Love or hate the name, the fair with the much-maligned moniker is here to stay. And for Mack and me, Capital Ex is something that we look forward to attending during the busy Edmonton summer season. It’s loud and boisterous, with that infectious carnival atmosphere that isn’t replicated by any other festival in the city.
While we’re not as adamant about what attractions should be maintained or embraced, we do have our opinions. For such a big event that tries to appeal to every demographic and age group, there are hits and misses. This year was no different.
On the consumables front, Mack and I were lucky to have the opportunity to try the breadth of cuisine offered at Capital Ex for free. For such a task, we also elicited the help (and stomachs) of my sister Felicia and her boyfriend Jeff, and even then, our capacity was limited. But we did our best!
One of the heralded additions to the Capital Ex line-up this year was Ribfest, which promised good Southern-style barbecue.
Located near Northlands Park (the race track), I was disappointed that such an attraction was relegated to the far corner, instead of trumpeted near an entrance. As a result, the two times we passed through, the crowds weren’t nearly as large as they should have been. We did like the fact that the Telus Stage concert was being streamed on the large screen mounted in the paddock, which connected Ribfest to the larger festival, but I think this simply highlighted the need for live entertainment in the eating area, and moreover, a more prominent location for the entire set-up.
Ribfest also incorporated a charity aspect, as all five barbecue purveyors have been paired with a local charity. Diners were given the option of voting for their favourite, with the charity partner reaping the benefit of a donation from Northlands. We have to say the voting aspect wasn’t very well promoted (we were only provided a ballot from one purveyor), with the voting box itself partially hidden by a fence. Also, for an informed vote, one would have to spend a minimum of $45 to purchase a third of a rack from each of the five establishments, unless they happened to dine in a large group. If this continues next year, perhaps some sort of discounted punch card could be instituted?
Gator BBQ Company
That said, we really enjoyed Ribfest as a whole. None of us had ever been to barbecue competitions, so everything was new to us – from the eye-catching displays to the tables brimming with trophies – it really was a sight to see.
The food being the main attraction was also very well done. Felicia and I tried the pulled pork sandwiches ($9) from Gator BBQ Company. We both wished we had a scale to weigh the sandwich, as it was absolutely bursting with meat. It could have been a touch warmer, but the slightly sweet sauce and buttery meat certainly hit the spot.
Jeff and Mack dug into ribs from Gator and Prairie Smoke & Spice BBQ, respectively ($13 for half racks). Between the two, Prairie won the battle with their aromatic, tender meat. We found out later that they use Manitoba oak to smoke their ribs.
In need of wet naps
I do hope they keep Ribfest for next year. There’s lots of good to build on, and given how many people lament the lack of good southern barbecue available in Edmonton, this could become a legitimate attraction for Capital Ex moving forward.
At The Grand
The eats available off the midway always seem to undergo a yearly rebranding. This year, under the banner of “The Grand”, there were many new dishes available, on top of some long-standing favourites.
Cyclones (or, pizza in a cone) caught our eye. Staff told us this was the first time this UK-based product had been brought to Canada. They promote a 70-30 ratio of ingredients to crust, as opposed to typical pizza which has a 30-70 ratio.
Not an ice cream cone
As utensil-less, processed products go, the mozzarella and tomato version was pretty good. The crust (baked low and slow), was crunchy but not hard, and the cheesy, tomato-speckled filling was reminiscent of a Pizza Pop.
We also hunted down the customizable cream puffs available at Le Grande Café. Organizers did a great job of creating a space reminiscent of an outdoor café, with cute blue-checkered tablecloths and a water feature.
Le Grande Café
In my frugal student days, I remember hunting down the cheapest eats at the fair. Besides mini doughnuts, these cream puffs would have sat well with me then. For $2, diners can choose from several different whipped fillings and toppings for a personalized and economical treat. I opted for a decadent berry whipped cream topped with strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, sprinkles and chocolate-covered rice crisps to be dipped in dark chocolate. Mack was a bit more restrained, with chocolate cream topped with toasted coconut and powdered sugar.
While the pastry was definitely no Beard Papa, I was satisfied. The cream was light and airy, and did not taste artificially sweet. Mack was less enthused, calling it more of a “cream sandwich” than a true cream puff. But for $2, it was worth it.
The biggest surprise for me at Capital Ex was Fusion 53. Replacing Sip!, which in previous years offered fairgoers a sophisticated food and wine alternative to midway fare, Fusion 53 is billed as “elegant” and “refined”, and also features live entertainment and a casino. While no doubt some people would naturally gravitate towards the 18+ atmosphere to escape the chaos of the grounds, I always wondered whether patrons truly wanting a high end dining experience would really seek to find it at Capital Ex. As such, is this really something organizers should continue to offer? Pondering this, I checked my expectations at the door of Hall A.
