“Now you know how the ham feels,” the young kid behind the bar with the Shaggy goatee said over my pour, “you’re smack in the middle of it.” It is perhaps the closest way to explain how it feels to be in Edmonton, a city so smack central in a continent not many people make the trip to, or escape from. While it’s wholly inconspicuous remoteness might keep Edmonton off travelers radars, it was exactly what was attractive to me to her. What I came to find is that little ol’ Edmonton holds the record for some of the largest and most prolific attractions of any city, in the world. Where is the largest mall in North America? What city has the largest urban parkland? What city has the most music festivals? What major city has no rats, whatsoever. Always Edmonton. As a native New Yorker, I needed to see this ratless, wunderland for myself.
The first thing you notice about Edmonton is a strange dichotomy between city and nature. Here you will find two diametrically apposing wonders of the world; the largest shopping mall in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest natural reserves in the country.
As the morning weather was perfect, I headed to Elk Island National Park which is ironically chock full of wild buffalo that practically overrun you as soon as you enter. Thankfully they were Canadian Buffalo so they were very polite and allowed us to watch, photograph, and even say hello through the open window of our car. The rest of the park with its long hiking trails, lakes and public areas is a fantastic way to spend a morning, and brings you into the raw and beautiful Canadian wilderness instantly.
Having gotten my full of nature I was excited to see what the largest shopping mall in North America would look like. At first glance of the West Edmonton Mall, I was wholly unimpressed. Roosevelt Field in Mineaola, Long Island. The Dauphin Mall, in Kendell, Florida. Fox Hills Mall in Sherman Oak, California. These were Malls. Mecca’s to commerce, Cathedrals of capitalism, temples of teenage angst. From the lifeless, beige exterior I was so far not impressed.
Until I entered and fell gently to my knees.
This mall isn’t just huge, it’s epic. Epic like a very long poem written by a beardy Greek fellow. Epic like being sent on a ship to a continent that doesn’t exist yet. Epic like a Jerry Bruckhimer film. Yes. This was the Independence Day of malls.
55 city blocks long this small city of stores houses hundreds of shops and restaurants, and more then a dozen bathrooms. That’s over 120 urinals, which is more then the population of some Swiss towns. This might all be impressive but when you realize there is a full beach with wave park, amusement park with roller coaster, mini-golf, a full scale pirate ship and a seal tank you basically realize you are no longer in a mall, you are in the worlds most entertaining city. I mean there is a live seal, in the mall, doing tricks for you, as shop. Oh Canada!
Strangely I did not see a hotel in the mall, or I would have stayed there, so I closed my gaping jaw and headed back to the city center. As dusk settled in I found myself in Old Strathcona, the wonderfully hipster historic center of Edmonton. Strath is full of funky shops, crooked bars, and artsy scene that echo Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Skateboarders and kids in need of showers give this bohemian center a charming, relaxed atmosphere, which is a perfect place to wind the day down. Strolling through the streets you can see some fantastic murals, a few antique trolleys, farmer markets, and street music. Best of all no matter what time of year you come you will always be treated to some epic event, as Edmonton has over 30 music festivals a year, and one of the largest Fringe festivals, which is more then any other city in the world.
A few pints of the local Yellowhead lager in me I headed back downtown over the High Level Bridge, where I ran into a nice lady who was painting on the walkway. “This bridge use to be completely dark. We put lights on it. Now it shines all year round.”
“Who put lights on it?”
“We did. The people who live here.” And it was true. Maybe in the best sign of proud city unity the inhabitants of the city funded to have LED lights placed on the bridge, by themselves. I thought having a co-op in my neighborhood was cool. This was next level hipster, on a city scale.
Famished from my walk, I marched directly to the Hardware Grill, where Chef Larry Stewart transforms the traditional into the sublime. There were cocktails that leave you elated, lightly battered KFC (Korean Fried Cauliflower) that floated down from heaven, and a piece of Bison that was so tender, I completely forgot I saw these majestic beasts just a few hours ago wandering alive and free. It’s a fantastic place definitely not to be missed.
Sated beyond belief, I opted to walk back to see what Edmonton had to offer the night owl. I was pleased to find a bright and colorful city, fully of youth, gourmet poutine food trucks, and lively bars. Passing Churchill Square I stopped to watch a bit of a free screening of Pitch Perfect 2 that the city put on, with hundreds of people out enjoying the open-air theater, laughing together like it was a bunch of friends over someone’s basement. Edmonton had the feel of a small town packed into a modern city, as if you become instant family by just arriving there.
It was so friendly that it was hard not to strike up a conversation every time I stopped moving for a minute. People were chatty and excited to offer suggestions of what’s best in the city. I had already seen so much and been unexpectedly impressed by this unknown metropolis that I found it truly surprising to discover what was possibly the only reason to come to Edmonton: The Green Onion Cake.
“You haven’t had a Green Onion Cake?!” the girl in the Canadian flag wrapped folding chair said looking at me as if I said I never heard of Justin Bieber. “It’s our national dish! How long have you been in town?”
“About 8 hours.”
“What have you been doing?!” Apparently the largest mall, a natural Bison petting zoo, and a meal I will judge all other future meals against was a huge waste of time when facing the Edmonton Green Onion Cake. “Go to The Underground. Right now. It’s around the corner. No sign. That’s how you know you’re there.”
There are some foods whose origin are truly shrouded in mystery; bird nest soup of south east asia. The Surströmming buried Fish of Northern Sweden. The Chicken McNugget. This was another mystery that I was hoping to solve at The Underground, a gastropub that indeed doesn’t look like it should be there. Inside a commercial building and down a very poorly lit escalator you are birthed into a warm, dimly lit cavern of beer heaven. More taps than members of parliament, I saddled up to the bar and lent in close to the barkeep. “Do you have…” I paused… for dramatic effect, “Green Onion Cake?”
“Yep. With Pork?”
“If that’s what one does.” He nodded. It came. It was not what I expected.
Basically a what a New Yorker would call a Scallion Pancake at a Chinese restaurant, but much larger, and with a large bialy like hole in the middle. It is then stuffed with tender pulled pork and special sauce which you then immediately shove into your face as if it were air, and you had been trapped underwater most of your life. It is delicious, but was a dish with an origin as unique as Edmonton itself. I was entirely confused. How was this Edmonton’s National dish, I queried my new friend behind the bar.
“Well, it’s hard to say. Lots of people have different stories, but I think the consensus is that there was this Chinese couple, from China, that made it originally. They have a restaurant that’s been around since the 70’s. They were the first. But I read that the restaurant just closed down. Like it closed today. A real shame. History. Gone. But hey, at least we still have the Green Onion Cake, amairite?”
In a way Green Onion Cake is a perfect symbol for the city of Edmonton; here is something foreign, that has traveled a very long way, and has not only been accepted into Edmonton life, but Edmonton made it its own. Be it the shopping mall, nature, or even it’s own heritage, Edmonton seems to have the wonderful ability to take whatever it has, and truly make it an original article unlike anything else out there.
Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.