Alberta is known for its AAA beef and the Canadian Rockies was a place that specialized in exotic wild game meats. So I thought I would be eating high off the hog, er, cow, buffalo, elk … .
I ended up with more attitude than wild game on my trip.
Canada has a law — not that the law seemed to be terribly enforced — that you can't order a medium-rare burger. You can't get a medium burger or a medium-well burger. You can get a burger cooked beyond recognition, all the way to 71° C or 160° F — well-done. Well-done as in the temperature, not a judgment about the taste.
Back in eastern Canada, I ran into that occasional problem, but since it was hit and miss, I didn't put much stock. In Alberta, at least anecdotally, I found virtually all hits.
Yes, if you end up with bad cow, and the burger isn't cooked well enough, you can end up with problems. American beef, okay; Canadian beef, maybe; Alberta beef, really?; Buffalo and elk, hey wait a minute. Getting a cow burger well-done, while a crime against nature, is somewhat viable. Cooking buffalo and presumably elk to a well-done temperature produces a tasteless sandwich. If anything, a restaurant should tell customers (as I have seen in the States) that they will not cook a buffalo burger past medium.
What surprised me more than the rigidness of the policy was the patronizing attitude that I was the idiot for wanting a burger cooked to a desired temperature. Several servers and hostesses were all smiles about how they had to serve it that way. I felt a Stepford Wives vibe in the way and words when the policy was explained. After all, in Eastern Canada, when I have run into a place that enforced the law, I got sympathy. They wouldn't change the policy, but I felt like they were on my side.
The establishment in Lake Louise produced the most unsatisfying experience I have ever had in a restaurant. I was desperately hungry and they grew really hostile pretty quickly. A place in Banff was less than sympathetic with the smug waitress extolling that “I have never had a medium-rare burger in my life.” Not my fault that you don't know how to live.
Restaurants can cook a steak to a desired temperature, but at tourist prices, this required paying at least double for less meat.
I did find in further research that the law wasn't so concrete. At a steakhouse in Edmonton, the staff told me that of the two burgers on the menu, the regular burger had to be cooked to well-done while the Kobe burger could be cooked to temperature.
The difference? If the restaurant could vouch for the meat, they could cook it to a desired temperature. If not, well-done was the only option.
In the Lake Louise establishment, the waitress asked if I wanted to talk to the chef to explain how the meat would be cooked and still be good. I gladly accepted the offer. The manager berated me later, telling me how the chef couldn't just come out from the kitchen to talk to me. I calmly explained that I hadn't made the request, how the waitress volunteered the chef. In my rudest possible moment on the planet Earth, I have never voluntarily asked a chef to come talk to me.
In an establishment in Banff, the hostess offered to bring the chef out. I told her emphatically that I did not want to talk to the chef, having had trouble with the previous encounter.
Talking to a chef sounded like a great idea so someone could explain to me how overcooking bison or elk produced a product that someone would want to eat. I left the province without finding that out.
I determined that hell is being in a place known for its beef, but not being able to get beef the way you wanted it.
I did have a decent buffalo steak in Banff, even if I did overpay for it. The elk just didn't work out in the schedule. I did have a good steak in Edmonton, though I'm not sure I could have told the difference between Alberta AAA beef and other beef that I have had.
None of these restaurants had any explanation on any of this policy on the menus. Sitting down in a restaurant and then having to leave is very unsettling, especially to the customer. And this happened a few times.
Another place in Banff offered a burger with Alberta AAA beef, venison, buffalo, and elk — sounded like heaven. When they told me it had to be cooked well-done, I politely walked out.
From a tourism standpoint, you have a food product that you taut as wonderful, but the catch is that you have to order it in the most expensive format to truly enjoy the food product. What a disaster!
I try desperately when I travel to not be the ugly American. But I felt ugly based on the way I was treated in several establishments in the province. To be fair, the bad attitude and service came in the tourist areas, but this was still a black eye.
Even in larger cities such as Calgary and Edmonton, where I got a better response to the question, I still wondered about a restaurant that couldn't trust its meat.
In the United States, you know a place such as Applebee's wouldn't trust its meat within a 10-foot pole. You know this before you even walk in, and this is one of the reasons why I wouldn't eat there. I have been in many American restaurants where a medium-rare burger wasn't an issue. Do they trust their meat more than Canadian restaurants?
Overcooking beef, bison, and elk is not about safety or taste or customer satisfaction; this is only about lawsuits and blame. If the carcinogens in a overcooked burger give you cancer over time, you're out of luck.
In the spirit of the late David Shaw in his quest for a rare burger in the United States, I would have gladly signed a waiver. That wasn't an option.
I can't speak to how Canadian bison and elk are processed, much less how Canadian beef is processed. I honestly thought Canadian food was safer than American food. This Canadian law makes me think the complete opposite, even if my head knows this isn't true.
It's a crime to make a medium-rare burger in Canada. But it should be a crime anywhere to overcook exotic wild game such as bison or elk. Until Canada can straighten this policy out, I'll either get the steak or look elsewhere on the menu. Or better yet, let me move to Canada so I can buy the meat myself, go home, and cook it anyway I want. Because at home, the customer is always right.
Tomorrow, we'll take you on an adventure about how I finally did find a medium-rare elk burger in a restaurant. And I didn't have to travel almost 2,000 miles to find one.