Dimly lit, the lounge space was partially full, no doubt drawn to the Duelling Ivories Piano Show (who were fantastic, by the way). We settled down on a comfortable couch and tried to get the lay of the land. For two food features (with stations similar to what Sip! had set-up in previous years), patrons could order them by purchasing tickets at the counter, but to order most things off the food and drink menu, one had to do so through a server. We tried four items ($10.50) in total.
Though it seemed table service was an odd choice at first, we came to appreciate it later. After many hours on our feet, this was our first chance to relax. Unlike Sip!, which favoured stand-up cocktail tables, Fusion 53 enabled us to just sit back and enjoy the entertainment.
It also helped that the food was great! Felicia’s grilled coconut shrimp made up for its small serving in flavour, and was obviously made to order. Mack’s house smoked brisket slider was generously sized, though Mack would have preferred a softer bun. My smoked chicken and quinoa shooter was the best thing I ate at the fair – the meat was moist, and the quinoa was dressed delectably. Jeff also enjoyed his caramalized bananas on coconut ice cream.
Fusion 53 dishes
My only criticism of the menu at Fusion 53 was that it did not live up to its “local” billing. While homegrown products may have been incorporated, it wasn’t evidenced anywhere on the menu, save for apple, rhubarb and custard tarts apparently made from “local ingredients”. If anything, a small venue like a dedicated lounge would be the perfect way for Northlands chefs to experiment with products sourced locally. Should they decide to continue Fusion 53 in future years, I do hope they consider enhancing this aspect.
On the Midway
Let me say it was not easy to locate specific items on the midway. Signage was poor, and a walk through the fairgrounds yielded nothing. We had to ask someone at guest services who was able to point us in the right direction, but for a fair attempting to woo “foodies”, the execution was poor. A map made for food enthusiasts highlighting new experiences really would be useful in this regard.
Anyway, we heard that the red velvet funnel cake ($6) was a crowd pleaser, so with some guidance, located the vendor near the Top Cop diving show. None of us had ever had a funnel cake before, so we didn’t know what we had ordered was a smattering of deep fried dough in a shade of radioactive red. Sweetened with a combination of icing and powdered sugar, it was crispier than a mini doughnut. It didn’t, however, remind any of us of actual red velvet desserts – no hint of cocoa, just fried batter.
My first red velvet funnel cake
On the savoury side, we also tried a trio of sliders ($10) from the Canadian Beef Bacon wagon. Having replaced beef patties with strips of bacon, the sweetness of the maple bun did enhance the bacon.
Canadian Beef Bacon sliders
Mack had great intentions to try the cricket pizza, but I’m sorry to say, he just couldn’t do it. It just really bugged him (hehheh). No, in all seriousness, the freak food attraction of the fair just did not look very appealing – the crickets did not look fresh at all, and looked more like maggots than crickets. If we’re going to eat bugs, at least make them look appetizing! Were you brave enough to try it?
Of course, Capital Ex isn’t just about the food. There’s tons to see, and I really enjoyed some of the exhibits new to this year.
Though the music theme wasn’t as prevalent as I was expecting, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame displays were interesting to browse (who knew Kiss had a pinball machine)?
Mack checks out the displays
Even better was the Rock University, which certainly seemed to appeal to a generation of kids who grew up on Rock Band. It was an interactive exhibit I would have expected to see at the Telus World of Science, and not at Capital Ex, but it really was a fun opportunity to try out different instruments and take some zany snapshots.
Felicia’s a rock star!
On Abbey Road
Rhythms of the World, a seeming return to the cultural showcase of fairs past, was an exhibit I really hope they keep and grow in the future. The installations, which only covered a handful of countries, were eye-catching and photogenic.
Down you go!
It was surprisingly quiet, but provided a nice reprieve from the midway, and a laid-back opportunity to browse boards of information.
The space also hosted a great stage, so we sought out a performance schedule, but couldn’t find one posted anywhere. We found out later it was on the LCD screens outside the hall.
In the Family Fun Town this year, they also had a petting zoo. I’m a sucker for animals!
It’s almost too bad the Michael Jackson show from last year had already been done – it would have fit in perfectly with the music theme. It also wasn’t reminiscent of an acid trip, which The Aluminum Show was.
The Aluminum Show
They also tried a little too hard to engage the audience – the inflatable pillow sequence went on for much too long.
No, it’s not a rave
We didn’t go on any rides this year, but we did catch a bridal party going down the Kiwanis slide.
Games, on the other hand, were fair game. Some of us were more successful than others.
Just stand up, darn it!
Felicia with her prize
We ended our night with the fireworks show – a fitting way to end our day at an Edmonton tradition.
Thanks again to Northlands for the opportunity to eat our way through Capital Ex!
You can see my full photoset here.