The 10th Big Tex Choice Awards were held inside the Tower Building at the State Fair of Texas this year. Unlike in previous years, there was a huge crowd; usually it's just the finalists, the judges, their families, and media, but the State Fair sold tickets to the public to this year's event. For a measly $100 (a portion of which was donated to the State Fair of Texas Youth Scholarship Fund), you could stand in line to taste every single one of the eight foods in the Big Tex Choice Awards finals. When you do the financial math, it's actually a deal. (Don't do the caloric math.)
Also, this year, the judging panel was super fancy. In previous years, the panel has been local journalists, radio personalities and someone representing Chevy or another large sponsor of the State Fair. This year, they went with a whole new panel, except for Donovan Lewis (who they kept around because he's the most entertaining fried food judge who has ever lived).
Daniel Vaughn (A.K.A. BBQ Snob, A.K.A. Texas Monthly's BBQ Editor, A.K.A. That Dude On The End Who Chugged His Funnel Cake Ale) was joined by Chef Tiffany Derry (A.K.A. Top Chef Alum, Hungry Investors and Bar Rescue star, and all around badass), Cynthia Smoot (local fashion blogger at OhSoCynthia and self-professed beer-disliker), Donovan Lewis (A.K.A. The Great Donovan from The Ticket's BaD Radio and Big Tex Choice Awards judging alum), and Tim Bennett (A.K.A. The Dude Who Won The Video Contest As The State Fair's Biggest Fan).
All of the judges were extremely positive reviewing each dish as they tasted it. It makes sense that they would be: everyone here has worked very hard to become a finalist in the competition, and it would be rude to bash people for their food in front of a live audience. But at the same time, it was hard to believe that every single bite of food they were eating was "THE BEST EVER!" Which is why I was so excited to stick around for the tasting of Mark Zable's entry: Sriracha Balls.
The Sriracha balls would be The Great Smiling-Bullshit-Let's-All-Be-Nice-To-All-The-Competitors Killer. They saved them for last for a reason, right?
I've attended this judging for a few years now, and I remembered that in the past, Donovan Lewis was quick to call Alan Weiss' Buffalo Chicken In A Flapjack "spicy." Which it really wasn't. It was standard buffalo wing medium hot at most. I remember Lewis' bald head sweating after a bite of it. He downed like three waters right after one bite of that thing that day. I knew that watching Lewis try to pretend that the Sriracha balls weren't spicy -- that was going to be hilarious. You could tell he was prepared for the worst right from the beginning, too: he had more water on the table than any of the other judges.
Sure enough, when the Sriracha balls came out, so did the sweat on Lewis' bald head. When asked what he thought of them, he said, "Wow. Those are HOT. Cleared out my sinuses." From the other end of the table, Derry gave him some much deserved crap. "Donovan, it's meant to be spicy -- it's called 'Sriracha.'" Now, this is the judging panel I had hoped for. Thanks for bringing them out into the glorious fried light, Mark Zable.
At the end of the 2014 judging, Fried Gulf Shrimp Boil went home with the Best Taste title, and Funnel Cake Ale received the Most Creative award. Congrats to the winners, and of course, to all the finalists. What a massive fried honor.
After the official judges judged, the attendees were allowed samples of all of the food. So, I shoved one of everything into my face. Below, you'll find my picks for the 2014 Big Tex Choice Awards:
Chicken Fried Loaded Baked Potato:Butch Benavides brings you this kickass 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 day. 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 in this competition, 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 CINAMMON 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 SNL 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 already mad at you for just 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. Clint Probst brought you Southern Style Fried Meatloaf in the past) grabs the win this year 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 wins the Most Creative award for this one, and 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. However, 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: 1) I think the Most Creative category is bullshit. It's not required to taste good, it's just required to be an interesting concept. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I think there's a huge flaw in that award, and it should be changed in the future. Do Best Sweet and Best Savory awards, or Most Portable -- I dunno. But Most Creative allows for a product to get a lot of hype without delivering good taste. And I think that's unfair to fairgoers. That said, 2) 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% 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 BLUEBELL ICE CREAM, YOU GUYS. Cheap Bastard's vote: GET THIS IN YOUR FACE NOW AND SHARE NO BITES WITH NOBODY.
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Twisted Texas Tacos: Christi Erpillo (FRIED PEACHES LADY!!!) brings you Twisted Texas Tacos this year. 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. I think it was 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 (A.K.A. bringer of the Fried Beer and my all-time favorite thing, the Fried Chocolate-Covered-Strawberry Waffle Balls) claims the title of State Fair Ball King with the addition of Fried Sriracha Balls to his menu. As he says, "I've got sweet balls, savory balls -- all the balls." And 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. ADD EXTRA COCK SAUCE. MAKE 2014 THE YEAR OF THE FRIED BALLS.
Go to the State Fair of Texas this year and enjoy a corny dog, a funnel cake and a beer. Top it off with one of these new, Big Tex Choice Finalists and a ride on the Texas Star, and you've got yourself some Pure Texas Entertainment. Happy Fried Christmas, everybody.