Olympia – Jan/Feb 2018

A Food Lover’s Guide to Calgary Stampede

Stampede enjoying ribsAnyone who knows anything about rodeos and festivals knows that Stampede, held every July in Calgary, Alberta, is one of the largest rodeos and outdoor Western festivals in the world. However, what you may not know is that Stampede is a food lover’s orgy. That’s right, foodies can load up on everything from free bacon pancakes (with the butter and syrup right the pancake!) to specially-aged prime Angus beef to terrific BBQ to some of the craziest fried foods you’ve never imagined.

Saddle up, foodies! It’s time to put on the Stampede feedbag.

Stampede mid way

There are several full service restaurants and more than 170 food booths at Calgary Stampede.

First-Ever Jack Daniel’s Dinner

We begin our immersion in Stampede’s foodie experience with the first-of-its-kind Official Jack Daniel’s Stampede Dinner at Modern Steak, an upscale steakhouse run by chef/owner Dustin Schafer. This special dinner celebrates Stampede, venerable Jack Daniel’s bourbon, and, this year, it also honors Canada’s 150th birthday. It’s an event the chef and staff at Modern Steak hope to hold every year during Stampede.

Stampede Modern Steak

Modern Steak plans to hold an upscale Stampede dinner every year.

We start with cocktails made with the iconic bourbon and, throughout the meal, courses are paired with Jack Daniel’s cocktails that range from sweet to smoky.

Chef Dustin and his team purchased a bull, the second highest rated beef in Canada. Then they butchered it and aged Jack Daniel’s-soaked Tomahawk Ribeye steaks for 40-days, 60-days, and, 150-days (in honor of Canada’s 150th birthday)—just to see what kind of steaks they’d get.

We start our meal with beef tartare, a small ball of fresh, super-tender chopped beef seasoned. It’s seasoned with Dijon, caper, and gherkin, and a rich farm egg yolk hold it all together and adds to the decadence. Along side are crispy house-made potato chips.

The second course, beef risotto, is one of my favorites. It’s a generous helping of creamy, cheesy mushroom risotto with plenty of shreds of aged braised beef rilette. It’s rich, beefy and satisfying.

Stampede cocktail

Each course was paired with a Jack Daniel’s cocktail.

Next come the steaks—three slices of differently-aged beef with rich veal reduction. It’s fun and interesting to taste how the different pieces of meat vary in both flavor and tenderness. The beef steaks are accompanied by a pile of rosemary mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.

We end on a sweet note with a rhubarb/fennel tart with mascarpone anglaise, blood orange sorbet, and mint fluid gel. It’s just the right bit of sweet-tartness to end this delectable meal. My Stampede experience is off to a delicious start.

Stampede midway

You won’t go hungry at Stampede.

Mid-way Food

Stampede tastiness doesn’t stop there. The next morning we meet with Stampede’s “food guy,” James Radke, Midway Operations Manager. He wrangles 50 food vendors who staff 171 food booths throughout Stampede Park. Each year, James is tasked with finding new and fabulous foods/vendors for the midway. He’s looking for an interesting mix of traditional fair foods like corndogs, funnel cake, and cotton candy to more cutting-edge dishes like Thai-inspired foods and terrific BBQ.

Radke also looks for the latest food trends. Last year, it was bug-inspired dishes; this year, it’s hot and spicy. In fact, they’re offering a spicy pizza featuring peppers with 250,000 Scoville units of heat. Each evening they hold a competition and give $50 to anyone who can eat a slice of the hot stuff and sit for 5 minutes without drinking cooling beverages like milk or water. It’s a popular venture, but only a few have taken home the cash prize.

Stampede poutine.

Poutine gets top billing.

Stampede poutine 1

This poutine combines sweet and savory.

