By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Since he's won so many times, I figured Gonzales' competition must hate him. "Not to my face, but there's a lot of whispering. I'm kidding. We all get along. The competition makes us all better. It's been so great for all the vendors," he said. "Before the Big Tex Choice Awards, corn dogs and Jack's fries is all it was. This competition has inspired us all, kicked us into top gear. A lot of the people outside the competition see it as me versus them. It's fried food. C'mon. Don't suck the fun out of it."
Last year, after Gonzales' fried butter hit newsstands, butter queen Paula Deen of Food Network fame made a point to mention that she had that recipe on her show before his butter balls showed up at the fair. Gonzales counters, "I never said I was the inventor of fried butter. I give her all the credit, man. I didn't know it was out there. I had no idea. I thought of it on my own, then I started getting on the Internet to make sure somebody else hadn't done it and Paula came up. But then I read her recipe and that's nothing like what I'm doing."
This year, Gonzales went less freak show, more chocolate roller coaster with his finalist entry of fried chocolate: Take a white chocolate mini candy bar and a cherry, stuff into a brownie, dip that into chocolate cake batter, deep fry, then top with powdered sugar, cherry sauce and chocolate whipped cream. And he just calls that "Fried Chocolate." I'm thinking the name mighta been an undersell, dude. Although fried chocolate was the best thing I tasted all Labor Day, and judge Maki said it was, "fantastic," Gonzales didn't win an award for it. But does this dude really need another bobble-head? Would he have screamed like a little girl if he'd won? No way.
Ya know who did? Nick Bert's crew. When fried Frito pie was announced as the winner for Best Taste, Bert went up to accept the trophy along with his giddy-like-a-schoolgirl friend (and the inventor of fried Frito pie), Michael Thomas.
Bert's the one with access to the fair (through his family-run restaurant at the fairgrounds, Bert's Burgers), but it was his friend, Thomas, who came up with the idea to fry Frito pie. Bert's a Dallas County Deputy Sheriff. Like a lot of concessionaires, he uses his three weeks of vacation time to work the fair. In 1919, his grandfather, Sammie Bert, started a concession stand at the fair selling snow cones. In fact, it was his grandfather who, after having spent seasons hand-shaving the ice for his snow cones, invented the motorized snow-cone machine.
Fried Frito pie is just what it sounds like: Texas chili and sharp cheddar encased in Fritos, battered, fried and served with a dollop of sour cream. It's that classic Frito pie, made conveniently portable and considerably less messy. Like the Ferris Wheel, fried Frito pie delivers exactly what you expect of it: just straightforward fun, no freaky surprises. When Donovan Lewis tasted fried Frito pie, his eyes widened and he said, "Oh, that's reeeally good. I love Frito pie, so I might be a little biased, but that's gooood."
Bert's not the only one with friends feeding him ideas for the new fried foods. Tami Stiffler's gotten so many ideas thrown at her by her friends in the past few years that she now keeps a file of them in a drawer. "We had fried beer in the file, guess it's time to take that one out," she said. Instead of going the fried beer route, this year Tami made it to the finals with her fried lemonade. Unlike Zable's ravioli filled with liquid, Tami's fried lemonade is more like a fried lemonade-flavored cake ball. They throw three of those suckers into the bottom of a cup, then douse them in about three inches of super-lemony glaze. It's more lemon cake than lemonade. Kind of like a lemonade version of Gonzales' fried Coke. It's good. But neither will get you hammered.
Luckily, that's where the deep-fried conquistadors also known as the Levy brothers come in. According to Jake Levy, coming up with the idea to fry a frozen margarita was easy. It was the execution that was the hard part. "We thought of it last year, but we couldn't figure out how to pull it off," says Jake Levy, whose father started Desperados restaurant in 1976, and who, along with his brother, Michael, has operated a concession stand at the fair for the last nine years.
"We were like, Desperados has an award-winning margarita. We should fry that up. We tried a million different batters and different stuff: Margarita jelly, but that didn't freeze and fry well. We tried margarita ice creams but they lost the flavor. We finally added our margarita to the batter and deep fried that. Now we've got it figured out."
They start with funnel cake batter, add the margarita and fry it up. They throw that in a cup, cover it in more frozen margarita, then whipped cream, powdered sugar, and you eat it with a spoon. If you're looking for the most fried buzz for your buck, this is where it's at. I had a shot glass-sized sample and it was great. It was kinda weird that somebody threw their cake in my tequila shot, but I guess it got me buzzed enough that I didn't care. As Lewis put it, "Couple of these and I'll be ready for the night. I'm about to take my shirt off and dance on the table."