On the Cowboy Trail, horses run wild while sheep and cows wander the flowing foothills that turn into the Rockies o’er yonder. Just an hour outside of Calgary, I’ve got a hunger on, so I stop at the red barn in Turner Valley, the one with the sign that says “Est. 1973.” It’s the Chuckwagon Cafe, where not much has changed since the 1970s: not the wood panelling, not the carpet, not even the castiron stove warming a Pyrex pot of coffee. Apparently, the place is famous for its burgers. And when someone tells you a red barn in the middle of nowhere is famous for its burgers, you generally don’t order the salad.
Cowtown, as Calgary is affectionately known, used to be all about steak and potato dinners, with a heaping side of yee-haw charm, but now even classic diners are rethinking meat and taters. With in-house dry-aging, global twists and heritage breeds gaining traction at working ranches, I’m here to check out how Alberta has been beefing up its beef game. My burger at the Chuckwagon Cafe tastes more like a beautifully charred steak than a blue plate special. That’s partly because owner Terry Myhre started raising organically fed Murray Grey cattle (an Australian breed) on a ranch near Longview, in the foothills, but also because the beef for the six-ouncers is dry-aged for about 28 days, assertively seasoned and cooked just as I like ’em: no prosaic patty here; it’s blissfully blackened, with a pink, juicy centre.
Back in the city, I’m inhaling an obnoxiously great poutine and a butcher steak with chimichurri at Charcut. When the modern steakhouse was opened five years ago by co-chefs John Jackson and Connie DeSousa, it brought competitiveness and camaraderie to Calgary’s chef-driven restaurant scene. The real place to see that evolution is at their recently opened Charbar in the Simmons building, part of the reimagination of the Bow River in the East Village, where Calgary spent tens of millions of dollars turning a once-derelict part of the riverfront into elegant pathways, parks and possibly the best riverfront patio this side of Texas. In the 1912 warehouse, executive chef and part-owner Jessica Pelland puts the focus on locally sourced meat, vegetables and fish – including beef from a herd of Texas longhorns raised at 7K Ranch, south of Calgary. Pelland knows her way around the 900°F hardwood coal-fuelled parrilla that’s fired up in the kitchen and seasonally on the rooftop: There are short ribs, grass-fed butcher steak and ultra-dry-aged porterhouse steaks, as well as the accompanying Argentine-inspired pit sauces and sides (hello wood-roasted beets, with seeds and queso azul!).
Wandering through the Simmons culinary hub, I find Aviv Fried’s Sidewalk Citizen Bakery. The baker’s legendary organic sourdough loaves and gorgeous pastries are up for grabs, but so too is Alberta beef (heritage Angus from Prairie Land and Cattle) in the Middle Eastern-spun sandwiches and daily stews. (Today’s special is spoon-soft beef cheeks and pomegranate on a bed of almond freekeh.) More international spins can be found on 17th Avenue. Anju does a creative Korean take on carpaccio, spun out of hanger steak, Asian pear, bone marrow, egg yolk, pine nuts and sesame, before moving on to heritage Angus short ribs with sweet soy and kimchi. Meanwhile, a large-format dinner at Model Milk means juicy smoked brisket for two with milk buns, nahm jim and peanuts.
For an oldie but a goodie – and “Est. 2003” is old in Calgary restaurant terms – Vintage Chophouse & Tavern, in the city’s historic Beltline neighbourhood of Victoria Park, offers nine different cuts, including a dry-aged daily “butcher block special,” proudly presented tableside by gentlemen servers in white butcher coats. This is the classic steakhouse experience I remember from nights of yore. I try a tender sampling, from Wagyu to striploin, with killer sides of doughnut-size onion rings and my new standard in creamed spinach, plus a throwback baked Alaska for dessert. As I stuff myself silly while drinking juicy B.C. wines, I lean back, survey the refreshed room and think that a good ol’ steak dinner is feeling like the new cut on the block.
Where’s the Beef?
Anju Restaurant 344 17th Ave. S.W., 403-460-3341, anju.ca
Charbar 618 Confluence Way S.E., 403-452-3115, charbar.ca
Charcut 899 Centre St. S.W., #101, 403-984-2180, charcut.com
Chuckwagon Cafe 105 Sunset Blvd., Turner Valley, 403-933-0003, chuckwagoncafe.ca
Model Milk 308 17th Ave. S.W., 403-265-7343, modelmilk.ca
Sidewalk Citizen Bakery 618 Confluence Way S.E., 403-457-2245, sidewalkcitizenbakery.com
Vintage Chophouse & Tavern 320 11th Ave. S.W., 403-262-7262, vintagechophouse.com