Taste of Edmonton: is this it?

Back in high school, when I started to enjoy the city’s festivals on my own, attending the Taste of Edmonton was an annual tradition. I loved the atmosphere out on Churchill Square, the music, the smells. The food was nothing special, but what always brought me back was the unique aspect of sampling from many outdoor vendors.

But after a few years, it was clear that the Taste of Edmonton is a stagnant and forgettable festival. Sure, complementary enhancements like a “Taste of Wine” have been added recently, but the heart of the event – the food – remains uninspiring and perhaps most significantly, unchanged from year to year. Without interesting and different menu items, what is the draw of the festival?

When it was announced this year that the Taste of Edmonton was putting a policy in place that would see restaurants having to include new items every two years, I was encouraged. To see what, if anything, had changed, Mack and I decided to sample a few items on the weekend.

The crowds were decidedly smaller on Saturday afternoon – I’m sure the long weekend and competing Heritage Festival had something to do with it. Because of that, we had a much easier time manoeuvring the aisles than we did when we had walked through the Square earlier in the week. The layout of the food vendors – along the outside of the square, ceding prime real estate to the beer gardens – just seems inefficient.

Taste of Edmonton

Smaller crowds

The pulled pork sandwich from The Hat (4 tickets) looked good, and was all right. It was definitely better than the bacon wrapped scallops from The Palace (5 tickets) that Mack sampled. Charred and much too salty, if the skewer was meant to entice patrons to the restaurant, I’d say they would be better off serving nothing at all.

Taste of Edmonton

Pulled pork sandwich from The Hat

Taste of Edmonton

Bacon wrapped scallops from The Palace

The best (and new for 2011) item we tried was the petit tender with blue cheese potatoes from Zinc. Cooked to medium rare just before plating (instead of languishing under a heat lamp), the Spring Creek Ranch beef was juicy and flavourful, accented by crunchy fried green onions. The serving of creamy potatoes was also quite generous, well worth the 4 tickets we paid.

Taste of Edmonton

Alberta beef petit tender with blue cheese tomatoes from Zinc

I recognize how difficult it is for long-standing festivals to make changes, but the fact the Taste of Edmonton is implementing even the two year item limit is a positive sign. Here are a few other suggestions that I think would help bring some zest to the event:

The Layout

Congestion, especially on the east side of the Square, could easily be averted if more of the booths were better spread out (the beer gardens are more prominent than the food!). When Mack tweeted this out, Paula responded that this is the fault of the City – they don’t want to stain the concrete! How’s that for rendering Edmonton’s largest gathering space useless for one of its biggest annual events?

Taste of Edmonton

Wasted space

That said, I really liked the new partnership with the Art Gallery of Alberta. A Taste of Desserts and Liqueurs was held in the lobby of the AGA, which probably helped to expose many festival-goers to the beautiful building for the first time. Most of the desserts were, unfortunately, the same dishes that had been served in years past, but the offshoot has great potential.

AGA

Taste of Desserts at the AGA

Even better, the precedent set by using adjacent spaces gives me hope that perhaps some underutilized areas downtown will finally be taken advantage of. For example – Centennial Square, just south of Stanley Milner Library, could easily accommodate ten vendors. Plus, with a built in stage, it could accommodate another act! It’s also just down the street from the main festivities, and would help alleviate some of the congestion during high-traffic times.

Centennial Square

Centennial Square

Of course, Centennial Square probably isn’t built to accommodate the power, water and weight needs in the same way that Churchill is, but perhaps this would be a good reason to upgrade a space downtown that is more rife with tumbleweeds than people.

The Menu

I referenced the unchanging, tiresome Taste of Edmonton menu already, but it is worth mentioning again. Moreover, what’s worse, with a few exceptions, is that the items offered are predictable. Green onion cakes? Check. Sliders? Of course! Chicken satay? Step right up. I’m hoping the two year limit will help reinvent the menu in the future, but it will probably be slow going.

We heard that the organizers do their best to limit duplication, but this is half-hearted at best (e.g. is ginger beef really different than Szechuan beef? Or, is a pulled pork sandwich so essential to the festivities that it has to be offered first by the Hotel MacDonald and then by The Hat?). I think a better approach would be to fully embrace duplication, throwdown style. Invite attendees to vote for their favourite spring roll, the best burger, the tastiest tart. That way, there’s an added incentive for restaurants to put their finest food forward, and another way for the festival to promote what’s new.

