The Cheap Bastard's Guide to the 2014 State Fair of Texas
We sent Alice, our resident State Fair of Texas expert, to sample the eight finalists at this year's Big Tex Choice Awards. Well, actually, that's a lie. We didn't send her. She was going no matter what. In fact, God help the poor soul who stands between Alice and a pile of battered, fried, greasy weirdness, particularly if it's ball-shaped. Not that we're making any judgments. She did, though, and here they are:
Before we begin, let's sum up the basic rules of eating things at the State Fair for those of you too damn lazy to read all these words. They are:
• If it's a ball, eat it. • If it's on a stick, eat it. • If it's fried, eat it. • If it's all of the above, praise the Fried Lord, you've found a fried heaven three-fer, SHUT UP AND EAT IT. • Anyone who says the following words at any time during the fairgoing gets punched in the tit: calories, Paleo, CrossFit, expensive, cardiologist.
Want more details? Keep reading ...
Photos by Catherine Downes
Chicken-Fried Loaded Baked Potato: Butch Benavides brings you this kick-ass item. (You remember him from Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll and Fried Cactus.) He has the best hair at this event, and this item was my second favorite of the Big Tex Choice Awards ceremony this summer. It wins my vote for Most Portable. It's essentially a fried twice-baked potato, served with ranch dip instead of just ranch dressing. The dip will be nice if you're walking and eating -- gotta prevent spillage. Cheap Bastard's vote: YES BUY.
Deep-Fried Breakfast For Dinner: Brought to you by Tom Grace and Edna Sutton. They appear to be newbies, and I'm excited for some new blood. But this wasn't the best entry of the group. I found it to be really heavy (which isn't shocking, considering it is a tortilla stuffed with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, potatoes, ham, onion, cheese AND CINNAMON ROLL BITS. THEN, THEY FRY IT. Oh, and then it's served with queso, salsa and cream gravy. Because obviously it is). I know complaining about something being "heavy" in a fried-food competition is a dick move, but I'm a dick. Cheap Bastard's vote: If you're stoned, this thing is perfect. It's the Saturday Night Live Taco Town sketch come to life.
Deep-Fried Bluebonnet: Isaac Rousso (Fried Salsa, Fried Cuban Roll, Fried Pop Tart man) brings you what sounds like a Matt McCallister invention. Alas, it's not actual bluebonnets foraged from White Rock Lake -- it's a blueberry muffin stuffed with cream cheese, blueberries and white chocolate. THEN, THEY FRY IT. Then they top it with whipping cream, more blueberries and more white chocolate, a blueberry glaze and powdered sugar. Your dentist is mad at you just for reading that. And it's just as sweet as it sounds. Mine felt a little under-done in the middle. Cheap Bastard's vote: Get Isaac's Fried Cuban or Fried Pop Tart instead.
Fried Gulf Shrimp Boil: Clint Probst (brother of Survivor's Jeff Probst, just kidding, that's not true, but wouldn't it be awesome -- wait I'm the only person who still watches that show -- but still, can you imagine a fried challenge on Survivor? They'd be like, starving, and then Probst would be like, "Your challenge is to run eight miles and then eat a pound of fried cookie dough! To the death!!" OK, I'm done) is known for his Southern Style Fried Meatloaf. This year, he won for Best Taste. I thought the shrimp ball was good. The sauce was nice, too. And it's probably something they can serve up quickly, so their line will move fast at the fair. Cheap Bastard's vote: Try it out, and imagine Jeff Probst feeding it to you.
Funnel Cake Ale: Justin Martinez won the Most Creative award for this one, and he partnered with Community Beer to create it. In the past, Martinez has brought you Deep Fried Thanksgiving and Fried Bubblegum. Dude is smart with naming his entries and has good concepts. But this one was not my favorite and here's the easiest way to explain it: After one sip, Judge Cynthia Smoot said, "I'm not a real beer person, but I liked this a lot!" Turns out, I'm a real beer person. I like beer to taste like beer, and funnel cake to taste like funnel cake. I need clear separation of beer and foods. This is probably why I also wasn't a fan of fried beer. Cheap Bastard's vote: If you like sweet beer, you might enjoy this funnel cake-and-beer combo. It's rimmed with powdered sugar, so know ahead of time: This bev is 100 percent sweet-forward.
Fried Sweet Texas: This item also comes from Justin Martinez, and it was a food carnival in my mouth. Which is exactly what you want from the fair. It's pecan pie, peach cobbler and buttermilk pie, AND THEN YOU FRY IT. AND THEN YOU SERVE IT WITH BLUE BELL ICE CREAM, YOU GUYS. Cheap Bastard's vote: GET THIS IN YOUR FACE NOW AND SHARE BITES WITH NOBODY.
