Food & Drink

The State Fair of Texas and Big Tex say howdy to this year’s deep-fried food winners

Live: We taste the Big Tex Choice Awards finalists

Star-Telegram food guys Robert Philpot and Steve Wilson give you their take on the Big Tex Choice Awards finalists at the State Fair of Texas, and dish on the winners.
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Star-Telegram food guys Robert Philpot and Steve Wilson give you their take on the Big Tex Choice Awards finalists at the State Fair of Texas, and dish on the winners.

A black-eyed pea concoction proved lucky for one of the finalists in the State Fair of Texas’ Big Tex Choice Awards, which also turned out sweet for a crispy-rice creation and for something that was kind of like a mashup of s’mores, cotton candy and a taco.

“Fernie’s Hoppin’ John Cake with Jackpot Sauce from Winter Family Concessions won for “Best Taste — Savory” at the awards, which were announced Sunday in a ceremony/tasting party at Fair Park.

The spin on the traditional good-luck New Year’s dish featured black-eyed peas, white rice, smoked sausage and a blend of spices, mixed with bread crumbs and eggbeaters to form a cake that’s deep-fried and topped with black-eyed pea relish and pickled okra. The slightly spicy “Jackpot Sauce” was a reference to a family member’s fondness for slot machines.

“I would eat this and have good luck for the rest of the year,” said DeDe McGuire of KKDA/104.5 FM “K104,” one of seven judges (including an audience member who won a guest-judge slot) who sampled all 10 of this year’s finalists before declaring the winners.

The Winter family has a long history with the fair — this is their 48th year — and have had 13 finalists in the awards through the years, including an entry on the sweet side of this year’s competition, the creatively named “Fernie’s Orange You Glad You Fried It!?,” which was kind of like a fried pie with a chiffon orange cake inside.

The “Orange You Glad” was a favorite among Star-Telegram writers who attended this year’s awards, but it was beaten in the “Best Taste — Sweet” category by the simple but well-executed Arroz Con Leche (Sweet Crispy Rice) produced by the Garza family: a cinnamon-spiced rice ball battered and coated in puffed-rice cereal, then deep-fried and served with vanilla ice cream.

It was reminiscent of a Rice Krispy treat with its crunch, but without the marshmallows and with a good dose of cinnamon falvor.

The Garza family has been coming to the fair since 1983, according to press materials; that was the year that Trini Garza’s wife opened their first concession stand.

Justin & Rudy Martinez’s Cotton Candy Taco won the other award, for Most Creative: A graham-cracker waffle cone shaped into a taco shell, coated with marshmallow glaze and stuffed with chocolate and toasted marshmallow for that s’mores flavor — along with organic cane-sugar cotton candy. Then it’s topped with chocolate cookie crumbles and two chocolate-covered biscuit sticks with marshmallows.

The version the judges got looked huge, and although one judge said he loved the flavor, he added that it might be a little messy for portable fair-food eating. The version we got for a Facebook Live was a much smaller sample where the highlight was the cone’s crunchiness.

The Martinezes have had concession stands at the fair since 1978, and this is their fourth Big Texas Choice Award, including 2014’s Most Creative for their Original State Fair Brew – Funnel Cake Ale.

Besides McGuire, the judges included Bobby Abtahi, president of the City of Dallas’ Park & Recreation Board; Uno Immanivong, chef and owner of Chino Chinatown in Trinity Groves, which is practically a restaurant theme park in west Dallas; Alvaro Luque, president and CEO at Avocados From Mexico; Doug Pickering, pitmaster of Ferris Wheeler’s BBQ in Dallas; and D’Andra Simmons, founder and CEO of Hard Night Good Morning and cast member of “The Real Housewives of Dallas.”

The seventh judge, Alan Michlin of Prosper, was chosen from a random drawing (he was introduced as Laurence, which is his first name — but it’s also the name of his father, who bought the tickets).

“Judging today was really fun,” Michlin said. “I’m in my 50s and my parents used to bring me to [the fair] since I was a baby, and almost every year since. ... Some of the foods were really delicious but not overloading.

“You gotta get through 10 items, including desserts, and I’m here with my wife and I’m sure she’s going to want to have some of the tastes as well. So I paced myself,” he said.

Mansfield’s Clint Probst, who won for “Best Taste — Sweet” last year and has been a finalist several times, was a finalist this year for his Deep Fried Shepherd’s Pie.

Michelle Rodriguez of KSCS/96.3 FM was the master of ceremonies for the third year in a row.

The fair is Sept. 28-Oct. 21 at Fair Park. All 10 finalists plus many more food items will be available during the fair.

The fair’s Visitor’s Guide includes a food map that lays out the vendor locations for each of the finalists, and there’s also a food finder on Visitor’s Guides will be available at State Fair Information Booths, as well as online at

Here are the 10 finalists for the Big Tex awards in the sweet and savory food categories.