The Food

What baffles me the most about the Taste of Edmonton is why people are willing to pay for such low quality food. Ten years ago, when this was one of the only outdoor sampling venues in the city, I could understand it. Now, with so many fantastic warm weather taste alternatives (Al Fresco, Taste of Summer, Tomato Fare, most farmers’ markets, just to name a few), I’m surprised the crowds haven’t dissipated.

Again, there are some exceptions, but for the most part, portions are small, prices are high and creativity is non-existent. I suppose restaurants want to cater to the widest tastes possible, which limits ingenuity, but also, if the people don’t demand it, the status quo will continue. I also have to wonder if people do seek out the establishments after enjoying a dish – because if name recognition is the only reason restaurants participate, I suppose it really doesn’t matter what food is churned out.

The unfortunate reality is that restaurants that have great reputations don’t participate (they probably can’t due to staffing, or don’t need to promote their business), but their involvement could help raise the bar for others. I have ideas for what restaurants and cuisines I’d like to see included, and I’m sure others do as well. Does the Taste of Edmonton actively seek feedback? Has it ever?

My ultimate hope for something branded the “Taste of Edmonton” is for it to provide a decent snapshot of what the city’s restaurants have to offer. Knowing the quality of food that is available, the event certainly isn’t living up to that standard. But then at the end of the day, maybe that isn’t the role of Taste of Edmonton. Maybe pedestrian, crowd-pleasing fare is what festival-goers are looking for. What say you?

25 thoughts on “Taste of Edmonton: is this it?

  1. I totally agree with you!
    I started to go to Taste of Edmonton since 2005, it was so much fun for me since I have never taste most of the food they offer.
    However through the time passes by… they don’t really offer much new item on the menu. Like my friend said.. we enjoyed the ginger beef, but… NOT every single year! I understand that it may be still a new item to the tourists but let’s be honest…there are still like 75% of people who go to the festival are Edmontonian.
    I do hope they will offer something better next year if not…. well.. I will still go… but I may not buy too many tickets.

    This is my first time here just fyi.
    I like your posts a lot.
    Thank you.. keep the good work!

  2. I wandered around Taste several times this year; not eating, just taking pictures. The line-up for green onion cakes was by far and away to longest of any. Most of those I work with go to the festival for one thing… Green Onion Cakes.

    I agree with you, the food available is much of same-old, same-old. However, I imagine there would be a major outcry if those green onion cakes where not available. ;-D

    For the record, I’ve never tried them, so can’t comment on the attraction.

  3. I agree with you completely. I would rather go to a restaurant and have food AND service for the prices charged…not to mention getting a comfortable place to sit. My 10 and 12 year old boys like Taste of Edmonton, because the food is still interesting to them.

  4. We’re so over A Taste of Edmonton. I would rather go to Capital Ex with the kids and have mini donuts, that’s how boring it -and completely a money pit- it has become.

    The portion sizes are horrible for the money, I am irritated to no end that companies are getting a venue for amazing PR, yet charge sky high prices for a small portion of underwhelming fare, to say the least.

    I looked at the menu online this year, viewed the pictures that the Journal posted online and skipped it. Nothing’s changed. Same greasy, heat lamp dried out food.

    We save our coin for the Heritage Festival, I like supporting the cultural organizations and groups FAR more than Taste of Edmonton. The Heritage Festival is a true celebration of the amazing cultural diversity of our city, while A Taste of Edmonton is pure corporate greed. Bah.

  5. I think Ian nailed it – people expect to see their favourites. I thought “Taste of Edmonton” evolved to introduce Edmontonians to new foods at restaurants they hadn’t tried, but it looked to me like vendors were playing it safe for the most part. Unfortunately, so do many of the people who attend.

    P.S. can’t the city request that vendors lay down tarps to keep the concrete clean? 😦

  6. Great article Sharon, couldn’t agree with you more. Hopefully someone is listening as these changes would make taste of edmonton worth going to again.

  7. I feel much the same way, Sharon.
    We went this year and limited ourselves (4 of us) to $20. We generally enjoy the atmosphere in the square, and it’s still so novel to the kids, so it’s worth a 20. We made an effort to only try the new items (which were conveniently colour-coded on the menu), which also made it easy to stay within our limit. Of course, in the end we had a ticket left over, so I grabbed an obligatory cappuccino shooter on the way to the parkade. (an aside: I always get the shooter when I have a single ticket left, but it certainly hasn’t convinced me to ever try the Sutton Place Hotel – that’s where it’s from, right?)
    We enjoyed the lamb at Zinc, and may give them a try again. And the kids loved the Hurricane Potatoes (can’t recall where they were from, however). Generally, everything we tasted required one ticket more than it was worth.
    Our verdict? Taste of Edmonton has potential every year, but we certainly don’t go there for creativity. If we did, we’d probably open our wallet a little wider.

