The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) has held many memories for me over the years. For some it marks the beginning of the end of the summer. Back to school sales are starting and the days shortening just enough to be noticed by the earlier sunsets. The rides have always been a big draw for the kids, as have the midway games with young suitors trying to win hearts and stuffed animals at the occasionally rigged game booths.
My first experience at the CNE, otherwise known as "The Ex", was when I would spend summers in Toronto from 1985-87 to visit my Dad. He arranged a summer job for us kids with a catering company that catered all of the concerts at the old CNE grandstand. I was working backstage stocking the trailers and hospitality tents with food and drink during the few glorious weeks of shows before, during and after the Ex. As an 11 to 13 year old kid, I thought I had the coolest job in the world. Doing mountains of dishes and feeding the roadies and rock stars seems a bit surreal to me now. My claim to fame during these years was that I personally removed all of the brown M&M’s for Van Halen (it was in the rider, 5 lbs of M&M’s, no brown ones). I experienced and saw more things than I should have for a kid that age but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. I wish I could go back in time to fully appreciate all the bands - David Bowie, New Order, Bruce Springsteen, The Cult, Pink Floyd and COREY HART, just to name a few.
One of the biggest draws of the Ex now is the food. Back in the day, I don’t remember it being the spectacle it is now in the food building. It seems like every year the vendors are trying to out do each other with the “frankenfood” creations. This year, sweet and savoury combinations seem to be the rule of thumb, with the old faithful, deep-fried (insert food here) being ever present. Let’s hope that we don’t have a repeat of 2013’s cronut-burger fiasco. I hope Epic Burger and Waffles learned their lesson; refrigerate the condiments! I am sure this year many of you have already read numerous top 10 must try food lists at the CNE. I am going to try to sample some of the best (and worst) and give you a heads up on this years offerings in my first ever blog called WHAT I ATE AT THE CNE.
My girlfriend Cheryl and I did a full circuit of the sweatier than usual Food Building to get our bearings and decide what to eat first. It was packed with all shapes and sizes of people of every persuasion. The Ex is always a people watcher’s paradise. After careful consideration, we zeroed in on our first stop on our culinary adventure.
1:30pm - Churro Burger ($14 / 1200 calories) - Epic Burgers & Waffles, Food Building
This CNE food building stalwart is only open during the CNE and has a loyal following. The new offering this year was the Churro Burger. I hadn’t eaten anything since the night before (large popcorn with extra butter, we went to see Suicide Squad, average at best) so I had quite the appetite. The line up was a bit long but the wait was worth it and the churros were fresh out of the fryer. The burger patty was juicy and the cheese melted perfectly. They asked if I wanted lettuce and tomato and I figured some healthy additions would be a good idea. The crispy and cool lettuce and tomato was a nice contrast to the burn the roof of your mouth-ness of the churro. The sweet, salty, greasy, sugary, savoury mix was a hit. Next year I will go for the donut burger, which looked amazing.
2:00pm - Deep Fried Cookie Dough ($3 / 250 calories) & Deep Fried Reese Peanut Butter Cup ($4 / 350 calories) with Caramel topping – Cookie Dough Me, Food Building
We spotted these balls of deliciousness and were initially going to have them for dessert a bit later in the day. However, we decided that dessert should come early. We let them cool as we walked over to our next destination. SO DANG GOOD. They were heavy though. I think it would have been too much to have any more than one, plus I needed to save some room for stop 3, 4 and 5 and 6. I could eat one of these doughy balls every day for the rest of my life and be a happy man (insert balls joke here).
2:15pm - Philly Steakclair ($14 / 1200 calories) – Philthy Phillies, Food Building
I wonder if every year, the vendors sit around and discuss, “I wonder what we can substitute for a regular bun in a sandwich that these idiots will line up and pay twice the price for? Donuts as buns? What about grilled cheese as buns? Jamaican meat patties as buns? You say it’s all been done before? Ah yes! Chocolate éclairs! Ureka!” And so this is how I ended up eating shaved philly cheese steak in a chocolate éclair with crème and all. The steak was top-notch, the éclair was OK not great. This messy experience was not really worth the $14. The straight-up philly cheese steak sandwiches looked and smelled amazing. The lineup was big, I was the only one to order the novelty sandwich. Lesson learned.