Twisted Texas Tacos: These are from Christi Erpillo (FRIED PEACHES LADY!). The taco itself is not fried, but it's filled with fried okra and fried brisket and cheese and peppers, and it's served with "a new tasty blend of creamy country gravy and spicy Texas chili." I was not a fan of this item. Too many ideas at once. And the combination of cream gravy and chili tasted like a post-Whataburger burp. But this is the 10th year of this competition, and Erpillo has brought so much to it over the years. Her Fried Peaches are one of my favorite things at the fair. This taco just isn't what I'm looking for when I want a crazy fair item. Cheap Bastard's vote: Skip the taco. Get in line early and get Erpillo's Fried Peaches, then proceed to love life.
Fried Sriracha Balls: Mark Zable (aka bringer of the Fried Beer and my all-time favorite thing, the Fried Chocolate-Covered-Strawberry Waffle Balls on a Stick) claimed the title of State Fair Ball King with the addition of Fried Sriracha Balls to his menu. If you have any balls, you'll try these Fried Sriracha balls. They're a fun dare food this year, and they're an enjoyable bite. The balls are filled with chicken, corn, green chiles, tomatoes and the aforementioned cock sauce. I was excited these balls included actual filling aside from breading. And I think as a foil to the Chocolate-Covered-Strawberry Waffle Balls, they're perfect. I think this should have won for Most Creative, but I'm a self-professed ball lover. Cheap Bastard's vote: GET THIS. MAKE 2014 THE YEAR OF THE FRIED BALLS.
"How much are all these fried suckers?" you ask. They're not cheap. Deep Fried Breakfast for Dinner will cost you 18 coupons, which, if you do the math (50 cents per ticket times 18), is technically at the fucking expensive level. Fried Gulf Shrimp Boil is a steal at 17 coupons. And that Funnel Cake Ale? Only 14 coupons! I hope that beer comes with a side of fried carny blow jay for that price. (Ask for powdered sugar.)
But look at it this way: If they were cheaper, you'd be able to afford to eat more of them, and you physically cannot afford to eat more of them. Nobody wants to see you all passed out in a fried coma on the Midway with your head in the Guess My Weight guy's lap again.
Golden Gamble Really want to roll the fried-food dice? Try one of these new fair foods that weren't finalists in the Big Tex Choice Awards.
The Fair received 52 entries for the Big Tex Choice Awards this year, and only eight were finalists. But some of the semi-finalists who didn't make the cut still get to serve their items at the fair. I wasn't able to taste any of these items ahead of time, so they're riskier. But you're ballsy. You're super mega-fried ballsy. Get some of these inside you.
Texas Biscuit Fries with a Side of Chocolate Gravy: Buttermilk biscuit dough FRIED, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a bowl of chocolate gravy. Cheap Bastard's vote: The words "chocolate" + "gravy" make this one sound super risky. I just don't know how that equation ends. It's either "equals amazing" or "equals projectile-chocolate-gravy-and-decades-off-your-life vomit." If you're in your 20s and have no kids or real responsibilities, go for it.
Fried Polynesian Luau on a Stick: Chicken, pineapple, red pepper, onion kebab, battered and FRIED. Cheap Bastard's vote: I say this hits all the important fun fair food marks: It's fried, it's on a stick and it sounds like a horrible idea. "How bad can it be?" Let's find out.
Apricot Chamoy Empanada: Apricot empanadas, y'all. Cheap Bastard's vote: I'm sure they're fine, but you're at the best fried fair in the country: Nut up and take a risk on something weirder. Ordering an apricot empanada at this fair is like playing a kiddie game on the midway -- sure, you can and it will be enjoyable. But afterward, expect me to find you and deliver you a swift kick in the junk parts.
Deep-Fried Apple Dumpling: Baked apple stuffed with caramel and cinnamon. Wrapped in pastry and FRIED. Cheap Bastard's vote: (See: Apricot Empanada)
Fried Chocolate Maple Bacon Amazeballs: Chocolate cake + bacon. Rolled into balls and FRIED. And dusted with powdered sugar, chocolate syrup, maple syrup and MORE BACON. Cheap Bastard's vote: You had me at "amazeballs." And then, again, at "bacon."
Hot Soul Cake: OK. This one's weird. Fried chicken and cream cheese shoved into a vanilla cupcake. Then dip the cupcake in waffle batter and #FRYIT. Then dust with powdered sugar and a cream cheese glaze. Cheap Bastard's vote: This sounds like Willy Wonka's first attempt at that gum Violet Beauregarde ate that turned her into a blueberry. If this were created by Butch or Abel or Christi or Zable, I'd be more likely to try it. I'm gonna get Chocolate Covered Strawberry Waffle Balls instead.
