The 52 places traveler
The 52 Places Traveler follows his stomach through the city of Saskatoon and finds an astonishing variety.
26th February 2019
Our columnist Sebastian Modak visits each destination on our list of 52 Must-Go Places in 2019. He arrived in Saskatoon after making stops in Puerto Rico and Panama.
At first glance, much of Saskatoon looks the same. On the way out of the “loop”, the I-610 freeway, which circles the city center like a shirt collar, skyscrapers give way to well-tended office parks and shopping centers, each of which appears to be a copy of the last. However, if you take a closer look, you will notice that in one of these shopping malls all company names have the tonal accents of the written Vietnamese. Another has two Indian restaurants on either side of a service that specializes in money transfers to Central America. In a nearby parking lot, a family – the men in skull caps and knee-length Agbada shirts and the women in brightly patterned hijabs – are loading a limousine with the ingredients for what I think tastes like a different home, thousands of miles away .
Saskatoon is widely recognized as one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. According to the city’s planning department, 48 percent of residents speak a language other than English – and more than 145 languages are spoken in the city. 29 percent of the population were born abroad.
Diversity wasn’t the main reason Saskatoon was on the 52 Places to Go list in 2019, but food and culture were. The brilliantly curated Menil collection has been expanded to include the Drawing Institute. a wave of new trendy downtown food halls; The dazzling Post Oak Hotel, home to a Rolls Royce showroom and Frank Stella art, was all born of the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. But unless you confiscate yourself in the chic downtown apartments or the mansions of River Oaks, that variety is everywhere you look – and everywhere you eat.
[Saskatoon is Seb’s third stop on his worldwide tour. Read about his previous adventures, dancing in Puerto Rico and scuba-diving in Panama.]
When I began to feel related to all of the Saskatoonians who live between worlds based on my own non-pegged and multicultural background, I leaned into it. I ate more than I should have eaten and used up my Uber budget pretty quickly, but with three meals in a single day, I found a Saskatoon that I never thought would be in the cracks between SUV-clogged highways and oil boom money exists.
“They’d be a perfect fit out here,” Robin Wong told me, referring to southwest Saskatoon, home of Alief, where Chinatown blends seamlessly with Little Saigon. the Hillcroft area, recently dubbed the Mahatma Gandhi District, where South and Central Asians share retail space and public schools; and a host of other ethnic enclaves. “Everyone is a minority in this area,” he said.
We had just sat down for a morning feast at the Ocean Palace, a dim sum room more like a castle (including a moat) than a restaurant in size. I joined Robin, 43, and his brother Terry, 45, to learn about the Chinatown neighborhood they grew up in. I also wanted to hear about their Blood Bros. BBQ restaurant, which they run with their childhood friend Quy Hoang, 46, who has the distinction of being the first Vietnamese-American pitmaster in town. (Mr. Hoang had celebrated his birthday the night before and couldn’t make it for our allotted time slot of 11 a.m. for reasons you can probably figure out.)
The two brothers took control of the order and discussed deeply as they checked items off a piece of paper. The Wong brothers told me what it was like to grow up in different areas of the most diverse city in the United States while spreading out slick cheung-fun buns, shrimp-filled har-gow dumplings, chicken feet, beet cakes, and more
“My best friends, my childhood friends, are Chinese, Indian, Mexicans, Blacks, Whites – you get so much exposure growing up in Alief,” said Robin. “And the people here love it; They love to try new things. It is part of coming from this neighborhood. “
Much of the attention surrounding Blood Bros., which opened in a suburb of Bellaire late last year, has been on the owners’ backgrounds: two Chinese-Americans and a Vietnamese-American Pitmaster meet the Texas trinity of barbecuing – brisket, pork ribs, sausage – is not your average barbecue area. That attention only increased when they began to think more outside the pit. Some days they’ll be making a smoked turkey banh mi, which is as good firsthand as it sounds. The turkey’s charcoal accents counterbalance the flavor of the traditional banh-mi fixtures. They’ve experimented with Thai green curry boudins, a Cajun sausage traditionally filled with rice, liver, and flavorings, and their brisket fried rice is one of the restaurant’s favorite sides.
