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Ottawa with the Locals: Discovering Great Foods in the Nation’s Capital

I’m going to admit it: I’m not a foodie-traveler. I believe it’s very important to eat local food when you are in a new place, but I’ve never actually researched them beforehand. I know, shocking! I mean, I research EVERYTHING before I go; from things to do to public transportation to hostel reviews, absolutely nothing is left to chance. That is, except for places to eat (Hah! I can’t even tell you where the logic is in that!). I guess I figured there are a ton of restaurants in any given city, so we can just wing it and walk in as long ad the menu and the prices look good. As a result, I always miss out on the hot/hip spots in the city, only finding out from friends after I got back or when I stumble across an article or a blog post weeks or months later. This is why it’s awesome to go to places where you have friends. I don’t have to do any research since they know all the best places to eat in their city (at least I would hope so!). It’s a win-win situation, really.

That said, I’m lucky enough to have several friends living in Ottawa: Rue, Vanessa, and Kainat among them. These wonderful ladies took me places and showed me a different side of Ottawa I otherwise wouldn’t find out if I were going on my own. Now, I’m going to share these spots with you and hopefully you’ll get a chance to try them when you visit the capital city!

For Breakfast:

French Baker 

119 Murray Street – Ottawa – ON – K1N5M5

Rue puts it eloquently: “Whenever you want to smell Paris, just step into the French Baker and inhale!”. A small store on the side of Byward Market, this bakery sells french-inspired pastries and artisan bread. You don’t even have to step inside, you will catch the delicious whiff of fresh baguette by simply walking past it! For something around $2.80, I had the almond croissant and it was pretty damn delicious (even after I dropped it on the floor)!

La Botega

64 George Street – Byward Market – Ottawa – ON – K1N 5V9

This small food market has everything you ever want from Europe, from cheese, to cookies, straight down to the authentic Italian coffees. We were there for a mid-morning snack, so I didn’t have any of their hot food. However, I’ve been told their $5 sandwiches is very popular, not to mention delicious, lunch item. Also, Kainat and I may or may not have spent a good chunk of my money on Milka chocolate bars.

For Lunch:

Saigon Boy Noodle House 

648 Somerset St. W. – Chinatown –  Ottawa – ON – K1R 5K4
Vietnamese Bun from Saigon Boy

Vietnamese Bun from Saigon Boy

Head to Chinatown and hop into Saigon Boy for a bowl of authentic Vietnamese noodle bowl. It’s definitely not better than Pho Hung in Toronto, but it’s certainly better than other Vietnamese places I’ve tried. The generous portion is also a bonus!

For Afternoon Coffee:

Bridgehead Roastery

130 Anderson St. – Ottawa – ON – K1R 6T7

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Located on the side of the Bridgehead Roastery in Little Italy, this brew bar is a unique experience for coffee-drinkers. For $2.55 you get to choose which coffee beans and which brewing method you want to try, with each method producing a different taste.

The different brewing methods offered: Syphon, Chemex, Clever, and Eva Solo.

The different brewing methods offered: Syphon, Chemex, Clever, and Eva Solo (not necessarily in that order)

When you go with a friend, it’s a good idea to choose exactly the same coffee beans but different brewing method. That way you get to actually taste the difference in tastes.

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Be aware, though, that it is a fully functioning roastery, which means their roasters run during the week. That said, it does get a little bit noisy in there, so it’s probably not the best place to be if you’re looking for a quiet coffee house.

For Happy Hour:

Mambo Nuevo Latino 

77 Clarence St. – Ottawa – ON – K1N 5S7

Who else would take me here other than Kainat, a self-professed lover of all things Spanish and European football-related?

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We each ordered a glass of sangria and shared a plate of patata bravas. The atmosphere plus the food instantly transported me back to greatest place in the world: Barcelona.

The Clocktower Brew Pub

575 Bank St. – Ottawa – ON – K1S 5L7

2 things you need to order: Kolsch Beer and Pub Chips. The beer was light and the chips savory, together they make excellent snacks to munch on while catching up with friends.

