The sky’s the limit when it comes to what can be served on the Calgary Stampede.
Every year, the Stampede releases a list of new and noteworthy – or jaw-dropping, depending on how you look at it – midway foods to try. This has ranged from unorthodox edibles like pizza topped with fried mealworms and crickets, red velvet chicken strips, a corn dog containing a dill pickle-wrapped hot dog and ice-cold dulce de leche mini doughnut popsicles.
This year, there are 40 different new items to try on the Calgary Stampede grounds. Since that’s too much for two people to eat in one outing, Top Chef Canada: All-Stars winner Nicole Gomes and I tried 10 of the most interesting creations while helping judge the annual “Best new midway food” competition.
Here’s what Nicole, an award-winning chef, thought of the wild midway offerings at The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
Funnel Cake Poutine, from Next Generation Concession
“This is the best thing ever,” says Nicole and it’s hard to disagree – especially as it was awarded “Best new savoury food on the midway” at this year’s Stampede. The deep-fried dough that’s usually topped with sweet powdered sugar gets a savoury twist with fresh cheese curds and beef gravy. One bite and Nicole’s chef mind is spinning with ideas for more fair funnel cake creations. “You could add some chicken, white gravy and bacon or make a beef taco salad-funnel cake hybrid. Ah, so many great things you could do with a funnel cake base!”
The Raindrop Cake, from Sweet Tooth
This unusual jiggly “dessert” made of water and agar-agar (a vegan equivalent to gelatin) rose to fame in New York last year. Since then, it has popped up in countries like England, Japan and now Canada. “Just not my cup of tea. It just tastes, um, Jell-o-ish, but tasteless,” says Nicole, trying to describe the translucent creation.
Mini Donut Chata, from Family Squeezed
It’s hard to decipher from its name, but this epic drink-meets-dessert draws its inspiration from the Latin American drink horchata. The iced beverage is a mix of rice milk, cinnamon and vanilla and it’s surprisingly refreshing. But the garnishes – whipped cream, toffee crumble and the food vendor’s famous mini-doughnut popsicle dipped in butterscotch – takes this drink over the top. In a good way. “I love this popsicle! It is such a clever spin on a mini doughnut,” says Nicole. “The drink it comes with, though, is really, really big, but it would be an easy thing to share.” Nicole’s enthusiasm was shared by the Stampede, which awarded this concoction “Best new sweet food on the midway” for 2017.
The Texas Waffle, from Waffles & Chix
Since Nicole owns the popular fried chicken spot, Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver, it takes a lot to impress the chef. “This is a cute idea, but it needs something more,” Nicole says after taking a few forkfuls of lightly battered chicken sitting on top of a Texas-shaped waffle that’s been filled with sliced jalapenos and aged cheddar. While tasty, this one is not ideal for walking and eating. “You’ll need to grab a fork and a knife and find a seat to really enjoy it.”
Deep-fried Lemonade, from Family Squeezed
Just when you think everything in the world has been deep-fried, someone thinks of just one more thing to dip into the fryer. This year, the unofficial “strangest item to deep-fry” award has to go to Family Squeezed’s deep-fried lemonade. But, as Nicole discovered, it’s not quite what you’d expect. “I was sort of expecting to get a burst of frozen lemonade inside, kind of like when you bite into deep-fried ice cream, but this is more like a little doughnut,” the chef says.
The Flaming Cheeto, from Fresh Roasted Corn on the Cob
After taking a big bite, Nicole thought this mayo and Spicy Cheeto covered corn was much sweeter and less spicy than expected. This “flaming” addition to the midway is supposed to be a spin on Mexican street food, but ends up being a miss. “The Cheetos are so finely ground, they get mushy really quickly,” says Nicole. “They would have been better off coating it with something crispier.”
Waffle Taco, from Steve-O’s “Deep Fried” Public House
When it comes to the flavour, Nicole approves of the crispy sweet waffle shell and ice cream. “Ice cream options like this at the Calgary Stampede are good for people that like to mix and match, since you can choose different toppings like berries, sprinkles, chocolate sauce and more,” she says, but admits that it can be a mess to eat. “I just hate when you have to walk around with sticky hands,” says Nicole after biting into a taco-shaped waffle cone filled with ice cream and whipped cream.
Cereal Monster Sandwiches, from Monster Cones
Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, this spin on a traditional ice cream sandwich – featuring two scoops of your choice of ice cream sandwiched between rainbow cereal marshmallow squares – is worth sinking your teeth into, says Nicole. “If I wanted something that was just cold and sweet, this is what I would go for,” she says. It’s not for the faint of heart or appetite, though, because of its giant portion. “The size does sort of intimidate me. It’s huge,” Nicole says and laughs. “It would be a great thing for kids. This is another thing you would have to go find a place to sit to eat.”
Double Bacon Mac ‘n’ Cheese Hotdog, from Super Foot-long Hotdog
Enjoying at least one hotdog while spending a day at the Calgary Stampede is a given, but finding a dog that truly rises above mediocre can be hard to find. Nicole seems torn about this particular new midway offering that’s a foot-long dog wrapped in bacon and then topped with a few spoonfuls of bacon mac ‘n’ cheese. “You can tell that the hotdog is good quality,” she says. “I’d say just stick with their regular foot-long dog and skip the mac ‘n’ cheese.”
Mr. Crab, by Happy Fish
Sushi may not be the first thing a person gravitates toward while strolling down a midway lane full of doughnuts, hot dogs and cotton candy, but this Top Chef Canada champion doesn’t want anyone missing out on this fulfilling sushi taco. “This dish is fun. This is what Stampede food should be all about,” says Nicole while holding a crispy-fried nori taco filled with rice, imitation crab meat, tempura-fried soft shell crab that’s been topped with avocado and unagi and mango sauces. “It’s interesting, it’s tasty, it has great textures – I really love soft shell crab too – and it’s really easy to eat while you’re walking around!”