  8. Agree, agree- I used to go as a kid and thought it was pretty cool, but I haven’t gone in a few years because of the lack of good, interesting food. Not to mention way overpriced. I’d love to take my kids but not with the way it is right now. Keep up the great crituques.

  9. I skipped out for the same reasons. I do know that Famoso applied to have a booth and were outright rejected. How does that makes sense? They are a great restaurant, but maybe franchises aren’t wanted…even though the original location is local.

  10. Taste of Edmonton is not usually at the top of my festival calendar, especially not after finally trekking to Heritage Fest.

    You, perhaps modestly, also forgot to mention What The Truck?! spiced up Edmonton’s food scene. 🙂
    Food trucks, and higher-quality fare at Heritage, and the other street parties you noted, is putting the same old (mostly) deep-fried and greasy menus at Taste of Edmonton to shame. We need to keep raising the bar!

  11. Sharon- thank you for writing this. I contemplated doing the same on my blog after I went on opening day, but never got around to it. I’m glad I’m not craxy and not the only one feeling this way. As much as I want to support community events, especially food ones, I’m getting to the point with Taste of Edmonton where I’m bored and uninspired. 3 out of the 5 dishes I got this year were the same as last… not even as good as I remembered them from past year. I didn’t get anything new because there was little new for me to try.
    Hopefully those that organize and plan the event see these kind of posts and take the initiative to change!
    Leslie

  12. Totally — agreement!!

    I am so fed up with taste of Edmonton. Over crowded with no where to sit down, can no one event rental some picnic tables?

    If they are afraid of staining the concrete, perhaps they should not have paved over the square in the first place. I second the idea of using centennial square as overflow — this space is never utilized, which is a shame!

    If you want Green Onion Cakes or Sweet Potato Fries, hop over to the food court. I have never understood Sweet Potato fries from a sushi restaurant (you know they are just trying to cash in on an item they know will sell, instead of really selling themselves!).

    I felt this year was slightly better, however, if there is not a big improvement next year in many of the aspects that you have touched on…. I dont think I will be going again.

  13. I like your suggestions to revamp the Taste of Edmonton however, I’m not sure that 90% of the people who have been attending the festival will be able to appreciate new food items. Some of them are looking forward to eating ginger beef and don’t even try the new items like Zinc’s tostada. They just go for the items already known, their knowledge about food is not as good as yours for example. That leads to the following question, is it worth it for the festival and its vendors to invest on “something new”?
    I would say “Yes!”, it is worth it because it will upgrade Edmontonian’s standards on food and we will all expect much more quality from each of the vendors (and thus from the restaurants).
    I would also like to see where the ingredients from all the food served are coming from. Wouldn’t you preferred food made with local ingredients? But then again, the majority of people don’t even care about it. And it is here where I find your blog very helpful because it showcases those places with real food value (from my perspective of course).

  14. was thinking much the same things as you’ve written when we were there this year – same old food, we really enjoyed the Zinc offerings as well as those from Lit Wine Bar (both new), otherwise it was a matter of “why do I need to come here to get stuff I can get at my local Chinese take-out place or local bar/grill?”

  15. From an outsider looking in, I will have to disagree with a lot of the points mentioned here.

    1) It seems you guys complain about the offerings. But, let me ask you: do you represent the majority of the population? If so, can somebody explain the long lines in some stands? Why complain if somebody wants their green onion pancake fix???
    2) It seems you are being nitpicking on some offerings but, on the flip side, I don’t see praises for stands who were offering “better” dishes. For example, I don’t hear/read anybody saying something about the pupusas from El Rancho, or the stuffed chicken wings from Numchok Wilai, or the oferings from Zinc, seared ahi tuna or basil stuffed bocconcini from Lit Italian Wine Bar, et al.
    3) What is wrong with having ginger beef offered there? After all, it is an uniquely Western Canada dish… (OK, originated from Calgary but, hey, that’s not the point!). I mean, if you guys go to Capital Ex or similar events, won’t you expect them to be offering corn dogs or fries or dishes on those lines?
    4) It seems you guys are infatuated with “White People Food”. For an explanation of this term, please, check this link: http://goo.gl/4ejhS
    5) It was briefly mentioned at the beginning but quickly dismissed: entertainment. Yes, it is called *TASTE* of Edmonton; however, you don’t necessarily HAVE to be there for their offerings. If you choose you, pack your own food and just sit back and enjoy the music or something on those lines. Is there anything wrong with that?
    6) This is specifically about the Sip! vs. Taste of Edmonton comparison. I went to Sip! and… I actually wanted to go back to Taste of Edmonton. Granted, a lot of the offerings were a ticket ($1) less; however, serving portions were smaller and the food wasn’t necessarily better. For example, the mussels were overcooked, some of the sandwiches were… OK, really, sandwiches??? Oh, as a reminder, there is that admission fee to Capital Ex if you want to attend Sip!

