The Fair at the PNE, 2016
I love going to the Pacific National Exhibition, but not for the rides at Playland, of any of the exhibitions that comes with the general admittance fee. As a lover of novelty and general eating, you can guess that I am here mainly for the food. And today I was determined to taste and try all that is wacky, weird, and noteworthy at the this year’s fair, 2016.
I haven’t been in years, but was surprised by the price. $17 for general admission, but that is decent considering all that comes with it. Access to the entirety of the park, including the rides and games, at additional ticket costs. Open entry to all the exhibitions, performances, and shows. Superdogs, an angry bird showcase, mechanic dinosaurs that gesture, a magic show deemed “unbelievable”, and the livestock showcase; just to name a few. And they even have concerts with live musicians nightly. This year the line up included “Sheep Dogs”, “Monster Truck”, and “Dru Hill” with “Sisqo”.
But after reading a list of new foods to try, I set my mission on trying as many of them as I could, though went about it more organically. We explored the space with no map or route in place. Whatever we came across, and whatever tickled our fancy we stopped at as a group, and approached. My guests (who I actually asked to be my first and second wheel on this journey) were willing and able to keep up with my peculiar tastes.
We first ran into the “mini donut factory”, a large purple stand. They not only offered the classic minis in cinnamon and sugar, but ones coated in chocolate hazelnut, and a red velvet version as well.
I went for the latter, and they covered the main properties of red velvet: red dough and a cream cheese glaze. But other than that, they were disappointing. They were not made to order fresh, and as a result were tough and chalky. The cream cheese flavour was missing, you could barley see the glaze, let alone taste it. This one is definitely for the novelty and the fact they were served with their holes skewered on a stick. Especially at $6 a stick.
One of my guests loves a good chicken and waffle combo, and wanted to see how the fair’s version competed with her favourite Vancouver restaurants. It should be good considering it was $11 a plate, and one of the most priciest things we ate at the fair. “Waffles with Benefits” offered more than the traditional chicken and waffles that she got. They also topped their waffles with slow braised pulled pork and a chipotle slaw, hoisin sauce braised beef with sirarcha mayonnaise, and fried chicken with a cheese sauce. They also had sweet waffles to cover your dessert needs. A s’mores waffle with bacon, an apple turnover spoof with braised Granny Smith apples, a seasonal berry compote with whipped cream, and the classic banana and Nutella combo as well.
But once again we were content with their “traditional chicken and waffles” with a southern fried chicken breast, whipped butter, syrup, and side of gravy. The chicken was certainly worth trying. Flavoured zesty with seasonings, and fried to a crisp. The gravy was just as good with its rich and heart creaminess, dipping the chicken in it, only made both all the better. Whereas the dry waffle was disappointing. You didn’t get that moist sponginess that you wanted to offset the hard crunch of the thick, deep fried chicken breast. And the thin syrup with its stingy portion, was of no help.
“Ogopogo Concession” lead with the fact that they offered deep fried coffee. These were essentially doughnut-like bites, with the essence of coffee, topped in your choice of a coffee-inspired syrup topping.
Seeing the poster of their “Ogopogo combo” that had a skewer of coffee bites and an ice cap, I went with that, with my photo in mind. I also went for the upgrade and got my bites dressed, only to realize I would not get the combo as how it was pictured because of this. It made sense that only their regular powered sugar bites got this skewered treatment, because with them, you didn’t have the sticky mess of syrup to contend with. But at $10 total, it was sad to not get what I expected.
There were five different flavour toppings. I went with the “Espresso flake” as recommended by the clerk. Though their salted caramel is what is most popular. They also offered mocha chip, French vanilla, and a sugar and cream option. For each, the base is all the same, the topping is where you get the distinct flavour. This was pretty much a doughnut without the spongy or cakey chew. Lumps of dough flavoured in coffee, with the espresso glaze giving you an additional caffeine kick. It was overly sweet and therefore best shared.
The ice cap was no Timmy’s, it was too sweet on its own, but better in conjunction with the deep fried coffee, that was even sweeter. It was a watery brew that missing that blended ice crunch when you think, ice cap.
“Deep fried Steve O’s public house” promised that all they offered was always deep fried and always delicious. They fried ice cream in a cup and cookie dough on a stick, but it was their twist on churros and the tequila shot that I was interested in.
