The fair-faithful from around the state will make their annual pilgrimage to Sacramento on Friday, July 8, through July 24, transforming Cal Expo into a city within a city during the 17-day run of the 163rd California State Fair. Last year, about 580,000 fairgoers showed up, a 4.1 percent increase over 2014’s attendance.
There to help host them will be 125 food and drink concessionaires, selling everything from barbecued ribs, corn dogs and grilled fish to fresh fruit, charred corn and loaded baked potatoes. With some funnel cakes, cinnamon rolls and ice cream to round out the menu.
Of course, many attendees will beeline to the fair to hear “Queen of Funk” Chaka Khan and country legend Dwight Yoakam, quaff at the Best of California Brew Fest, cheer their favorites at free-style motocross, or wager on thoroughbred horse racing.
But sooner rather than later, they’ll indulge in the once-a-year I’ll-diet-tomorrow ritual of “deep-fried” and “on a stick.” They will happily stand in long lines at booths along the Promenade, a giant food court of American and ethnic fare, for tasty (and normally forbidden) treats seldom seen outside fairgrounds.
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The obliging vendors drive their mobile “restaurants” around the country on the fair circuit – many of them are on the road 10 months a year – spending their off-months at their home bases, shifting into mad-scientist mode to create new dishes to surprise and delight.
“After working with the vendors for five years, I’ve found they’re amazing,” said State Fair concessions manger Shauna Parrish. “Their lives revolve around the fair circuit, and they’re like a big traveling family helping each other.”
This year, attendees can explore the fair-fare menu via the inaugural “$2 Taste of the Fair,” available from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays (July 13 and 20) and Thursdays (July 14 and 21). “Every one of our food vendors will offer a $2 taste of an item they feature in their booth,” Parrish said.
“The trend is shifting from deep-fried toward ‘fun food’ that’s not necessarily deep-fried,” Parrish said. “A lot of vendors are going with vegetarian and gluten-free (items), such as baked potatoes, fruit and veggies, so there will be options for everyone.”
As a consumer guide, some of the concessions listed in the official program have heart icons next to their names. “The hearts signify more healthful eating alternatives,” Parrish said.
On that note, one of the fair’s most popular vendors is Pepe’s Mariscos, purveyor of grilled fresh-fish tacos, ceviche, fruit cups (watermelon, cantaloupe and mango) and a frozen treat made with mango and chili powder. The spinoff Pepe’s Fruit Cart specializes in combinations of chilled fresh fruits and from-scratch aguas frescas.
Fried and steamed artichokes with toppings are the go-to’s at the 40-year-old Jeanne’s Artichokes, but don’t overlook two of its dishes with more substantial flavor profiles: The veggie panino is a stack of roasted eggplant, zucchini, Roma tomato, red peppers and red onions on sourdough, with melted mozzarella and basil pesto.
Its eggplant-Parmesan sandwich “is getting more popular every year,” said operations manager Dan Lusenhop, whose grandmother founded the concession. “It’s fried eggplant topped with marinara sauce sprinkled with Parmesan, on a roll.”
Returning for its second year will be Drink a Fruit From a Fruit. The method, said vendor Harrison Swift, is to “core a personal-size watermelon or whole pineapple, mix the fruit with ice and pour it back into the fruit shells.”
All those dishes sound dietarily correct, in a relative way. Still, there will be a figurative ton of reckless eating by fairgoers and no shortage of calories and fat. “You walk those off,” Parrish said with a laugh. “This is your one opportunity to come to the fair and have a guilt-free day. Some people wait all year for their favorite fair foods.”
Big Food on center stage
This year’s menu won’t be as extreme as in past years. Missing will be the sideshow dishes such as Dominick Palmieri’s Big Rib, 2 pounds of smoked prime beef attached to a 17-inch-long cow rib bone. Still, there will be no shortage of Big Food, such as the Elvis Burger, the Caveman Turkey Leg and the deep-fried wood-fired pastrami pizza, described as “a Reuben sandwich hit by a steamroller” (at Cardinali’s Family Concessions).
You’ll find the new Elvis Burger at Stuffy’s Char Broiler, manned by owner Don Delahoyde, a 35-year veteran of the circuit. The double handful is a third-pound patty on a ciabatta roll with peanut butter and jelly, bacon, egg, lettuce and tomato. Options are the Krispy Kreme burger, a patty between two glazed doughnuts, and the mac and cheese-stuffed bacon burger, its No. 1 seller.
Delahoyde also runs Sharky’s Fry King, specializing in a chili cheese-topped deep-fried bloomin’ onion, popcorn shrimp in a cardboard popcorn box, and 10 kinds of french fries (hand-cut from Kennebec potatoes) involving fresh garlic, hot sauces, chili, cheese, sautéed onions, crumbled blue cheese and the like. Oh, and lobster fries. “I drop lobster meat into the fryer to brown it, put it on top of the fries and squirt them with homemade chipotle aioli,” he said.
Bacon and beef ribs
Debuting at Amber and Nathan Vanderwarker’s porcine-centric Bacon Habit will be bacon-wrapped asparagus. “We coat fresh asparagus with olive oil and pepper, wrap four or five spears in bacon, rub them with brown sugar and a little chili pepper and grill them,” Amber Vanderwarker said. “It’s got the vegetables, so there’s a little bit of healthfulness to it. ...”
