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Pho Hung No. 1

Authentic Vietnamese soups and more

by Andrew Sprague

Some folks like to say that one of the most appealing aspects of living in a northern climate is the change in seasons. I’ve probably said it myself, maybe as recently as yesterday. And when people say it, most imagine the majesty of the fall, the beautiful change in colours, the relief from the summer’s heat, and sweaters. Some still imagine a cold, stormy night, a cozy fire, a hot alcoholic beverage, and a furry animal of some kind curled at your feet. I picture a hot summer day at the beach, a cold beer, body surfing, and my family playing around me. No one—not a soul—pictures three degrees in a cold north wind, on a mid April afternoon, in the drizzle, with your car stuck up to the axels in a rut halfway up your crappy, muddy driveway. No. That’s the one miserable season no one talks about. Spring on the Island! It’s good for very few things. One thing it is good for is pho.

There wasn’t much pho around for a very long time. Now there’s lots of pho and we stand to benefit. It’s a big bowl of Vietnamese soup, but it’s so much more. It’s a delicious, gut warming, hunger satisfying bowl of noodles, veggies, broth and meat, if meat’s your thing. It is just the thing to ease the misery of a cold, wet spring day. And according to a recent, unscientific poll, Pho Hung on Queen Street in Charlottetown is the best place to grab a bowl on the Island. For many, Pho Hung is home to their favourite meal.

My brother-in-law Brian and I popped in for lunch on a beautiful, 15 degree spring day. One of those days that make you just love the change in seasons we get in northern climates. I asked the waitress which of the eight phos on the menu was most popular and she figured it was P1 Pho Tai; rice noodles with medium rare beef. It just so happens that’s what Brian gets just about every time. He’s a regular and he was very surprised by how few people were in the restaurant. It must have been the weather.

Turned out the weather had absolutely no effect on the quality of the pho. For one, it’s a big bowl of soup and who doesn’t love a big bowl of soup? The ample scallions, onions and peppers added a nice snap to each bite. The beef was cooked perfectly and so tender you could take it apart with chopsticks. A typical pho broth is seasoned with fish sauce, onions, ginger, star anise, cloves and cinnamon among others. The cloves really stood out in this batch but not because it overpowered the dish. A milligram more cloves than you need can dominate, or even ruin a good meal, so I always appreciate tasting it in a pho without being overpowered. I also added a few good shots of sriracha to spice it up a little more. Simply put, it was an absolutely delicious meal and cheap to boot. Two beers, two phos, and a side of salad rolls came out to $32. That’s a good deal by any standard.

The quality and the price at Pho Hung have made it an Island favourite in a relatively short time. It’s a great spot for a meal no matter the weather.

—What is your favourite Island restaurant meal? Each month, Andrew Sprague heads out to eat based on your recommendation. Post it using #TryThisAndrew on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter.

Defending champ

The challenge of Burger Love

by Andrew Sprague

Another Burger Love has come and gone. The 2017 edition featured a whopping 84 burgers at restaurants across the Island. It was a behemoth. Hundreds of cattle paid the ultimate price to ensure kitchens in more than a dozen communities kept pace with the roving masses of burger enthusiasts. The list of burger photos was nearly three feet across. If you added all the Facebook photos over the month it would probably stretch from East Point to North Cape and back, twice. It was a lot to take in and the sheer volume made it difficult to pick a burger on any given night.

Speaking of challenges, I’ve written about Burger Love for each of the last seven years. With a new format for the column focusing on favourite restaurant meals I had to put some thought into how to continue my own Burger Love tradition and remain true to the new focus. There was only one way to reconcile these opposing needs, pay a visit to the defending champion, who in April 2016 was home to the Island’s favourite restaurant meal, The Brick-inator at the Brickhouse in Charlottetown.

I play pool on a team on Tuesday nights at Dooly’s. The week before our annual playoffs seven of us got together for burgers, beer and billiards as a sort of team building exercise ahead of the penultimate weekend of competitive pool on Prince Edward Island. It was also a good excuse to drink beer and play pool. Brickhhouse was our starting destination. Five of us ordered the burger, one had onion rings, and the other had the strongest spicy reaction to the mildest curry I’ve ever encountered, but I digress.

This year’s entry was the Brick Deluxe; a seven-ounce Island beef patty, with savoury fancy sauce, shredded iceberg lettuce, minced Spanish onion, deep fried cheesy pickle chips, maple-candied bacon, and a cheddar blend on a toasted sesame bun topped with more deep fried cheesy pickle chips and a cherry tomato. Like so many recent Burger Love entries, the Brick Deluxe goes absolutely over-the-top on the ingredients. This usually leads to one of two outcomes; a burger so sloppy half of it ends up on your plate or your clothes, or the always enjoyable pre-mature bun disintegration.

