While Sargent Avenue storefronts and restaurants are a mixture of bright, plain, classy and "for lease," the interior businesses are exciting surprises. On an adventure trek starting in the 700 block heading towards the city centre, you'll find dozens of amazing ethnic stores, restaurants and small businesses -- and an iconic Winnipeg candy factory. Here are some you simply can't miss:
Lisbon Bakery, 717 Sargent Ave.
HIT this sweet spot for a great start. Scan for the red- and green-striped awnings on the north side of the street. Get there before noon, especially on a Saturday. People from the West End scoot in early, getting first dibs over those who travel across the city to get to this famous Portuguese bakery owned by the charming and generous Anna Leitao and her husband, Casimiro.
This place is a going concern, with lineups inside the store and out the door on a Saturday. People in the know are dying for its old-world Portuguese baking with surprisingly low prices. "We are Portuguese and have our own techniques, recipes, and special things we put in," says Anna. "For instance, we make meat pies with a paprika spice we make ourselves, plus other spices like garlic and pepper."
The two fancy pastry display counters dazzle with yummy cannolis (crisp pastry horns filled with creamy lemon or vanilla), egg puddings, dark golden bread puddings and many varieties of cheesecakes, sold by the slice. But, the pièce de résistance is a puzzle as fascinating as the old Caramilk question. It's a cake built of tiny chocolate-and-white squares in a perfect checkerboard pattern. Customers can only guess how they do it.
Anna says they are well-aware their prices are low, but also know how tough it is for some people in the West End. "We don't go overboard with the pricing as long as we make a profit. And, we do a lot of handouts to help out people."
El Izalco, 696 Sargent Ave.
THE first thing you spot when you enter this unassuming storefront is Sarah Esperanzo.
"I have the best last name in the world," says this energetic little woman, "because it means hope!"
Next, you notice the giant, shiny pinatas hang from the ceiling -- donkeys, starfish and animals that you can fill with candies for parties.
But El Izalco is much more than pinatas. "We sell Central and South American things, not Mexican," explains Esperanzo, who runs the store with her man, René. "It is wonderful here because this is where cultures are coming from all over the world."
The coolers are stocked with Latin dishes, some frozen, some fresh, to spice up a dinner on the run. You can find everything for making popular Central American pupusas, and there's a dried peppers department from mild to extra-hot. You can even buy cocoa beans and roast them yourself, says Rene.
How's the neighbourhood for safety? "The West End Biz and police are very supportive. It all depends on how you treat people. If you are arrogant or hostile with people, it makes a difference in the way they treat you," says Esperanzo.
Neena Fashions, 694 Sargent Ave.
OPEN the nondescript door to Neena Fashions and... who knew? Gaze upwards about six metre and see saris and Punjabi suits displayed in saffron, cherry red, emerald, purple, peach and many more.
By the way, the owner's name is not Neena, she is quick to tell you. "Everybody calls me Neena, but when we opened the shop we called it after our baby, Neena, My name is Trilochan Kaur Saini."
Below the hanging garb are bolts of dazzling fabrics to make your own exotic clothes and scarves. "Girls come here to buy saris and fabrics for graduation. If they don't know how to do it (wind and fasten a sari) I show them in the store."
Her fancy clothing and fabrics come straight from India, for the most part. "Then I get to go home and see my parents," she laughs. The store owner is chatty in three languages: English, Hindi and Punjabi.
Mordens', 674 Sargent Ave.
THIS chocolate store looks like a sealed-up vault at night, but during the day, protective coverings are rolled up and the windows are large and clear, showing a world-class chocolate shop and factory.
When I arrived at noon Friday, the place was already buzzing. Upstairs, the famous Russian Mints that won first prize over 300 competitors at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans were rolling down the conveyor belt like little soldiers. They can't make the mints fast enough.
The delicious aroma of chocolate is everywhere, driving customers mad. Staff often leave the door to the factory open and let the aromas waft through. Smart trick!
Fred Morden, who has been part of the 55-year family business since he was knee-high to a chocolate-pouring station, says business is so hot these days they're on the verge of an exciting but hush-hush business expansion. The key to chocolate-world domination? Innovation.
"For instance, we were one of the first to put chocolate on ginger and on coffee beans," he smiles.
Mercadito Latino, 570 Sargent Ave.
THIS is a brand-new treasure on Sargent Avenue. This cheery El Salvadoran restaurant with red walls and a tiny grocery is brought to you by the Lemus family.
They offer made-from-scratch family recipes with a fun presentation. The large menu, with corn flour as its base instead of wheat flour, is open to every diet -- including those who are gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian. Mama Sonia makes everything fresh in the kitchen and people in the restaurant can't stop exclaiming when the chunky guacamole and spicy salsa appetizers arrive with freshly baked chips. Husband Julian is the head waiter and son Jesse -- a charming university student -- does a bit of everything.
"My mom's the cook because she came from a large family with four brothers and four sisters. For her job in the family, she always asked to help Grandma cook in the kitchen," says Jesse.
Three of the most popular dishes on the large menu are pupusas (tiny pizza pockets with a choice stuffing of beans, pork or cheese), ceviche de camaron (shrimp, onions, tomatoes, cilantro "and a secret we don't mention"), and tacos de res (four corn tortillas, shredded beef, and bell peppers).
"I suggest when couples come in, they share several dishes," Jesse says.
Mercadito doesn't have a licensed premises yet, but non-alcoholic drinks are exotic there -- try the Jamaican Hibiscus!