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For Dinner:

Homemade french onion soup

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I included this one because I have been wanting to have a bowl of French Onion Soup since I came back from Paris several years ago. So, when Rue asked me what I want to eat (as Vanessa is a chef specializing in European cuisine), I quickly requested she make French Onion Soup. And she delivered! Served steaming hot and topped with a cheese-smothered bread, it was nothing but DELICIOUS. Thank you, Vanessa!

What about you guys? How do you eat when you travel? Do you research your restaurants? Do you go by local recommendations? Or do you wing it like I do?

*Special thanks to my awesome friends: Kainat, Rue, and Vanessa, all of whom played the role of gracious hosts when I was in Ottawa. Natasha – I didn’t forget you; I’ll just have to spend some time with you next time I’m back in Ottawa!

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Eating the World: Penang

Amidst the humid air, the delicious aroma of different types of foods being simultaneously prepared behind the stalls wafted through the night. At one of Penang’s pasar makanan (hawker centre), it is absolutely normal to hear the sizzling sound of raw ingredients meeting hot oil and to witness the chef furiously beating the ingredients in a gigantic steel wok on the roaring fire of a gas stove. Arriving 2 days earlier and driven by my father’s never-ending curiosity, my parents have scoured the area for hawker centres and  have spoken with the locals regarding what kinds of food they should eat while they are in Penang. I sat patiently as my father walked around, putting his gathered knowledge to use and ordering all things foreign yet best-ever (as he claimed) for us: He walked to the seafood stall and used his expertise to choose a fish to be grilled (he LOVES fishing in the ocean), continued to order a plate of char koay teow, made a beeline to the auntie selling claypot chicken rice, and lastly, he ended at the drink stall to order a batch of refreshments (Hello, watermelon juice, es teh tarik, and starfruit juice!).

Pulau Pinang, better known as Penang, is an island off the coast of peninsular Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca, and was founded by the British Captain Francis Light in 1786 as an exchange for protection for Sultan Abdullah of Kedah from his enemies (the Burmese and the Siamese). During the British’ reign, Penang enjoyed a trade boom in the early 19th century, making it an attractive place for Chinese business men and European planters to invest and build their mansions as well as send their children to schools in its capital, George Town. Because of this and the heavy British influence on the architectures, George Town parades beautiful, colonial buildings on its streets and it has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Moreover, being one of the most multi-cultural provinces in Malaysia, it also carries a wide variety of food to offer to both locals and travelers alike.

Be sure to have these dishes if you ever have the chance to go:

Char Koay Teow

You can’t go to Penang and not have a plate of this flat rice noodle stir-fried with bean sprout, egg, shrimp, and Chinese sausage, and flavoured with soy sauce, fish sauce, salt, pepper, and a variety of other spices. Rumor has it that the best one (also the most expensive one) in Penang is from Kafé Heng Huat on Lorong Selamat.

Photo by Chensiyuan via Wikipedia.

Nasi Lemak

Considered to be the national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak is served at any time of day. The rice is soaked in coconut milk with pandan leaves before being steamed, thus giving it its famous fragrant aroma. It is commonly served with a variety of accompanying side dishes, such as stir-fried kangkung, sambal belacan, hard-boiled egg, meat curry, and salted peanuts.

Claypot Chicken Rice

Being the Malaysian equivalent of bi bim bap, it’s basically rice with pieces of chicken cooked in a clay pot and adorned with Chinese sausage and green onion. The best one we had is from the hawker centre at the corner of Gottlieb and Scott.

Nasi Goreng

Of course this has to be on the list! Nasi goreng (fried rice) is ubiquitous throughout South East Asia and is served in countless ways. Often garnished with deep-fried (and crispy!) shallots and a couple of slices of cucumber, it’s remarkable how delicious such a simple dish can be.

Roti Canai

Because of a thriving Indian population, some of the best Indian fares can be found here. Head over to Little India and sample the freshly made roti canai. For a more intense olfactory experience, also order a bowl of curry and use it as a dip for the roti. Ah-mazing.

Ice Kacang

Perfect for those of you with a sweet tooth (or two), ice kacang is a type of dessert consisting of canned sweet corn, palm seed, red bean paste, sweetened gelatin, and grass jelly, topped with a mound of shaved ice and drizzled with sugar syrup and condensed milk.