I split an order of onion rings on the side with one of my team mates. It was probably an unnecessary addition to what promised to be a gut busting burger. It did not disappoint in that sense. It wasn’t the biggest of Burger Love’s offerings, but it was a meal in itself by any standard. I always enjoy candied bacon, and this was no exception. I was also impressed with the pickle chips and the sauce. But the Deluxe exploded onto the plate, and the bun didn’t stand a chance. It achieved both of the classic outcomes of over-ambitious use of ingredients. There was also so much cheese I had to scrape some off with my finger, and I love cheese. My team mates all had the same issues. It was a burger with a lot of delicious ingredients that fell victim to its own over-indulgence.

I’ll let you know if our bonding session worked out and whether my team will be next year’s defending champ.

—What is your favourite Island restaurant meal? Each month, Andrew Sprague heads out to eat based on your recommendation. Post it using #TryThisAndrew on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter.

The first meal

Leonhard’s gets the love

by Andrew Sprague

Ask a hundred people to name their favourite meal and about ninety-three of them will describe food normally associated with supper. Rarely if ever does lunch enter the conversation. I mean what kind of crazy person would name a lunch item as their favourite meal? And what makes it a lunch “meal,” exactly? You had it at lunch time, did you? Oh. Well. That settles that. See where I’m going here? There is no lunch “meal.” Lunch is a construct. It’s an invented name for a calorie intake requirement to get us from breakfast to supper, and that’s all it is. It is not the domain of the favourite meal. Breakfast, however. Breakfast is a meal. No one ever said lunch was the most important meal of the day, but they say it about breakfast all the time.

So it’s no surprise to me that a restaurant best known for its breakfasts performed very well in a recent, completely unscientific poll of Islanders’ favourite restaurant meals. Leonhard’s got a whole bunch of votes and not just for warm food on a plate. Both the schillerlocke (a custard filled pastry), and the vanilla roll were identified by respondents as their favourite meals. Perhaps they misread the question in the poll, or maybe they were raised on Joe Louis cakes, but that’s beside the point. I’m not here to talk about the pastries. I’m here to talk about the bacon eggs benedict.

Leonhard’s makes what could be the most perfectly constructed plate of Eggs Benedict on the planet. It’s simple really; two halves of a lightly toasted, fluffy and buttery English muffin, under a layer of perfectly crisp bacon, under two poached eggs drizzled with just about the best hollandaise sauce I’ve ever tasted, dusted with paprika. Alongside are about ten quarter-inch-thick, circle-cut grilled potatoes, and a fresh garden salad with a light but tangy mustard dressing that offsets the richness of the eggs benedict to exactly the right degree. It is an awesome plate of food.

I had one, on my own, completely by myself, a couple of Saturdays ago. I stress this because a solo meal in a restaurant is a luxury I rarely enjoy these days, and one I savour. I was playing in a pool tournament and my wife excused me early to get a good breakfast to help me through the day. It was busy at Leonhard’s, as usual, but I got a table without having to wait and my coffee arrived within minutes of sitting down. It was a relief to enjoy a hot beverage without having to chase a kid around, or pay close attention to ensure no one is choking on their food. I also splurged a bit and ordered a delicious fresh squeezed orange juice.

When the food arrived I felt a wave of anticipation rush over me. I was about to eat a whole meal without having to chase, talk, feed, wipe, guard, hug or Heimlich. It was heaven. I got to taste the food and it was so good. It was the best breakfast I could have hoped for on a day when I needed a good breakfast and some quality Andrew time. Leonhard’s and my wife gave me both.

Leonhard’s is located at 142 Great George Street in Charlottetown and serves breakfast from 9 am to 4 pm, Monday through Sunday.

—What is your favourite Island restaurant meal? Each month, Andrew Sprague heads out to eat based on your recommendation. Post it using #TryThisAndrew on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter.

The big meal

BUZZ readers send this writer to Hunter’s

by Andrew Sprague

Hunter’s Ale House is a lot of things to a lot of people. To many, it’s one of the best live music venues in the province, consistently booking top talent from the Island and abroad. To others, it’s a lively pub, perfect for a round of trivia or happy hour drinks with the gang. To others still, Hunter’s is the best spot in town for straight up pub food, and plenty of it. The meals are outrageously large, by any standard imaginable. I have never, in any state of mind or body, been able to finish a plate of food at Hunter’s Ale House.

