Behind the counter, Isaac Rousso watched nervously as the judges bit into his newest culinary concoction, a Deep Fried Cuban Roll, a blend of slow-cooked pork shoulder, chopped ham, pickles and Swiss cheese, all rolled in pastry dough
“Everyone loves a Cuban roll,” Rousso said. “What’s better than taking that Cuban roll and deep frying it? Nothing.”
Judges agreed with Rousso, whose concoction earned Best Taste honors Monday at the ninth annual Big Tex Choice Awards for the 2013 State Fair of Texas.
Award for Most Creative went to Fried Thanksgiving Dinner, a mixture of homemade stuffing and diced roast turkey, dipped in Southern cream corn and rolled in seasoned corn meal, then fried to a crispy golden brown.
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Creator Justin Martinez said the idea came to him at Thanksgiving dinner nearly two years ago but took time to perfect.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” said Martinez, co-owner of a specialty concessionaire business in Arlington. “We knew it had to taste just like Thanksgiving to work.”
He serves it with giblet gravy and a zesty orange-cranberry sauce for dipping.
Winners faced stiff competition from the other six artery-clogging finalists, which included Fernie’s Deep Fried King Ranch Casserole, Southern Style Chicken-Fried Meatloaf and the Texas Fried Fireball, a combination of pimento cheese, pickles, cayenne pepper and bacon dipped in buttermilk and deep fried.
Christi Erpillo, who came up with the Fried King Ranch Casserole, called her Texas-shaped dish a tribute to the state.
“This is our love letter to the State Fair, to the State of Texas and to Big Tex,” she said, glancing at the judges who scribbled notes while sampling.
This year’s finalists veered noticeably toward savory, with only two sweet finalists — Awesome Deep Fried Nutella and Golden Fried Millionaire Pie.
“People were definitely in the mood for savory,” said Melanie Linnear, director of concessions at the State Fair, who noted that only a quarter of the roughly 50 entries were of the sweet variety.
Winners of the competition earn bragging rights, she said, but they also see their sales spike, sometimes even tripling or quadrupling.
“People come to the fair, and the first thing they do is head to the winner’s booth,” Linnear said. “Everyone wants to try the newest thing.”
Judges included radio personality Corby Davidson of KTCK/1310 AM “The Ticket,” Dallas Morning News editorial writer Mike Hashimoto and Dallas Morning News metro columnist Jacquielynn Floyd.
Davidson, who grew up in Arlington and attends the fair every year, said creative fried food has become a signature of the State Fair. “Now I have to go find a way to pare down my cholesterol,” he said.
Finalists said they have already begun to wonder how they will top this year.
“Every year it gets harder and harder,” Martinez said. “There’s only so much you can deep fry.”