Beginning today and for the next 17 days, hundreds of thousands of the California State Fair faithful will line up for their annual binges of fair fare, and it looks like the menus won't disappoint. It's no coincidence that this year's fair theme is "Food, Family and Fun."
Think of the State Fair concessions as a giant food court surrounded by rides and exhibits and offering an array of choices in a broad spectrum of ethnic categories – Italian, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, French, Mexican, German and American, which includes soul food, barbecue and Southern.
"We have everything, and a lot of it you can't get anywhere else," said State Fair concessions coordinator Shauna Parrish. "Some people wait all year for their favorite foods to become available."
Parrish oversees the 125 food and beverage vendors at this year's cornucopia. What's the top-selling fair food?
"Corn dogs, followed by the State Fair tacos," Parrish said.
Beyond those, look for the novelty dishes that show up on the national fair circuit each year from concessionaires who spend their off-time researching and developing over-the-top items to wow the public.
Fairgoers still recall the deep-fried scorpions and maggot-melt sandwich from two summers ago, when Jungle George's "adventure foods" trailer set up shop (it's absent this year).
Dominick Palmieri is back with last year's big-buzz entree, the Big Rib, which could have emerged from a vegan's worst nightmare or a carnivore's sweetest dream. It's 2 pounds of smoked USDA prime beef attached to a 17-inch-long cow rib bone, giving new dimension to the "on a stick" template ($18.75 at Teri's BBQ).
The Big Rib will go up against a new item from husband and wife Nathan and Amber Vandewarker, who smoke and then grill a 2-pound (or close to it) turkey leg wrapped in about a pound of bacon at their Bacon Habit trailer ($18).
"The turkey leg is a classic fair food, kind of weird and huge, something you're not going to make at home," said Amber Vandewarker. "The bacon acts as a crunchy cover that locks in all the juices and keeps the turkey moist. Really, what doesn't taste better when you wrap it in bacon?"
Though the Vandewarkers have not sampled the Big Rib, they're ready for the meat-vs.-bird throwdown. "It will be an exciting, fun competition," Amber Vandewarker said.
A prior commitment will keep deep-fried-food pioneer Charles Boghosian's tricked-out Chicken Charlie trailer off the fairgrounds again this year. However, fairgoers can get some of their deep-fried fixes at Sweet Cheeks.
"Our new item is deep-fried Nutella (hazelnut-chocolate spread, $5)," said Brian Bradbury, who owns the concession with wife Jacqueline. It joins their deep-fried standards of Twinkies, Oreos, Reese's peanut butter cups and cheesecake.
New too is Tony Cardinali's plate of spaghetti made of ice cream, at Cardinali's Sweet Treats.
"The ice cream stores in Italy have had it since the 1950s," he said. "I saw it there and designed a machine to make it."
The dish is long strands of "pasta" (vanilla ice cream) topped with "marinara sauce" (puréed strawberries) and "Parmesan cheese" (ground white chocolate). The "meatballs" are formed from brownies and chocolate ($7).
Cardinali also will introduce the "world's hottest ice cream" – super-hot ghost peppers mixed with vanilla ice cream ($5). "You get the flavor of the peppers but not the extreme heat." Also, a chocolate-dipped ice cream bar rolled in bacon ($5).
Continuing the ice cream theme is the world's largest cone at Colossal Gelato ($15).
How best to eat a 2-foot-tall custom-made cone, 20 inches in diameter, filled with a gallon of gelato? "However you can get it down," said concessionaire Matthew Holguin, who will rotate 100 gelato flavors over the run of the fair.
"It was designed for a family to share, but it's turned into a dare between buddies to see who can eat the most," Holguin said.
As fun as the novelty items can be, the time-proven dishes will dominate the food scene: kettle corn, funnel cakes, fudge, cinnamon rolls, french fries, cotton candy, grilled corn, broasted chicken, pasta, burgers, wurst, skewered chicken, tacos, fish 'n' chips and pizza.
More unusual will be beignets, deep-fried mac 'n' cheese, grilled pork chop on a stick and maple-bacon sundaes. One new vendor, Pepe's Marisco, will specialize in Mexican-style seafood – ceviche, shrimp, abalone, octopus, grilled fish and shrimp tacos.
What about costs? "We're keeping the prices the same as last year, with the exception of meat- and dairy-based (items)," concessions coordinator Parrish said. "Those will (reflect) a slight price increase because the vendors have to pay more for them."
This year, some of the food concessions listed in the official program have heart icons next to their names. The hearts signify more healthful eating alternatives, such as salads, grilled corn and fresh fruit.
"While we feel that calories and fat don't count at the State Fair, we know that many fairgoers feel they do," said Parrish. "That's why corn dogs will not have hearts next to them, but steamed artichokes will."
But, really, does eating recklessly once a year really matter?
"No," she said. "I'll be here for 17 days, and I'll eat everything and enjoy all of it."
CALIFORNIA STATE FAIR
Where: 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
When: Today-July 28
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Sundays (Last admission 10 p.m.)
Admission: $12 general, $10 ages 62-plus, $8 children 5-12, free for children 4 and younger
For more information: www.bigfun.org
BAD TO THE BONE
Last year's big-buzz food item at the State Fair was the Big Rib – 2 pounds of prime beef attached to a 17-inch-long rib bone.
The meaty mouthful returns this year, and the question remains the same: How much of it can one person eat? Find out at the Big Rib throwdown, 6 p.m. Saturday on the Promenade Stage. A lineup of Sacramento media personalities will indulge.
Also: A corn dog-eating contest will be held at 6 p.m. July 19-20 on the Promenade Stage. The competition is open, and the $10 entry fee includes admission to the fair. Register at the contest's Facebook page, California State Corn Dog Eating Championship.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.