The mind boggling size of the meals at Hunter’s has to be a major attraction to a surprisingly large number of people. There must be an ample supply of customers who eat there with regularity and rarely leave a bite of food behind. Why else would the meals be so massive? One would think a rare display of determination and animal instinct would be required to finish a plate that size. And if that’s true the average amount of food wasted would be substantial. So either Hunter’s is taking a noticeable hit on food cost to serve the minority of customers, or we’re all a bunch of gluttonous feed bags. I can’t decide. But whatever it is, it’s working for Hunter’s.

Size aside, people love the food, as was evidenced by the volume of recommendations Hunter’s received in a recent poll on the best restaurant meals on the Island. The most popular of the recommendations from Hunter’s was the curry chicken nachos.

I am not a huge fan of restaurant nachos. I’ve been known to absolutely gorge on home made nachos, but I rarely if ever order them when I’m out to eat. I may be alone in this; Hunter’s has eight nacho varieties, which speaks to a high level of popularity among the clientele. According to our waitress, the curry chicken nachos are the best selling among them.

“There are people who come in, and it’s all they ever order.”

A fan of the nachos, she recommended I get the curry on the side. The nachos can get a little sloppy the longer the curry soaks in, apparently. I took her advice and asked whether I should get the regular or the Hunter’s size. She only looked at me for a second.

“Oh, you’re probably a regular size kind of guy.”

“That I am.”

She was back in about six minutes. The nachos and cheese covered an area the size of a pizza pan. The chicken curry filled a soup bowl. Again, this was the smaller of the two sizes. The salsa and sour cream seemed miniature compared to everything else.

I got through about half the order. Everything tasted good but it was, as always, way too much food. I also found it hard to effectively transfer the curry from the bowl to the nacho. As tasty as it was, the curry was a little on the thin side, which made it difficult to keep any amount on the nacho. Looking back, letting the curry soak in a bit may have been the better option.

The good news is the nachos kept well with the curry on the side. My friend Scott took the leftovers home with him and had them for breakfast the next morning.

“I hate to see good food wasted.”

So do I, buddy. So do I.

—What is your favourite Island restaurant meal? Each month, Andrew Sprague heads out to eat based on your recommendation. Post it using #TryThisAndrew

The “go to”

Buzz foodies tell this writer where to go

by Andrew Sprague

I didn’t even like it at first.” Ryan Abdallah was about fourteen years old when he had his first bite of his father’s newly created chicken shawarma. He was the only one, family, staff and all, who didn’t like it.

“It was the warm pickles. Who eats warm pickles? I didn’t like it and I told dad as much.”

It was 1996. Maroun Abdallah and his wife Nawal had just torn down Cedar’s Eatery and rebuilt after being in business for twenty years. They were trying out a few new menu items, and Maroun was particularly excited about his shawarma. His son…not so much, but he’d come around. Twenty-one years later it is the undisputed, undefeated, unrelenting favourite menu item on Prince Edward Island and it shows no signs of yielding its throne.

In a completely unscientific facebook poll, the chicken shawarma at Cedar’s led the pack by a significant margin. My group of friends is fairly Charlottetown centric to begin with. I also spent a lot of time in the building over the years. Put those together and Cedar’s bias begins to form. I freely admit it, but I also do not hesitate to say that the chicken shawarma is worthy of the praise it received.

I remember hearing a story once about a guy in Murray River taking a hankering for a shawarma and ordering a cab to deliver it. I couldn’t get Ryan to confirm.

“I haven’t heard that one, but I remember two times where people took shawarmas to friends living off-Island. One was to Toronto by plane, and one was to Halifax by car.”

While he doesn’t guarantee quality once a shawarma leaves the province, he does have an idea why his father’s shawarma is so widely appreciated.

“Most other shawarmas use chicken off a spit, and that leaves it kind of dry. We marinate our chicken and make it to order, so it’s freshly cooked and still moist. Then there’s the sauce.”

Oh the Cedar’s shawarma sauce. It is delicious, isn’t it? It’s savoury. It’s tangy. It’s spicy. The garlic hits you like a slap on the tongue. It’s the first and last thing you taste. I think the only more tightly guarded secret in the restaurant business is the Colonel’s secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. It’s something Ryan obsesses about.

“I went to Toronto for a few days and the sauce was bugging me the whole time I was there. It wasn’t quite right, and I knew it when I left. I was so glad to get back and fix it. It’s the signature. It has to be just right.”

Ryan takes this very seriously. He took over Cedar’s from his father about seven years ago and inherited the recipes. I’ve heard rumours they were handed over in some sort of secret ceremony with robes and chants. He says I wouldn’t believe the amount of chicken he goes through in a week, and the shawarma is big reason why. Ryan figures it accounts for about 20 percent of his food business. I believe him.

