The motto of this year’s winners of the State Fair of Texas’ Big Tex Choice Awards could be “victory is sweet.”
Simple, too: Amid such elaborate entries as a Down Home Chicken Pot Pie With Mac ’n Cheese Dip, it was the humble Fried Jell-O that won for Best Taste. And the modest (yet somehow still flashy) State Fair Cookie Fries won for Most Creative.
The winners, the only two dessert-style entries among eight finalists, were announced in a ceremony and tasting Sunday at the Tower Building at Fair Park.
Ruth Hauntz of Ruth’s Tamale House won the Best Taste Award, which she accepted along with Tamale House co-directors Brent and Juan Reaves. The simplicity of their dish was deceptive: They said that the Fried Jell-O — cherry-flavored Jell-O encased in a panko breading, then dusted with powdered sugar and topped with whipped cream — took a lot of trial and error.
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“You should see the mess we made with Jell-O and pancake batter alone,” said Brent Reaves, who along with Juan also helps run Dallas’ Smokey John’s Bar-B-Q.
Added Juan: “I felt bad for our cleanup guys because they would come in the morning and we’d have something that came out of the freezer and didn’t work. And it was just a mess. It was kind of disgusting because it was this red Jell-O.”
The trio says it took more than a month to come up with something that they liked and that worked. The Reaveses are film buffs, and they joked that the experiments could have been used for blood scenes in a movie.
(They’re also mad scientists: The Reaveses had a separate finalist entry, a Deep Fried Bacon Burger Dog Slider on a Stick that they accurately described as “a cookout on a stick.”)
The State Fair Cookie Fries, created by Isaac Rousso, were crisp chocolate-chip and sprinkle cookies made to look like french fries, complete with a fast-food-style carton. They came with two dipping sauces: chocolate and strawberry, the latter convincingly designed to look like ketchup.
“Last year we won [most creative] with the Smoky Bacon Margarita,” Rousso said, “but this is even sweeter this year, because there was so much great competition, and we just feel so fortunate to win.”
Two of the eight finalists were from Tarrant County. Stephen Alade of Roanoke entered a Caribbean Pineapple Korn-A-Copia, which de-emphasised the fair’s fried-food trends by featuring grilled chicken and shrimp served over yellow Caribbean fried rice, topped with tropical salsa and served in a pineapple half-shell.
The panel of six judges mostly praised the dish, but seemed a little overwhelmed by its size. “If you eat all that, you're gonna have to walk around the fair for a few minutes,” said Dallas chef Kent Rathbun, who runs Abacus in Dallas and Jasper’s in Plano and Richardson.
Mansfield’s Clint Probst, who won Best Taste in 2014, entered a Southern Fried Chicken & Dumplins that almost tasted more like turkey and gravy. “My inspiration, almost always, is cooking for my children,” Probst said. “I’m cooking chicken and dumplings, and I’m standing over the stove, thinking, ‘How can I deep-fry this?’ ”
Other entries included Chris Howard’s “Deep Fried Pulled Pork Funyun Dings”; Christi Erpillo’s “Fernie’s Down Home Chicken Pot Pie Pocket”; and Glen Kusak’s “Injectable Great balls of BBQ” (including a small device that allows eaters to inject the sauce).
Michelle Rodriguez of country station KSCS/96.3 FM was the MC for the awards, and kept things going with conversation with the finalists, banter with the judges and occasionally nibbling entries after the judges had sampled them.
Besides Rathbun, judges included world-champion bull-rider Don Gay; Mai Lyn Ngo, whose Deep Fried Fit balances her desire to eat whatever she wants with her discipline for keeping fit; Dan O’Malley of The Russ Martin Show on KEGL/97.1 FM “The Eagle”; and Tiffani A. Young, a Dallas city councilwoman who was the only returning judge on the panel.
Jon Gonzalez, a family-medicine doctor from Oklahoma, won a drawing to be guest judge.
“It was actually pretty nerve-wracking at first coming up here in front of everybody,” Gonzalez said. “But it was a really cool experience. ... The other judge [Young] sitting, she kinda told me, ‘Just pace yourself.’ A lot of the stuff was really good.”
The State Fair received 55 overall entries for the 12th annual awards. Tickets for the awards program were $100 apiece, with all proceeds to be donated to the State Fair of Texas Youth Scholarship Program.