If you think you know Lacombe County, think again. It’s time to look at it through the lens of food travel. Food what? Food travel. It’s getting a sense of a place through the taste of that place. Lacombe County delivers in spades. A bounty of hidden gems lurk as lip-smacking rewards for food lovers out to explore life here.
The Lay of the Land (and Lakes)
In contrast to the Prairie surrounding it, Lacombe County is filled with rolling undulations the locals call the sunset hills. Perch on any ridgeline in the early evening and you’ll be staring straight into the face of the Rocky Mountains as the sun winks goodbye over their peaks and leaves the patchwork of croplands below them in a rosy blush. For a landlocked place, water is abundant. Lakes in the county include Lacombe, Gull, Sylvan, Gabriel, Alix and Buffalo. The latter is part of a provincial park featuring narrows for camping plus kayaking, windsurfing, boating, fishing and swimming. Blindman and Red Deer rivers also draw kayaking, boating and fishing enthusiasts.
When it comes to fishing, this area is famous not just for the opportunities to angle but also for also being the home of the World’s Largest Lure. Finding a giant roadside attraction is always a great way to add fun to a road trip. This one is located at Len Thompson Pond in the city of Lacombe. Emblazoned with a forty foot long yellow and red five of diamonds, the lure is a replica of the Len Thompson Lure Company’s most iconic brand. Headquartered in Lacombe, the company has produced lures, handmade in Canada, since 1929. Family owned, they support local fish and wildlife conservation efforts so future generations can enjoy outdoor pursuits and nature through a unique partnership with Lacombe’s Blindman Brewing.
Since 2015, Blindman Brewing has helped forge Alberta’s microbrewing industry with a community ethos that sets them apart as much as the award-winning tastes of their beers. The Len Thompson company agreed to lend their emblematic branding to the can of a namesake Five of Diamonds Blindman beer in return for royalties to support fish conservation and the stocking of six local lakes and ponds. Another community contribution of the brewery is the recent renovation of their taproom. The welcoming space brings the light and airy feeling of lofty Prairie skies and Parkland aspens inside to be enjoyed year round. With 24 beers on tap and their own restaurant called Local Taqueria, they serve Alberta produce in light Mexican food to complement their brews.
With about 125 craft breweries in Alberta now, downtown Lacombe eatery, Cilantro and Chive keeps a rotation of 25 Alberta on tap. Patrons can also enjoy their famous Caesar’s with towering toppings like double decker, thick and juicy cheeseburgers. Favourite suppliers for owners Rieley Kay and Kim Solik include Scholings potatoes, MSW Farms’ grass-finished longhorn beef, bison, elk, pork, chicken and eggs, S4 and Doef’s greenhouses’ produce, Broxburn tomatoes, West Gimlet Farms Yak and Deep Roots garlic. The cornucopia of local produce available here stems in part from Lacombe’s stellar agricultural history.
Lacombe County has 668,102 acres of area and a remarkable 95 per cent of those acres are zoned for agriculture. There are approximately 1,045 farms who not only enjoy rich, fertile soil but proximity to the Lacombe Research and Development Centre (Lacombe RDC) which was established in 1907. The Lacombe RDC’s focus on livestock and meat production as well as crop science dovetails with the county’s mission to to engage, support and enhance the agriculture community and rural entrepreneurs. The towns of Lacombe’s or Bentley’s weekly farmers’ markets are great places to meet some of those farmers and entrepreneurs.
To Market and Farmgate
Vendors at Lacombe County’s markets showcase the depth and breadth of Alberta’s signature foods including elk, bison and Longhorn beef from Wild West Meats and Mount Bison and Cattle Co., canola from the Pleasant Valley Oil Mills Ltd in Clive, honey from Gull Lake Honey Company, the province’s signature Red Fife wheat and other grains from a variety of bakers, and a bounty of root vegetables and saskatoon berries from seasonal market gardeners.
