At first glance, the 10 recipients of the 2018 Big Tex Choice Awards at the State Fair of Texas seem relatively pedestrian compared to previous years’ entries —emphasis on the pedestrian.
Some of the items, strewn across Fair Park as if someone took powdered sugar for a funnel cake and dusted it everywhere, proved this year to be harder to find, and there were even a few we wish we hadn’t gone to the trouble to eat.
While there’s no stand-out chicken fried lobster or funnel cake bacon queso burger among this year’s winners (you can still sink your teeth into the latter inside the Tower Building Food Court), we did manage to eat our share of saturated fats — eight of the 10 finalists — and had a typically terrific time while doing so.
Here are a few of our own award-winners.
Most Instagrammable: Cotton Candy Taco (14 coupons)
What It Is: A huge pouf of cotton candy inside a graham cracker-infused waffle-cone taco mold. Drizzled with marshmallow icing and speared with two skinny chocolate-dipped breadsticks, the behemoth features s’mores-flavored organic (!) cotton candy. From the dining machine that is Rudy and Justin Martinez (the father-son concessionaire team known for their Fried Thanksgiving Dinner, Tamale Donuts and other hits), this offering is eye-catching if not a little disappointing. The individual components taste good, but the total package is one-note. Our taco shell was soft, too, which meant there was little crunch, save for the skinny, virtually tasteless breadsticks.
Where You Can Find It: Three places — at the Lone Star Roadhouse inside the Centennial Building; next to the Top O’ Texas Tower adjacent to the Midway, and nearby, just outside Trio on the Green, which conveniently happens to be the Martinez’s newish astro-turfed home to all of their offerings.
Worth the Sugar?: Not unless you wish to see your children channel the energy of a pinball.
Most diet-Friendly: Fried Texas Hill Country (14 coupons)
What It Is: Also from the Martinez boys is this creation: green tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, stacked and then covered in breadcrumbs and fried into a disc-shaped fritter. Served in a paper boat and atop a thick balsamic/honey glaze, microgreens garnish. It’s a dish that could be straight from the small plates menu at your favorite Italian bistro, and it’s tasty. Melt-y mozz, a light, crispy batter and the syrupy-sweet dressing add up to a somewhat lighter State Fair option. And with the greens and the tomatoes, it’s all enough to make you feel comparatively virtuous.
Where You Can Find It: Two places—at the Lone Star Roadhouse inside the Centennial Building and at Trio on the Green.
Is It Worth It?: Definitely.
Best use of black-eyed peas: Fernie’s Hoppin’ John Cake with Jackpot Sauce (16 coupons)
What It Is: A fried cake, filled with black-eyed peas, rice, sausage and onions. Topped with a nice garnish of more black-eyed peas and served alongside a sauce that is similar to a sriracha-laced mayo. Winner of the Best Taste-Savory award, the item from Winter Family Concessions is completely satisfying. A crunchy exterior gives way to a slightly spicy, soft filling. I’m not even a huge black-eyed pea enthusiast, but the mild beans seem to take on a new, slightly more interesting persona in this dish.
Where You Can Find It: Two places — in the Embarcadero Building or near the Old Mill Inn, close to Big Tex.
Worth Sinking Sinking Your Teeth Into?: Sure. I liked its old-school flavor and down-home presentation. The pickled spear of okra alongside also gave it a nice you’re-actually-eating-a-meal feel.
Most cloyingly sweet: Fernie’s Orange You Glad We Made It?! (16 coupons)
(If you order this and the Hoppin’ John Cake, they’ll give you both for 30 coupons)
What It Is: Also from Winter Family Concessions is this concoction: Two fried turnovers, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a “white dipping sauce” (according to its creators) and a chocolate sauce; an orange slice accompanies. Inside the turnovers is a custard made of orange chiffon cake and orange whipped cream. Puff pastry envelopes it all, yielding a flaky exterior. The contrast between the crust and the filling is interesting, but the orange flavor is overwhelmingly sweet, and doesn’t pair perfectly with the sauces.
Where You Can Find It: Two places—in the Embarcadero Building or near the Old Mill Inn, close to Big Tex.
Worth Seeking Out?: Orange you glad your dentist didn’t see you eating it?
Worst portrayal of a carbohydrate in a leading role: Deep Fried Skillet Potato Melt In a Boat (17 coupons)
What It Is: This creation, from the inimitable Tom Grace (he of last year’s Funnel Cake Burger) wasn’t worth the 20 minute wait we had to endure inside the raucous Tower Building Food Court. On opening day night, the area was so loud and crammed with people that we couldn’t even talk to one another. So we took the Melt In a Boat outside where early-evening dusk had us second-guessing what we were eating. Ostensibly, it’s supposed to be what Grace calls a “tater tot on steroids.” A fan of skillet potatoes, he combines the potatoes with breakfast sausage crumbles and then packs it all around a mini Babybel cheese. The whole thing is then fried and served inside a halved, carved-out potato boat. I couldn’t taste much cheese, and the other ingredients were mostly indistinguishable. Melted cheddar cheese and bacon bits crown the dish, and a little bit of chives give an herby garnish. I think my version lacked some salt, surprisingly, which would have brought out more flavor. Also, the item would have been more successful without the potato boat, which was dry and ineffectual.
Where You Can Find It: Three places — inside the Tower Building, and at stands near the Kidway and outside the Children’s Aquarium.
Worth the Wait?: No way.
The winner of battle funnel cake is: Sweet Bakin’ Bacon
What We’re Talking About: Both the Sweet Bakin’ Bacon (14 coupons) and the State Fair Fun-L Cake Ice Cream (12 coupons) use the carnival-favorite cake to good effect, but the former is more successful. The Fun-L Cake Ice Cream (from Tom Landis) is essentially an ice cream sundae: cake-flavored ice cream topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. While funnel cake pieces are supposed to be inside the cup, I couldn’t find any—just a rock-hard bottom of ice cream, hard to penetrate with a plastic spoon. Meanwhile, the Sweet Bakin’ Bacon, created by Ed and Eddie Campbell, takes a Twinkie-esque icing-filled sponge cake and wraps it in bacon, then dips it in funnel-cake batter and fries it. The combination of the bacon and the sweet elements proves outrageously good, and the powdered sugared-funnel cake exterior is fantastic.
Where You Can Find Them: The Sweet Bakin’ Bacon is at the Old Mill Inn Patio as well as the Tower Building; the Fun-L Cake Ice Cream can be found two places—inside the Creative Arts building and along Lone Star Boulevard, in the shadow of Big Tex.
So, Choose: The Sweet Bakin’ Bacon. You won’t be sorry.
Best thing I tried (and was sad to throw away): Sweet Crispy Rice/Arroz Con Leche (20 coupons)
What It Is: Sweet milk-soaked cinnamon-spiced rice (“Mexican Oatmeal”), fried into balls that are covered with a rice krispie-like cereal batter. Two of them are served alongside a scoop of caramel-drizzled, cinnamon-dusted vanilla ice cream. Winner of the Best Taste-Sweet award, it was created by the Garza Family, who have been concessionaires since the early ‘80s at the fair. The chewy rice inside the fried spheres is a perfect foil to the crunchy outer layer. Tragically, it was one of the last items I tried, and I couldn’t eat more than a few bites. My crew, weighed down with corny dogs and Midway prizes, wasn’t much help. I was so, so sad to have to throw most of the large portion away.
Where You Can Find It: Two places — near the Chevrolet Main Stage and inside the Tower Building.
Is It Worth It?: Dios mio; yes!