    In my case, I went there a couple of days spread out during the two weeks. However, I didn’t necessarily go for the food: One of the nights, I had dinner at home and went there for the music and a bit of people-watching. Anything wrong with that? Granted, there is always room for improvement but just pointing out the negatives do not necessarily help. Some constructive criticism might. As a side note, during those two weeks what didn’t necessarily help was all the events going on at the same time: the Indy race, Capital Ex, Taste of Edmonton AND Heritage Festival.

    In the end, I would like to paraphrase what a friend of mine like to say when it comes to situations like this: We get the events we deserve.

  16. Almost everyone I know feels the same way about ToE… it’s fun but predictable and boring. How Chocolate covered strawberries and snocones with cream are even here is beyond me. Even “Kim” ate at home and said “I didn’t necessarily go for the food” – why not? Isn’t that the point of it?

    Sadly for us foodies, nothing will change because at the risk of sounding snobby, the majority of ToE’s customers don’t get out much (from a food perspective) and exotic eating for them are green onion cakes (you do know you can make them in a toaster, right?), BBQ pork buns and twirlled potatoes on a stick.

    I have no issues with the portion sizes or cost – that’s to be expected. But to pay that for the same boring fried objects over and over again… Maybe future years they can classify the booths – “Tried and true”, “Something new”, “Way out there”.

  17. Good points ! I have going to ToE since 2007 and the novelty kinda wore off after the first 2-3 years. These days, I just go only once or twice (still like the festive atmosphere a lot), but the food is getting boring. Besides, too many places serve their cheapest items at modest portion sizes………….. no comparison with Heritage Festival, which is a labour of love for so many volunteers.
    Let us hope we get a few more “new” restaurants and more varied menu in the coming years.

  18. The Taste of Edmonton isn’t what it use to be. I remember it being the first time I tried alligator. Didn’t see anything that unusual.
    The issue I had was there is no where to park your bike! We found a couple of bike racks at one end of the square. How to encourage being Green!

  19. I totally agree with everything you’ve brought up here…except for the green onion cakes. Or, as I like to call them, festival cakes. I eat these delicious festival cakes twice a year. Once at TOEd and once at Fringe. Don’t hate on the cakes! It’s just not a festival in Edmonton without them.

  20. The green onion cakes were first introduced by a well-known restaurant back in the early years of T.O.E. The green onion cakes were a huge hit and the line-up for these was by far the longest of any restaurant for many years of T.O.E. to follow, even after the restaurant itself was no longer operating. Their version of the green onion cake was quite unique and different than most versions that you find in Edmonton now.

    I think it’s a different proprietor(s) that has been selling the green onion cakes at T.O.E. for the past few years though.

  21. What a thoughtful post. Very analytical and thorough. I haven’t gone for YEARS for all of the reasons you write about. And, you brought to my attention others that I definitely agree with…
    I am surprised to see that not one response here is from the organizing committee. Kim’s question “do you represent the majority of the population? ” was hilarious. Of course, there will be varying views, but clearly, you do represent the majority of the population opinion wise as this event has definitely faded from the “hot events” landscape in our city, long, long ago… yet, we have so much to offer with regard to TASTES! Re-purposing the event might be a really good idea.
    🙂
    Valerie

  22. Valerie, this News880 report contradicts what you wrote:

    http://www.inews880.com/Channels/Reg/LocalNews/story.aspx?ID=1473684

    Remember people, similar to visiting a restaurant, you “speak” with your wallet and return visit. What does it tell you when attendance is an all time high?

    I think you guys are nitpicking it because it does not suit your particular taste while overlooking what a regular Joe/Jane wants. In fact, I would like to quote what was written here:

    it’s mostly the same thing every time, so I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the event but it was just an overall fun, summer thing to do, you know?

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