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photo: Darrol Hofmeister
photo: Darrol Hofmeister

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A few reasons why Earls is my go-to chain restaurant

by Aidan Morgan

Earls Restaurant
Albert Street
2606 28th Avenue

Prairie dog readers may remember my previous dining column on Browns Socialhouse, a.k.a. the low-carb douche-haven of northwest Regina. I didn’t mind the food but the atmosphere didn’t suit me (I like oxygen; Browns likes neon). I concluded by saying that “Browns is what would happen if Earls shrugged its shoulders and said, ‘Screw it.’”

Given that, I thought it was high time I check in with an Earls restaurant and do a quick comparison.

Earls has two locations in Regina. Even though the east end restaurant looks and feels a bit more like Browns — with its darker décor and lower ceilings, it’s probably a better comparison — I thought I’d drop in on the South Albert establishment. I get confused when I venture east of Park Street and I was worried I’d stumble into Moxie’s, wild-eyed and stammering, with bits of twigs in my hair, demanding an Earls-size martini.

I have a history with Earls. When I first moved to Regina, I lived in a bungalow on a street that ran behind the restaurant in its original location (I think the Hickory Smokehouse occupies the spot now). Earls was my first Regina dining experience. My first nachos ever were had at Earls (the kitchen nicknamed them “combat nachos” after their shorthand term “combo nachos”), and I have never had salsa as good as what they used to serve back then. I literally spent my allowance on their food, in the way that a 10-year-old throws down a five dollar bill on a mountain of Hickory Sticks and Bottle Cap candies.

The new Earls is an improvement on the old location in several ways, but none more so than noise reduction. In the old place, the relatively low ceiling seemed to slap every sound wave right back down to the floor. Even with the music turned down, conversations from across the restaurant could find their way to your ears (which is how I once heard, quite distinctly, a man 20 feet from me say “Look at the fool slobbering over his nachos” as I tried to catch a mound of cheese and sauce sliding off my chip with my mouth).

In the new(er) Earls, you can control the ambient noise by choosing the dining room or the lounge. If you want to sit in a room with whitened smiles and flat panel screens laid on like wallpaper, then go for that lounge experience. If you’re toting children or prefer a more relaxed experience, then settle in at one of the booths on the dining room.

In some ways, Browns feels like the Earls lounge uncoupled from its older, quieter sibling. In other ways, I don’t like Browns and I do like Earls.

Even though I’ve been to Earls many times, I took the Knights of Appetite (that’s my posse, if you recall) out for a meal. We had the hunan kung pao, ($13.75) a sweet and spicy dish of fried noodles with seared vegetables. You can choose from one to six peppers. I routinely go for six but your mileage will almost certainly vary.

For whatever reason, the table was in a burger-and-sandwich mood that day. The Bronx Cheddar Burger, with onion rings piled up between patty and bun, is one of those items whose presentation makes it almost fantastically difficult to eat. I rendered it manageable by pushing most of the onion rings to the plate and leaving one or two to capture the spirit of the dish. The Domenical fish tacos ($14), which I’ve covered in a previous column, were a little bland but not unsatisfying, and the Cajun chicken cheddar sandwich ($13.25) was rated as “just tasty good” by someone at the table who keeps ordering that sandwich every time we go there. It’s actually difficult for me to judge the sandwich because the someone in question usually eats the whole thing before I can even ask for a bite.

Some of Earls’ appetizers can double as an entrée if you’re not in a mood to share. The tuna poke nachos ($11.50) present a careful line of crisp wontons with a tart, tasty mix of tuna, serrano peppers, avocado, tomato and mango. Poke (pronounced poe-kay) is a Hawaiian raw fish salad. I can’t say whether the Earls version improves on your basic poke, but I do know that I love the flavour. I also know that these are no combat nachos.

Because Regina is fairly small and rarely on the cutting edge of cuisine (although we’ve been getting better and better restaurants over the last few years), it’s often been places like Earls that have popularized dining trends. Their Californian prawn pesto pizza ($15.00), a long-time favourite that seems to survive every menu change, still reigns as one of the tastiest pizzas in town. Some of the ingredients may have changed, but the combination of prawns, pesto and thin crust are here to stay.

I had a pint or three of their Albino Rhino ($6.25), the restaurant’s signature pale ale. It’s no great shakes, really, but I like to imagine an actual albino rhino sitting around somewhere, wondering who keeps taking his beer.

Never change, Earls. But if you could bring back your nachos of old, I’d be very grateful. Yours truly, the fool who slobbered over his nachos back in 1990.

WHAT IS IT: Earls Restaurant

WHAT ELSE IT IS: More my jam than Browns Socialhouse. Strawberry jam, maybe.

WHAT’S IT FOR: Lunch, dinner, drinks, drinking, alcohol, the crushing of pints.

WHAT TO ORDER: The Hunan Kung Pao with chicken and at least three peppers has never let me down.

CONVERSATION OVERHEARD: “Hey, go get Tim.” “Tim’s out in the car. He’s too wasted to come in.” “Go get him and we’ll put some drinks in him. He’ll be fine.” (Note: Tim not gotten.)

DUDE, IS THAT A PATIO? Yes it is. Enjoy yourself.

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. until late