, expensive restaurants.  Their idea of “casual dining” tends to be $20 per plate or more. That’s all well and good, but what if you’re looking for something even more “casual”? Perhaps you’re on a very tight budget and are looking to get a tasty and satisfying meal for as low a price as possible? Or maybe you’re in a rush to get from one event to another and need to grab something quick to eat? What if you are planning a cozy night in your hotel room watching Olympic television and are looking for some good take-out or delivery options? Or how about just wanting to eat alongside the “regular Joes” of Vancouver?

I’ve started this blog in order to answer some of those questions. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting reviews of my personal favorites for casual restaurants, fast food, take out, delivery, and other budget dining options. Of course, this is just one Vancouver resident’s opinion and is in no way a comprehensive list of every good, cheap restaurant in the city. But if you’re at loose ends and looking for at least one local’s recommendations, this blog should come in useful. Who knows, you may return home singing the praises of a few hidden Vancouver gems!

Posts will (hopefully) be going up once a day, Monday to Friday, so stay tuned for more restaurant reviews!