THE FOOD BUILDING Canadian National Exhibition, Exhibition Place, 416-263-3800. Although the dreadful donuts, deep-fried pierogies and Swiss waffle sandwiches have changed since the 50s (for the worse), a few beacons of borderline epicurism can be found at the Ex amidst the candied apples, corndogs and candy floss. Best: grilled tandoori chicken and curried veggie masala dosa at Café India; Flintstonian beef ribs with spicy chunky fries and credible slaw at Big Willy's; small but delish 'n' cheap vegetarian rotis at Island Foods; suicide wings at St. Louis; half-rack of grilled pork ribs with smoky baked beans at Purple Pig. Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes and bottled water. Open daily 10 am to 10 pm till September 1. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN (the best), N (the rest). Rating: NNN
The flyer's gone. So's the grand stand, the Alpine Way and the Bulova Tower. Today, nary a flag-pole sitter nor ferris-wheel-bound CHUM DJ setting an endurance record remains as part of the quintessential Ex experience. But the Food Building perseveres. True, long gone are the days when the CNE was a must-attend mecca of free samples doled out by fun-fur-clad mascots. Now it's a hodge-podge of forgotten franchises - H. Salt Fish and Chips still exists? Whither Arthur Treacher's? - that sell the type of deep-fried corporate crap that is, sadly, the North American diet.
I must be mad. On the delayed opening day, I visit the Food Building to see if there's more to the CNE's cuisine than candy floss.
The answer, if you know your way around, is yes, but everything has to be considered in context.
I've never been a fan of the pork ribs at the Purple Pig on Richmond, finding them overcooked and under-sauced. But here, in this culinary wasteland, they're a revelation, a 6-ounce half-rack in sweet, smoky sauce. They come with molasses-heavy baked beans and respectable slaw, along with oversized fries.
Neighbouring Pig spinoff Big Willy serves those same fries, adding needed kick-ass chili heat, alongside similar slaw and a hefty trio of Flintstonian beef ribs that weigh in at a whopping pound (both $9).
When NOW surveyed chicken wings last spring, the suicide version from St. Louis on Yonge were definitely some of the hottest we rated. Their fire power is somewhat subdued at the Ex, but the count's comparable and the dilled blue cheese dip identical to uptown's ($6.50 for 10).
Those looking for more vegetariana than poutine on the polluted shores of Lake Ontario will have to check out some of the local multiculti food stands dotted around the barn-like building. Although neither did as well as expected in NOW's Caribana roti roundup, both Island Foods and Ali's are stars on this midway of mediocrity.
Island's is a smallish but portable 18-ounce mix of curried potato, carrot and cabbage ($4.10), while Ali's 20-ouncer ($5) adds sweet red pepper and chickpea mash to its parantha wrapper. Strictly knife-and-fork affairs.
We discovered notable Café India on Yonge at College a while back while looking for student-friendly alternatives to cheap noodle noshes. Down at the CNE, the modest take-away offers the best bargain on site, a delicious tandoor-grilled half-chicken - two fluorescent red legs 'n' thighs, actually - sided with biryani basmati and an undressed green salad ($6.99). Masala dosa stuffed with slow-burn cauliflower curry ($4.99), tasty onion pakoras (three for 99 cents) and chutney-dunked peppery potato 'n' pea samosas ($1) are on offer, too.
With over 150 participants, bad pad thai was bound to be on the menu somewhere. But pleasant Thai Delight's slippery rendition ($5.45) is quite presentable, if free of detectable chicken, shrimp or egg, and comes with crunchy stir-fried Canadian cabbage and a nicely grilled ginger chicken leg, all optionally garnished with crushed peanuts and a squirt of staff-administered salty hot sauce. In a sea of ketchup and hot dog mustard packets, Delight's quite radical.
Philippine Deli wins the ribbon for most adventurous condiments: dark, garlicky vinegar, sweet soy sauce, fishy nam pla and Srirachi-esque hot sauce. They certainly electrify today's special of tamarind-sour stewed Chicken Adobo ($5.55) sided with crisp, quick-fried carrots and peppers as well as a white mountain of short-grain rice. Around the corner, Pierogy Chef offers its unique Ukrainian Dinner ($5.95): three deep-fried processed cheese pierogies, a meaty slab of machined ham, a tiny but densely meaty cabbage rollette, a slice of dark rye and a partial dill pickle.
Don't expect the freebies that used to be the big attraction at the Food Building. Tiny Tom Donuts, who's been cranking out miniature icing-sugar-coated fritters since 1960, is the only place in the joint that still gives out free samples. Make that singular. And it still tastes like deep-fried nothing ($3 a dozen, at many locations throughout the Ex). I attempt to follow tradition and wash it down with a Honeydew ($2 large), but the booth's crew haven't figured out how to work the till.
Beware the namesake dish at 99-Cent Spaghetti. Its 8 ounces of limp noodles and spoonful of plain, unsalted sauce could more accurately be described as 12-cent spaghetti. Attention, tightwads: Don't fall for the "Cheese on that?" con. A dusting of pre-fab Parmesan costs 39 cents extra.
Over at Foods of Canada, I go national with a Bison Burger on a McDonalds-style sesame bun ($3.99), 3 ounces of dry, processed meat that, according to a nutrition chart on display, has a third less fat than a regular beef burger. It tastes it. A side of see-through-thin Buffalo Chips ($1.49) look like they've been shaved from a solitary Pringle and are about as filling.
Half the size of a sandwich in the real world, Montreal Deli's small smoked meat sandwich ($4) is no bargain, 3 ounces of haphazardly cut meat from Lester's of Outremont on dry supermarket rye.
Bumper cars, anyone?