I was a little caught off guard to be handed one churro when I paid $6. It was black like an Oreo cookie, filled with white cream like an Oreo, and dusted with white powdered sugar. For fear of the liquid filling oozing out, it is served to you, flat on a sheet of wax paper. But the heat and moisture had our churro snapping in two prematurely, though this did help us carry it. For ease of travel and eating while standing up, this might have been best served in smaller sticks, stuck in a cup or wrapped like the best bouquet ever. As for the taste it was amazing. The crispness of an churro that you’d expect, with the comforting cookie and cream taste of an Oreo biscuit.
The “deep fried Tequila” was less true to its name. This was another thing that was basically a doughnut. Dough flavoured in tequila and fried. I smelled the alcohol, but missed tasting. Where was the kick of spirits? It was basically a warm and soggy original flavoured timbit, with a sugar glaze. Maybe here, a tequila infused dipping sauce would have been the best way to give snackers what they expected. Although, I did appreciate the extra effort of sugar rimming the cup and then garnishing it with a lime wedge for that tequila aesthetic. Otherwise, this was two pieces of dough for $7.
Heading back to savoury we stopped at the “international perogies” stand. Here they offered miniature pillows of potato and cheese, dressed in different sauces and toppings for specific ethnic tastes. The taco was self explanatory: it included ground beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and salsa. From India they had butter chicken with sautéed onions topping the perogies. Canada represented with a poutine version that of course included cheese curds and gravy. And for something more familiar, the classic polish version had sausage, bacon, and sautéed onions.
We went for the “Teriyaki chicken perogies” with its Japanese influences. The actual teriyaki chicken was breaded and fried before being drizzled over by sauces. It was unexpected, but well welcomed. It had a pleasant crunchy texture that offsetted the chewy dumplings and stringy sautéed onions. The was also sirarcha mayo, green onion, and sour cream in the mix. The mayo made it spicier and the sour cream mellowed things out with more cooks g creaminess. This was one of my favourites of the day, and one worth revisiting.
For those who love a good corn dog and a good fried pickle, this is the baby born from that fusion. “Chicky’s Chicken” offered “the big pickle dog”, amongst other meats on sticks. Their specialty corn dog is a hot dog wiener wrapped in a pickle, further wrapped in corn meal breading, before taking a dip into the deep frier. They were premade and as easy to server as removing one from the tray under the heat lamp, and placing it onto a cardboard dish. You help yourself to either mustard or ketchup, or both. Luckily my guest was as flexible an eater as I am, and we made sure to fully load it.
This was as thick as corn dogs go. There was no easy way to get an even bite of sausage, pickle, and breading. I ended up nibbling from side to side, and discovering that there was too much pickle to dog ratio. It would have been preferred to stuff a sliver of pickle into the dog, before giving it the corn meal and oil bath. The sour tang of the pickle was far too overwhelming, it made my lips pucker and my mouth give up on finishing it.
The most coveted treat for me was the “mini doughnut ice pop” from the “cloud 9” food truck. The idea of enjoying doughnuts and milk in my favourite medium, could not be missed. Their little white and blue camper van is best known for its flavoured cotton candy and shaved ice. And we aren’t just talking spun sugar, but flavours like lavender, piña colada, and root beer added in. But here at the fair, they were only selling their pre-made and pre-package Popsicles for $5 a piece.
The clerk was nice enough to remove the wrapper and discard it for me, she even posed for my photos. This is frozen dulce de leche caramel and cinnamon cream with real bits of mini doughnuts. It was delicious. As the texture was icy, it was easy to bite off chunks at a time. It tastes like the bottom of your cereal bowl, after all the cereal has been eaten, and you are left with a pool of cinnamon and sugar sweetened milk. This is one I would also have again.
And as it is a must, we ordered some of the fair made famous mini doughnuts, taking majority of the bag home for later. There are several stands to pick between when considering mini droughts, but my guest prefers the ones at “those little doughnuts”. The booth itself spoke to the volume of people they must see. Seven separate stations manned by its own individual, with no one need line up tonight.
We ended up taking majority of the doughnuts home, but everyone knows they are best piping hot and fresh out of the oil. Luckily they are clever enough to anticipate this and print the perfect reheating instructions on each of the paper bags the doughnuts were handed out in. We were able to replicated the crisp dough with soften centre, at home.
