State Fair of Texas

Hungry Eyes: A Purely Visual Review of State Fair Food

The State Fair opens soon. Let's eat!
The State Fair opens soon. Let's eat! Kathy Tran
Every year when it's state fair time, foodies start stirring up Tweet-storms and online chatter about the insane culinary creations entered in the Big Tex Choice Awards. That's because they usually fall into one of two categories: insanely great ideas that work and abominations that permanently alter your tongue's conception of reality.

Some of the past finalists that fall into that first category include the fried PB, jelly and banana sandwich; the Texas fried Fritos pie; and the Buffalo chicken in a flapjack. Some finalists that fall in that second category include fried beer, the cotton candy taco and fried bubblegum, which should be disqualified in perpetuity because food is swallowed, not gnawed on and spat out like a wad of pink-brown tobacco.

This year we’re going to review these foods before they ever cross the boundaries of our mouths, based just on presentation. Then after Big Tex welcomes us with that tall swank “Howdy, Folks,” we'll brave the faid to try each of the foods and see if looks are deceiving.

The Armadillo
click to enlarge The Armadillo - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
The Armadillo
The State Fair of Texas

Some people might be appalled at the idea of eating an armadillo, but this is a dessert that combines some fair food staples, not the armored, placental mammal. This sandwich, which was the Winner of Best Taste - Sweet, has two armadillo-shaped cookies "made with a branding iron," stuffed with cookie butter Italian semifreddo ice cream then drizzled with cookie-butter and sugar.

There is a chance that leaning on the butter in "butter cookie" could make the whole thing a sweet misdemeanor assault on the senses but chances are good that this is one finalist I may finish.

Brisket Brittle
click to enlarge THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
The State Fair of Texas

This sounds like a food that's mostly eaten on a dare. As crazy as it sounds, a sharp piece of peanut brittle could pair well with chunks of smoky brisket. The thing that worries us here is texture. Crunchy and chewy don't always go well together and brittle and meat are almost as far as you can get on either side of the texture spectrum. Proper brisket shouldn't be too hard unless you're chowing on some char.

And it better come in one of those mini-boot glasses or we’re deducting points from the final tally.

Crispy Crazy Corn
click to enlarge Crispy Crazy Corn - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
Crispy Crazy Corn
The State Fair of Texas

Seeing a vegetable at a state fair is like spotting a Twinkie at Whole Foods. But, we look forward to dishes that have at least one plant-based food.

This entry includes fried bits of corn nuggets mixed together with pulled pork, pineapple slaw and some kind of jalapeño cream dressing. So it's basically the fair's version of a health plate until someone deep-fries kale and tofu. It sounds like a great combination of classic flavors of something and I have higher than usual expectations for this one.

Deep-Fried Halloween
click to enlarge Deep-Fried Halloween by Issac Rousso - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
Deep-Fried Halloween by Issac Rousso
The State Fair of Texas
Deep-fried candy isn't a new idea, but a fried pile of assorted Halloween candy on a pretzel sets a dangerous precedent.

For starters, deep-fried chocolate bars and peanut buttery treats are a classic combination for fair food. However, there's a risk that throwing everything on the pile could create a confusing mix that's better off left simple. This one actually had me going along until one part brought my brain to a screeching halt: candy corn. Having to endure those waxy bits of disgusting sugar snot once a year is enough. If I can order one without candy corn, I'll give it a fair shake.

Deep-Fried I-35
click to enlarge Deep-Fried I-35, Clint and Gretchen Probst - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
Deep-Fried I-35, Clint and Gretchen Probst
The State Fair of Texas

Anything that's named after a Dallas interstate that gives me physical headaches every time I drive on it doesn't sound like something I want to put in my mouth.

But, that’s not the concept. This concoction celebrates Texas road-trip staples like tasty kolaches stuffed with smoked brisket, Dr Pepper and fresh peaches. Visually, it doesn't look very inviting. But, few things are better than smoked brisket followed by a warm peach cobbler for dinner. Putting them together in one dish feels like taste-wise it could go either way.

Deep-Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls
click to enlarge Deep-Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls by Gourmet Royale - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
Deep-Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls by Gourmet Royale
The State Fair of Texas

One of the reasons I love Cajun cuisine is that the best dishes don't require deep frying. To me, deep-frying tends to ruin of the natural flavor in seafood. But, the fact that  won the Best Taste - Savory and Most Creative is promising.

So, gumbo in a fried ball form invites some skepticism. If the roux is able to maintain its richness while it's been encased in its flaky containment chamber, then this could work. Hopefully, the crab and shrimp will sauté long enough in the roux and seasonings to recreate that flavor.

Fernie's Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake
click to enlarge Fernie's Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake - THE TEXAS STATE FAIR
Fernie's Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake
The Texas State Fair
Cake doughnuts get a bad rap. They are the best kind of doughnuts.  So we're really looking forward to this item from Winter Family Concessions that takes the sweet sponginess of a cake doughnut and serves it in clumps. Then it's covered with English toffee, almonds and custard. As if that’s not enough to satisfy, crumbled panko and vanilla cookies are sprinkled on top. The whole thing is then fried and served with a cloud of mocha coffee whipped cream on top.

This sounds more like a decadent dessert made for a wedding reception than fair food. I will be severely disappointed if this one isn't as good as my brain says it will be.

Lucky Duck Dumplin'
click to enlarge Lucky Duck Dumplin’, Bert Concessions - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
Lucky Duck Dumplin’, Bert Concessions
The State Fair of Texas

There aren’t as many bacon dishes in this year's finalists as in previous years. Maybe we've moved past trying to put the meat strips on every conceivable food, but there's definitely never been a bacon-stuffed dumpling, which sounds like something humanity should've conquered by now.

This dumpling goes for something fancier than just a deep-fried strip of pig. Bert Concessions stuffs duck bacon into their dumplings along with cream cheese, corn and seasonings. Sounds like an Asian-fusion bacon torpedo except the bacon is inside it rather than wrapped around it. If the Thai chili glaze works, then this could be something special.

Pork Shots
click to enlarge Pork Shots - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
Pork Shots
The State Fair of Texas

This sounds like something one of Bill Swerski's Superfans would order for an easy laugh in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Pork shots are the only other item on the finalist's list that includes bacon. This time bacon serves as a vessel for mac and cheese. The whole thing is coated in a sweet, spicy barbecue rub because there probably isn't room for brisket in it.

Bacon with mac and cheese can be magical but more bacon than mac cheese doesn't sound right. Feels like the taste equivalent of white becoming black, up becoming down and other Stranger Things-esque nonsense. But it could work if the flavors are balanced just right.

Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake
click to enlarge Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake, Michelle Edwards - THE STATE FAIR OF TEXAS
Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake, Michelle Edwards
The State Fair of Texas
Since it is fall, running into something pumpkin-themed is inevitable. Pumpkin is a produce flavor that millennials have put on a pedestal along with avocados. It's only a matter of time when pumpkin toast becomes a thing.

Fortunately, pumpkin is a very tasty foundation for a dessert and this entry sounds promising. A Texas-shaped pumpkin cake is covered in a vanilla glaze, caramel and whipped cream. The only part that is worrisome is the "secret spice" mentioned on the fair's website. Sometimes, secret spices can overpower a sweet treat if there's too much of a good thing on it.

So if they just do the opposite of every Starbucks pumpkin-flavored item and go easy on the seasoning stuff, it could shape up to be a very tasty treat.
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.