For 24 glorious days each fall, the city of Dallas is enveloped by full-on State Fair mania. Founded way back in 1886, the fair now draws more than 2.5 million visitors each year. And while some people might come for the auto show and the stomach-flipping rides, the biggest draw is undoubtedly the new and increasingly more ridiculous deep-fried foods that are added each year.
The annual Big Tex Choice Awards given for "Best Taste" and "Most Creative" of the new fair foods provide a pretty solid indicator of which items are worth trying, but beyond that, it's really anyone's guess. There is no official State Fair food critic to wade through the endless permutations of turkey legs and new funnel cake variations to declare which ones are worth the tickets and which should be passed over. So who better to evaluate these delightfully low-brow culinary creations than some of the city's top chefs?
Eater convinced Danyele McPherson of Remedy, queen of housemade bologna sandwiches and fancy ice cream sundaes, and sausage and charcuterie master Oliver Sitrin of the Blind Butcher to subject themselves to a one-day fried food bonanza. Their mission: Suss out which deep-fried, bacon-topped, and/or ranch dressing-slathered creations are worth the stomach space.
According to Sitrin, the classic turkey leg is the pinnacle of fair foods, and so each item is scored on a scale from one to five turkey legs.
Without further ado, let's get fried:
WHAT IS IT?
Lobster at the State Fair? What's next, caviar? This deep-fried lobster tail from State Fair fixture Abel Gonzales — who's won numerous Big Tex Choice Awards for creations like Fried Butter — didn't win any awards, but it's quickly become a fair favorite, frequently selling out early in the day despite its lofty price of 60 tickets ($30). It's served with Champagne gravy, a side of fries, and corn salsa.
As the very first item the chefs sampled, this crispy crustacean sets a mighty high bar for the rest of the day's offerings. "You can definitely taste the Champagne in the gravy," Sitrin notes. "Even though you know it’s probably Wycliff."
"This is actually really, really good," McPherson adds. "The corn needs to go away, though. It’s unnecessary."
Both chefs conclude that Abel Gonzales's nickname of "Fried Jesus" is a well-earned one.
WHAT IS IT?
An imperial milk stout — brewed for the State Fair by Deep Ellum Brewing Company — is served in a cup rimmed with chocolate and graham cracker crumbs and topped off with a giant marshmallow.
Both chefs are big beer drinkers, but neither were sold on the chocolate and graham cracker crumb-rimmed cup that makes this libation S'mores-themed. "It’s a lot like last year’s funnel cake beer — if you scrape all the sugary stuff off the rim of the cup, it’s actually a pretty good beer," McPherson says.
"The marshmallow floating in it doesn’t actually absorb any of the beer, though, which is somewhat disappointing," Sitrin notes.
Overall, this isn't so much a S'mores beer as a beer with S'mores-flavored garnishes. A sweet marshmallow foam of some sort on top would have really carried the theme home. Nonetheless, it's a considerably better choice than the Cotton Candy beer you may see advertised elsewhere at the fair.
Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly
WHAT IS IT?
This beauty consists of cinnamon bread that's been flattened and rolled up around a filling of carrot cake replete with shredded carrots and raisins, then coated in a sweet spiced mixture of panko and graham cracker crumbs. It's drizzled with cream cheese frosting and served with caramel sauce on the side for dunking. The creator of this winner for the Big Tex Choice Award for "Best Taste," Christi Erpillo, says Pepperidge Farm's cinnamon swirl bread is the only brand that will do — and these babies are selling like proverbial hotcakes.
"This is what carrot cake has been missing all these years: being fried," McPherson declares.
Sitrin agrees, noting that not only is this one tasty, but it's also "executed and presented well." Extra props for the little carrot made of sugar that makes this fried carrot cake extremely Instagram-worthy.
Fried Flan Cake
WHAT IS IT?
The Mexican favorite known as chocoflan — a layer of classic flan baked on top of chocolate cake — gets battered and deep-fried before being topped with a mountain of whipped cream.
Oops — turns out McPherson is an avowed flan-phobic. "I hate flan," she admits, "But I don’t want to prevent us from appreciating the beauty of this."
Sitrin, on the other hand, appreciates the contrast in temperature and texture this dessert provides — cold, creamy flan surrounded by hot and crunchy fried batter. "The fryer oil seems fresh and clean," he notes, which is no small feat for a booth that's serving thousands upon thousands of fairgoers a day.
Texas Bull Horn
WHAT IS IT?
A jalapeno-cheddar beef and pork sausage is stuffed inside a hollowed-out potato tube before being sent through the deep-fryer. Tom Georgalis, a mechanical engineer who's operated the It's All Greek to Me booth inside the Tower Building food court for nearly 30 years, custom-designed a piece of equipment to cut the potatoes specifically for this item. The result is a cleanly cut cylinder that looks not unlike a marrow bone. It's served with a side of meaty chili for dipping.
Both chefs were impressed by Georgalis's feat of engineering, remarking on how neatly the sausage fit inside the potato tube.
Sitrin, who's won plenty of acclaim for the handmade sausages at his own restaurant, is complimentary of the spiced, cheese-studded sausage. He's got a couple criticisms, though: "The potato needs to be crisped up, and it has too much black pepper," he says.
McPherson concurs, adding her own advice: "Take the chili away, there’s no reason for that to be here. The sausage and potato can stand on their own."
Fried Kettle Corn
WHAT IS IT?
Kettle corn is a State Fair fixture, so it was probably only a matter of time until someone dared to chuck it in the deep-fryer. These popcorn balls are dipped in pancake batter and fried, then drizzled with salted caramel sauce.
Unfortunately, frying an already-tasty food doesn't always result in fair magic. Food that's fully encased in a thick batter has a tendency to steam on the inside while it's frying, which resulted in a somewhat... strange end result.
Always one to look on the bright side, even McPherson has a tough time with this one: "It’s wet inside, and there’s unpopped kernels that get stuck in your teeth," she says, cringing.
Sitrin can't seem to find the words appropriate for this one, and just shakes his head.
Always the diplomat, McPherson says, "The sprinkle of kosher salt on top is nice, however. I’ll give them that."
WHAT IS IT?
This oh-so-Texan sounding dish is described as "tasty ground beef seasoned with delicious Mexican spices, wrapped in an Asian dumpling and fried to perfection." It's served with sour cream and salsa for dipping.
Sitrin instantly draws a comparison to a fast food icon most are familiar with: "It’s like a Jack in the Box taco. And I don't mean that in a bad way."
McPherson nods in agreement. "The first bite all I got was fried wonton and no filling, so that could stand to be improved," she says. "But I would probably eat it again."
Both conceded the salsa served on the side could use some work, though: It tasted suspiciously like Pace.
Smoky Bacon Margarita
WHAT IS IT?
This boozy creation from Isaac Rousso nabbed the Big Tex Choice Award for Most Creative. Tragically, State Fair vendors aren't licensed to serve liquor — so this nuclear green drink is actually a wine-arita that's garnished with crumbled bacon.
"Hooray, more alcohol!"
The chefs thought the slush tasted of weirdly artificial lime and margarita mix, and the occasional bacon crumble that got slurped up through the straw wasn't exactly a pleasant experience. (Sitrin fully admits to being thoroughly biased on this one, as the chef recently created his own version of this pork-infused drink.)
They did give major props for the nicely designed graphics on the cup, however; McPherson even took it with her, so don't be surprised if you spy her sipping water out of it in the Remedy kitchen.
Fried Tailgate Party
WHAT IS IT?
This somewhat alarming-looking concoction is a mishmash of all the meats you might find at a tailgate party — baby back ribs, pulled pork, deboned chicken wings, burger patty, bacon-wrapped jalapenos, and sausage — stuffed inside biscuit dough and deep-fried. The "laces" of the football are ranch dressing, natch.
It may have just been deep-fried overload setting in by this point in the day, but the chefs seem puzzled by this one, chewing slowly and staring into the deep-fried abyss of this football-shaped oddity.
"If I was like, the most drunk ever, this would be tremendous," McPherson finally says. She can't get over the fact that it looks like a giant chicken tender, however.
Sitrin concurs, saying, "If it was 2 a.m., it'd be pretty bomb."
Both chefs agree that all the many proteins together just result in a sort of meaty mishmash, making it impossible to discern what exactly is being eaten. They deem it well-executed, though, with Sitrin pointing out that it's "seasoned well." The biscuit dough could use some work, however.
That brings our review of 2015's wacky fair foods to a close. But with five whole days remaining in this year's all-too-fleeting State Fair season, there's still plenty of time to get out there and attack your arteries with anything and everything fried — if you dare.