Dirtbag Café a delicious delight for slackers, says Edmonton AM food critic

There's more than smoothies and wraps to this under-the-radar café behind MacEwan University's 106th Street building.

'Dirtbag is a place I shouldn't like … but I do'

Breakfast of champions: A breakfast sandwich with egg and cheese on a cheddar chive biscuit and a heaping dose of Dirtbag oatmeal.

Adding a café on to a gym is becoming a common business practice, and one that makes sense.

People expend a lot of energy squatting and thrusting and hoisting things (including themselves) up into the air. A nutrient-rich smoothie or protein-packed sandwich afterwards would be much appreciated and well-deserved.

The Dirtbag Café inside Rock Jungle Boulders — a climbing gym — offers those items, and more. 

In fact, perusing their Instagram account and reading the descriptions, it's soon apparent there's much more than smoothies and wraps to this under-the-radar café behind MacEwan University's 106th Street building.

The name plays with a growing movement, especially within climbing circles, that has redefined dirtbags as free spirits who eschew things like employment and social norms to follow their passion. One climbing e-zine defines a dirtbag as "a rebel with a cause who finds happiness in nature."

When I walk in, my first instinct is to scold a group of young men for having their feet up on the coffee table, and for not putting a coaster beneath their cans of beer.

Perhaps it's noticing that all the beer are craft brews that has me cool my motherly jets.

Comfort without the fuss

How can post-secondary students afford craft beer? At $5 a can, that's how. And when smoothies run a dollar more, well, the choice is an easy one.

My choices are more difficult: the Forager's Wrap impresses me with its creative filling of wild rice and mushrooms sautéed and flavoured with rosemary and thyme and dressed in a fresh herb vinaigrette.

The addition of vegan balsamic mayo, seasonal greens, pickled kale stems and shallots sound very enticing.

But then, the quinoa salad — with roasted butternut squash, herbed tomatoes, tart dried cherries and spicy candied pecans, all dressed in honey and lime — sounds equally tempting.

I opt for the classic combination of soup and grilled cheese. The bowl of curry kale and cauliflower soup ($5) arrives piping hot and in a bowl as big as my head but with a teeny teaspoon for eating which makes every spoonful a challenge to master.

The vegetables in the turmeric-laced are overcooked resulting in an indistinguishable mush with only an errant cube of carrot to break the chartreuse-yellow monotony.

Perhaps, the salad would've been a better choice after all.

'A few tweaks would do wonders'

The grilled cheese sandwich is made on a panini press, a method that forces the cheese beyond its boundaries and leaves most of the filling on the plate and not enough between the bread.

Plus, the corrugated bumps left behind by the grill plates harden to gum-cutting ridges once they meet the cooler air.

A flat-top method would result in a better outcome. Flavour-wise, the sandwich scores well and is made even better by a nicely balanced house-made ketchup.

Cherries, banana and cacao nibs in the Crux smoothie call to me from the smoothie menu.

Is that not just a chocolate bar in a glass? I should've paid more attention to the other ingredients because blended spinach, nutritious as it is, makes one ugly smoothie — and too much coconut milk turned the smoothie into a watery slurry.

Those errors in execution are easily remedied, and a few tweaks would do wonders.

Along with most everything else on the menu, the cheddar chive scones are made in-house and are delightful, fluffy bundles of goodness.

A scone on its own is $1.50, but add cheese and pre-cooked egg mixture and it becomes a satisfying breakfast sandwich ($4.50).

The oatmeal, served to the brim in an extra-large (chipped) bowl, is a hearty, flavourful choice although another half cup of milk has to be added in order to loosen the mass that solidifies more with each passing second.

The porridge is loaded with nuts, berries, chia, hemp hearts and oats. I'm not sure what human, other than a growing 18-year-old boy, could finish this portion. I surrender, full, but without hardly making a dent.

With free, fast Wi-Fi, and a commendable coffee menu (using Origins Organic Coffee from Granville Island) the café is a comfortable place to hang out, have a business meeting, study or do some work.

The room features a variety of seating options and a bounty of natural light.

On Thirsty Thursdays, the already affordable craft beer selection is offered for $4 (instead of $5) while Wine Wednesdays feature half-priced wine and an open mic.

Some dishes need work; others deserve a gold star. The furniture has seen better days, the paint is scuffed and faded, and they've hug curtains on walls to hide a multitude of design sins.

Dirtbag is a place I shouldn't like … but I do.

Maybe it's the name; it could be the half-price wine. Or maybe it's that I can put my feet up, leave my dishes on the table, and not worry about having to clean up.

There is definitely something appealing about that.

You can hear Campbell's reviews on Edmonton AM every second Friday. You can also see more of her reviews on her blog, Weird Wild and Wonderful, and can follow her on Twitter at @wanderwoman10.


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