We tried the most extreme foods this year's CNE has to offer, so that you don't have to.
Two years ago, Corbin Smith and I had the dubious pleasure of telling all of Torontoist‘s fine readers what they should avoid eating at the CNE. While horrors like Chowdah Fries and the S’More Weenie came closer to topping our list of culinary disasters, it was the much-hyped Cronut Burger that ended up being a legitimate culinary (and gastrointestinal) nightmare. Corbin and I were mercifully not among the 223 people laid low with foodborne illness, but coming so close to dying of bacon jam means the two of us get first dibs on one of the best (worst) assignments of the year: eating everything horrible at the Ex so that you don’t have to.
This is a strange year for food at the Ex; there’s no one item in particular everyone is bonkers over, and no one preparation (though everything is still deep-fried) or ingredient that is dominating the landscape (though we did notice an uptick in the presence of Nutella). We showed up hungry and adventurous, demanded the Ex do its worst to us—and, frankly, we were a little disappointed. We tried a lot of things that we expected to be horrifying that ended up bland, or that we expected to shock us that left us feeling only the littlest bit queasy.
So without further ado, here are just a few of the foods that, in the end, are more vaguely upsetting that extreme, and more likely to let you down than kill you outright.
What is it: Something like a horrible re-imagining of an arancini, the poutine ball is theoretically a little nugget made of fries, cheese and gravy, which is then breaded, deep-fried, and covered in more cheese and gravy.
Expectation: We had fairly high hopes for this one, and decided to eat it while we were still “fresh” as a result. The fact that is was a “Yo dawg we heard you liked poutine, so we made a poutine out of your poutine” scenario seemed pretty delightful. Plus, who doesn’t like fried potatoes of any description?
Reality: This dish was the most disappointing we encountered from the moment it arrived. The portion was small (though this was probably a mercy), the nuggets lumpy and misshapen, and the gravy weirdly, awfully wobbly. Biting in was even worse; the poutine nuggets were distinctly under-fried, so there was no crispy outside for textural contrast, only a consistent, terrible softness. The gravy congealed immediately too, only increasing this terrible sameness. The main feature of the dish was the near lethal-amount of salt in it, which was so over-the-top it actually seemed to make tasting things harder for the rest of the day. Maybe that was out taste buds turning themselves off in self-defence, though.
Should you eat it: Give this one a miss. It doesn’t even come close to the hype and may actually have the unpleasant side effect of dulling you to anything else you want to eat for the rest of the day due to sodium burn.
Vendor: Coco’s Fried Chicken
What is it: Little chicken poppers breaded with coco-infused coating and served with a variety of unnecessarily sweet dipping sauces.
Expectation: We were pretty horrified by this dish right from the get-go, as the idea of chocolate chicken seemed terrible from start to finish. Even in photographs, the result of covering everything in cocoa means the dish is also off-puttingly brown.
Reality: I have to hand it to the coco bites: this was not nearly as bad as we expected. The chicken itself was tender and juicy and not re-constituted or pre-formed. These were actual pieces of white meat that were cooked very well, and to be honest, the cocoa coating was barely noticeable—in fact, being unsweetened, it just gave the dish a bit of an earthiness that was almost pleasant.
The real horror, however, is hidden in the dipping sauces. We tried all three that were available: the Louisiana hot sauce is too sweet but otherwise completely fine, and the spicy mango is mild and watery but also inoffensive. But the chocolate ketchup. Oh, the chocolate ketchup. This horror show is actively foul, thick as frosting and with a rancid aftertaste of clove that tastes like every bad Christmas memory melted down into a miserable slurry.
Should you eat it: Go for the chicken and order the Louisiana hot sauce for dipping, and avoid the chocolate ketchup unless you hate yourself.
Vendor: Far East Taco
What is it: A s’more that uses a soft bao bun as a vehicle, slathered with generous helping of Nutella and marshmallow fluff.
Expectation: This definitely seemed like it would fall into “weird but pretty good” territory. There’s nothing particularly bad about any of the ingredients individually, and it’s more about novel presentation than shock value. We were hoping to uncover a hidden gem.
