5 Saskatoon restaurants you might have overlooked

As Saskatoonians, we are remarkably blessed when it comes to culinary choices.

According to the Tourism Saskatchewan website, Saskatoon has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Canada. But with all these options we’re bound to overlook some gems.

The restaurants on this list have a few things in common: they are locally owned and run by people with great passion for food and service who value family above profits, often working alongside their loved ones, and they offer unique menus with delicious options for vegetarians like me and omnivores alike. Unfortunately, another commonality is that when I mention them, most people have never tried them or even heard of them. If you’re only eating at places that have the exact same menu at all of their many locations across the country or those that serve the latest trend in hipster cuisine, you’re really missing out on some great dining experiences.

Here are five Saskatoon restaurants you probably haven’t experienced, but should:

Pokey’s Pinball Café

Now, it’d be understandable if you’ve overlooked the first place on our list since, as of this writing, they haven’t even technically opened yet. Pokey’s Pinball Café has been testing the waters with a soft opening since mid-January, planning for an official grand opening on February 1.

Owner, Jason Carrol aka “Pokey,” is a pinball enthusiast and an active member of the Sask Association of Pinball Players (SAPP), whose motto is “Pinball is serious business.” Pokey’s features a rotating line-up of vintage and new pinball machines in a fun atmosphere, open to all ages until 8pm.

Even if pinball is not your thing, Pokey’s is worth a visit for the food alone. The menu focuses on Cuban specialities, making it the only restaurant in Saskatchewan where you can enjoy ropa (shredded chicken or beef stewed with veggies and spices) or a cubano (a grilled Cuban sandwich on magical bread that somehow manages to be both dense and fluffy) with a side of congri (beans and rice). Add daily fresh-baked desserts, like apple torte with a layer of cheesecake, and this is definitely a place to put on your list of must-visits.

Pokey’s Pinball Café – 211-B 33rd Street West

Nellie’s Kitchen

I’m told there used to be a Nellie’s on 33rd, but this was before my time living in Saskatoon. The present Nellie’s Kitchen is located on 22nd Street and has new owners who adopted the original Ukrainian menu options of perogies, borscht, and cabbage rolls, along with standard Canadian café items like burgers and grilled cheese, and then added Vietnamese specials like spring rolls and noodle bowls, and most recently, bahn mi, a Vietnamese sub sandwich. They serve breakfast all day, which I always consider a plus (try the “Breakie,” a breakfast sandwich perfect for a hangover and 10 times better than what you get at a drive-thru). The prices are very affordable, making it my family’s go-to on those nights when no one can be bothered to cook.

The real highlight of dining at Nellie’s is that the staff members all possess the extraordinary ability of committing their customers and their usual orders to memory, making you feel like you’re always joining old friends for a meal. The owner regularly tells me that I’m “beautiful like a movie star,” reminds my boyfriend that he is lucky to have me, and knows I want a vegetarian noodle bowl (the best in the city, in my opinion) before I even have to ask.

– Nellie’s Kitchen – 727 22 Street West

Mardi Gras Grill

I think the reason Mardi Gras Grill hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves is likely to do with the less than savoury reputation of former businesses located where the restaurant now operates. Times have changed though, and the couple that now runs the place serves up delicious Cajun comfort food and giant colourful cocktails while their young son plays with toys or a tablet in one of the booths.

Cajun food is not known for being vegetarian-friendly and, truth be told, I can’t eat anything off the entrée section of the menu. I do all of my ordering off the sides section, which features some of the best food I’ve ever put in my mouth. Hushpuppies, fried green tomatoes, poutine with gravy that is both vegetarian and gluten-free, and creamy macaroni and cheese are on my regular rotation. The meat eaters I dine with are never disappointed by the exotic options of frog’s legs, catfish, and alligator.

– Mardi Gras Grill – 239 Idylwyld Drive South

La Bamba Café

Saskatoon has some amazing Latin restaurants and the best is La Bamba Café. Unfortunately, I think it often goes overlooked because of its location on the very eastern edge of town in an inconspicuous strip mall. Don’t let the distance stop you from trying this place out though.

La Bamba is responsible for the fact that a good 30% of my home garden now grows tomatillo plants after their Enchiladas Verdes made me a green sauce fanatic. Your meal starts with fresh made chips and salsa, and a sign over the counter states that if you’re still hungry after your meal, you should ask for more beans and rice. They never want anyone to leave hungry and I never have.

The staff at La Bamba are always smiling, even when their relatively small dining room is packed to overflowing and people are standing outside in the snow eagerly waiting for a table.

– La Bamba Café – 1025 Boychuk Drive

Golden Pagoda

Golden Pagoda is another restaurant where family takes priority. The owner’s two small children are always present at the table nearest the kitchen, doing homework or playing.

It is the only restaurant in Saskatchewan offering specialities of Burmese cuisine. The menu features bit of a history lesson on Burma (now called Myanmar) and a description of the food you’re about to eat as “midway between Indian and Chinese.”

Front of house is taken care of by the owner, who is always happy to discuss some aspect of his interesting menu. My favourite of his stories is the origin of his “12 Ingredient Soup,” thus named because the first time he made it, 12 happened to the number of ingredients he had available in his fridge. The soup is now different every time, depending on the ingredients he has on hand, but they always total up to 12. Try the “Vegetables in a Banana Leaf,” a dish with a simple name, but amazingly rich flavour.

– Golden Pagoda – #3-411 2nd Avenue North

– Photo courtesy of Flickr user kindle, Creative Commons