Farmstands, spread through the county, are another place to find Alberta produce and while the idea of a farmstand might seem old-fashioned, Lacombe County’s often represent high tech agriculture from state of the art greenhouses. Gull Valley Growers, S4 and Doef’s are all located in the Gull Lake area of the county. At the S4 Veggie Store, shoppers can find the reds and gold of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, long flat green beans, bouquets of living lettuces, crisp mini and long English cucumbers, along with a rainbow of bell peppers and often, farm fresh eggs. With a scroll through the inventory on an iPad and a tap of a credit card even the timeless honour system of payment enters this millennium.
For thousands of millenia, bison roamed this land and fans can find this signature food at the Rangeland Meat Shop in Lacombe and MFL bison in Strawlinger. The Staudinger family ranch bison in Alix and butcher and sell their animals at their own store in Sylvan Lake, The Ranch Gate Market. Rangeland Meat Shop also sells elk and for those that wish to see these antlered wonders in their natural habitat they can book a visit to Artesian Elk just northwest of Bentley.
Kyle and Pam Stephensen and their three children are living their dream on the Artesian Elk ranch. A tour in their deluxe, four-seater, all-terrain vehicle reveals land that’s polka dotted with hilly stands of Parkland forest and dells that cradle ponds and wetlands. The animals are a camouflaged presence amongst aspen trees but once detected, the freshly growing racks of the males expose their age and pecking order in the herd. Since their start in 2013, the Stephensen family love to share their passion and knowledge. Like bison, this super lean elk meat must be cooked low and slow to bring out its tenderness and full flavour. Stocking up with a supply of their elk jerky will fuel many a road trip or adventure.
In fact, a day in Lacombe County can fill one’s cooler with a variety of goods. At Hulleman Farms Country Store near Clive there’s fresh dairy milk, cheese, eggs and vegetables. Deep Roots Garlic Farm store features garlic and an abundance of organically grown produce. Gull Lake Honey Company has a truly sweet little shop to sell honey products fresh from their apiary. Brown Eggs and Lamb carries hand milled flour from West Country Mills in Bentley, local produce and preserves, and their own eggs and lamb of course. Owner Laura Siebenga’s chickens cluck around their enclosure in the front yard while llamas guard her sheep and lambs on the acreage as you approach this cozy cabin cum shop near Gull Lake.
Farm to Plate
With so much bounty in their county, restaurateurs and chefs, beyond those mentioned previously, strive to bring it to the plate. Jalene Makus, Lacombe County’s agricultural coordinator, frequently tours the length and breadth of the county. She knows the offerings better than most and was happy to share her insider’s list of what to eat at her favourite eateries from east to west.
- In the hamlet of Alix, Sweet Crumbs Cakery is famous for their sticky buns.
- Clive has Rooster’s Roadhouse where Wednesday Wing night plus nights for trivia and karaoke make them a destination.
- In Lacombe, enjoy the all-day breakfast menu at Milly Oak Cafe and Catering where skillets chockablock full of local goodness are a specialty. East Side Eatery satiates with a variety of sandwiches but “The Gobbler” with fresh roasted turkey and stuffing is fantastic especially if followed by a slice of their homemade seasonal cheesecakes. There’s a choice of two daily. AtTollers BistroMakus can’t resist stopping for a coffee and their homemade donuts. Popcorn and Salted Caramel topping anyone? The owners shop at the local farmers’ market for ingredients for their homemade soups and sandwiches.
- Crossing over HWY#2 to the west side of the county, Bentley has an absolute destination in the The Monkey Top Saloon. On weekends there will be hundreds of Harleys parked outside. It’s family friendly until 8 p.m. and people love their wings, loaded Caesars and live music events. If just passing through, The Drop, a shed built as a replica of a red barn, is the place for fresh coffee and baking.
- Continuing west to Gull Lake, The Wooden Shoe is a local’s gem that sells specialty Dutch brands of cheeses, frikandel sausages, spices, baking kits and candies including licorices and the ever delectable Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate bars. This cozy spot is also a full service restaurant that does whooping ice cream parlour sales in summer.
