I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to understand a culture is to understand what they eat for fourth meal — you know, the meal you eat after dinner and before breakfast. Our walls come down after a few joints or beers. That’s when we revert back to what we love. LA has tacos. New York has pizza. Chicago has the ever-elusive Tamale Guy. Fourth meal is a window into the heartbeat of a city.
So when I found myself taking an eating trip through the Canadian province of Alberta, I figured I couldn’t leave without finding the local fourth meal. Only then could I really get what the place is about.
It was so much easier said than done.
Act I: Despair
I start my culinary journey through Alberta in Calgary, which you know from either the hockey team or the Bon Iver song. For the most part, there isn’t a lot of talk about the food and drink scene here. Now, having spent a few days eating and drinking there, I’m shocked by that.
I’m at Cold Garden Beverage Company when the idea to hunt down fourth meal first comes to me. This brewery has been swimming in awards (especially impressive since they brew on what is essentially a big home-brew setup), so I figure the dudes behind it are the right ones to point me towards Calgarian stoney snacks.
The beer at Cold Garden is excellent. The recommendations for fourth meal, not so much. They mention Without Papers Pizza, but it closes around 10 p.m. most days. A good suggestion, but not quite what I mean. I want to see Calgarians with their walls down — I want to see them grubbing the way I see people grubbing outside a taco truck at home in LA.
Tacos, I figure, aren’t the worst idea to track down if I’m trying to get the skinny on local fourth meal. I find my way to Native Tongues Taqueria, where a Mexico City chef is slinging Mexico City-quality tacos. However, after talking to a few locals, my taco trail is put on hold; taco trucks really aren’t a thing in Calgary. I ask the staff what people eat when they’re drunk or stoned, but once again I don’t get much of an answer.
The bartender tells me that Two Penny is a great place to get sauced while you eat, so I figure I might as well suss out the lead. The place is a gorgeously decorated barstaurant with a menu packed full of Chinese small plates and creative cocktails. Over some BBQ pork buns, I chat with the Two Penny bartender about what people eat for fourth meal in Alberta. She’s got nothing for me — it seems like most kitchens close around midnight.
I spend the next few days eating and drinking my way through Calgary to no avail. I work my way through Anju (a Korean small plates bar), Charbar (an Argentinian-style all day restaurant), and Calcutta Cricket Club (a stunningly designed Indian spot serving specialties from West Bengal), but I still can’t get anything. While there are a multitude of great places to drink and eat, nothing seems to be open too late. Local breweries High Line and The Dandy serve me delicious beer, but offer no help.
It’s easy to eat and drink very, very well in Calgary. Just not in the right order.
Intermission: False Hope
As I leave Calgary with a heavy heart, I turn my hope towards Edmonton. Surely, I think, my next and final stop on the Alberta eating tour will lead me to fourth meal.
As I drive north towards Edmonton, I pass a spot that makes my heart lurch with hope. Peters’ Drive-In, an old school spot for burgers and shakes, looks like exactly the type of thing my stoney bones ached for.
There are only two Peters’ locations. This one is off the highway in the middle of nowhere, and the other is back outside of Calgary. Both close at 10pm. The hunt is not over.
Act II: Rumors
My first meal in Edmonton just so happens to be the best one I’ve eaten in a long time. RGE RD is such a phenomenal restaurant that my fourth meal quest momentarily escapes me. Why even bother with fourth meal when third meal is so amazing?
That doesn’t last long. I head over to Clementine for a nightcap and for the billionth time, I’m blown away by the seriousness of Alberta’s eating and drinking scene. The place is gorgeous. The cocktails are no joke either, and yep, they’ve got small plates. I ask the bartender for deets on the fourth meal situation, and for the first time, I get a lead.
“You mean like donair?” the bartender asks. I stare back at her, not really sure if she is pronouncing “doner” — as in doner kebab— with some weird Canadian accent, or if “donair” is actually a different food. Something about the whole interaction sounds incorrect, so I shelve the lead for the time being.
