When I came aboard as the dining critic nearly five years ago, I looked forward to cultivating further expertise in some previously underexplored genres.
State fair food wasn’t one of them.
Nonetheless, here we are. And while five years of wandering the booths and alleys of the Arizona State Fair have made this place more familiar than I would have dared (or cared) to dream, it always holds a few surprises.
Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is an open topic for debate.
From unimpeachable fairground classics to comically bizarre stunt foods to things that probably shouldn’t be attempted anywhere, the State Fair has it all.
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I could not eat it all. Nor am I particularly interested in trying. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I sampled at this year’s Arizona State Fair, ranked from least to most recommended:
7. Oysters on a Stick
Stand: Piggly’s Seafood.
Description: Maybe it was the heat. Maybe I was lightheaded from all of the sugar. Or maybe, deep down inside, I harbor subconscious feelings of self-loathing. But whatever inspired me to look at this item on a State Fair menu and think to myself, “Eh, why not?” — I hope I never find myself in that dark place again. The State Fair knows how to deep fry things. The State Fair knows how to put things on a stick. But the State Fair is maybe a little behind the curve when it comes to sourcing oysters. Try to contain your shock.
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6. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Pickle
Description: See, now this is just lazy. The Great Hot Cheetoing of 2017 was two years ago — an eternity in State Fair time — and we’ve seen it all. If you’re going to come at the flamin’ hot, you best not miss, son. Don’t get me wrong, this fellow’s looking all dapper with a little nacho cheese to slick back his crispy corn puff hair and a few carefully placed jalapeno slices. But this pickle parfait is designed such that the only way to eat it is to munch on a few cheese-covered Cheetos and then follow it with a pickle chaser. Which, honestly, is just as well because they’re pretty much terrible together anyway.
5. Charcoal Ice Cream
Stand: Cardinali Ice Cream.
Description: I realize that ‘90s nostalgia is the hot thing right now, but was anybody really clamoring for a TCBY/Hot Topic crossover? This is actually a perfectly nice chocolate ice cream cone except that it has a gritty aftertaste and it’s seen Peter Murphy 17 times. I appreciate that, but it makes me wonder why the charcoal is there in the first place. The woman running the truck — far too cheery to be handling such a dark and malevolent talisman, by the way — could only offer a shrug. Probably has to do with balancing my pH or aligning my frequencies or some other claptrap. More importantly, though, am I the only one who’s concerned that if one of these things gets a little too close to a sparkly rainbow unicorn doughnut, the resulting matter/antimatter explosion could wipe out the entire fair?
4. Giant Spring Roll
Stand: Cane & Co.
Description: Did these guys take a wrong turn? Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty jazzed to be eating something that isn’t pushing a week’s worth of caloric intake, but I have to believe this thing was destined for a cultural festival somewhere rather than the third row at the Stryper concert. Then again, the State Fair is probably the only place you’ll find an 18” long spring roll, so maybe this was its destiny all along. It’s like they measure them at the gate and deny admission to any foods less than a foot long. (That would explain a lot, actually.) Anyway, it’s a very long spring roll. With garlicky hoisin dipping sauce. And there’s pork belly inside. Because State Fair.
3. Deep Fried Corn
Stand: Corn & Turkey Legs.
Description: Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. I mean, if you try enough combinations and permutations of State Fair food tropes, you’re bound to hit a winner eventually. I’ll leave it to the scientists and the theologians to argue whether deep fried corn is the result of Darwinian evolution or intelligent design. But as the dining critic, I am here to tell you that it is good, and that its goodness is only enhanced by a squirt of butter from a scalding hot squeeze bottle, a healthy dash of salt and the fact that it is mounted like Eddard Stark’s head at the end of a two-foot long pike. Perhaps it’s meant as a warning to other cobs of corn who might dare to question the king. Anyway, it is crisp and juicy and the only thing that kept it from running away with this thing is that the corn was more starchy than sweet. Tough luck, kid. Maybe next year.
2. Italian Sausage Sandwich
Description: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s official. I have spent too much time at the Arizona State Fair. As I prepared to bite into this fine sandwich, its purveyor quoted a line from last year’s State Fair piece that I’d completely forgotten. This means, of course, that State Fair vendors are actually paying attention to what I write. So if I’m found dead at next year’s fair, maybe start the investigation with the places I hated. Or just assume I had a heart attack. Even odds, really. Anyway, Giovanni (probably not his real name) and his wife sling a pretty good sausage, perfectly griddled with a nice snap and a sharp hit of fennel, nestled into a soft seeded bun with some melted peppers and onions. I realize nobody goes to the State Fair in search of actual food, but just in case you do, this is a pretty good option.
1. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Burrito
Stand: Rosie’s Mexican Foods.
Description: Honestly, I’m as surprised as you. How did Tex-Mex and AZ-Mex spend decades fighting for recognition as legitimate border fare only to have MiniMarket-Mex waltz right up and take its place as the flamin’ hot antihero of our hearts? I’m not sure if this is what Richard Montañez had in mind when he invented FHC, but I am absolutely devastated to discover that I kind of love this burrito — a goopy carne asada-stuffed monster in a pliant, griddled flour tortilla, punctuated by the spicy, pre-processed crunch of what is apparently everybody’s favorite snack food except mine. I expect I’ll get over it and go back to being horrified soon enough, but for one brief terrifying moment, it seems the State Fair has me in its clutches. For one shining day, my hot and hefty little morsel, I’m yours.
Tried something delicious lately? Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-444-8533. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @skilletdoux, and on Facebook at facebook.com/darmato.
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