This year, Stampede is offering 58 new and different foods, everything from monster cereal ice cream bars to fried chicken feet. As James leads us through the mid-way, I can’t help noticing all the signs for poutine, Canada’s ubiquitous and famously popular fast food. Normally, poutine consists of French fries, brown gravy, and melted cheese curds. But at Stampede Poutine takes center stage and anything goes. There’s Who let the dogs out? Poutine, crispy fries smothered with cheese curds and gravy, topped with grilled sliced wieners and cattleman’s sauce. Then there’s Clam Chowder Poutine, creamy, clammy goodness. They take crisp, piping hot cheesy French fries and top them with creamy clam chowder and garnish with crisp crab meat and parsley. Garlic Parmesan Poutine incorporates crispy cheese curds, Parmesan cheese and fresh garlic purée. There’s even a poutine corn dog, hot dogs are filled with hash browns and pieces of cheese that’s dipped in corn batter and fried up corn dog style and served on a stick.

Stampede perogies

Crispy potato dumplings are a big hit.

My favorite Stampede poutine was Funnel Cake Poutine. A Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cake (crispy fried strips of dough) is topped with cheese curds and brown gravy and sprinkled with powered sugar. It’s a crazy combination of sweet and savory that’s crispy and cheesy and surprisingly tasty.

Next we stop at the perogi stand. Perogis are filled European dumplings. This year at Stampede, the fried potato dumplings, which won the Best International Food Award, are topped with breaded fried shrimp or tasty chicken teriyaki.

Stampede fried chicken feet

One of this year’s featured items was fried chicken feet.

Fried is the watchword in the midway. If you can eat it, you can fry it. How about Mr. Crab, a Tempura-fried Nori taco shell loaded with sushi rice, California crabmeat that’s topped with a tempura fried soft shell crab, and drizzled with a special unagi (eel) and mango sauce? Or there are Butter Chicken Bear Balls. These are golden deep fried balls smothered in a delicious butter chicken sauce, sprinkled with fresh cilantro, and topped with a candy coated anise. Then there’s deep fried pork belly, thick slabs of smoky pork belly skin, marinated for 24 hours and deep-fried for a crispy, crunchy skin and juicy tender moist inside. Move over bacon! Or try the Canadian Bacon Pickle Balls.  They wrap bacon around a hot dog and a pickle, cut them in half, and then batter and deep fry and serve them on a stick.  Or maybe deep-fried Jello balls are more to your liking. That’s right, they deep fry Jello and sprinkle it with powdered sugar. Or for something really off-the-beaten path, there’s fried chicken feet. These get points for weirdness, but not from me for flavor.

Stampede pulled pork

Stampede’s pulled pork is sweet and tender.

For me, the BBQ dishes really excite my taste buds. We sample smoky brisket, sweet pulled pork, and meaty pork and giant, succulent beef ribs. All of it comes from award-winning Boss Hogs BBQ, one of several authentic BBQ stands in the park. It’s absolutely delicious and, even though I’m stuffed, I keep going back for just one more savory, smoky bite.

stampede eating ribs

Stampeders can’t stop eating those smoky ribs.

Then we head for sweets, including four big scoops of ice cream between two monster rainbow-colored rice crispy cereal bars. It’s a treat every 8-year-old dreams about.

And don’t miss out on the fried mini-donuts, a Stampede favorite. We gobble down a couple dozen freshly made, crispy-soft mini-donuts topped with chocolate and peanut butter glaze. Then some topped with bacon and maple glaze. Oh yum.

Stampede ice cream sandwich

This is an 8-year-old’s dream dessert.

While we munch at picnic tables under shady trees, the Keister Family Fiddlers, a mom and four blond and beautiful teenage sisters entertain us with lively tunes.

Stampede mini donuts

Warm mini-donuts with toppings are a Stampede favorite year after year.

On our way back through the mid-way, we encounter the Calgary Stampede Show Band, a world champion marching band that knows how to entertain. Dressed in red shirts and iconic Stampede white cowboy hats, this group of 152 musicians ages 16-21 blast out bone-shaking music that rocks the crowd.

Upscale Dining

Stampede ranahans seafood

Not all the food at Stampede is fried.

Eating at Stampede Park isn’t just about fairway food. Yes, you can certainly make a meal out of the many selections along the midway, but you can eat some truly upscale foods too. Ranahans is one of the amazing “pop up” restaurants that exist just during the 10 days of the Stampede and it’s terrific.