Watermelon Juice

Made to order and served icy cold, this was, hands down, the perfect tonic for Asia’s humid, tropical weather. It was pretty much all I drank for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between.

Tropical Fruits

Red dragon fruits, papayas, white melons, pomegranates, you name it, Penang probably has it.

I don’t claim this to be a comprehensive list of all the foods Penang has to offer – heck, with only a week-long stay, it was barely enough to even scratch the surface. Nor do I claim myself to be a food enthusiast – it’s very easy to satisfy me as long as the food tastes good to my liking. But, with low prices of such scrumptious food, how can you not eat to your heart’s content and stuff yourselves silly when you’re in Penang?

Spanish Meals

I saw Kainat when I went to Ottawa on Victoria Day long weekend (Rue – don’t be mad. I promise I’ll be back. 2 days 1 night in that city definitely wasn’t enough!). We were meeting over a quick brunch of crepes and fruit smoothies at Pure Power Juice Bar in Byward Market when she broke the news that she will be going to Spain for a conference. More specifically, she will be spending some time in Barcelona and will be in Madrid for the Euro Cup Final (here is to hoping Spain makes it to the final *fingers crossed*) Are you jealous yet? I CERTAINLY AM!

So, to the girl who introduced me to Xabi Alonso – this is for you!

Eating has always been considered synonymous with traveling. Whenever I travel to a new place, I always make it a priority to research its local delicacies. I am not the most adventurous eater – I’m one of those people who ALWAYS order the same thing from the same place, case in point: every time I go to Pho Hung on Spadina, I always get chicken vermicelli  (17A, or is it 19A?); don’t even try to change my mind. It is my theory that the thrill of ordering something new doesn’t compare with the comfort you get from the old favourites. Does anyone else agree with me on this?  Plus, every time I do try something new, I never ended up liking it. However, all this changes when I’m in a new place. As long as it’s not too bizarre (like eating a monkey’s brain or  a piece of rotten shark meat), I make sure to always try the local food.

Breakfast

EASY! Just head to a local bakery, randomly choose a pastry (Spanish almond croissants are HEAVENLY!), order a cappuccino, plop down on one of their window seats, and start people watching. If you are doing this on a weekday, you will get a glimpse of daily Catalan life – throngs of children going to school, men in suits(!) coming in to grab a bite and gulp down a shot of espresso, grandfathers animatedly chatting with each other.   I guarantee you will be thoroughly amused and satisfied.

Snack

As you are walking down La Rambla towards the direction of the waterfront, you will pass by La Boqueria on the right-hand side, across from Liceu Metro Station. Being one of Barcelona’s major attractions, La Boqueira is a traditional market offering a variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, hams, and other random things (mushrooms, anyone?). I would compare it to St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, but La Boqueira is a lot more intriguing and fun! So head inside and buy yourself a cup of mixed-fruit smoothie – hint: don’t buy one from the first stall you see, head to the back or to the sides where the smoothies are cheaper!

Lunch

In terms of value, lunch is the cheapest meal of the day and gives the most bang for your buck (Euro?) since many restaurants offer a multi-course lunch for under 10€. Plus, meals are usually accompanied with a glass of wine. If you want a different option, head to a bar and choose from a selection of tapas (you MUST get the patatas bravas). We went into a place on Calle de la Portaferrissaa, it’s in one of the alleys surrounding the main street. I realize that description there was as useless as a description could be, but really, just stroll through the district and eat at a place that looks good. If I’m not mistaken, it was 10€ for a selection of 3 tapas. It doesn’t seem like a lot at first glance, but it was surprisingly filling and delicious!

Dinner

TAPAS + PAELLA + SANGRIA. My life is complete. Most places offer a set menu, which usually includes a selection of tapas, a pan of paella (choose seafood!), and a jug of sangria.

If you are stuffed after, which you will undeniably be, and is up for a post-dinner stroll, take the Metro and head over to  Plaça Espanya to see the Magic Fountain in Montjuïc Park. When we were there, they (the water) danced to the theme song of Pirates of the Caribbean. I almost died from excitement

So, internet, what do you think ?Anything else I’m missing?

P.s. I realize it’s a sin to write about Barcelona without mentioning Gaudi. No worries – it’s coming!