3:00pm – Big Pickle Dog ($9 / 1000 calories) – Pickle Pete’s, Midway
This pickled up version of the carnie classic looks really good on paper. A corn dog where the dog is stuffed into a giant pickle and then battered and fried. This curiosity was at the top of my list this day on my quest for carnival food. Unfortunately, it was kind of flavourless and a bit watery. The pickle was not tart enough, the dough was not salty enough and the wiener was lost in the mix. The big pickle dog contained 100% of my daily allowance of vitamin G (grease) however, so there is that going for it. The deep fried pickles at Hooter’s are 10 times better, which doesn’t say much.
At this point I am sweaty, bloated and on my way to some old good fashioned diabetes. Fortunately we have tickets to the Argos/Eskimos game at BMO Field so I have a chance to digest and have a couple cold beers to wash down my lunch. Sitting down for 3 hours is just what the doctor ordered. On second thought, no doctor in their right mind would condone any of my not so healthy choices today.
7:15pm – Ramen Burger ($12 / 900 calories) – Yatai by Liberty Noodle, Food Building
I love Ramen Noodles. I love Burgers. I only liked this burger. I noticed it last year and had food envy when I saw someone enjoying it. Am I glad I tried it? Yes. Will I order it again? No. The ramen bun was not as big or as grilled as it was the photo. The burger patty was very good, cooked to perfection and seasoned just right. The Durty Fries and J-Pop chicken that everyone else was ordering from this place gave me food envy all over again.
7:45pm – Tacos Grillos with chili lime crickets ($8 / 600 calories) – Bug Bistro, Food Building
One of the big food items on the lists this year is the hot dog with crickets. I was debating on whether or not to try it and then this taco jumped out at me from the menu Anyone that knows me knows I love tacos. Anyone that doesn’t like tacos has something wrong with them. I’d be willing to bet even Donald Trump likes tacos. After all, they do come from Mexico and his Trump brand suits are made there! So this taco has Tabasco chili lime crickets and sirloin, tomato, onion, cilantro and spicy crema on a corn tortilla. The crickets dusted the top of a really good taco. You could see the legs, wings and bodies sticking out. They were very light and crispy, and they had a kick. The corn tortilla was the only thing that wasn’t great. It wasn’t very fresh and fell apart a little bit. I find it funny that this cricket taco was probably the healthiest thing I had put in my body all day. Up until this point Cheryl had at least a bite of everything I tried. She passed on this one.
So at this point in the evening it was almost time to go watch the Tragically Hip concert with the rest of the country. This event will be one of the “where were you when” moments for a lot of us Canadians. I will always remember it as the day that I ate cricket tacos. It was nice to sit down again and have one last cold beer on a hot summer evening with an extremely full belly. The concert was being shown at the CNE Bandshell, and with the exception of the technical difficulties (the first 5 songs sounded like they were in an echo chamber) it was a powerful, poignant moment to share with my girl Cheryl and a big crowd of our fellow Canadians.
11:30pm – Bacon and Pulled Pork Cinnamon Rolls ($10 / 1600 calories) – Howie’s Cinnamon Rolls, Midway
What better way to finish off the night than with a nice light 1600 calorie dessert. I was looking to try the pulled pork roll on its own but they ran out of regular cinnamon rolls. They offered me the one with pulled pork AND bacon for the same price! SOLD! It was gooey, salty, sweet and soft, all in a good way. The melty icing topping mixed and mingled with the crispy bacon and pork like they were meant to be together, kind of like peanut butter and chocolate.
That was the cherry on top of my incredibly unhealthy day. In NO WAY do I condone this sort of bad choice behaviour, kids!
When all was said and done this was another great day out at the Exhibition. For those of you thinking of heading down, see if you can combine in your CNE visit with a concert at the Molson Amphitheatre, a TFC game or an Argos game as your admission to the CNE is free when you are going to one of these events.
For those of you not keeping track of cash and calories, here is a quick recap:
Churro Burger $14 / 1200 calories
2 Deep Fried Desserts $7 / 600 calories
Philly Steakclair $14 / 1200 calories
Pickle dog $9 / 1000 calories
Ramen Burger $12 / 900 calories
Tacos Grillo $8 / 600 calories
Pork & Bacon Cinnamon Roll $10 / 1600 calories
2 Tall Boy Cans, 1 28oz draft beer: $41
Calorie intake with beers: 7600
I hope you enjoyed this blog as much as I enjoyed eating the food. See you next year Exhibition!