Full tummies, warm hearts: Alberta Avenue embracing reputation as foodie destination

This week, the owner of Paraiso Tropical, a Latin food store on 118th Avenue, is serving one of his favourite dishes, cassava and baked pork for Dine the Ave, a week-long self-guided food tour on Alberta Avenue.

The food is a specialty Jesus Gonzalez-Rivas learned from his parents, who first opened the store in 1991 after arriving in Canada as refugees from El Salvador.

“It’s just a good marriage of flavours,” Gonzalez-Rivas said.

His parents opened Paraiso Tropical to cater to a growing Latin community in Edmonton. 

Back then, there was nowhere else to buy imported hot sauces, salsas and vegetables from South and Central America.

Since then, the Alberta Avenue area has become a hub for international cuisine: walk down the street to find pho at T&D Vietnamese Noodle House, or anjero at Mama Asha’s Somali restaurant, or calzones at Battista’s Calzone.

Last year the Alberta Avenue Business Association created a one-day food tour, then called Eats on 118th, to celebrate the variety of restaurants within just a few short blocks.

This year, it’s expanded to one week, June 17 to 23.

Battista Vecchio, who opened Battista Calzones nine years ago, said people already are touring the neighbourhood on their own to sample the variety of foods in the neighbourhood.

“Edmontonians that have lived here forever come to the restaurant and they say exactly that, that there’s such a diversity of eateries here and really good food,” Vecchio said.

“They’ll take a weekend off or a day and they’ll just spend a whole day just walking up and down the Avenue.”

Battista Vecchio of Battista’s Calzone Company subscribes to the philosophy that “You do one thing and you do it right.” (Adrienne Pan/CBC)

Funding for beautifying store awnings and other community initiatives have helped businesses thrive, said Joachim Holtz, with the Alberta Avenue Business Association.

“When I got here in 2008 we had quite a few empty storefronts and that’s not the case anymore,” he said.

“Now have people actually calling my office saying, ‘We’re looking for a space. This is what we need. Is there anything available?'”

Battista said another reason so many restaurants have opened in the neighbourhood is the support they get from one another.

“We’re mom and pop operations,” he said, “I know Laura from T&D, I know the Handy Baker and we all support each other.”

Lifelong customers

“Growing up here, I have seen the Avenue go through these massive improvements,” Gonzalez-Rivas said.

His parents, he said, dealt with frequent break-ins, but that’s not been a problem for him.

Paraiso Tropical which opened in 1991 will be one of the eateries participating in Dine the Ave in June. (Adrienne Pan/CBC)

The youngest of six siblings, Gonzales-Rivas, studied criminology and spent a year working for the Alberta government before returning to the family business.

He never planned to take over his family’s business, but in 2009 when his parents decided they were ready to sell, he couldn’t let it go.

A decade later the store still enjoys the loyalty of the customers who have sustained the business over the decades from the time when he was a five-year-old playing in the store, Gonzales-Rivas said.

“We would fool around in the business: jump on the flour bags and the bean bags, or try to steal the candies,” he said.

Many of those foods are the same products Paraiso Tropical sells today. 

“People will constantly tell me, ‘I remember when you were this little and now you’re running the store.'”

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