We head to Okotoks, Red Deer and Bonnyville for some local fare
By Cory Schachtel, Steven Sandor | June 6, 2023
You see them on every Alberta road trip you take — signs that advertise all the fast-food places that you’ll find when you take the next exit. It’s the easiest thing to do when you’re on the road — stop for gas and grab a sandwich or burger that tastes exactly the same as one you’d find at any Edmonton drive-thru.
But, if you’re going to make a pit stop, why not do it right? Why not support the small businesses and entrepreneurs who breathe life into their towns? Seek out the specialty that everyone in town knows about. Go a little further than that fast-food place next to the rest station.
We’ve got some ideas. They’re worth the drive.
Big Sky BBQ
My son has been playing in various Baseball Alberta leagues for several years. And if you’re a baseball parent, one thing is a given: You’re going to make many trips to Okotoks — a place where the fantastic competition diamonds make it the centre of the sport in this province.
And, thanks to all the baseball trips, we’ve all discovered Big Sky BBQ, located just outside the Okotoks city limits, bordering a horse ranch. It’s now a ritual for the families to gather there and share plates of some of the best barbecue you’ll find in Alberta.
The smell of slow-cooked meats hits you as you make the approach on the highway. You walk in, sit at a wooden table or on the spacious patio that offers great views of grazing horses, and then wait for your name to be called. You walk up to the counter and find your order, wrapped in butcher paper.
The don’t-need-a-knife brisket and ribs are highlights; there’s plenty of house-made sauces on hand — and the white baked bread has its own dedicated fan base. Seriously, some of our parents have tried to buy loaves of the stuff to take home.
But the highlight for me are the burnt ends, those fantastic pieces of charred brisket. They’re a meal unto themselves, and they’re really too good to share.
Sitting out on the patio, eating brisket, on an Alberta summer day? Yeah, maybe there is a heaven, after all. — Steven Sandor
Big Sky BBQ Pit 306016 15 St E, Okotoks | 403-938-0701 | bigskybbq.ca
Jennie’s Diner and Bakery
And, when you’re on a summer of road trips, your weekends become a blur of Tim Hortons drive-thrus and team dinners at whichever town’s local Boston Pizza.
On these trips, one really gets an appreciation for how much of the restaurant business outside of Alberta’s major cities goes to the chains.
So, when you find a place that exists outside of that, you cherish it.
Jennie’s Diner & Bakery, located in downtown Bonnyville, has a lineup outside when we visit. It feels like we just walked into Flo’s Diner from Cars (any adult who has had kids in the past 15 years has probably seen Cars more than any other movie, so that’s the reference I am going with). At the counter, there are a range of cupcakes under glass, with flavours like Orange Creamsicle, Rootbeer Float, Strawberry Lemonade and Grape.
But, before going to the cupcake display, there are plenty of diner classics to try. These are dishes that are big on overkill, from a breakfast hotdog, where scrambled eggs are a condiment, to the Gunsmoke burger, with barbecue sauce, spicy red mayo, fried onions, cheese and bacon.
The breakfasts are massive, the lunch portions are, well, just as massive. It’s a challenge to save room for those cupcakes. But heck, it’s a road trip. Get ’em to go. — Steven Sandor
Like most Edmontonians, when I road trip down the QE2, I usually stop in Red Deer. But that’s all — I just stop, usually for gas or snacks or maybe some fast food, as quickly as possible. With a shout out to Peters’ Drive-In, I must admit I’ve been a total snob when it comes to restaurants actually in Red Deer. That changes today.
The best way to start a food-based road trip is the best way to start any day: with a giant brunch and some Hash — as in, Hash Breakfast Eatery, just off David Thompson Highway. It has a modern design with a touch of ’40s diner flair. Like any good brunch place, it’s packed, but a table for two opens as soon as we walk in to the sounds of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” (It feels a bit like the dance contest scene in Pulp Fiction, but there’s no stage, and my buddy looks terrible doing the twist anyway.)
My general rule when trying new restaurants is to order things I can’t make on my own. And while I’ve semi-successfully poached a few eggs in my time, I certainly don’t have fresh Atlantic lobster at home, so I order the Lobster Benni.
Each egg rests on a hash cake, instead of an English muffin, and rarely has such a small food substitution made such a substantial difference. I thought the potato might make it a heavy meal, which is not the best strategy when starting a food road trip day. But the cakes are light, and soak up the house-made hollandaise as good as any muffin, English or otherwise. It’s just the right amount of delicious breakfast food, so of course we order a side of pancakes, and end up over-stuffed anyway. — Cory Schachtel
After a brief jaunt around Heritage Ranch, and a few games of arcade basketball in the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame (I lose two games to one), it’s time for more food. So we head to Tribe, which sits in the heart of Red Deer’s Ross Street Patio Entertainment District that opened last summer.
Railings section off one side of half the block, so as we sit on Tribe’s enclosed patio, there’s another permanent railing beyond it on the street. People patronizing restaurants (like Tribe) within that railing are allowed, drinks in hand, to walk around that area under Alberta’s new Entertainment Districts bylaw. We sit on the patio on an early spring day (the interior has a dark and moody vibe), so there is no live music, but we marvel throughout the meal at the setup and can’t wait for Whyte Avenue to follow suit (someday soon, maybe…?).
Speaking of the meal, Tribe divides its menu into Flat, Sweet, Big and Sharing plates (plus Sweet plates for dessert), all of which have varying degrees of salted, pickled and roasted items, many of which are internationally inspired but locally sourced. Since we had a big brunch, and were raised right, we decide to share, and go with the Little Max Charcuterie, plus some roasted tomatoes with goat cheese on Tribe-made ciabatta bread. Like any locally sourced charcuterie, specific items change based on the season. But we hope they keep the two standouts — the baked brie and the single-serve spinach dip crusts — year round. And our satisfying Caesars come in tiki glasses that are so cool, we buy one each as souvenirs. — Cory Schachtel