While we talk, we split a shawarma. We chat a bit about old times, and the future. He’s made some changes since taking over. The renovation to the bar has been huge for the business, but the foundation is what keeps it strong. Cedar’s is busier than ever. He’s also taking a crack at retail with Maroun’s Garlic Paste. You should try it. It’s just like in the restaurant.

At one point Ryan puts down his half of the sandwich and says, almost to himself, “I forgot how good this was.”

I guess the warm pickles don’t bother him so much any more.

—What is your favourite Island restaurant meal? Post it online using #TryThisAndrew

To the point

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

The drive from Charlottetown to Wood Islands on the Trans Canada Highway is one of the most underappreciated scenic drives on the Island. It has all the beauty the Island is known for; rolling green hills, breathtaking shorelines, quaint villages, and patchwork fields. It’s a quiet area, though. And despite its beautiful vistas, it’s not terribly popular with visitors, or Islanders, for that matter. There are a ton of cottages in the area, granted. And there are quite a few destinations that make the trip worthwhile. But the region has lacked three features for some time that are important selling points for many visitors; a popular beach, a community with shops and services, and good restaurants. It’s unlikely the first two problems will be solved any time soon. They’re chipping away at the third.

On a beautiful Sunday during the second week of July my wife, son and mother took the drive southeast to have lunch at the Point Prim Chowder House and Oyster Bar. Point Prim itself is one of my favourite parts of the Island. The drive out from the highway is spectacular. The lighthouse is the oldest on the Island and an absolutely magnificent structure. My first overnight trip away from my parents was at Camp Buchan with my Cub Scout troupe, so there’s a little history for me, too. The Chowder House has been there for years in different incarnations. The last time I visited was about five years ago, and it wasn’t open. The time before that it was cash only, and I had none. This time we checked ahead, and they were open with a functioning debit machine.

I’d heard good reviews about the latest incarnation of the Chowder House, and we were all excited to try it out. As you drive down to the point it looks like a run down, old building. But as you get closer the patio comes into view. It might be the single best restaurant patio on the Island. The view of Hillsborough Bay and the Northumberland Strait is unparalleled. If you look closely you can see where the hills of Alexandra and Cumberland recede to form the mouth of Charlottetown Harbour. It makes you stop to take it all in. The sunsets must be incredible. Inside, the run down first impression disappears completely but the rustic feeling remains. There are five tables, an oyster bar and about a thousand license plates. But it’s very tastefully done, even the license plates.

The menu is almost exclusively seafood, save a couple of meat dishes and a grilled cheese. I had a lobster roll, and curried crab chowder. Mom and Jinny split the lobster and brie pannini, while Jinny had tomato seafood chowder, and Mom had clam and potato chowder. Jinny didn’t realize the tomato chowder included smoked haddock and the strong flavour turned her off a bit. She didn’t eat it all but Charlie had more than a few bites. Mom finished her chowder and really liked it. They both said the pannini was good. My chowder was very enjoyable. The lobster roll was a bit on the plain side, but delicious none-the-less. We took shifts wrangling Charlie so we could each have a little time to enjoy the food and the view.

All together it was a good meal in a one of a kind location. The Point Prim Chowder House and Oyster bar is a great reason to visit one of the Island’s most beautiful and underappreciated regions.

Venting on vendors

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

For ten years or so the City of Charlottetown has been trying to answer two seemingly basic questions; who can and can’t sell food, and where can and can’t they sell it. Food vendors want to sell local food to people in a licensed yet common sense environment, and the City wants to make sure the serving of that food meets reasonable health and safety standards. Food vendors want to make money, and the City wants to reduce late night noise complaints. Food vendors want to take advantage of the best possible markets and the City wants to make sure said vendors are as inoffensive as possible to our collective sensibilities.

Now, one would think the licensing of street-side food vendors would be fairly uncomplicated, but the City seems to want residents to believe otherwise. It seems like it keeps passing bylaws, piece by piece, ever restricting the availability and accessibility of street side food. At least that’s the way it gets played out in the media. 

