FOOD AT THE EX
I'm taking a break from my Montreal Somoked Meat project to bring information about the food at the EX. We went last night and surprise!!!! I have a couple of words to say.
As I have never been to the EX, I read some posts on this website and others to get recommendations and get a feel of what to expect in terms of food. I read a lot about the tradition of food and the diverse, unique items that will be available. Here goes:
First off, there is a food cart almost every four steps around the entire grounds plus there is also a "Food Pavillion" - a building dedicated to "international delights". Our party of eight decided to snack on carnival food and hit the pavillion last when we were done on the rides.
I started with a slice of Pepperoni ($3.80) from the Pizza Pizza stand next to the "drop-zone" ride. If any of you know my style, you normally couldn't pay me to eat pizza from Pizza Pizza, however, I took a good look at the slices on the lazy susan before ordering. I selected a specific slice and it was incredible. Loaded with pepperoni, loaded with cheese which was evenly distributed from tip to crust and great taste (totally unlike the Pizza they would deliver to your home or the slices at any of their locations in the city). Definite thumbs-up. I had their slice at their Wonderland concession a couple of years ago ($5), and there was hardly any cheese and hardly any pepperoni - but there was really nothing else to eat other than candy so in starvation mode, I ordered a slice. Big mistake.
Our party shared a bag of Tiny Tom donuts. Now folks, I understand that it's an old tradition in Toronto to have these donuts every year, but I think maybe they forgot the recipe this year. What I tasted was mini-donut-shaped FRIED DOUGH. Period. The donuts tasted like the outer shell of chinese chicken balls. There was a hint of confectioner's sugar spaztically thrown on to a few donuts and the rest had not even a hint of sweet taste. Just bland, fried dough.
I then had a 'famous fresh footlong corn dog' ($7) with a freshly squeezed lemonade ($4). I had just seen a news report the other day and the reporter was holding the dog in her hand showing the viewers this masterpiece. It really had me drooling. Folks, it tasted like a pogo. Nothing special about it, no special seasoning, not even that crispy to be honest. It was almost identical to a $1 frozen pogo. The lemonade, I would describe as very refreshing green water. The gentleman teenager took a good 2-3 minutes making my cup of lemonade (which really held up the line for people who just wanted a corn dog), he shook it up professionally like a martini with crushed ice, special lemonade elixir and fresh sliced lemon. I was really dissapointed. It wasn't sweet or tart and had almost no lemon flavour whatsoever.
Later on, I finally had the group ready for the food Pavillion. We made the treck past all the carny's while guarding our wallets (not easy to do) and got into the food pavillion. We had no idea the hours of operation of the pavillion, but half of the concessions were closing (no-one's fault). I will say that the description of this pavillion in the guide book for the EX is a little misleading ... "Specialty International Fare". Folks, it's a freaking food court. Period. Granted, it's eight times the size of a standard mall food court, but still, the EX markets the food court like it's an exhibit to experience ... are they nuts?
We tried a few items from the vendors (we shared some of the items). First I tried half a slice from Mamma's Pizza. It was ok, the same slice you would get at their locations around the city. Consistently 'ok' pizza.
I then ran over to get the "famous $0.99-cent spaghetti" - it was recommended on the web-site, and I love spaghetti. Apparantly, this place is there every year and it's a tradition to many. I tell you it was almost identical to the $0.59 cent can of Heinz spaghetti you could get at any discount grocery store. The difference is that you could heat up the spaghetti at home and shake salt on it if required - two things lacking with their spaghetti. Honestly, it was plain, room temperature spaghetti noodles covered with room-temperature "smart-choice" bland tomato sauce. They actually advertise that this is the sauce that they use. Unless you're starving and only have a loony left in your pocket, maybe you should try something else.
I wanted to get a half-rack of ribs from "Ye Olde Piggery" or "Hungry Heffer" or whatever the catchy name was, but they were one of the places closing. It was recommended on the internet, but I can't vouch for it.
As I was walking past the Swiss Chalet consession and one of the several Pizza Nova concessions to see if there was something special to find, a roller-dog was staring me in the face calling my name. An old-fashioned "foot-long" on a hot roller from the "generic footlong dog concession". I was drooling before my first bite. Unfortunately, it wasn't good. It looked nice and roasted on the outside, but the inside was only half to 3/4 cooked. I split up the dog in four so that we could all share in this 'ok food if you're starving' fare.
At that point, I had enough international delicasies for one day and we left to catch the streetcar.
I was dissapointed with the food, as it was nothing more than a food court plus rip-ff carts around the park serving the same crap as at Wonderland. The vendors also had no enthusiasm or care as they looked at their watches to see when their shift was ending and took turns sneaking in text messages to their friends who are spoiled enough by their parents to not have to get summer jobs. Call me crazy, but I've been to Disneyland and everyone there, right down to toilet cleaners are enthusiastic and excited. My experience at the EX was nothing more than typical travelling carnival with a food court.