Deep-Fried BBQ Fried Rice: Fried rice that is then FRIED. DOUBLE FRIED MOMENT. Fried rice, plus brisket and smoked sausage, battered, plus panko bread crumbs, then fried. Served with Sriracha. Cheap Bastard's vote: This is the same booth that made the fried chicken skin. My experience with that was not great. You guys try it and tell me it's amazing.
Deep-Fried Philly Cheesesteak: Beef steak, sautéed onions and cheese, wrapped in an egg noodle crust and FRIED. Cheap Bastard's vote: You like cheesesteaks? Get a fried one. I'm sticking with the Deep Fried Cuban.
Deep-Fried Sweet Potato P'ice Cream: Handmade ice cream infused with sweet potato pie, which is why it's "P'ice cream." Then FRIED. Cheap Bastard's vote: I read this as pee ice cream. I don't think that's what they're going for.
Fry Dog: Cheese-filled hot dog, dipped in batter, then covered in French fries and FRIED. Obviously, it's on a stick. Cheap Bastard's vote: You have the option to add a side of chili. You also have the option to run 30 miles after you eat this to burn off half the calories in it.
Deep-Fried Stuffed Gorditas: Gordita with beef fajita and beans, then FRIED and topped with slaw and avocado cream sauce. Cheap Bastard's vote: I like a gordita. A fried one has promise. This will come down to how many tickets it goes for, and how many funnel cakes I will have eaten by the time I make it to their booth.
Texas Redneck Nachos: Fried pork rinds topped with brisket, queso, bacon and a "Texas Secret Sauce." Cheap Bastard's vote: Sounds like no real rednecks were harmed in the creation of this dish. Which means I'll pass.
Deep-Fried Milk: Whole milk, half and half and heavy cream are blended with sugar to make a creamy custard. Dipped in egg wash, Japanese bread crumbs and fried. Served with powdered sugar and chocolate or strawberry sauce. Cheap Bastard's vote: The idea of the milk sweats is enough to make me pass on this forever.
Deep-Fried Sweet Tea: It's sweet tea + custard, graham cracker crust, FRIED, then topped with sweet tea syrup. Cheap Bastard's vote: The official State Fair press materials on this say that this is "the official way to put some South in your mouth." I'm 100 percent sure that a guy invited me to do that in college.
Deep-Fried Smoked Brisket: OK, this one is from Abel Gonzales, a nine-time finalist in the Big Tex Choice Awards (See interview on Page 11). Twelve-hour smoked brisket is sliced, then FRIED with a buttermilk egg wash and panko. Served with a fried smokehouse onion ring, barbecue sauce and pickle slices. Order spicy or regular. Cheap Bastard's vote: Whatever Fried Jesus is serving up, I'm trying. I'm a little nervous about the panko. Maybe we can get some local BBQ gods to partner with Abel on this for next year.
Hot Fried Opinion The Most Creative category in the Big Tex Choice Awards is fried bullshit. Let's fix it.
The Big Tex Choice Awards competition gives two awards: Best Taste and Most Creative. After attending this competition regularly for the past few years, I think it is clear that there is a flaw in the awards system: The winner of the Best Taste category is always a creative idea, but the winner of the Most Creative category isn't always in the top three most delicious items of the finalists.
The Most Creative winners of the last five years: 2010 -- Fried Beer 2011 -- Fried Bubblegum 2012 -- Deep Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll 2013 -- Fried Thanksgiving Dinner 2014 -- Funnel Cake Ale
Fairgoers base many of their purchases of new items on these awards. They're always going to try the winners. Ask any concessionaire who's won one of these awards, and they'll tell you the difference that winning makes for their sales in a year. As soon as awards are announced, headlines include those two winners, and every other finalist is a Page 2 mention. It's misleading not to point fairgoers in the direction of the two best new items you're offering up.
I told Karissa Schuler, spokeswoman for the State Fair of Texas, that they should change the categories.
"There is no plan at this time to change the awards," she told me. "I am of course more than happy to bring up your suggestion to the team. ... I look at it as a chance to try something outside of my comfort zone, like I would when I travel. I do have to say, this year's Most Creative is quite tasty."
If it's not clear, I'm obsessed with this competition. I love what it does for the State Fair of Texas, and I love how it challenges concessionaires to do something new every year. I think this year's competition was the best yet. The panel of judges was more food-expert-heavy than it has been in the past, and, as always, the concessionaires seemed to be having a blast. But after 10 years of competition, it's time to take a look at what qualities determine a winning dish.
When the competition started, a Most Creative category made a lot of sense. It pushed people to think out of their corny-dogs box. But we now live in a world in which Fried Butter and Fried Salad are a reality. I think every single entry in the competition could win a Most Creative award these days.