The most recent flare up in the ever souring food vendor/city bureaucracy relationship happened in mid May when a local vendor paid for his permit only to discover some weeks later that the city would be enforcing a year old bylaw that required street side food vendors to close up shop at midnight. Midnight! A full two hours before the hungry masses arrive for their end of night feeding. And this was on top of a very public fight the City had last year with a food vendor who wanted to run a chip shack on the waterfront but had her permit denied. That vendor garnered a lot of support from locals. The City reversed its decision saying it wasn’t bowing to pressure, but allowing her to operate while they tried to get a handle on where and when street side food was allowed. The city eventually passed a slew of bylaw amendments aimed at regulating, and especially quieting, street side vendors. This was after the City received a stern letter and position paper from the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

The news of the latest bylaw change rocked social media and the vast majority of people were absolutely furious with the City. Many saw the story as further proof that City Hall would rather see street vendors shut down than take the time to develop a comprehensive yet common sense approach to street vending. Others swore they’d roast sausages on the ashes of City Hall. Others still called for the heads of certain local restaurant owners who they suspect had been behind the city’s efforts to clamp down on vendors. The City, for its part, blamed noise complaints.

All of this is completely unnecessary and ridiculous. If vendors meet health and safety standards, they should be good to go. Yes, there should be a limit on the total number of street vendor permits, but let the market dictate that to the most reasonable extent possible. Restaurant owners should back off, and let the market decide where it wants to spend its dollars. Restaurant owners should worry more about the quality of their own product and complain less about the perceived advantages food vendors enjoy. 

Also, there is no way you can blame street vendors alone for noise at 2:30 am. They share only a miniscule part of the blame. And besides, those noise complaints are coming from people who choose to live downtown, where there’s noise at 2:30 every Friday and Saturday night, at least. There was noise when they moved in, and there will be late night noise long after they move out.

Holy cow!

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Let me throw a few quick Burger Love numbers at you.

$1,100,000 was spent last year at 54 restaurants Island wide on burgers alone. That’s about $20,000 at each restaurant, on average. I bet one or two were close to $100,000.

92,168 burgers were sold during the 2014 edition of Burger Love. That’s more than 3,000 a day, and close to 60 per restaurant per day.

42,083 pounds of beef were required to make all those burgers. At about 432 pounds of meat from the average steer, that’s about a hundred head of cattle. And that’s only if every pound of retail cut is used for ground beef. How many cows were left on PEI in May is a mystery.

60 restaurants took part this year from Souris to Tyne Valley. I think there were only three or four other restaurants open on the Island at that time.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration.

With those numbers no one can disagree that Burger Love is by far and away the best restaurant promotion in Island history. It might be the best local marketing campaign in Island history as well. It’s hard to quantify that, but I try to think of another and the best I can come up with is the old Norton’s Jewellers song.

The 2015 edition got off to a bang. I talked to Liam Dolan at the Olde Dublin Pub early on. He said the second Saturday of the month was his busiest day of the year save St. Patrick’s Day. The waitress listening in said she was far busier. They sold 500 burgers that Saturday. And I’m betting there are restaurants that sold more than that on their busiest day.

I managed five burgers by press time. Not my best effort but I was away for five days right in the middle of it. The burgers ran the gamut from mostly pretty darn good to, in one case, awful; horribly, horribly awful. Of the five, my favourite this year was the Dubtastic from Olde Dublin Pub. It featured candied bacon, a perennial favourite ingredient of mine, caramelized onion with jalepeno, chilli gouda, spinach dip, romaine lettuce and hickory sticks on a cheese kaiser with garlic butter, garnished with a deep fried risotto ball and tomato. It was pretty darn good, alright. I really liked the spinach dip, and the heat from the jalepenos. The hickory sticks were lost in the mix but the beef wasn’t. And that’s important. The beef has to be the featured flavour. It’s also important that the burger stay together and not be impossible to eat with your hands alone. All that was left on my plate at the Olde Dublin was a couple of drops of grease.

I won’t say where I got the bad burger, but I will tell you this; it may have been the worst burger I’ve ever eaten. It featured a patty resembling a piece of cardboard, what may have been the worst sauce in burger history, and an ingredient that could cause severe burns (no, I’m not talking about the tasty MOOOOO Shiner from Old Triangle, which featured a flaming deep fried mac and cheese ball as a garnish). To make matters worse, it stayed with me all day and night. I shudder.

That burger is a fine example of where some restaurants fall short when it comes to Burger Love. They try too hard. In their search for originality they lose track of what makes a great burger in the first place; good beef, good bun, good construction. I suppose the same could be said for all of them, to some degree. But I like to think the majority do justice to the almighty hamburger.

Events Calendar

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Make a contribution

Confederation Centre exhibition encourages contributions to University of Baghdad Library Until Jan [ ... ]

Garrett Mason at The Pourhouse

Nova Scotia bluesman booked for two nights in January January 18 & 19
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Debussy Préludes

St. Paul’s Church
January 18 Pianist Sarah Hagen will perform Debussy’s first book of Préludes  [ ... ]

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