A microcosm of the food at the EX would be the dated prizes that you could get if you're one out of 100 who has blonde hair and says "pleeeeeese" really well to get a free $1 stuffed animal. Despite my rugged good looks, I wasn't as fortunate convincing a teen-aged Asian boy to give me a free toy. They are still giving away dated Sponge Bob stuffies and Generic stuffies with no trade-mark. I think the entire park, staffing and food need serious re-vamping.
If I ever have to indulge my relatives again by returning to the EX next year, I'm picking up a bag of sandwiches from Caplansky's on the way for myself and my wife and bringing water bottles.
Just a little warning that the fare at the EX should be reserved for wide-eyed kids aged five to twelve who experience their very first footlong or snow-cone. If you have good memories of the food, keep the memories intact and pack a lunch.
Actually, my wife jokingly asked me yesterday if I was going to write up the food. I took her up on it and it's supposed to be tongue-and-cheek. I like foods of all types, from pizza slices to Filet mignon. I do have a problem with overpriced fast food that's slopped on a plate from institutions using their monopoly to take advantage of hard-working, good people like Torontonians. Like ACD says: Why not make the effort to take pride in the food? It doesn't hurt and they're already charging for it. Don't defend the food service industry in Toronto, Demand better !!!
There's nothing wrong with demanding better, however, one must realize the Ex is catering to a particular audience. No matter how much we may want the best service possible from the stalls/booths in the food buiding, be them chain based or otherwise, the chances are very high that the employees are making a very low wage. You can't expect $14.00 an hour service out of someone getting paid $7.00.
That being said, over by the bandshell there are 3 if not 4 rib and chicken smokers and roasters going full tilt everyday, and while it won't make you stop yearning for ribs done in the deep south, the product is very good.
We should not belittle the good people of TO. They should be providing a well made product no matter who the audience is. Also, the $7/hr. employees do not create the recipes, they just serve the food. That's like saying that the hot dog vendors in TO have some impact on the quality of the street meat. Service is beside the point.
I thought I would add some suggestions here that would make my original post more constructive and give a better idea about my beef with the food at the EX.
The park needs something original to associate the good times with good people, celebrating the end of summer and unique fare. Last year I went to Ontario Place and found a booth selling Beaver Tails - originally made famous in Ottawa. I ordered one, it was a little pricy, and I loved it. It was fantastic. The next time I go to Ontario Place, I'm going to look for that booth again.
People don't mind paying extra for food if they enjoy what they eat. It's an economic certainty. By contrast, if you charge extra and people don't enjoy what they get, it creates a problem.
At the Ex, they should have a chip stand. How about people hand-cutting fresh potatoes and serving small brown paper bags filled with the best fresh-cut fries money could buy - at $4 or even $5 a pop. I guarantee the park would be loaded with people walking around with little brown bags. People would come back to the EX just for the fries.
How about a $5 lemonade that tasted home-made, was tart and a little sweet, with a splash of grenadine and a cherry thrown on the top of the crushed ice? It's unique and people would enjoy it.
The corn-dog that I had was good, but not even close to worth $7. If it was extra-crispy or came with home-made honey-mustard sauce or something unique, it would be a different story. As the product stands, had I paid $3, I wouldn't have anything to say about it.
How about a cart selling fresh fruit cups? Cut-up fresh sweet fruit, melons and bananas. A medium sized container for $5. Many Torontonians are health conscious, I think it would be a hit. Plus it's unique.
Let's move with the times, liven up the food choices, create food choices that are memorable and keep the food court for people who want the choice to buy standard food court food.
I have more suggestions, but I'm not Food and Beverage Manager at the Ex.
I really believe the concept would make a difference.
I haven't been to The Ex for awhile but always read about the crazy food served at the State Fairs in the US - do they have that at the CNE? Particularly crazy fried (object)! Fried Mars bars, fried Coke (!), fried pickles, etc.
I think that's be amazing and I would go just to taste something like that. I think Chowhounders would appreciate unconventionally *new* tastes even if they're not the epitome of culinary sophistication.
Yeah, for someone who never went to the Ex, all the fuss about the food would be alien. Back in the day when the Ex was THE place to go (pre: Canada's Wonderland, Taste of the Danforth), it was a day of cheesy fun. Crowded mid-way, spending three-digits to win a $10 stuffed animal. And the Food Building. Toronto used to be much more bland and more like a small-town. The Food Building was an exotic, greasy treat for the family. I mean, it was incredibly exciting to buy doughnuts that were actually TINY. When people rave now about the Ex food, it's not really about the food. It's about memories and tradition.
Hey Merlot, my original post is really a warning for first-timers that the food at the EX now in the new millenuim won't serve any new memories. Also, I actually did read an article on the internet about deep-fried mars bars and pickles, but I found no suck luck at my visit. I remember in the early '80's when food courts were actually exciting - because of the novelty of having umpteen food choices staring us in the face, each one making us drool. I would just like to see something innovative in terms of food at the EX next year.