I hope Schuler does take my suggestion "to the team," and I hope that team wears matching deep-fried jerseys, and I hope in the future this competition evolves. Maybe one year they go with Best Sweet and Best Savory awards. Maybe the next year it's Most Portable and Best Use of Powdered Sugar. Maybe you just change it to one winner for Best Taste and call it a day. Whatever the categories are, it's essential that the winners are the best items at the competition that day. When fairgoers are paying $9 per fried fantasy, you'd better make sure those things are afriedfuckinmazing.
lAbel Gonzales and Butch Benavides, from their 2012 wins.
Fried Jesus Speaks to Me After nine years in the finals, Fried Jesus was snubbed. What happened?
If The State Fair of Texas is Fried Christmas, Abel Gonzales is its Fried Jesus. The first year of the Big Tex Choice Awards, he won with Fried Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich. The second year, he won with Fried Coke. Third year: Fried Cookie Dough was his winner. The fifth year he competed, he won with Fried Butter. And the eighth year, he won with Fried Jambalaya. He has been a finalist in the Big Tex Choice Awards for nine years in a row. This year was the 10th year of the Big Tex Choice Awards, and when the list of finalists was announced, there was something very different about it: Many of our beloved fried competitors had returned as finalists once again, but Fried Jesus was nowhere to be found. And what is Fried Christmas without Fried Jesus?
I had to ask Gonzales what the dang deal was. Did Fried Jesus run out of ideas? Did the State Fair shut him out because he already had too many damn Big Tex bobble-heads? Did his submissions just have bad names, like Fried Depression and Whale Dick on a Stick? Oooh, (and I'm whispering this part to you like a secret now, because it's fucked up) did Fried Jesus light Big Tex on fire, and then everyone found out, and then they were forced to disqualify him from the competition for life and afterlife? The truth must be revealed. Behold: Fried Jesus speaks to me.
So, I saw that you didn't make the finalists list this year, which is crazy. But they do list that you have one of the new items that will be featured at the fair for 2014: fried brisket. Can you tell me about that (while I punch a wall to reduce the pain in my brain that resulted when you told me fried brisket wasn't a finalist)? I was on one of those list sites, like, "10 People We Have Started to Hate in 2014," "The 10 Best 'You Are Not the Father' Dances on Maury," etc., and they had this "10 Best Foods from Texas" list with the awesome pic of smoked brisket. Done! How do I deep-fry all that and take it to the fair? I ended up dredging it, much like a chicken-fried steak, but using some barbecue ingredients instead of just salt and pepper. It worked -- or so I thought.
I know that competitors are allowed to submit two entries every year. Did you have another attempt? I made a game-time decision (like hours before we turned in paperwork) to NOT submit another entry. It was a fruit thing and I really hadn't worked on it much. It was more of an idea than a working item, so I left it off. I might explore it further next year. Or maybe not.
If I'm remembering correctly, this is the first year since the competition began that you weren't in the finals, right? Nine straight years! Maybe this fry game is a young man's game and it's passed me up. Or maybe I just sucked this year. It was one or the other, for sure.
How do you feel about the process of choosing finalists? I'd be a real horse's ass to complain at this point about the process, since it seems to have worked just fine for me the last nine years. I don't really know who does the primary judging. And this whole thing was never meant to be Top Chef. I think the fair does its best to make sure the best food makes it to the contest. And I've been on the other side doing the judging, and I know it's just somebody's opinion. It's not the gospel. (Alice note: FRIED JESUS JUST ALLUDED TO A FRIED GOSPEL; LET'S FIND IT.) There is always next year! I, like everyone else, look forward to trying all the new stuff myself.
I watched Deep Fry Masters this season, and you were a judge. There were also a ton of Texas State Fair vendors featured as contestants, which was really fun to see. I was like, "Holy shit, Abel is on TV! And that's Butch Benavides' hair! And Fried Pop Tart Man! And Fried Peaches Lady!" It was like my favorite fried sports team was playing every week. Is the show renewed for another season? Will you be on it? That was a lot of fun to do! We did three episodes as a sort of a test and they did pretty well, so they ordered another four. They are going to do a reboot in mid-September. I hope more people watch so we get a full season. I watch too much TV, so it was kinda cool to be on the other side.
Did judging your past competitors on that show cause any friction? Any friction the show might have caused was already there before the cameras started rolling. In all this time I've been at the fair, I've learned to accept that some people are just not going to like you no matter what. Who has time for them? There are a lot of politics at the fair and the key to me is to remember that we are there to make people happy. We are a part of the biggest show in Dallas. So lighten up, have a beer, eat something fried, pet an animal and come find me if you find something good to eat -- I'll want to try that.
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