OK, so you gotta have a corn dog. And you'd kick yourself if you didn't try one of this year's fried novelties.
But the big event offers more than a line up of stick foods and wild creations. In amongst monotonous stalls selling Fletcher's dogs, bagged cotton candy and grease-crusted Snickers bars, there are those known for more credible fare.
With the exception of our number one choice (and number seven, but that doesn't really count), none of these would stand restaurant scrutiny. Of course, that's not what you visit Big Tex for, is it? Still, if you have a few coupons left after treating yourself to the fair food necessities, there are plenty of better-than-expected dishes to be found.
Here are the top ten.
10. Catfish Floyd's 2-piece basket
At least two Midway locations
You're weighing the decision: corn dogs or fried catfish. Then it hits you--not only is the lowly bottom dweller a true Southern dish, but you're also debating between fluffy farm raised fish and heavily processed, nitrate laden pig scraps. Yes, the 2-piece catch at Catfish Floyd's costs twice as much (16 coupons) as a corn dog. But you get two--and a clear conscience.
9. Grilled gator and/or gumbo
Just south of Big Tex
First of all, it's not fried. It will take you half a day of wandering to find another non-fried item. Indeed, fried gator at the same stall costs a little more (17 coupons to 14 for the grilled). Second, and more important, this is the state fair--which means its a time for experimentation, a time to try new things. How many corn dogs have you eaten in your lifetime? How much gator? That's reason enough.
8. Fried green beans
Just north of Big Tex
This portion satisfies both our impulse to chow down on crispy dough and our countervailing desire to eat healthy. By appealing to yin as well as yang, this particular dish stands as one of the fair's most sensible offerings. Besides, you can use it to lure the kids away from fried butter and back into the food pyramid. At least for a couple of minutes.
7. The Amsterdam Bar
Across the street on Exposition Avenue
Yeah, it's not technically part of the fair. But you just have to put up with a little more exercise--i.e., crossing a street. Don't want to? Fine--spend 9 or 10 coupons for a Bud Light. Serious beer drinkers will be on Exposition, sipping Chimay (all three label colors), Duvel, Dogfish Head or even Paulaner's Salvator--for real cash at about the same price.
6. Peanut butter cup macaroons
In the midway
At only 8 coupons--less than a Bud Light and the same as one of those ubiquitous corn dogs--you can experience culinary creativity at its finest. OK at its finest if you discount fried butter, fried peaches, etc. What makes this one so special? Well, you love the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, right? Same with chocolate and coconut. And beignets? Yep. Peanut butter cup macaroons are all of the above in one, deep fried and dusted with sugar.
5. Pork chop on a stick
Can't vouch for the chops at every stall, but the place we visited grilled them on a rack so black and gritty you pick up mingled smells and flavors decades in the making. This results in pork scorched black, slick on the palate, hefty in character--and on a stick if feels like something fit for a celebration...in an unusual, 'I shouldn't really be seen eating this' kind of way. Only 12 coupons.
4. Empanadas from Taste of Cuba
Near the midway
OK, so they're not the best empanadas you'll ever try: wishful seasoning, bready dough and spicy green water in lieu of sauce. But they're not the worst, either. In fact, you can find more disappointing empanadas from real, authentic street vendors in South and Central America, if you're (un)lucky enough. Maybe Cuba, too--wouldn't know. And at 7 coupons, they easily beat corn dogs in the deal department.
3. Chocolate-covered strawberry waffle balls
North of Big Tex
Forgot how much these cost in coupon terms. Don't really care. Waffle balls simply represent innovation in its most flattering form--all the elements complement each other--and fair-style creativity without stooping to the fried butter or fried Coke level.
2. Belgian waffles
North of Big Tex
From the same booth as the waffle balls--and again we'll say the fair is about exploration. Corn dogs are boring by that measure. Belgian waffles, on the other hand, can hardly be called ordinary when eaten on a hot Texas afternoon, even when covered in artificial whipped cream. The booth reeks of griddled dough: rich, malty, and stinging, especially when burnt remnants are scraped away from the dimpled cast iron. It smells like a bit of Europe in the middle of North Texas, for only 12 coupons.
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1. Catfish tacos
Desperados Mexican Restaurant booth, north side of Cotton Bowl
Just 9 coupons--one more than a corn dog--and we would happily order them in a real restaurant. The Desperados folks fill a soft shell with deep fried catfish, crusted a rich reddish hue and quite pronounced in flavor, as well as colorful slaw and a subtle chipotle sauce. Squeeze a little fresh (well, it has been sitting out awhile) lime over the top then expect to pause and look for a bench. You'll want to sit and enjoy this taco. Who cares about the fair.