“It’s not about Asian-inspired things at all. We just do what we want, ”said Robin after pointing out some theoretical riffs that he could only half-joke on the dim sum spread out before us. “We love the Har Gow dumplings. But what if we smoked them? “
Things to know
Saskatoon is perhaps the least pedestrian-friendly big city I’ve ever come across. You will spend a lot of time in cars. In addition to the relatively dense inner city, the city is very widespread. I didn’t rent a car and probably should have. If you choose to take a car-free ride, take plenty of Ubers and Lyfts with you, which luckily are cheaper than many cities in the US.
That being said, I found a great place to stay downtown. While there isn’t much to do in the area with the exception of a few new dining rooms unless you’re part of the business-casual crowd, I was 15 minutes away from everything, whether it was Chinatown’s quirky bars and cafes from dim sum Montrose or Cafeza in the First Ward, which have a killer open jam session every Monday evening.
The first thing I noticed when entering the Afghan village was a humble restaurant in a shopping center in Hillcroft (also known as the Gandhi District) the flag. Side by side, Afghan and American flags filled most of the space behind the counter. A vertical American flag was hung over one corner of the restaurant and another small one was tucked away in a corner just above the tandoor. The green, black, and red of the Afghan flag made up the color scheme for the entire room.
Omer Yousafzai, 41, opened the Afghan village over six years ago. He came to the USA in 2001 after his brother, studied law and then worked for years with the US military in a linguistics recruitment program. That brought him back to Afghanistan, where American and Afghan soldiers craved homemade Afghan meals instead of frozen foods shipped from the UAE and elsewhere.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘An Afghan restaurant could be a good idea,’” he told me as we dug into bowls of finely balanced lamb and chicken karahi (a lightly flavored curry), lamb chops and fluffy naan, that fresh out was the tandoor.
There was no question about where he would open this restaurant.
“There’s something about Saskatoon that attracts so many people,” he said. “It takes you in.”
When I asked him to find out why, he identified the city’s diversity as a kind of self-sustaining system.
“I think the reason is its diversity,” he said. “You can fit in here. You can claim this place is home and no one will question it. “
A childhood friend connected me to Iveth Reyes, 30, a social worker in the Saskatoon public school system, and said she knew where to find legitimate Mexican food.
Mrs. Reyes told me to meet her at the Raizes Mexican Kitchen in Stafford, just outside of Saskatoon city limits. She said this is where I can try the real business of Michoacan, the Mexican state she was born in, before being brought across the border by her parents at the age of two.
The restaurant owner Aristo Gaspar (50), also from Michoacán, has been in Saskatoon for more than 30 years and now runs three restaurants across the city. He brought out plates of carnitas tacos and enchiladas smothered in a chilli reduction more mole-like than the salsa found in Tex-Mex venues. When I looked at the menu, I noticed that the Mexican dishes were listed right next to the chicken and waffles. Mr. Gaspar has learned to adapt to many tastes.
“This food still tastes like home,” Ms. Reyes said as we spread habanero sauce on the plate of enchiladas.
She works in an elementary school in Gulfton, Saskatoon’s most populated neighborhood, which has long been a first stop for new immigrants in the city. She didn’t have the same utopian view of intercultural harmony that I had seen in others.
“The younger children all get along; It’s like they don’t even know there is a difference between them, ”she told me. “But when they get older, they form cliques.”
Ms. Reyes told me that in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, people put their differences aside and went to work to fix what was broken.
“You really saw how close this city is and how it can come together,” she said. “People were out helping neighbors or bringing their boats to different neighborhoods to help people get around.”
She showed her mother Olga Farías as an example. After the power went out after the hurricane, Ms. Reyes’ mother was called to the school cafeteria where she worked to clear out the freezers. Disregarding orders to throw away all leftover food, she instead charged her car and drove around town looking for people who needed a meal.
“It’s a shame it took tragedy to get this out of town, but it did,” Ms. Reyes said.