This past summer, I partook in a food tootle, hosted by Karen Anderson and her crew from City Cookbooks. While on the excursion, I chatted with a hard-core foodie who recommended that I try the Around the World in 35 Blocks tour. For $25 per person, L and I would be whisked around on a private bus and dropped off to shop and eat at various ethnic eateries and stores in Forest Lawn. Alison Karim-McSwiney, the executive director of the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone, was the host who guided us on this educational journey.
Still relatively new to Calgary, I was up for a foodie adventure in an unfamiliar area. We were instructed to show up at Mimo restaurant at 1:45pm, and preferably, with an empty stomach. While we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, we were treated to coffee and French pastries from Gunther’s Fine Baking. I normally avoid sweets, but these cream-based pastries were too divine to decline. The shell was light, filled with layers of smooth, rich chocolate mousse and whipped cream. When everyone in our group arrived, we were off to the first destination, Green Cedar, a Lebanese grocery store.
At Green Cedar, a feast awaited us. The owners prepared falafel salads, grape leaves stuffed with rice, hummus, pita bread and tabbouleh salads. I don’t know how the owner does it – but the hummus has a silky smooth texture and a delicious, tangy flavour. The hummus is made without preservatives, and refrigerated – it lasts up to two weeks. The falafels were tasty and crunchy – made with Cedar’s own brand. If I weren’t so squeamish about cooking with hot oil, I would stock up on Cedar’s falafel mix.
Green Cedar was L’s favourite store – he could have easily spent hours wandering up and down the aisles and peering through the bulk food lids, hookahs and tea sets. This store was stockpiled with endless spices, nuts, sweets and groceries at bargain prices. I haven’t seen groceries this cheap since the 1980s. We picked up some hummus, pita, pickled turnips, and rose water. Examples of the too good to be true prices: a big container of homemade hummus cost us only $5.00. The fresh pita bread, a huge stack, was made by a local bakery and delivered 3 times a day cost us only $2.50. The bottle of rose water was $2.00 and a huge bottle of pickled turnips cost $4.00.
The second stop was at Fassil Ethiopian Restaurant. I’ve sampled Ethiopian food at several restaurants in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto and none of them compare to Fassil. Upon arrival – the wonderful smells from kitchen and the friendly owner welcomed us inside. We sampled: tender, juicy chicken breasts with onions; creamy, spicy red lentils; steamed spinach; curried yellow potatoes; and fried fish. Each dish has its own flavor, spices and unique texture. I even love the injera bread, which at other Ethiopian restaurants, I usually find too sour. I made L promise that we would return soon for dinner.
Next, we shopped at Hong Kong International, a Vietnamese supermarket known for their large variety of shrimp; flash frozen fish; a huge variety of soy sauce; noodles; and herbs flown in from Hawaii. Hong Kong International has entire aisles dedicated to specialty items. We also sampled some of the best spring rolls I’ve ever tried, compliments of Mekong Restaurant. The spring rolls weren’t the generic type that I’m familiar with – these babies were made with love. I tasted crunchy shrimp and pork, and it was clear the spring roll was hand rolled.
The next stop was Illichmann’s Sausage Shop. By this time, we were getting full but that didn’t stop us from pigging out. This family-owned German deli offered us generous samples of their homemade bratwurst, in house cured sausages, cheeses, warm spiced wine, and German chocolates. We picked up several homemade sausages, cold cuts, chorizo and some chocolates. Illichmann even does its own in house butchering! Note to self – during the Christmas season, they also sell fresh organic turkeys at very inexpensive prices.
We headed over to Padaria Das Llhas de Portugal, which was next door to Mimo. We picked up homemade corn bread, a bag of buns, all which were significantly cheaper than what we pay for at our local Safeway. We also picked up tins of tuna (vastly different than Cloverleaf) and some delicious cheeses. Padaria is also known for large selection of salted codfish, custard tarts, and chourizo sausages.
Personally, I think Alison saved the best for last – Mimo Portuguese restaurant. I read much about this 26-year-old family owned and operated Portuguese restaurant, but its location (i.e. far distance from our home) never made it a convenient option. The owner’s daughter, also a chef, described how the pork and mussel casserole dish was prepared at Mimo. A warning for diners – the casserole takes time but well worth the wait as all casseroles and paella are made to order. In the case of the pork and mussel casserole, the pork was cooked separately from the mussels. The potatoes were fried and then topped with the pork and mussels, and baked so the potatoes soak up the sauce. The mussels were the biggest I’ve ever seen – and so fresh and juicy. The sauce was spicy with a heat that tingles on your tongue. The food was so good, we couldn’t stop eating despite the fact we were already stuffed. We will have to make an occasion to visit Mimo – perhaps my birthday in January?
The Around the World in 35 Blocks tour was a blast. Not only were we tourists in our own city, we also realized how culturally diverse the food scene was in Forest Lawn. Factor in the high quality and the low prices, it was well worth the drive. I’d recommend the tour to anyone for a fun, informative, and filling way to learn about different cultures that co-exist in Calgary.