In the eight years I've lived in Texas, I've covered many a Texas fair — but until this year, I've never made the trip to the State Fair of Texas, despite the fact that many friends and neighbors in Southeast Texas made the five-hour drive for the fair every year. The food, of course, has always been a major draw, particularly for Texans who grew up eating Fletcher's Corny Dogs under Big Tex's watchful eye.
On opening day of this year's fair, I sat in traffic for 45 minutes before the fair opened, vying for a $15 parking spot (Lesson learned: Never drive to the fair, and Lyft and DART are your best friends). After seven years of covering the South Texas State Fair, I felt burned out on the whole fair experience — the unnecessarily over-the-top food, the unfortunate cover bands, the sweaty mass of humanity. But after just five minutes at the State Fair of Texas, I couldn't help myself: I stood beneath Big Tex, grinning like a kid in a deep-fried candy store. I felt the friendly and upbeat energy of it all, the magic of being a part of something so much bigger than myself. Despite how Dallas may feel about the fair and the endless drama over Fair Park's future, there's no denying that the State Fair of Texas is as big a part of Texas history as Willie Nelson, kolaches and the Alamo.
After greeting Big Tex, I headed for a ticket kiosk. I threw down $45 on 90 tickets, thinking that I'd bought enough tickets to get me through several visits. It wasn't until I got in line for my first fair fare that I realized how wrong I'd been. In my nine hours at the fair on opening day, I went through $105 worth of tickets, frequently feeling sad at the knowledge that, when I was young, my lower middle class family would not have been able to afford this experience.
But this is the State Fair of Texas — there's no room for introspection or fiscal responsibility. For several hours, I made my way through the fair, eating anything that piqued my interest. I ate some of this year's new foods, browsed the indoor food court and waited in line for 25 minutes for a Fletcher's Corny Dog just to get the full experience.
But throughout the day, I just couldn't shake the feeling that everything I ate was both shockingly expensive and surprisingly underwhelming. The Country Fried Oinker, an entire pulled pork sandwich breaded and deep-fried, cost 16 tickets ($8) and had a flavor profile reminiscent of a lone French fry that's been left in the deep-fryer for several days. The State Fair Cookie Fries, a winner in this year's Big Tex Awards, came in a surprisingly small and lukewarm serving, and they'd spent too long in the deep-fryer. This treat is only worth the tickets if you can be certain they came straight out of the fryer.
After seven years in Cajun country, I was excited to get a taste of home in the form of the Fried Gulf Shrimp Boil, balls of baby shrimp, red potatoes, corn and onion served with a remoulade sauce. After one bite of the 16-ticket ($8) dish, it was plainly obvious that no self-respecting coon-ass would ever waste calories on this bland ball of misfortune.
On and on the day went, one disappointing dish after the next — nearly flavorless Down Home Chicken Pot Pie Pocket with Mac 'n Cheese Dip, greasy balls of deep-fried biscuits and gravy, even chocolate-covered bacon that proved too salty and stale to enjoy, particularly for $7. The one dish that did prove enjoyable was surprising: the Deep-Fried Spaghetti and Meatball, a massive ball of spaghetti and ground beef that was well-seasoned, flavorful and fun to crack into, with a beautiful hint of crunch from the exterior.
Despite the lackluster food, a day at the fair really is a great time — the livestock buildings are great fun to peruse, the halls filled with as-seen-on-TV products are entertaining and the concept cars in the automobile buildings are curious to behold. And there was one aspect of fair food and drink that did prove worth every penny: the gorgeous beer gardens stocked with dozens of craft beers, many of them local and some brewed specifically for the fair.
The Magnolia Beer Garden really is a hidden gem at the fair — lines were short, Christmas lights twinkled in the trees and a hidden pair of portable toilets out back made it easy to break the seal. Beer prices were surprisingly pretty standard — 14 tickets ($7) for big plastic pints filled to the brim with a variety of beer styles. Community's Funnel Cake Ale, served with a powdered sugar rim, proved subtle and delightful, the powdered sugar adding a palatable dose of sweetness. Legal Draft's fair-only offering, a Pumpkin Spice Lager served with a cinnamon-sugar rim, proved equally subtle and a pleasing fall beer.
I was genuinely impressed by the selection of local, national and international craft beers at the festival, and the prices were pretty commensurate with craft beers served at major events. As the day wore on, we spent fewer tickets on food and more on beer, planning a post-fair trip to Craft & Growler across the street before catching the DART home.
We learned a valuable lesson about State Fair of Texas food: Skip the expensive over-the-top monstrosities and stick to the simple, beloved fair favorites of our youth: corn dogs, turkey legs, mass-produced cheesecake dunked in chocolate, one of those foods on a stick that always tastes better than it should. Many of these dishes were significantly less expensive than their trendy counterparts, and the turkey leg in particular was juicy, well seasoned and a serious bite of nostalgia.
As the sun began to set over Dallas — and our beer buzz had us feeling the spirit of it all — we dropped 12 tickets to ride the Texas Skyway at sunset, looking down on the bustling fair as we admired the colorful sunset framing the Dallas skyline. It was a romantic moment, my boyfriend and I hand-in-hand, looking out at the city we've grown to love so much since moving here in January. In that moment, every dollar we'd spent at the fair — from admission to parking to lackluster food and delightful beer — felt completely and utterly worth it, and when the Skyway car reached its destination, we handed over more tickets to ride it back the other way.
In the end, the hundreds of thousands of people attending the State Fair of Texas are making the pilgrimage for so many reasons, all of them deeply personal: date night, family bonding, reliving the memories of fair magic we felt as children staring up in awe at the twinkling Ferris Wheel lights. If you can afford a day at this fair — which, frankly, much of Dallas cannot — it really could make you feel proud that our fair city plays host to a month-long celebration of food, drink and unabashed fun.
The State Fair of Texas runs from now through Oct. 23.
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