On Sunday afternoon, the State Fair of Texas hosted the annual Big Tex Choice Awards, where a panel of judges tasted 10 new dishes — each a finalist in this year's competition — that will be served at the fair, which opens Sept. 30. This year, there were three awards: best tasting, savory; best tasting, sweet; and most creative.
We sampled all the dishes (and one drink), and we have some thoughts. Here's our ranking, from best to worst, of this year's Big Tex Choice Award finalists.
1. Fernie’s Fried Texas Sheet Cake
If you ask us, this chocolatey creation should have won best tasting in the sweet category. A chocolate brownie cake is coated in Cocoa Puffs, panko and cinnamon sugar, deep-fried and slathered in a chocolate ganache made with Dr Pepper. A dollop of whipped cream on top gives it an added dose of creaminess. The chocolate ganache was deliciously warm and gooey, as was the interior of the cake after spending a minute in the deep fryer. This was our favorite treat this year, and it comes from a vendor that's racked up years of Big Tex Choice Award nominations. Of all the dishes in this year's competition, this is the one we'd spend money to eat again.
2. Fat Smooth
This doughy, gooey creation also could have won best tasting, sweet, rather than the judges' baffling selection (more on that later). The beignet-batter cream puffs, filled with a sweet cream filling, explode on the first bite, and the warm, creamy interior mixes with the chocolate and caramel sauce on top to create an incredibly indulgent treat that will leave you pleasantly sticky.
3. Fried Froot Loops
We thought this dish was a shoe-in for most creative, but alas, the judges disagreed. These sweet pastry pockets are filled with melty marshmallow filled with Froot Loops, deep-fried and topped with glaze, powdered sugar and even more Froot Loops. It was reminiscent of a particularly gooey, indulgent Pop Tart, and it's a fun treat for anyone who loves marshmallows or desserts made with the sugary cereals we all grew up eating.
4. Tamale Doughnut
This doughnut, made with from-scratch masa and slow-cooked carnitas, was a fun savory take on the tamale. The drizzle of jalapeño salsa gave it a nice spicy, creamy boost, and it's an easy snack to eat on the go while you wander the fairgrounds.
5. Deep Fried Chicken Noodle Soup on a Stick
As counterintuitive as it seems to dip something deep-fried into a liquid, this dish was a fun take on everyone's favorite cold-weather comfort food. A lot of deep-fried creations at the fair don't really taste like the dish they're based on, but this one definitely had a chicken noodle soup flavor, and the salty broth the balls are dipped in was a nice touch.
6. Texas Fajita Fries
Here's where, for us, this year's finalists get pretty ho-hum. The breaded, deep-fried beef fajita strips don't fare well in the fryer, creating a sort of soggy breaded meat that doesn't read as juicy or flavorful as we'd like in a fajita. The toppings are gyro-esque, and the sandwich is meant to be eaten either as a sandwich or as fries, but all the fried foods (including onion and jalapeño) blend together in a big ol' deep-fried mess.
7. Pinot Noir Popcorn
For this snack, kettle corn is coated in a pinot noir wine powder and mixed with cheddary popcorn to give it a salty-sweet flavor. The pinot noir popcorn (which contains no alcohol, by the way) was sweet and inoffensive but didn't really taste like wine, and the cheddar pieces mixed in tended to confuse the flavors rather than complement each other.
8. Surf and Turf
If there's one thing we've learned from eating our way through the State Fair of Texas, it's to avoid the hoity-toity creations made with premium ingredients and stick to lowbrow fair classics. This lobster- and steak-filled potato is no exception. The small lobster chunks were dry and underwhelming, and even with a side of butter to pour on top, this dish just tasted like a ho-hum stuffed potato.
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9. Gulf Coast Fish Bowl
Here's where we disagree, fervently, with the panel judging this year's Big Tex Choice Awards. This boozy bowl of sugar was awarded best-tasting, sweet, and we couldn't disagree more. A fishbowl is filled with saccharine booze accented by blue curaçao, and while this is an alcoholic drink, it packs far more sugar than booze. The bowl is filled with candy such as Nerds and Swedish Fish, and as the candy starts to dissolve in the blue liquid, it creates an even sweeter version of a drink that's too sweet to begin with. If you're trying to get a buzz at the fair, this is not the way to do it. It was supposed to be a take on a beach drink, but it reads more as a low-ABV sugar bomb filled with kids' candy that has no place in our adult libations.
10. Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger
In a bizarre twist, the judges awarded this dish both best tasting, savory, and most creative, and it deserves neither of those accolades. People have been swapping burger buns with novelty foods since the dawn of the burger, and there's nothing creative about it. By using funnel cake as the bun for a dry burger topped with queso and bacon, this dish turns into a soggy mess of conflicting flavors. There's nothing enticing about powdered sugar mixed with queso, which is exactly what happens when powdered sugar is sprinkled on the finished product. The longer this dish sits, the more soggy and sad it gets, and while we liked the thick-cut bacon and tangy queso, those flavors are ruined by stale-tasting funnel cake that turns this burger into a weird bummer of a dish.