It is a truth universally acknowledged that each year the State Fair of Texas features remarkably over-the-top foods as the best of the new options. Some genius food vendor finds a way to deep fry something that has never been deep fried before and probably shouldn’t be deep fried to begin with, and we all stand dozens deep in a line to marvel and enjoy it.
But not this year.
This time around, the finalists in the Big Tex Choice Awards are pretty civilized. Some sound downright fancy. When one of the finalists is a loaded pizza slice with fries, it’s tough to say the Fair has grown up, at least for this year, but overall there’s a lot less stunty food and a lot more dignified food.
And yes, it is stunning that the Fruity Pebble Pickle didn’t make the finalists; here’s what did.
Deep Fried Cheesy Crab Tater Bites
This savory finalist from Isaac Rousso, who has deep-fried everything from salsa to cannoli, weighs in with a highly anticipated bite. Bite into crab meat, crawfish, shredded potato, a cheese-heavy Cajun sauce made using the trinity, and then topped with crawfish sauce. Love an East Texas and Louisiana moment at the Fair.
Bourbon Banana Caramel Sopapillas
Another fancy dish — this take on a Spanish treat from Cody and Lauren Hays plays it safe (and delicious) by topping sopapillas with vanilla and caramel-infused bananas, a sweet bourbon syrup, candied pecans that are crushed, sweetened mascarpone cheese, crumbled Nilla Wafers, and fair dust (aka powdered sugar).
Deep Fried Pho
Another intriguing dish — this take on pho by Michelle Le rolls it up into a wrap and dips it into a deep fryer. It contains noodles, sliced beef, bean sprouts, and a simmered pho broth and comes served with sides of pho broth for dipping, hoisin sauce, and sriracha. It is at the top of the must-try list.
Cheesecake fanatics (is that a thing?) will surely be delighted by this dish, designed by Stephen El Gidi. And it is over the top, despite its rather demure appearance. A slice of New York-style cheesecake coated is in Belgian chocolate and then covered with crushed Biscoff cookies. The whole thing is drizzled with Lotus Biscoff spread and topped with a cookie.
Loaded Fries Pizza
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a pizza and fries — hardly an earth-shaking concept. Tom Grace did one ingenious thing: placing the ranch dressing for dipping that this bite requires onto the pizza crust where marinara would typically go. Otherwise, it’s pretty obvious: cheese on bacon on cheese on fries on pizza. That’s it. That’s the whole dish.
Fernie’s Fried Cherry Pie in the Sky
Just a classic entry: cherry pie with a shortbread crust gets a spin in the deep fryer and is served with a side of Blue Bell vanilla topped with cherry preserves and sugared dark sweet cherries — plus whipped cream. Again, this will be yummy, but the creativity leaves something to be desired.
Hello, captain obvious. Abel Gonzales lands on the finalists’ list by deep frying turkey ribs. The most controversial thing happening here is that it comes with a side of giblet gravy, which is not a universally loved part of Thanksgiving — and that is the holiday this dish hopes to evoke. For the haters, order it Texas-style instead, with barbecue sauce fries, jalapenos, and pickles.
As exciting as it is to see fresh fruit on a Fair dish, it will be interesting to see if this finalist hits. There’s a waffle, a wafer, caramel dulce de leche, and sweetened condensed milk. Somewhere in between is an array of thinly sliced fresh fruit and coconut.
OX’cellent Soul Roll
This dish is second on the must-try list. From Kerston and Shawn Thorns, it’s filled with simmered beef oxtails, potatoes, smoked gouda, mozzarella, celery, bell peppers, onions, and what makes all Fair food great: butter. That all gets put into a spring roll, deep-fried, and served with garlic chili sauce and hush puppies. This is the Fair phenomenon worth searching out.
There’s always a refreshing drink in the sweet finalists, it’s always delicious, and it’s never the winner. This year’s entry comes from Ruth Hauntz, and it combines lemonade, various fresh fruits, and cucumber and is served in a souvenir cowboy boot cup. Given how hot it’s been this year, this sounds perfect.
The State Fair of Texas opens on Friday, September 29 and will run through Sunday, October 22, 2023.