Saturday, February 27, 2010

Cafe Barcelona - a little taste of Spain

Vancouver has always boasted an incredible range of ethnic cuisine from all over the world, including Mexican, Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese, Indian, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Greek, and so on. But one country remains rather underrepresented: Spain. Spanish cuisine is hard to find in Vancouver, and some restaurants that claim to be "Spanish" actually serve Mexican food, which is very different. Luckily, there are a few hidden gems in the city, and Cafe Barcelona, a new tapas bar, is one of them.

About the restaurant: Cafe Barcelona is a tiny restaurant nestled in the bustle of downtown Granville Street, sandwiched between pubs, hot dog outlets and fringe shopping. You'd easily walk by it if you didn't know what you were looking for. The interior is slightly dark, with rich wood tones on the panelling and chairs, and the walls are covered with lovely photographs of Barcelona and its unique Gaudi architechture. The restaurant owner is an extremely pleasant and friendly Spanish ex-pat from Valencia who treats each customer like they're the only ones in the restaurant; the service is excellent and very prompt.

The food: Cafe Barcelona specializes in tapas, making it the perfect choice for finger-food lovers and people who enjoy smaller, lighter meals. The menu is uniquely Spanish with plenty of authentic dishes such as gambas ajillo (prawns sauteed in garlic and parsley), patatas bravas (diced and fried potato with spicy tomato sauce and allioli mayo) and tortilla de patatas, aka Spanish omelette (a thick, almost cake-like omelette with diced potato and onion). People looking for something a bit more familiar will appreciate the delicious calamari, the ham croquettes, and the Barcelona salad (very similar to Russian salad, with cold tuna and fresh onion on tomato slices). Cafe Barcelona also offers a wide range of pintxos, individual-sized dishes usually served on a small slice of bread.

The different types of dishes offer a lot of variety for the tastebuds, from the crispy tang of the fresh onions in the salad to the warm, soothing taste of the Spanish omlette. The fried items in particular are excellent, with crispy exteriors and soft, tender insides. I especially like the calamari, which are giant and chewy without too much batter. The cold tapas and pintxos are also very appealing, with fresh ingredients and appealing textures. My favorite is txaca, a smooth mix of crab, red pepper and mayonnaise piled on top of the bread. The pepper give it an extra tang that sets off the refreshing cold taste of the crab.

Cafe Barcelona also offers a few desserts. The tarte de Santiago was a bit of a letdown (an almond tart without too much flavor and a slightly rough texture) but the homemade flan is really great.

My favourites: Calamares, patatas bravas, tortilla de patatas, txaca, crotquetas (jamon), flan, tapas daily special.

Cost: Tapas is a great way to eat on a budget, and Cafe Barcelona is no exception to the rule. The most expensive tapas is only $8-11, and though it may be a bit too small to make a meal by itself, sharing two or three with a group makes for a very filling and satisfying meal. If you want a reasonably priced way to sample several at once, try the daily special tapas plate at $10, which features three or four different tapas. The pintxos are even more reasonable, at about $2-3 each.

Take-out?: No.

Delivery?: No.

Licensed?: Yes.

Website and menu: Here.

Location(s): Cafe Barcelona is located on Granville Street near Smithe. Link to Google Maps.

Summary: As a lover of all things Spanish, finding Cafe Barcelona was fantastic. It brings a little taste of Spain to downtown Vancouver. It's about time Spanish cuisine got some international attention, and what better time than now, when hungry fans from all over the world are here for the Olympics?

Cafe Barcelona on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vera's Burger Shack - Wrap your lips around these burgers

No matter how many wonderful and varied things there are to eat in the world, sometimes there's just nothing like a nice burger, and the bigger the better. Vera's Burger Shack has become one of the best places in Vancouver to indulge in your hunger for burgers, and Olympic fans with an appetite, a love for beef patties and a sense of humor will find themselves very pleased indeed!

About the restaurant: Vera's Burger Shack is a local Vancouver-owned franchise of restaurants sprinkled all over the city, particularly downtown and in Kitsilano. They all share a very basic and sparse decor that echoes that of a 50's burger joint, with simple booth seating at small square tables. The walls are covered with tongue-in-cheek menus and posters listing all the available trimmings and asserting that their version of a "low fat" burger involves taking off the bun. All in all, it's not the best in terms of comfort or atmosphere, as there isn't much in terms of music or television and the seats aren't the most comfortable, but it's certainly servicable for what it is. The servers at the cash register are friendly and boast a cheerful sense of humor, often joking with customers and laughing. However, there is no table service; you come up to the counter to pick up your meal. Also, the food here takes a bit longer to prepare than other fast food restaurants, so be prepared to wait a little while. Many people take this into account and prefer to phone ahead (or order online).

The food: Like Memphis Blues, Vera's Burger Shack makes absolutely no pretense at being a "healthy" eating establishment. This is not where you come when you're on diet; this is where you come when you're dying for a giant juicy burger and a mountain of crispy fries drizzled with sauce. And boy, does Vera's nail it. Their burger menu reads like a love letter to meat, cheese and veggies, with dishes like the Cantor (which is topped with a giant slice of salami and fried onions), the BBQ burger (provolone, BBQ sauce, fried onions and bacon) and the Baja Burger (cheese, guacamole, salsa and hot peppers). You can also customize your burger with a huge variety of toppings, including "The Usual Suspects" (ketchup, mustard, lettuce, etc) and more unusual trimmings like roasted garlic, fried egg and blue cheese. You can also select different patties such as veggie, lamb and turkey, allowing for further customization. Naturally, by the time you're finished crafting your monster burger, it's the size of... well, a monster.