- Turn south off HWY 12 and onto HWY 766, and in the town of Eckville, Boxcar Grill is the home of some of the tastiest burgers in Alberta. There are only three choices for these hand-formed flavour bombs but with their grilled buns and dense grind of Alberta beef they’re thick, dripping with juiciness and totally worth the drive.
- In Blackfalds, Piccolo’s Pizza and Pasta and Okinawa Sushi are long-standing favourites that have earned local’s loyalty.
Food travel explorers could travel the county in a single day’s road trip, camp around the countryside or hotel it in downtown Lacombe. Along with all the great restaurants and food at the source, there’s a long list of activities to help burn all the calories consumed.
Monica Bartman, the area’s Economic Development Officer, speaks to the resident’s enviable lifestyle saying, “There’s always something to do here and for all ages.” Monica’s picks include:
- Lacombe Days which happen in early summer with a BIG, small town parade, cultural performers, crafts, concerts, and fireworks.
- “People also come from all over to explore the museums in downtown Lacombe,” she says. They include the Flatiron Building which is open year-round with heritage displays from around the globe, the Blacksmith Shop which is the oldest operational blacksmith in the province, and Michener House, the birthplace of former Governor General, Roland Michener, and the site of an annual Garden High Tea Party sponsored by the Lacombe and District Historical Society.
- History buffs can also get a glimpse into the town’s evolution by booking a guided walking tour of the city’s murals. Painted by artist Tim Giles, they depict local street scenes taken from archival photos and spread throughout the concentration of mint condition Edwardian architecture in the downtown core. D-I-Yers can do the same with a self-guided walking tour brochure available at the museums.
- Horse-racing fans can place bets, catch a musical act or dine on Chopped Canada winner Pete Sok’s food at the Funky Monkey Kitchen and Bar at the Track on Two.
- Walkers can enjoy an amble on the trail system started by former resident and trailrunner, Bill Neilson while cyclists can use their pedal power on the completely paved Trans Canada Great Trail from Lacombe, around Lacombe Lake, via Blackfalds, and all the way to Red Deer.
- Music in the Park happens every Wednesday all summer at the Lacombe Centre for Performing Arts and during the 90 minute performance there’s also a market and food trucks.
- The annual Tees Rodeo (just east of Lacombe) draws youth from all over and is a big event every August long weekend.
- At the end of August, the county celebrates the annual bounty with a Harvest Dinner in Lest We Forget Memorial Park. Guest Chefs from Milly Oak Café and Catering, Toller’s Bistro, Leto’s Steakhouse and Bar, and Red Deer’s Forno will present locally-sourced fare while Blindman Brewing takes care of beverages. The day also includes an agricultural tour, artisan market and blacksmithing festival.
- In winter, locals head to the hills, the Bentley hills to be exact. Here families “pizza slice and french fry” down the slopes as they learn to ski at Medicine Lodge Ski Hill.
“Lacombe is about halfway between Edmonton and Calgary so when locals want to travel or get to a big centre, it’s easy. But, honestly, with so much to do here, life is full without going anywhere,” says Bartman. Daily life in Lacombe County seems not only full but also fulfilling. It also seems to come with a big helping of local food. For food lovers and travellers, it’s not only full of hidden gems, it is one of Alberta’s hidden gems. This is a place where folks eat and live life to the fullest and all are welcome to join them.
About the Author: Karen Anderson
Karen Anderson is founder and president of Alberta Food Tours. She is also a food journalist who has written for radio, television, print and new media including CBC Radio, PBS-TV, Apple Magazine, City Palate, Avenue and WestJet magazines. She’s an IPPY and Taste Canada award-winning cookbook author for A Spicy Touch – Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen with her late Indian cooking mentor Noorbanu Nimji and a World Gourmand travel writing award winner for Food Artisans of Alberta.