My family and I recently returned from a week-long trip to Tofino, BC, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. My wife and I first visited there for our honeymoon a few years ago, and now that our son is old enough to appreciate it, we decided that it was time for a return visit. The first time that we visited, we only tried a handful of restaurants without doing much research and relying solely on ad hoc recommendations from the locals. This time around, we did a bit more homework and planned our meals to include both home cooking in our rental home as well as sampling more of the local fare. We did, however, go with the first recommendation given by the kind lady who rented to us. She told us that her family often brings home food from the Wildside Grill, just a short drive away. We had just arrived after a long drive from Nanaimo by way of Victoria, so we were happy to try something close by.
As we arrived in the gravel parking lot, I could see that the place really lived up to its name. The Wildside Grill is built mostly of rough-hewn local timber in a log-cabin style. There is seating, but only a few outdoor tables. We walked towards the order window after gazing upon the numerous tantalizing options. Our rental hostess told us that the fish and chips were very good and that they offered a kid’s portion, even though it’s not advertised. We decided to order that for our son, and we settled on an order of three fish tacos and three pork carnitas. I had my first fish taco at SoBo on our honeymoon, and I was keen to try another one in Tofino. The smell of the food filled our car with an amazing aroma as we drove back to our rental. I couldn’t wait to sit down and dig in! Our son, who is generally a french fry and fish monster, had no complaints whatsoever about his meal. My wife and I tried a little bit of the fish (ling cod) for “quality control” purposes, and we were hooked. Wildside has their own fishing boat, which guarantees freshness and quality of the fish, and they source all of their raw ingredients mainly from sources on Vancouver Island.
My wife and I shared the fish tacos and pork carnitas. It was love at first bite. The fish tacos were topped with fresh salsa, cheese, lettuce, avocado, cilantro, green onion, and chipotle mayo. The ling cod inside was lightly battered with tempura and still had a hint of crispiness to it. The flavours of the toppings and the fish combined in such a way that three tacos weren’t nearly enough. The pork carnitas were exceptionally substantial. They were filled with pulled pork braised in barbecue sauce, accompanied with the same toppings as the fish tacos — minus the lettuce and mayo. Each bite just melted in my mouth.
Sorry, I didn’t get any photos of the food from this order, as we were just too hungry!
A couple of days later, we decided to bring back takeout for dinner, so we went back again, but this time, we split our order between Wildside and the famous Tacofino. We tried the fish tacos from Tacofino and an full order of chowder from Wildside. This time, I had the sense to catch a photo before I finished the whole bowl of chowder. It was a very hearty blend of salmon, cod, shrimp, carrots, potatoes, and celery. The only thing that I didn’t enjoy about it was that it was way too spicy. It felt like someone had accidentally spilled a container of cayenne pepper into the pot while it was cooking. Everything else about the chowder was great. The salmon gave it a very distinctive West Coast feel, very different from the New England and Maritime chowders of my childhood.
On our last night in Tofino, we were out of ideas and energy to cook up anything else, so we returned once more to our favourite eatery. Since my wife loves oysters, I encouraged her to order the oyster and chips, while I settled on the salmon burger with a half order of gumbo. The oysters were nicely breaded in panko and were, of course, exceptionally fresh. I only had one small bite, as I am not particularly partial to oysters, but I found it good nonetheless. The gumbo was, in comparison with the chowder, much tamer and more reasonable in terms of heat. On the whole, I have to say that I still prefer the chowder over the gumbo, despite the excessive spiciness of the chowder. I found the flavours more pleasing in the chowder, while the gumbo just felt flat to me. That’s just my personal opinion, as I’ve not had much gumbo in my time, so maybe it’s just not my thing. In its defence, the gumbo was much heartier than the chowder, given that it was chock full of brown rice along with lots of fish, shrimp and chorizo.
The salmon burger was, by far, one of the best that I’ve ever had, and I’ve had more than a few in my travels. The combination of toppings, especially the smoked tomato relish, made all the difference. The smokey overtones really set this burger apart from all of the others that I’ve eaten. The salmon was cooked just perfectly, not too tough or raw. The hand-cut fries were crispy and fried in fresh oil.
The next time — yes, there will be a next time — that we’re in Tofino, we are definitely making a point of trying some of the other menu options. We were completely blown away by the quality of the food from this establishment. It’s no wonder they were featured on Food Network Canada’s You Gotta Eat Here!