Chow Down in Cowtown – Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival
Chow Down in Cowtown is an (almost) weekly account of Calgary’s most awesome eats from Ceci n’est pas un food blog.
Back when I used to write for one of my university’s papers, the arts & entertainment editors decided to stop doing concert reviews. Their argument was, since their job often involved convincing readers to see/do/listen to (or not) some form of art or entertainment, what was the point of writing about something that their readers wouldn’t get to experience?
That’s the reason why I rarely review one-time events myself, so I hope you’ll bear with me for blogging about the Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival that happened earlier today. In my defense, it is a reflection (to a certain extent) of the cooking prowess of the chefs at the restaurants and bars in Kensington, and you may even be surprised by some of the business owners in the area too! Plus, it’s an annual event, so unlike a concert, at least we know for sure it’s coming back. Judging by the amount of people who were out there, (and how hard it was to find parking!) perhaps most of you had the chance to take advantage of the nice weather and try a lot of salsas today anyway!
If you’ve never been to the Sun & Salsa Festival before, here’s how it works – for $3 you get a bag of chips (or two for $5), which in this year’s case was Old Dutch Multigrain. There aren’t even enough chips in a bag to match the number of samples that you’re going to get (this year there were 39 stations!), so it might be a good idea to get two right off the bat. Another strategy is to share your salsa samples with one other person so you don’t end up throwing it away after just a dip or two. I did see people wandering around with their own giant bags of chips (there is a Safeway right in the middle of the festival, after all,) but the proceeds for the chip sales go to the LEAD Foundation, so though these people may have had a “good” idea, it wasn’t the “right” one.
Chips in hand, you then weave through the crowds while grooving to the music from the different musicians posted along the street and try to spot the salsa stations amongst all the various vendors at the fair (it’s not that hard because that’s where all the lines are.) Before long, you’ll fancy yourself a salsa tasting expert, or at least able to discern the differences between the different salsas, and I’m not just talking about “from a bottle” (which some vendors actually served!) versus “homemade”.
Because of the different blends of vegetables and spices (most had the usual tomato, onion, cilantro base, but then some added garlic, some were a little heavy-handed on cilantro, some had corn, cucumber, beans), each salsa was a unique mix of sweet, savoury, sour and spicy. I was a little bummed that only a few competitors went the spicy route – I didn’t realize that Calgarians were so averse to spice! (Or perceived to be, anyway) Of course, I wasn’t asking for something that made my mouth burn, just a little kick. An early favourite for me was the Foo King hot relish, which was spicy without me having the urge to call the fire department, with a thick texture that stuck well to the chip to boot!
Oolong Tea House‘s Black Dragon Salsa had a smoky depth to it thanks to the addition of smoked black tea (in a mild salsa that also had sour cream, giving it a pretty salmon colour), but unfortunately it lacked the kick that I was looking for.
Some real competition came just before the 10th Street Bridge from Pita Pit, Julio’s Barrio, and Sable Developments. The Pita Pit’s salsa was very chunky and looked like a pile of onion in my little sampling cup, but the flavours of the different vegetables had managed to meld together and it tasted like tomato and cilantro. Julio’s Barrio’s salsa was pleasing to the eye with its finely chopped tomatoes and cilantro, and they did a good job balancing the veg with some lime juice and spice. Sable Developments’ salsa was a pleasant surprise, as most of the non-food businesses just served salsa from a bottle and used the festival as an opportunity to sell some condos or trips to Europe. For some reason they had a bottle of hot sauce on the table, so I was a little weary at first, but then discovered that their salsa was loaded with extras like corn and beans.
At this point, I was unsure of who I would vote for as my favourite, but we still hadn’t gone down Kensington Road. The Yardhouse had two muscular bartenders in baby tees serving up their green salsa, which I originally hoped was guacamole, but the green turned out to be garlic, giving their salsa that depth and distinctive garlic taste with a bit of heat (which proved to be too much for some of my friends!) Muse‘s cucumber and corn salsa (with jalapeno and habanero extract?) definitely stuck out because the cucumber actually added a cool freshness that offset the spiciness of the peppers in the salsa.
At the end of the day, my favourite salsa was Maurya’s mango salsa, which was a little surprising because it wasn’t that “ultimate” salsa that I had envisioned in my head—not too sweet, but not too salty, tons of cilantro, a spicy kick, some smoky undertones and a thick, chunky texture—but I fell for the mango salsa so hard I was picking at it even when I ran out of chips! When it came time for voting though, it turned out that Maurya wasn’t even registered for the salsa tasting contest! They were just offering up some freebies while their “real” task was to sell veggie pakoras and mango lassis, among other Indian fare. So I ended up voting for Muse. (“The flavours are plenty at #20!”)
An honourable mention must go out to Delicious Thai for trying to push Thai Green Curry as a salsa. While it was a delicious coconut milk-based curry that tasted of lemongrass and Thai basil, it was served warm, had no chunks and was far too watery to be a salsa. It did make me want to go try their food one day, so perhaps that’s the only point they needed to get across.
Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival
Held annually in mid-July along 10 St NW and Kensington Rd (This year it was on July 19, 2009 from 11 am – 5 pm; the salsa tasting contest ended at 3 pm)
Show up early to taste more salsas and if possible, take transit, walk or bike as finding parking will be a near-impossible and stressful endeavour!