It’s the next morning, and I’m at Little Brick, which may just be the cutest goddamn breakfast spot I’ve ever been to in my life. To say the place is homey would be an understatement; it’s literally inside of a house. It’s bursting with locals and as I harf down an excellent eggs Benedict, I ask about fourth meal. Almost in unison, a group of three people say, “Oh, you mean green onion cake.”
GREEN ONION CAKE. I have never heard such beautiful words.
What the locals describe to me sounds not much different than a scallion pancake that you might find in a Chinese restaurant. It takes me all of four seconds to realize what a wonderful treat it must be when you’re stoned.
Unfortunately, these fine people don’t really have an answer for me as to specifically where to get one. They assure me I’ll pass a cart selling green onion cake at some point. Full of hope, I take their word for it. I spend the rest of the day with eyes peeled for any sign of the mysterious treat. Some of the artists behind local institutions Concrete Cat and Oliver Apt. confirm the existence of green onion cake, but once again can’t quite point me in a specific direction.
A few days pass. I eat wonderful food and drink wonderful beer at Biera, where my server mentions green onion cake might be more of a “festival food”. This is confirmed at Bündok, another powerhouse Edmonton restaurant. While I haven’t gotten my hands on a green onion cake, this trip has not been for naught — the food and drink scene in Edmonton is absolutely unbelievable. I truly have no idea why the place isn’t being talked about more often.
The chef at Bündok has another important piece of intel for me, though. True, green onion cake is a festival food… but there happens to be a festival going on this weekend.
As a lover of folk music (and a lover of the very forgiving Canadian exchange rate), I grab a wristband to Edmonton Folk Fest immediately. It’s my last night in Edmonton. This is my Hail Mary.
It’s green onion cake or bust.
Act III: Redemption
There’s a lot to say about Edmonton Folk Fest. I can tell you how chill the vibe is, or how good the music is, or how friendly the people are (Canada, eh). But the only thing that truly matters, is that you can buy green onion cake at it.
It’s a festival, so duh, I’m under the influence. And when my stoney eyes see the green onion cake tent, it’s more than I can handle. This is it. My fourth meal holy grail quest has reached its climax.
Edmonton has it figured out — green onion cake is delicious. It’s different than your standard Chinese scallion pancake; it’s less oily and easier to hold. Much more conducive to eating with your hands. The tent at Folk Fest selling the cakes has a variety of sauces, too (plum sauce, Chinese vinegar, and sambal oelek) — a hallmark of a good fourth meal.
Maybe it’s the beautiful green hill that Folk Fest sits on, or maybe it’s the music, or maybe it’s just the sweetness of finally finding the damn thing, but all I can think about is just how perfect green onion cake is.
As I walk back to the Matrix Hotel, head full of music and belly full of food, I’m hit with the realization of a slight technicality. My quest was to find fourth meal, and though I found what Edmontonions eat for fourth meal, I didn’t actually eat it as a fourth meal. Whatever, I think to myself. Close enough.
I’m only three blocks from my hotel when I see it; a horde of drunk and stoned Edmontonions spilling out of a brightly-lit little spot.
Donair, the sign says.
Needless to say, I rush in and order one — and I’m hit with a wave of accomplishment. I’m several joints and several beers deep. It’s after midnight. The donair itself is a monstrosity; a mess of gyro meat covered in some sort of sugary mayo sauce. Truly gross. But no matter. The deed is done.
Finally, I’m eating fourth meal in Canada.
Post-Credits Scene: What it all Means
I think, in the end, I was struck less by the lack of fourth meal in Canada than I was by the lack of concern about fourth meal in Canada. Every time I was shrugged off, it was because nobody really was too worried about it.
If fourth meal speaks volumes of a culture, then maybe the lack of fourth meal speaks just as many volumes. Maybe as an American we’re trained to “let it all out” when we’re drunk or stoned; we cater heavily to these needs. Maybe since Canada isn’t even concerned about it, that’s all the information we need right there. Maybe Canadians live deliberately when they’re sober and awake, not waiting until the dark of the night to bring it all out.
Maybe they’ve got it more figured out than we do.