In 2016, I went to the State Fair of Texas for the first time. I didn't grow up in Texas, and I moved to Dallas early last year. On my first visit to the fair on opening day, it was impossible not to feel the sweet excitement of families around me enjoying their annual pilgrimage. I looked up at Big Tex, towering over smiling, mustard-smeared fairgoers, and felt a few happy tears well up in my eyes. I get it now, I thought to myself.
And then I started eating. Visit after visit, I tried all the hot new foods I could find, along with long-running stand-bys, even intentionally waiting in line under Big Tex for a Fletcher's corny dog despite knowing that there are shorter lines at other Fletcher's booths. I wanted the full experience.
And I sure got it when, at the end of the day, I tallied up how much I'd spent that day. Between food, beer and a sunset ride on the Texas SkyWay, I'd spent nearly $150 just on myself. I couldn't fight the gnawing feeling in my gut: Had I grown up within visiting-distance of the fair, my family wouldn't have been able to afford even a laid-back day at the fair. The $18 admission, the $14 snacks, the rides, the Midway — even taking advantage of specials on certain days would have tapped my lower-middle-class family out. It was a heavy realization learning that the State Fair of Texas is not, in fact, for everyone.
On top of that, I found myself feeling disappointed by a lot of the food. After years of hearing about the deep-fried decadence of State Fair of Texas food, I tried my damndest to find the best-tasting of these caloric monstrosities. But I never found the best. Deep-fried chicken soup, deep-fried clam chowder, deep-fried beer — it all just tasted, well, fried. I spent nearly $100 looking for my favorite foods, only to find that the best edible moments happened when I ate the fair food of my youth, the kind of fare you can find at any fair in the country. Cheese curds, turkey legs, funnel cake. Classics.
One day, while strapping on my sensible shoes for another trip to the fair, I had an idea: What if I just don't eat? What if I eat a big meal before I leave and just ... drink? Last week, a friend and I met and went beer bar to beer bar, stopping for Rahr IPAs at the Magnolia Beer Garden and sipping Small Brewpub's Black Pepper Pils at the Wine Garden. And then, ignoring the long rows of food vendors, we spent hours wandering the As Seen on TV sales floor, the greenhouse, the livestock. We window shopped and watched kids stumble happily off rides. We caught a cooking class from Dude, Sweet Chocolate's Katherine Clapner and browsed all the fascinating exhibits we always miss while standing around stuffing our faces.
And it was my best fair visit ever. What I learned that day has become my new fair mantra: The State Fair of Texas is the best bar in town, and in the interest of not outspending my budget every fall, that's how I'm going to use it.
Let me get this part out of the way: Getting incoherently drunk at the fair is dumb, senseless and a waste of your money. Why? Aside from the obvious, the best part of the fair is all the things to see and experience. If you can't remember any of it, what's the point?
On my last visit, I made a rule: I'm spending $45 (90 tickets), and that's it. And it was my best fair visit yet.
Craft beers at the fair clock in, generally, at 14 to 16 tickets ($7 to $8), which, while not cheap, is at least moderately reasonable. On top of that, all the craft beer I drank was brewed regionally, giving a boost to the local beer producers that have become such a big part of North Texas dining and nightlife.
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If you're drinking cheap beer, you fare even better. While a number of sellers are hocking 12-ticket Bud Lite, the Beer Barn (conveniently adjacent to the best music stage, the one featuring cajun, Zydeco and Tejano bands almost every day) sells cheap beer for six tickets each — a State Fair steal if ever there was one.
The best part of the fair isn't the food or the rides or even the beer — it's all the fascinating things you can bear witness to, from livestock shows to history exhibits to inscrutable butter sculptures. It's riding in a fake combine in an agricultural simulator and browsing entire buildings' worth of folksy crafts and spending hours in a room full of fancy chickens you didn't know existed. And all of that is exponentially more fun with a beer in hand. If you can't afford food, rides, Midway games and beer, too, why not pare each visit down to the basics? For me, the food has never proved worth the expense — but the beer always has.
For many people, the fair is about tradition — you've got those must-see, must-do, must-eat things that make your fair visit worth the money, and that's totally cool. I'd rather spent money on a few beers and end the day by grabbing a bite to eat across the street at Las Almas Rotas or any of the Expo Park businesses that lose money during the fair.
But for me, it's simpler than that: The State Fair of Texas is the best bar in town.