Reality: What makes us so angry is there is no reason for the execution to be this poor. We could have made something closer to a s’more by slathering some Nutella on soft white bread, which is really all this tastes like. Filling an extremely soft, bland bun sloppily with a bunch of Nutella and a splat of marshmallow goo tastes nothing like an actual s’more. Almost any intervention at all would make it better: adding graham crumbs (as appears to be advertised), using real marshmallows (which were also shown in preview pictures), toasting the marshmallows or fluff at all, using actual chocolate instead of hazelnut spread, literally doing anything.
Should you eat it: Give it a miss, this one will only let you down (and probably leave you covered in goo).
The Spice Cream Cone
Vendor: Just Cone It
What is it: A cone made of pizza dough, slathered in Nutella, filled with vanilla soft-serve, and topped with bacon and dried hot peppers.
Expectation: We knew this was going to be awful from the moment we laid eyes on it. The combination of sweet and spicy, hot and cold, and the ubiquitous presence of bacon was bound to be unpleasant. We also expected the heat to be a significant factor in our inevitable misery. Our expectations were definitely in the range of “active dread.”
Reality: We knew it was going to be bad, but we could never have predicted exactly how bad. And again, this seemed to be a failing of execution, and straight-up not thinking things through. The bacon was undercooked and soggy, and may not have been the freshest to begin with, and any ghost of crunchiness it may have had was immediately negated by the chill of the ice cream. Congealed, slightly rancid bacon fat mixed with ice cream and chocolate are some of the harder things to chew and swallow. The chili flakes were barely present, giving the dish almost no discernible heat whatsoever. What was most difficult to contest with, however, in the fact that the ice cream starts melting immediately and aggressively in the hot dough cone, making every bite a disaster of exploding dairy, meat, and sadness.
Should you eat it: Don’t bother, the bacon is straight-up gross and the ice cream will melt almost completely before you get a second bite in. We definitely think this is the biggest waste of money we encountered as there is no real way to eat it.
One Love Burger
Vendor: Bub’s [email protected] Burgers
What is it: Going for a savoury twist on a CNE classic food olympics tactic, this burger uses Jamaican patties in place of a bun. There is also double cheese and coleslaw involved.
Expectation: Not going to lie, we were pretty excited about this one. While using something sweet, like a donut or waffle, as the bun of a burger is something we’ve seen time and again, but using something as novel and flavourful as a Jamaican patty actually seemed like a pretty great idea.
Reality: For a burger that should have been an indulgence extravaganza, this was just so bland and reasonable we really felt let down. Using the Jamaican patties was actually a pretty inspired move, but they were very mild and aside from the pleasant, flaky texture of the pastry didn’t add a ton to the burger; we wished the patties were spicier. The burger itself was dry, the cheese was unmelted and pretty tasteless, and the slaw added much-needed moisture but not much else.
Should you eat it: I mean, I guess. There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly. It’s just a shame there couldn’t be more right.
What it is: Deep fried ravioli covered in apple pie filling, cinnamon, and powdered sugar. While the menu advertised them initially as being pear and brie ravioli, we were informed upon ordering that the filling was actually a standard cheese blend of ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan.
Expectation: We figured this had a fairly good chance of being weirdly delicious. Even upon learning the raviolis were stuffed with cheese, our feeling were still pretty positive. Apple pie with cheddar cheese can be a pretty inspired combo, so the odds of this going well weren’t impossible.
Reality: Like so many tragic Shakespearian heroes, these ravioli had a fatal flaw: the dough itself was infused with Italian seasoning and garlic. With every bite of sweet cinnamon and apples, there was the unmistakeable flavour of basil and oregano. The texture of the ravioli was delightfully crunchy, and the cheese blend inside was great; if you tried really hard to block out the aftertaste, there were moments of eating this that were genuinely enjoyable. However, these brief moments were always ruined by the omnipresent, herbaceous aftertaste.
Should you eat it: Unless you have always had a secret dream of your dessert leaving you with pizza breath, give this one a miss.