With so much to see and explore, and so much more to do and eat, we only attended one show and even then we didn’t stay for the entirety of it. The magic show promised to be “unbelievable”, but after the first few performances we lost interest because of the dialogue. We realized this was geared towards kids, and as a result, it didn’t held our focus too much.
Like many auditoriums this one too offered concession. We grabbed a popcorn and some refreshing lemonade (another fair time classic) thinking we’d be in our seats for an extended time. Though the popcorn wasn’t fresh and this wasn’t movie quality butter, so there was no need to hold on to it when we left our seats behind. Sadly, more than 3/4 of the bag went untouched. The lemonade on the other hand was exactly as expected. Slightly sweet, slightly tart, and a great refresher for the hot outdoor.
We stopped for one carnival game, but passed on all the rides. I don’t enjoy lining up to be in discomfort. And the older I get, the less fun I find the feeling of gravity pulling my body to the ground, or the gut wrenching churn as I am spun in the air, trapped in a metal cage. I have worked so hard and have so much more to lose now, that these rides are all the more scarier. Plus why would I pay good money to feel bad, when I can put it towards eating more and feel better.
Though I do appreciate the lights of the rides and the carnival at night, so made sure stuck around to watch dusk rise and the lights of them flicker on.
Even with missing out on many of the exhibits, I still feel like I got my money’s worth. We strolled past dinosaurs stringed off, as they adjusted their mechanic necks and roared. We watched two magic tricks on a grand stage. We shopped half the marketplace and sampled many of their products, imagining what it would be like if we took any of them home. We smelled the distinct odour of the petting farm as we walked past, opting for the scent of the barbecue pavilion instead. And we signed up for a few showstopper offers and got rewarded in swag like card holders, flip flops, lip balm, and battery packs.
But what I was paying for in the $17 was access to all the novelty food items, and many more that I had to miss. I am planning a return trip and will up date this post after, hopefully having tried their 10lb burger, or the one with Mac and cheese stuffed into its patty. The international poutines that covered the world in ethnic flavours, like butter chicken for India, a marinara sauce for Italy, and teriyaki for Japan. But if you are looking for the real deal poutines, there is also a booth dedicated to the kind that was born out of Quebec, Canada. I also plan on looking into more deep fried desserts like the peanut putter cup sandwiched between two Oreos, and battered before taking a dip into the fry. Or the Oreo funnel cake, and fresh made canolis from a truck. There is also the fair classics: the blooming onion and the beaver tail to enjoy. A “beaver tail” is fried and flatten dough, covered in cinnamon in sugar. I could go on and on, you could visit everyday and still have new things to try for days. That is why it is so sad that they are only open for the two weeks, before labour day and back to school for the summer. Though the employees who work there the two straight weeks, every day, at long hours disagree. They at least have the Monday off as the fair and the rides are not open then.
So before you head out on your own PNE food fuelled adventure, here are my pro tips. One, bring a backpack or rent a locker to store all your free swag and won prizes in. You don’t want to have lug stuff around, or be like me, pass up on freebies because I didn’t want to have to carry anything. Two, bring along hand sanitizer cause your hands will get sticky from all that your are trying, and if you are like me, your phone will follow. There are washrooms, but you don’t want to have to find one or line up just to rinse your hands. Three, wear sensible shoes, you do a ton of walking, and often it’s just back and forth looking for what you thought was there. You don’t want to be one of those women who wear four inch heels in the hot hot heat, to suffer for beauty and miss out on the exploring aspect of the PNE. And lastly, wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen, it will be a hot next two weeks, and shade or not, you still can burn without direct sunlight hitting you. The hat keeps you cooler, as your scalp is block from absorbing extra warm that extends to your extremities. Also helpful for those with black and dark hair, that attracts extra sunlight. Because the last thing you want is a painful burn, an itchy heat rash, or a trip to the hospital because of heat stroke.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – Yes.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
The fair is only around for once a wear. It is the sign that tells you summer is winding down, and you need to make the most of it with them. I most definitely want to return again this season, but to try other foods and see all that I missed this time around. Most of what we had today was fun to taste and try once, but many more don’t need a revisiting. I am happy to have tasted it all, more to say that I have. Don’t deny your cravings.
PNE, THE FAIR
2901 East Hastings Street, Vancouver BC, V5K 5J1