The aromas of fresh popcorn, smoky barbecue and deep-fried whatever greeted a family-centric crowd of hundreds (think baby strollers and squealing children) when the gates opened at 10 a.m. Thursday at Cal Expo for the Sacramento County Fair. The fair will run through Memorial Day and is expected to entertain and feed more than 100,000 people.
We arrived at 9 a.m. for a walkabout, cruising the Livestock Pavilion (plenty of 4-H and FAA sponsored pigs, goats and bunnies), stages for live entertainment, camel and pony rides, “train” (tram) rides, mechanical bull rides, face-painting, and the Midway Fun carnival with attractions ranging from an old-fashioned merry-go-round to a Disney “Frozen”-themed adventure.
Inside the faux rainforest A Walk On the Wild Side (“Education, conservation and animal rescue”), we watched a keeper hand-feed raw chicken breasts to Jade, a 350-pound Bengal tiger, while an Asian bearcat in a nearby cage tried not to look.
Fairs are fun, sure, but the food piece is a driving force and a main draw for many attendees looking to splurge on calories once a year.
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We saw setups selling many of the usual fair-fare suspects – snow cones, burgers, baked potatoes, steamed artichokes, fresh-squeezed lemonade, jumbo corn dogs, nachos, dirty fries, gyros, gelato, churros, cotton candy and deep-fried everything.
However, the organizers of state and county fairs across the country continuously urge food vendors to create new items to bring some excitement to the scene. With that mind, we tasted three new dishes at Cal Expo, from three vendors who, between them, have traveled the fair circuit for more than a century. And, yes, how could we not like what we tasted? After all, this is a fair.
Angry Chicken sandwich at Grinders ($15): The two-fisted 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). It gathers momentum with two slices of Monterey jack and sliced white onion and finishes strong with jalapeno coins, shredded pepperoncini, spicy brown mustard and chipotle-sriracha mayo. The textures and flavors hug like long-lost friends, while the well-adjusted heat is sensibly short of a temper tantrum.
Deep-fried avocado taco at Noel’s Mexican Grill ($5): A battered, deep-fried split avocado quarter is melded to two soft corn tortillas with a schmear of sour cream, and then stuffed with cabbage, cilantro, onion and tomato, with a squirt of house-made chipotle dressing and lime on the side. Of course, we added house-made jalapeno sauce for a jolt of green fire. We resisted the temptation to eat the taco’s contents with a fork, and instead went at it the traditional way – rolled up and held sideways. One bite led to the next.
Deep-fried Twix candy bars at Sweet Cheeks ($6): Twix bars come in pairs, crisp cookies covered in caramel and chocolate that immigrated from the U.K. in 1979. They’re dipped in a proprietary batter (one ingredient is pancake batter) before hitting hot oil. The result was a not-too-sweet dessert in a steaming, surprisingly light jacket showered with powdered sugar. Hey, where’d it go?
Fifteen other food vendors are moving their edibles and gulps at the county fair, and Thursday night is an opportunity to sample their goods. Until 9 p.m., all vendors will offer “value bites” for $1.
SACRAMENTO COUNTY FAIR
Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd.
When: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday, May 26, Friday, May 27, Saturday, May 28 and Sunday, May 28; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, May 30
Admission: $5, free for children 12 and younger