Stampede ranahans dining 2

This is an all-you-can-eat buffet like none other.

This is a private club located in Grandstand Stadium (where all the rodeo action, chuck wagon races, Native pony races, and dazzling nightly shows take place). Guests can dine and then watch the shows and rodeo performances high up in the bleachers at Grandstand Stadium. It’s also the only restaurant I’ve ever seen that has iron hat trees at each table for cowboy hats.

Our group has reserved a second-story outdoor patio that overlooks the fairgrounds. We’re met by waiters offering cocktails and passed appetizers.

After drinks, we start our meal with flaky biscuits and salads made of red and orange mini-beets, sprouts and Canadian bacon and creamy goat cheese. It’s a refreshing start.

Our waiter invites us to head to the all-you-can-eat food offerings—cold fish and seafood, a carvery, and a grill station.

Calgary cowboy hat racks

Tables sport racks for all those cowboy hats.

This is no ordinary buffet. Everything is high-end and delicious. The seafood station includes Cajun shrimp and grits, King crab legs, smoked salmon, and lightly-seared cold tuna served with fruit salsa. I indulge in every dish and it’s all deliciously fresh.

At the carvery, guests line up for generous portions of lamb, pork and beef sausages, chicken, ribs, short ribs, pork belly and sides like cheesy au gratin cauliflower. I opt for medium-rare slices of lamb, juicy short ribs and rich pork belly and that creamy cauliflower. By the time I’ve eaten all of that, I’m too full to belly up to the grill for cooked-to-order steaks.  That’s a treat I’ll have to reserve for my next visit.

Stempede pancakes

Every morning, there are 125 pop up restaurants in Calgary that serve free pancakes.

The next day, we head to another upscale food venue, the Clubhouse Restaurant, that overlooks the big arena. This is another high-end buffet venue and it proves the perfect lunch spot. There’s something for every palate, including salads, a wide selection of cheeses, plenty of nigiri and rolled sushi, creamy butter chicken, and medium rare roast beef a chef slices from a huge roast.

Then it’s onto the do-it-yourself dessert bar. There are several fruit cobblers and our server offers hot-mini-donuts and big scoops of ice cream. Then we head to the toppings bar and, like five-year-olds, load up on everything from M&Ms to caramel sauce for the perfect ice cream sundaes.

Stampede Clubhouse lunch

Sushi, cheeses, salads, and roast beef are all part of the Clubhouses’s lunch offerings.

It’s our last afternoon at the Stampede. We’ve eaten our fill from fancy foods to fun, mid-way fare. We’ve attended the rodeo’s bucking events and the chuck wagon and First Nations relay races. We’ve scooted behind the chutes, ogling the cowboys as they ready themselves to climb aboard raging 1,000-pound animals. We’ve shopped Western stores, cruised through huge vendor-filled buildings, checked out farm animals, and listened to marching bands and swing ensembles. We’ve watched kids and adults dance in colorful regalia during Pow Wow in Indian Village.

We’re sun-baked and giddily tired. Our group gathers for one last time in the coolness of a bar overlooking the arena in the grandstand. I sip on ice-cold frozen lemonade. Being true foodies, someone starts talking about having eaten a double bacon mac and cheese dog. Another says the Lobster Poutine was to die for. Still another talks about eating an Angry Chicken Sandwich, a breaded chicken breast, with Chipotle Aioli and Sweet & Sour sauce, layered with crunchy coleslaw on a warm, soft Brioche bun.

stampede ribs

Maybe I should have eaten just one more of those beef ribs.

Oh my! What have I missed? I’m already marking my calendar to come back to the Calgary Stampede. It’s too tasty to miss. – Story and Photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

Mark your calendars, friends: The 2018 Calgary Stampede runs July 6-15.

Want to know more about the Calgary Stampede? Read “Calgary Stampede: Canada’s Western Extravaganca.”

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Bobbie Hasselbring

RFT founder and the website’s former editor-in-chief, Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. She’s been an award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook.