Chef Tiffany Derry of Roots Southern Table is no stranger to eating at the Texas State Fair. In 2021, she was one of the judges of the Big Tex Choice Awards. But she couldn’t join them this year because she was busy serving as a judge on Bobby Flay’s newest Food Network show, Triple Chef Throwdown. Still, she’s the ideal person to eat your way through the fair with, someone who has not missed a fair while she’s lived in Dallas and her favorite thing to do is to walk around and eat. She always gets a funnel cake with strawberries and cream, a turkey leg with lots of yellow mustard, and catfish from Floyd’s.
Derry came with Eater Dallas to taste test the new fair foods that were semi-finalists in the Big Tex Choice Awards. It is known to be a deep-fried festival of wonders, where vendors do their best to try and top themselves each year and creativity — and sometimes even absurdity — is king.
“If it’s not fried, if it’s not smothered and covered, if it’s not full of flavor, then it just doesn’t feel very much like the Texas State Fair,” Derry says, and she quickly demonstrates that she can hang with even the most down and dirty fried fair foods. She breaks down what’s good, great, and ho-hum from the new offerings so you know where to spend your tickets and what you can safely skip.
Chicharron Explosion Nachos by Glen and Sherri Kusak
This Texas-sized dish (we could barely hold it with two hands) is meat to be eaten by a group of up to four. Made with chicharrones (pork rinds) as the hearty base, it is a salty explosion of queso with pico de gallo added, chopped barbecue, and fajita meat. “This is pretty awesome,” Derry says. “You need to come with an appetite though. It is a little salty, which you get with chicharrones. It’s crunchy and it holds up to everything that’s on here. I’m holding back from eating more.”
Deep-Fried BLT by Tom Grace
When we arrive at the stand to try this dish, an animated conversation breaks out between Derry, who is a huge fan of the BLT, and Grace over how to best eat this dish — always a tough call with fried food at the fair, where all you get are plastic utensils. He advises just picking it up with your hands, like a sandwich. Derry picks it up and mayo squirts out of both ends — but for Derry, if your sandwich drips, that’s a good thing. It comes with chips covered in parmesan, which look as, if not more, appealing than the BLT.
“This tortilla concoction [that makes the sandwich bread] is holding in the bacon and the cheese and it’s fried,” Derry explains. “Then the mayo, lettuce, and tomato are inside. I’m gonna take another bite.”
To note: she had to hold herself back from finishing the whole sandwich on the spot and pronounced it immediately as her favorite dish.
Deep-Fried Lasagna Roll by the Parish Family
The Parishes greet Derry like an old friend at their booth; they know each other from years of working at the fair. And Derry can’t say enough nice things about their deep-fried gumbo, which won both best savory and most creative at last year’s Big Tex Choice Awards. And Derry isn’t so sure this year’s idea can top that. “Oh, it’s soft!” Derry exclaims after her plastic fork unexpectedly slides right in to the lasagna roll. “I was expecting a little more crunch.” As she pulls away a string of melted mozzarella cheese, she tells us, “It’s everything you want in lasagna. And every time I see cheese, I’m excited.”
Derry’s main criticism is that the dish could use a touch more spice. Her pro-tip: dip it in the marinara that comes on the side and eat it with your hands.
Holy Biscuit by Isaac Rousso
Rousso proclaims the Holy Biscuit to be a religious experience shortly after we arrive to his booth. And it may well be, loaded as it is with shredded brisket, corn queso, bacon, and Texas honey. It’s as big as Derry’s face, almost more than a pair of hands can hold, and fall-apart messy to eat — which is almost always a good thing at the fair. It comes with pickle fries (that’s pickles that have been deep fried).
After the first bite, Derry says, “Right now I’m just thanking God for all his goodness and mercy. The biscuit is so flaky, by itself it’s an amazing biscuit. There’s gonna be spillage when you eat this and you’ve gotta be okay with that. Why are you even at the fair if you’re afraid to get your clothes messed up?” Touche.
Cha-Cha Chata by the Garza Family
This ice cream soda took the Most Creative prize at the awards this year and we quickly learned it’s both bigger than it looks in photos and even sweeter than we imagined. “The look of this is gorgeous,” Derry says. “I think it’s going to be the dish at the fair that everyone will stop you and ask, ‘What is that?’ I love all the toppings, the fried balls, cookies, and caramel de leche. When you get to the bottom, you want to sip everything down to the cha cha chatta. It’s a great ending dish to your day at the fair.”
Deep-Fried Rocky Road with Blue Bell Ice Cream by Cody and Lauren Hays
The Hayses decided not to play around and make maybe the most intense sweet treat at the fair. They walked us through building this dish, which starts with deep-fried rocky road fudge, loaded down with walnuts and marshmallows and served with a side of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. After toppings descended upon the dish — more mini marshmallows, candied pecans, chocolate drizzle, and “fair dust” (powdered sugar) — we felt somewhat intimidated about taking a bite. Cody Hays advises that you’re meant to mix the hot and cold, so the ideal bite has ice cream in it.
“This dish was almost too sweet for me,” Derry says. “[But] it’s done well and some people will be mind-blown by it.”
La Bluebonnet by Milton Whitley
This blueberry and citrus drink was the sleeper hit of the afternoon. It’s sweet but tart and effervescent with bubbles, and inspired by the state flower of Texas. And it came at the perfect point to be a palette cleanser in our tour of foods. “It’s not too sweet or tart, and I like that I can still taste blueberries,” Derry says. “There are plenty in here to eat along the way, too. It feels a little like boba tea, when you have something to drink and chew at the same time. It reminds me of a nonalcoholic drink, or a spritzer, with the bubbles.”
Skip the usual lemonade, Derry suggests, and make your way to the food hall for a drink that’s in a “league of its own.”
Fried Charcuterie Board by Tami Nevins-Mayes and Josey Mayes
We were all curious to try this year’s Best Taste, Savory winner because, even from the description, it’s a hard bite to imagine. Using a wonton wrapper, the Mayeses deep fry fresh mozzarella, salami, and crisp green apples tossed in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Italian herbs then top it with goat cheese and hot honey. It’s far from the usual fair food.
“This would be amazing in a wine bar,” Derry says. She’s right, of course; getting yourself a batch and walking over to the wine tent is a great idea. “It’s a delicate bite. This isn’t my favorite of all, but it feels like it’s almost on to something and isn’t quite there. It also needs more filling — more of everything. This is a dish that’s laborious to make, and they have to stuff every last one of these themselves, which is tough.”
Derry recommends ordering a couple and giving it a try but know you’re getting into a dish that isn’t the usual fair deal.
Peanut Butter Paradise by Chris Easter and Nicole Sternes
This year’s Best Taste, Sweet winner was also a surprise hit for Derry. Combining a deep-fried honey bun injected with caramel and peanut butter, plus M&Ms and fair dust to top it, sounds like a mouthful. But it was surprisingly easy eating. “Okay, I get it,” Derry says after one big forkful from the center. “It’s like bread pudding texture. It’s not heavy and has that liquidy, custard feel. It’s good, y’all. If you didn’t pick this to win the sweet taste test, I don’t know what you picked.”
Everyone had to physically stop themselves from eating this dish. Take the plunge and get one. And you’ll want your own, because it’s too delicious to share.
Ultimate Brookie Monster by the Reaves Brothers
If you don’t know the brookie already, it’s a cookie and brownie mash-up. The Reaves took that idea and added Oreos and marshmallows to the center, which get surrounded by a brownie and cookie batter and baked. Then it’s battered and fried, and served with ice cream, bits of cheesecake, strawberry compote, and fair dust. In a nutshell: it’s a lot. “The density is good and the crunch is nice. It’s good to have the strawberries on this, they made it a little lighter,” Derry says. “When you have something this heavy, you need some relief. It also has the appropriate amount of ice cream to the brownie, which is important. The cheesecake gives it some tang, so you don’t get straight sweetness.”
Thankfully, it’s a more balanced dessert than the description might lead you to believe and less messy to eat than you’d imagine.
The Texas State Fair will be at Fair Park from September 30 to October 23. All the foods listed above will be available every day. Pick up a Visitor’s Guide, which includes a food map that lays out the vendor locations for each of the finalists or check out the food finder map online before you go.