“We’ve become bacon connoisseurs of sorts,” she added. “We use four kinds of bacon that vary in thickness and length, depending on what dish we’re wrapping and whether it’s grilled or fried.”
Bacon-wrapped asparagus join the Caveman Turkey Leg – a 2-pound smoked drumstick wrapped in a pound of bacon – bacon-wrapped corn on the cob (“A surprise hit when we introduced it last year”) and the Cheesy Bacon Bomb (pepper jack cheese wrapped in biscuit dough wrapped in bacon and deep-fried).
A dish we sampled at the Sacramento County Fair in May is the new Angry Chicken sandwich at Grinders, which will be at the State Fair. The bundle starts with a soft white Italian roll (or whole wheat) heaped with pastrami steeped in proprietary broth, and battered and deep-fried chicken tenderloins (from the breast). Add two slices of Monterey jack, sliced white onion, jalapeño coins, shredded pepperoncini, spicy brown mustard and chipotle-Sriracha mayo.
One State Fair staple is Kasinak BBQ, though you won’t find that name on any of its signage. Instead, look for a big red tent, an outdoor cafeteria-style setup, a dining compound with picnic tables, and the words “Ribs,” “Tri-tip” and “Turkey Legs.” Or simply follow your nose.
New among its spice-rubbed and oak-smoked offerings are pulled pork, chicken and tri-tip sliders, which join an old friend – beef ribs. They’re a nice surprise, as they’re getting increasingly scarce at BBQ joints and in stores.
“When you do find beef ribs, the meat cutters have cut ’em down so tight there’s not much meat on the bones, mostly gristle,” said co-owner Joe Mestmaker, with 30 years on the circuit. “Ours are from the Midwest and are real meaty.”
At the Mediterranean, 44-year circuit veteran Ted Platis will offer traditional gyros (thinly shaved lamb and beef wrapped in warm pita bread with homemade cucumber-garlic-yogurt sauce), marinated and grilled chicken kebabs, and spanakopita (spinach pie) from a family recipe.
Heftier is the lamb shank, which won a Concessionaire’s Cup award at the Orange County Fair. “The foreshank is grill-braised and slow-cooked for four hours in a bath of red wine, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and rosemary,” Platis said. “Mom taught me well.”
Anne Adair of El Dorado Hills brings her Cloud 9 concession back for a fifth year with beignets (deep-fried French pastry) topped with vanilla ice cream, fruit and Nutella. Her new item is croissant sandwiches stuffed with turkey, ham or salami with fresh greens, tomatoes and pickles.
Corn dog is king
Fair-food trends come and go, but the corn dog is fair-eternal and consistently the State Fair’s top seller. For decades, the reigning Corn Dog King has been the aptly named Milo Franks of Pilot Hill, who operates four stands and sponsors the annual cash-rich corn dog-eating contest.
“With $2,500 for first place and $2,000 for second, it’s pretty serious,” he said. “I’ve been traveling the circuit for 47 years, so I do (the contest) as kind of payback and to give the State Fair some entertainment.”
Last year, Franks announced a “whole new concept” for his corn dog batter. For this year’s fair, he said, “Guess what? It changed. I went back into the laboratory and figured out we used too much corn flour and not enough cornmeal. We made the adjustment and now I’ve got the perfect corn dog batter. We’ll use approximately five tons of it at the State Fair.”
Pricewise, it looks like the cost of indulging this year will be the same as last year, said concessions manger Parrish.
Which brings up the question: What are her favorites?
“The steamed artichokes are fantastic and I’m a big fan of turkey legs,” she said. “But my focus will be to take advantage of the $2 Taste of the Fair program. After that I’ll save the Elvis Burger for the last day, and then I’m going to walk it off.”
Corn dog mania
The corn dog is the top item at the California State Fair. How many can you knock back in a given amount of time? Test your limits at the corn dog-eating contest, sponsored by Milo’s Corn Dogs.
The throwdown happens Friday, July 15, (5 p.m. qualifying rounds) and Saturday, July 16, (6 p.m. finals) on the Promenade Stage. The entry fee is $10 in advance, which includes two admissions to the fair and a parking pass, and $20 the day of, which does not include admission to the fair or free parking. Prize money goes like this: $2,500 to the first-place winner; $2,000 for second; $1,000 for third; $500 for fourth; $100 for fifth. Details, entry forms and rules are at www.castatefair.org; click on “Participate,” then “Competitions.”
Pie in the sky
Ever dream of sticking your face into a big, fat, gooey cream pie? Go for it at the Save Mart Pie Eating Contest, 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, on the Promenade Stage. The free entry deadline falls before or on Tuesday, July 5. The first-place winner will receive a State Fair Rosette; all participants will receive a California State Fair ribbon. Pre-registered contestants will get two admissions to the fair and a parking pass. Register at www.castatefair.org; click on “Participate,” then “Competitions.” Did we say no utensils allowed?
California State Fair
Where: 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
When: July 8-24
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. The Midway Carnival will operate 2-11 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Sundays.
Cost: $12 general, $10 ages 62-plus, $8 children 5-12, free for children 4 and younger. Parking is $10 cars, $5 motorcycles (cash only).
Information: (including dollars-off promotional days): www.castatefair.org