TORONTO — On a brisk spring morning in Toronto — the kind where perspiration is the purview of the shockingly overdressed and runners — I learned the true meaning of meat sweats.
This lesson, I should note, was part of a larger experiment. I had been dispatched to BMO Field to try each new menu offering for the nascent Toronto FC season. The season opener takes place this Friday, Mar. 31, when they host Sporting Kansas City at 7:30 pm ET (FS1 and Fox Deportes in US, TSN in Canada).
This was, to put it nicely, a lot of food: 10 items, each of which had been designed to go with beer. On average, during my hour at the stadium I was warned about the importance of pacing myself in the face of this culinary onslaught once every six minutes.
But this undertaking had a deeper purpose, or so I told myself before the food coma set in. If you want to understand MLS culture — and especially soccer culture in Toronto — you’d do well to pay attention to the food on offer. The team’s food exists somewhere between North American stadium staples like hot dogs and traditional British soccer snacks like meat pies. That of, course, does not tell you what any of the dishes taste like. Let’s rectify that problem, shall we?
Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich
The first entry does what it says on the box. It is a crispy chicken sandwich with buffalo sauce and a bleu cheese dressing that is mercifully devoid of much bleu cheese flavor. Toronto FC fans tend to douse their food in hot sauce, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment culinary director Chriz Zielinski explained. So much of this menu is designed to cut straight to the chase and be spicy from kick-off.
“Think of it like a wine tasting,” one of my dining companions advised me. To that end, I jotted down some notes in the style of a wine connoisseur: “faint dill undertones with enough spice to overwhelm the sadness of last year’s Cup results.”
Black Bean and Salsa Burger
“We’ve had a lot of requests for vegetarian items, so we’ve added a few this year,” Zielinski said. The black bean burger is one of those options, and a reasonably tasty one at that. It has, I am told, “southwest flavors.” Having never been to the southwest, I can only tell you that the salsa is pleasant.
“If you have vegetarian items on your menu,” BMO Field chef de cuisine Chris Cleary said, “you want people who eat meat to enjoy them.”
Italian Dipped Beef
The subject of carnivores comes up again while tasting the dipped beef sandwich, which comes with homemade giardiniera.
“Do you get people asking for a lettuce bun?” One of my fellow diners asked the chefs.
“Not here,” Zielinski replied. “They just want more meat.”
Substitutions, however, are available. One diner asks for the sandwich without mustard. This is a puzzling decision insofar as the condiment adds a nice tang to combat the sandwich’s richness, but the request was accommodated nonetheless.
Hot and Sticky Chicken
“A lot of our fans always want to eat with one hand,” Zielinski explained. This, naturally, is to free the other one for beer and whatnot. As such, the hot and sticky chicken arrives in a paper bag with a miniature utensil for picking up the fried chicken nuggets. As you would expect, the nuggets are hot and sticky with a smoky undertone that goes unexplained. Nobody ate the julienned scallion garnish.
“I think the bag really gives it a street food feel,” Cleary said. He expects that fans will see people carrying them around and want ones of their own.
Roast Beef and Cheddar Poutine
This one, Cleary told me, is “kind of a play on Sunday dinner.” For a brief moment I worried that it was going to taste like chicken cutlets with mushrooms and discussions of why I’m failing math class, but then it became clear that he was, instead, describing British Sunday dinners.
“This is one of the dishes that work really well when it’s cold out,” Cleary said. That, in case you were wondering, is conclusive proof that Toronto FC learned a lot from hosting the MLS Cup final last year.
Dare I mention that at this point we were only halfway through the menu?
Pork Belly Banh Mi
Last year, Toronto FC served a beef banh mi. The club, I’m told, has a long and proud history of serving the Vietnamese sandwich. Cleary and Zielinski pointed out that other stadiums are just now catching on to the banh mi trend, whereas they’ve been doing it for years.
That expertise does show in the pickled vegetables on the sandwich that mercifully cut through the fat of the pork belly. They are so effective that I briefly considered asking for a jar of pickles that I might use to mitigate the impact of this tasting on my fat belly.
Chickpea and Tahini Wrap
This is the second item for vegetarians and served as a merciful respite between pork belly-larded items. I will simply note that the chickpeas were remarkably crispy and the turnip pickle — like most things in life — couldn’t compare to the banh mi’s carrot pickle. This wrap, however, was one of the few dishes not to fill me with a profound self-loathing.
“We’ve spread this out throughout the stadium,” Cleary said. In practice, you can walk to other sections for food, but he is aware that rarely happens. This approach to vegetarian fare, then, ensures you can get it “no matter where you’re sitting.”
Apparently the goal with this one was to do more than the basic “fries plus curd plus sauce equals poutine” approach to tater-based dishes. Mission accomplished. The Peruvian pepper aioli proved refreshing enough to momentarily distract from the fact that I had just consumed my eighth course in 20-something minutes.
The pretzel arrives in the same kind of box used to deliver pizza to a family of four. This allows for the diner to briefly believe that it’ll be a delicate item in an oversized package when, in fact, is bigger than the average human’s head. It is, however, a nice and warm pretzel served with cheese and tomato-based sauces. I took a bite and considered how this was supposed to be the first week of a diet. Oops?
When I arrived at BMO field, I was told the tasting would proceed from the heaviest item to the lightest, which definitely explains how the occasion ended with a trip to a porchetta bar. There was a whole roast pig being disassembled, dripped in juices, garnished with arugula and truffle aioli, and placed in a bun. Such a bar used to only exist on the stadium’s east side, but will henceforth also have a presence on the west stand as well.
Toronto FC icon Steven Caldwell somehow managed to eat the porchetta sandwich while preserving his dignity. Unlike me, he did not emit profuse meat sweats that suggest an alternate meaning for our third course, dipped beef. Nothing dripped on his crisp suit. What a pro.
The sandwich, however, is tasty, and denizens of the western stand will surely rejoice at its arrival. Good for them. Meanwhile, I left to take an extended nap and considered what it might be like to contract gout.
For everyone else, enjoy responsibly at the season opener.