The Best Bites of 2020: CBC's food critic talks favourite restaurants, takeout dishes
Sunny Side Up, Con Mi Taco and Popeye's chicken sandwich dazzled Elizabeth Carson this year
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a wild year for Calgary restaurants, which were shut down, reopened with reduced capacity, and are now limited to takeout.
But through it all, there were standouts — and CBC Calgary food critic Elizabeth Carson was there to chronicle it all.
She discussed her best bites of 2020 on the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday. She decided to divide reviews into two parts: the standout places she reviewed in person this year, and her favourite spots to grab takeout.
"People in the restaurant industry need a standing ovation from all of us … [for] trying to figure out how to stay alive, keep people employed, serve good food — and all in takeout containers," Carson said.
"This is an industry that has an incredibly high mortality rate, and this year was really the nail in the coffin for so many of our favourite local restaurants.
"You know, 30 per cent of the places I reviewed this year no longer exist.… It's so important that we support restaurants that are open."
Elizabeth Carson's standout reviews from 2020
Sunny Side Up
This Cochrane breakfast-and-lunch joint was Carson's first in-person restaurant review after Alberta's spring lockdown ended, and everything from the decor to the bistro's adherence to safety regulations impressed her.
"It's a charming and pleasant restaurant, lots of fresh flowers everywhere … [and] they have been incredibly thoughtful and clever about their [COVID-19] setup," she told the Calgary Eyeopener in her May review.
Staff dropped food and drinks off at the end of a service table for customers to gather at a safe distance, Carson said.
Meanwhile the expansive menu features eggs available just about any style, potato wedges that are deliciously seasoned and refried, and an excellent champagne hollandaise sauce, Carson said.
The classic eggs benny was picture-perfect, and perfectly poached, too.
"They seem to be game to serve you eggs any way you wanted," Carson said. "It was nirvana. It was fabulous."
But gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian diners don't need to feel left out; the vegan bowl, featuring tomatoes, avocado and a flavourful, complex mushroom gravy, was every bit as good.
Months later, Sunny Side Up proved to leave a lingering impression, landing itself on Carson's year-end roundup.
"It is a delightful restaurant," Carson said Wednesday.
High expectations met the opening of Nupo, a Japanese restaurant that opened in January with Calgary chef Darren MacLean at the helm.
Having finished a finalist on Netflix's global cooking competition show, The Final Table, MacLean then brought Nupo to the East Village's Alt Hotel — and with it, the first counter-service omakase sushi experience in Calgary.
According to Carson, "omakase" means "chef, I'm in your hands" in Japanese, and presents an intimate experience where customers can sit and interact with the chef.
The omakase sushi experience was fresh, seasonal and intimate, with no set menu, Carson said.
And in her initial review, she said the food at Nupo was elegant and purposeful; nearly a year later, she recalls it as a special — albeit pricey — experience.
"They have extraordinary sashimi, sushi and plant dishes. They cure their fish in a special drying chamber that produces incredibly tender fish with intense flavours," Carson said Wednesday.
"It's expensive. It's a great treat."
Con Mi Taco
Friends Mikko Tamarra, Daniel Ramon and Andrew Ocasion harmonized decades of experience in the restaurant industry with Mexican and Filipino flavours to create Con Mi Taco.
The idea to do so started during a BBQ — and with a keg engineered to mimic a roasting spit.
"It was a light-bulb moment, and they decided that Calgary needed some great street tacos. And here we are, talking about them," Carson said in September.
Initially, shortly after the pandemic began, Con Mi Taco sold taco kits to customers looking for delicious, authentic tastes.
Since then, they've added a pop-up takeout-only restaurant at Meat & Bread on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
"Con Mi Taco is the future of young restaurateurs jumping into the game. They're nimble, they're more responsive to changing tastes," Carson said.
The restaurant critic said Con Mi Taco's whisper-thin handmade tortillas are perfection; the pork shoulder is marinated for days in pineapple juice and spices; the birria dipping broth "is a deeply-flavoured spicy elixir that I want to pour … onto everything."
They have only two consistent dishes: classics al pastor and birria. The rest of the menu is seasonal, and changes weekly.
"They do small-batch tacos with handmade tortillas," Carson said Wednesday. "I really think they're the new taco kings in Calgary."
Popeye's Chicken Sandwich
Every now and then, people lose their minds over a hyped-up food, Carson said in September.
In 2020, New York Magazine wrote an ode to Popeye's chicken sandwich, which also became the subject of Saturday Night Live skits and drew massive lineups of people waiting to try it.
Comprised of a toasted brioche bun stuffed with a fried chicken breast, pickle slices, and plain or spicy mayo, this sandwich even caused a stir in Calgary, where people stacked their cars at the Popeye's drive-thru.
"I don't eat fast food. It was a huge surprise to me, because it was so much better than I thought any fast food could possibly be," Carson said on Wednesday.
The chicken is crispy and crunchy, yet wasn't too salty or greasy; the brioche bun was chewier and heavier than expected, but still impressed Carson. She wished for more pickles, but this sandwich still impressed both Carson and Eyeopener host David Gray.
There is a caveat to trying this 2020 best bite, however.
"I'm still going to urge people to go to [local]. There's lots of new Japanese katsu chicken [places] that have opened in Calgary, and Korean fried chicken places that have opened," Carson said.
"They're only a few dollars more than Popeye's, but I still think they're infinitely better."
Carson recommended two places in Bridgeland: Jin Bar and First Avenue Corner Store, which is part of Shiki Menya.
Elizabeth Carson's takeout-of-choice
In 2020, takeout became a weekly ritual for Calgarians hoping to support local restaurants without lingering in public indoor spaces.
And Carson's go-to list of takeout foods that travel well are coveted. She said she is frequently asked what she orders most, and from where.
She gravitates most to dishes and places that features foods that are hard to replicate, she told the Calgary Eyeopener.
"I order takeout from restaurants that produce food that I … can't easily make [on] my own," Carson said.
Foreign Concept is a pan-Asian restaurant opened in Calgary's Beltline in 2017, and is fronted by chef Duncan Ly and chef de cuisine Hyungjae Lim.
Their respective Vietnamese and Korean backgrounds have inspired a menu that prizes bold flavours and seasonal ingredients, according to the restaurant's website.
And Carson listed two dishes that she favours for takeout on Wednesday's Eyeopener.
"I never tire of their squid ink spaghetti, [and] love their kimchi," Carson said. "It all travels well."
Khao San Thai Kitchen
This 17th Avenue Thai restaurant is owned and operated by partners Samphan Treeyachat and Rungroj Suntiwan, who were both trained at SAIT's culinary program and worked at Calgary's longstanding Thai Son-On.
And there's no one dish that is a standout for Carson at Khao San Thai Kitchen. Instead, the restaurant's entire menu is fair game for Carson.
"Fabulous Thai food, love every dish on the menu," she said.
This Kensington bistro focuses on Italian, Spanish and French flavours, and offers curbside pickup for its gourmet dinner specials three nights a week.
And according to Carson, the execution of sophisticated dishes has not been dented by the pandemic or delivery.
"I recently had their seafood paella, which is a really daunting dish for any restaurant to make in-house, never mind for takeout," Carson said.
The seafood was tender, the fish was just right, the rice was delicate and flavoured like saffron, Carson said.
"From pickup to eating it took 50 minutes, [and] it was still delicious."
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.