Bring a pair of people who are serious about food to the State Fair of Texas and what you’re going to get are evaluations that are a lot deeper than the average person’s take on deep-fried bites. That’s exactly why we asked Graham Elliot and Felipe Armenta of Far Out Hospitality Group in Fort Worth — the guys behind Le Margot and F1 Smokehouse, with numerous new restaurants on the way — to join Eater Dallas at the fairgrounds to evaluate Big Tex Choice Award winners (and flops) for 2024.
The two picked this as their favorite savory food of the day — no surprise for the hands-down Big Tex Choice Awards in the Best Taste — Savory category.
“I think the idea of taking something like pho, that a lot of people don’t even know how to pronounce, but making it accessible by offering it deep fried is indicative of the State Fair’s vibe,” Elliot says. “It’s almost the gateway drug for people to be exposed to Vietnamese cuisine and really enjoy it — and hopefully get into the real stuff.”
“It’s unique and packs a lot of flavor,” Armenta says of the deep-fried pho. “It makes sense because it’s a hand-held food you can eat walking around.”
As for creator Michelle Le’s father’s pho — the inspiration for the fried version — Elliot says, “I thought that broth was incredible,” comparing it to a consomme that comes with the fried version for dipping, and is so transparent you could read through it.
The duo met Ruth Hauntz, the 89-year-old reigning queen of the fair, and Elliot says he could spend all day listening to her stories.
“Refreshing!” Armenta declares her entry, a berry lemonade. “I like that it's not too sweet.”
“I think the fact that they had cucumber and mint in there — that alone is awesome. Throwing in the cherries and different berries is great. If this were carbonated somehow, it would be that much more refreshing,” Elliot says. “That bubbly effervescence when it’s 140 degrees would kick it up.”
Bourbon Banana Caramel Sopapillas
“I think this is amazing. My favorite is the story behind [the dish] and how it captures the experience of the State Fair of Texas,” Elliot says of the Big Tex Choice Award winner for Most Creative. “The sopapilla with Mexican influence, the foster from New Orleans and Louisiana, that’s so cool.”
Armenta’s face lit up with delight when he took the first bite of this dish. “It reminded me of childhood,” Armenta says. “It’s breakfast and brunch-y on steroids. And the tiny dehydrated mascarpone was a great touch.”
The creator of Big Tex Choice Awards Best Taste — Sweet winner, Stephen El Gidi, has an Instagram-worthy product on his hands, so he built an Instagram wall in his booth.
“Another winner,” Armenta declares. “It’s so simple but so great with textures and flavors that are well-balanced.”
Elliot agrees. “With state fairs, you can get really silly,” he says. “Obviously the Biscoff won, but when we looked at his full menu, we were asking each other what we’d get. Every single one was something we’d like to try.”
Loaded Fries Pizza
“I feel like this is true fat boy food,” Elliot says. “Like you’re sitting on a couch at 2 a.m., maybe you’ve been smoking, and you’re watching Netflix and turn to your friend and say, ‘Dude, you know what I could eat right now? Pizza. I want ranch too. What about bacon? And dude, fries.’ This is something that someone created that’s indulgent. Even the dough was great, the crust was perfect.”
Armenta adds: “It’s the best of both worlds: potato skins meets pizza. Ooey-gooey, crispy, and savory.”
“Light, refreshing, and not over the top sweet,” Armenta says.
“Great ingredients, and the fact that they’re bringing the wafers in from Bogota? I’ve never had that before. I thought it might get chewy, but it gives that crunch and dissolves. The acidity in the fruit is...” Elliot trails off with a mesmerized shake of his head. “It's sweet, but not indulgent.”
“It’s a great palette cleanser after eating a bunch of fair food,” Armenta says.
The guys picked this as their favorite sweet bite and suggested it was good enough to be on a chef’s tasting menu.
Fernie’s Fried Cherry Pie in the Sky
Fernie’s Funnel Cakes is now run by her daughters, Christi Erpillo and Johanna McKee, and it was only fair funnel cakes stand for decades. “One, it’s got an amazing name,” Elliot says with a laugh. “Two, it’s got the Americana pulling on your heartstrings. Anything cherry pie and the ladies’ story about their mother Fernie and her funnel cakes — it’s beautiful, and I love when there’s a story behind things.”
“It’s one of the simpler dishes, but it’s classic,” Armenta says.
“With those cherries, they’re the nice tart ones and the crust it's in is almost a cobbler that uses salted butter. The sweet and salty, I thought that was great,” Elliot adds.
“I had no idea what a turkey rib was,” Elliot says with a laugh. “Turns out its the clavicle or collarbone of the turkey. I had no idea it was going to have that much meat on it.”
“This was very different,” Armenta says. “It wasn’t my favorite out of what we had today, but it is clever to do something no one has heard of.”
“The other thing is it's fried,” Elliot adds. “When I hear ribs, I’m immediately thinking smoked and glazed. If I waited in line and then found out what it was, I might think it was misleading. But I love the Thanksgiving twist with the cranberry and gravy dipping sauces.”