All the ingredients are fresh and tasty, and the burger is moist, savory and absolutely perfect. The beef patties particularly are of really high quality, with a taste that evokes that of a sirloin steak. The juice soaks into the toppings and bun and makes the experience a satisfying (if somewhat messy!) affair. Just try to have one on an empty stomach, as the sheer weight of meat and toppings is extremely rich and filling.

If burgers aren't your thing, try one of Vera's hot dogs, which applies the same love of mountainous toppings to wieners. Vera's fries also deserve special mention; they're thick and crispy, with the skin still on, and fantastic for any fry fanatic. And yes, you can also order poutine here! Round it up with some yam fries, onion rings, milkshakes and so on, and you have a superlative burger experience!

My favourites: The Cantor, the Vera Burger, the BBQ burger, Vera's fries.

Cost: Vera's burgers are a bit more expensive than in comparable places (certainly far more than McDonalds) but that befits the excellent ingredients and giant size. The basic burgers cost about $6, while the speciality burgers loaded with meat and cheese go from anywhere from $9 to $11. Upgrading to a combo (drink and fries) is an extra $4. You can often get slightly better deals by ordering their daily special; each day features one burger at a reduced price.

Take-out?: Yes. Not only that, but you can order ahead online or over the phone.

Delivery?: No.

Licensed?: No.

Website and menu: Here.

Location(s): There are several branches of Vera's located downtown, in Kitsilano, and in other areas of the city including the airport. Link to Google Maps.

Summary: Burger lovers both local and international should take the time to try Vera's Burger Shack. One bite and you'll be converted. Just be sure to use the napkin... you'll need it!

Vera's Burger Shack on UrbanspoonVera's Burger Shack on UrbanspoonVera's Burger Shack on Urbanspoon
Vera's Burger Shack on UrbanspoonVera's Burger Shack (Davie) on UrbanspoonVera's Burger Shack (Denman) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sophie's Cosmic Cafe - Where Vancouver comes for breakfast

Hello, Olympic fans! Sick of lineups yet? While waiting to get into a place can always be frustrating, it's often a good sign when you're looking for a good restaurant; after all, if a restaurant is popular enough to attract a large number of people as well as keep them waiting, it's got to be something pretty special! In the case of Sophie's Cosmic Cafe, a favorite with locals, the attraction is a friendly and welcoming staff, a funky decor, and large breakfasts guaranteed to send you away with a full stomach.

About the restaurant: Despite the name, Sophie's Cosmic Cafe does not go in for futuristic or sci-fi decor. Instead, like the Old Spaghetti Factory, it focuses on nostalgic and vintage memorabilia, but with a simpler approach. The walls are festooned with random knicknacks like old tricycles, license plates and children's toys. The old collectibles are coupled with a sort of kitchy 50's diner color scheme, making it seem like a bit of a trip back in time. The waiters and waitresses are very welcoming and friendly, although they can get a bit harried and busy at times. The atmosphere is very homey, with people chatting and laughing. All in all, this is the sort of place where even a first visit makes you feel like a regular, part of the relaxed and warm feeling.

Note that lineups are particularly long on Sundays, as their Sunday brunches are very popular.

The food: Sophie's offers great fare common with casual family diners. Some people have had so-so experiences (reviews on Urbanspoon speak of frozen fries and cold scrambled eggs) but my breakfast and brunch visits have always left me full and very happy. The portions are huge and perfect for an empty stomach, and the food is very savory and satisfying. I'm particularly fond of their Belgian waffles, which are topped with fresh strawberries and blueberries and tastes delightfully sweet. The hash browns are also really tasty, with just the right amount of seasoning. The best part of breakfast at Sophie's, though, is having a tall frosty milkshake with your meal. As a huge milkshake fan, I appreciate the chance to indulge; the milkshakes are thick and sweet and provide an unusual but tasty counterpoint to the breakfast meal. They also come in a wide variety of flavors, including coconut, almond and orange.

Taken from Erika on Urbanspoon.

While Sophie's is most famous for its breakfasts, its lunches and dinners are nothing to sneeze at, offering a respectable selection of burgers, sandwiches, and even entrees like oyster soup and roasted chicken. Save room for dessert, though... with such tempting items like Belgian chocolate cheesecake and an absolute *mountain* of an apple pie, there's plenty to appeal to your sweet tooth!

One last thing Sophie's is famous for is its hot sauce, which goes well with everything from eggs to fries. If you find yourself falling in love with it, you can buy a bottle for $5, making a nice and cheap culinary souvenir.

My favourites: Belgian waffle, vanilla milkshake.

Cost: While slightly more expensive than similar diners, Sophie's still offers a nice bang for your buck thanks to its large portions. Most dishes are around $10, with some of the more expensive dishes clocking in at $20. 

Take-out?: Yes.

Delivery?: No.

Licensed? Yes.

Location(s): Sophie's Cosmic Cafe is in Kitsilano, on 4th Avenue not far from Granville Island. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menu: The main site is currently down for reworking, but you can still access chunks of the site here, including pictures of some of the menu favorites.

Summary: Sophie's Cosmic Cafe has been a Vancouver favorite for years, drawing locals to line up cheerfully every day for its warm atmosphere and satisfying breakfasts. Olympic visitors wanting to see where we go when we're not partying in the streets should take the time and brave one more lineup... I think you'll find it worth the trip!

Sophie's Cosmic Cafe on Urbanspoon