For decades, I have been a one-fair-food woman. Corn dogs. Always corn dogs.
They were the perfect California State Fair food – salty and sweet, a meat and a cake in one, and mobile enough to be enjoyed while making one’s way to see the alpacas compete for best in show or check out what Stanislaus or Modoc was up to at the California Counties Exhibit.
I had always heard about the bacon-wrapped this, and the deep-fried Hostess that, but never cared, until this year, when professional curiosity overtook me. I have quizzed chefs often enough, in my job as restaurant critic, to be able to quickly envision a dish based on a written description. But when I saw a list of food items new or new-ish to the 2017 State Fair – which runs through July 30 – I was puzzled.
How does a Cap’n Crunch chicken sandwich even work? Where do you put the beans in deep-fried nachos?
As eager to examine the composition of these items as to taste them, we hit Cal Expo at around noon on a 98-degree day. Once inside the gate, that same awareness hit us, as it had in previous years, of “Oh yeah, this is what the fair is like.” It’s that moment when the heat and sheer expanse of blacktop tell you that if you did not remember to bring a hat, you should buy one soon.
We headed for the Bacon Habit stand, to try out bacon-wrapped Brussels sprouts. As much as we are tempted to mock this food item as the fair’s failed attempt at healthy food, there was a certain wholesomeness to the preparation and presentation.
The Brussels sprouts, and other vegetables such as asparagus and corn, are cooked on an outdoor grill, and although not cooked to order – rows of practically raw skewers share the grill with rows of charred, caramelized items that clearly have been there for a while. You hand your ticket to a grill minder who plucks the item off the fire for you. We far preferred the $7 corn to the $6.50 Brussels sprouts, which were wrapped in bacon but not free of bitterness.
This was our favorite stand, for its “country fair” feel. We also found the pricing reasonable by State Fair standards, which are few ticks below sport-arena and movie-theater prices on the gouge-meter yet still high.
Bacon Habit sits near a seating area with shade and water misters, and the Promenade Stage, from which a rock band with little noticeable control of its sound system punished us for seeking a comfortable place to eat. So we got up and headed to the Sweet Cheeks stand, to buy an $8 deep-fried, bacon-wrapped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
The allure of dough-covered fried ice cream or Snickers always has eluded me, but never more so than with this item. The dough somehow tasted old and undercooked at once, and the bacon and Reese’s tasted as if they had been locked in their embrace for too long before hitting the fryer. I won’t sugar coat it: this thing is awful. Actually, I did coat it with powdered sugar. Still lousy.
In the distance, I saw a sign reading “lobster fries,” and although they were not on the list of new fair food items, I had to try them. I wanted to test that old adage that seafood is better the closer one is to a carny.
The stand is called Sharky’s, and its $11.95 lobster fries consists of fried potatoes topped with a chipotle aioli, plentiful fresh parsley and clumps of deep-fried lobster. Deep-fried lobster, as it turns out, is not at all succulent but instead similar in consistency to the bonito shavings one might try at a Japanese restaurant. Combined with aioli, it makes for a salty, tangy treat.
Our several-minute wait for the lobster fries – and similar waits for other items – caused mixed emotions. Though waiting on the asphalt at was unpleasant, we were glad that our items were being freshly fried or grilled.
It takes time to fry two Krispy Kreme donuts that will serve as top and bottom buns for a $12 burger (at Stuffies Char Broiler), or to coat a chicken breast in Cap’n Crunch batter to go inside a $9 sandwich.
Incongruous to some, just plain gross to others, these items ultimately cannot be dismissed by anyone who appreciates a merging of the salty and sweet. The Krispy Kreme burger benefited from its beef patty being well seasoned, and thus providing a proper contrast to the sweet donut, which was so freshly fried that it nearly came apart when we touches it, before it had cooled properly.
The bun on the Cap’n Crunch sandwich tasted ordinary by comparison, but its interior enticed, through its crispy/soft cereal and chicken effect. Though an over-abundance of mayonnaise eventually killed nearly every other flavor in the sandwich, I was still happy to have cracked the mystery of this breakfast-adjacent sandwich.
The real enigma going in, though, was “deep-fried nachos,” because my vision of intact chips, beef and possibly avocado and salsa wrapped inside the dough that covers everything else at the fair never could quite manifest itself fully. But Spud Ranch’s concept of nachos is more like a movie theater’s than a Mexican restaurant’s, with chips and cheese as dominant ingredients of its $10 dish.
Crushed Nacho-cheese Doritos, pepper Jack cheese, nacho cheese and jalapeño juice are formed into balls that go into a deep fryer, emerging crisp outside and moist inside, with a consistency between that of hush puppies and arancini (risotto ball). The spheres then are covered in nacho-cheese sauce and (by request) pickled jalapeños.
As easy as it would be to deny the pleasures of this creation, one thing has held true for my palate since 1979: Nacho cheese Doritos always enhance, never detract.
Intent on trying all the fair’s stunt foods, and wary of going back to the tried and true, I had initially dismissed my editor’s suggestion I try Hot Dog on a Stick’s new item: a vegetarian corn dog. “Too boring,” I told him.
But once at the fair, we had some time to kill and were near the Hot Dog on a Stick stand, so we gave it a go. The $5 dog was a delight, the frank offering just enough smokiness to mimic a meaty taste, and the outer layer slightly sweet and satisfying in its delivery of that special cornmeal-based effect of being light and hearty at once. Dipped in a ketchup and mustard mix (a must for corn dogs and onion rings), it gave me everything I ever could want from fair food, or arena or movie-theater food: salt, fat, sweetness, tanginess and spice.
My extensive tour of outrageous State Fair food had yielded a new favorite that tasted a lot like my old one.
California State Fair
When: Through July 30
Where: 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
Cost: $8-$12 for daily tickets
Information: 916-263-3247, www.castatefair.org