There are people who go to the State Fair of Texas for the rides, and those who excel at playing ringers on the Funway. But there is a third crowd of devotees whose numbers are exponentially growing, who trek Fair Park far and wide for the Big Tex Choice Award-winners.
Those in that last group know that the pursuit of the annual best foods at the fair requires as much precision as those ridiculous games do, and it sometimes comes with the same rewarding, heart-lurching feeling as one would get on the Midway’s scariest ride.
Like when you find the Funnel Cake Queso Burger, tucked inside a pizza booth in the Tower Building Food Court near Big Tex. Who decided that this would be one of only three places on the grounds where it would be sold?
With the 2017 Visitors’ Guide tucked firmly under my arm and a ribbon of 50-cent coupons clutched in my hand, I zeroed in on the food court, but couldn’t pinpoint this year’s Best Taste and Most Creative item, until I asked at a funnel-cake vendor, who naturally didn’t sell it.
She shrugged and pointed to the pizza place two spots down.
It was thrilling to have found it, one of the six-best foods I tried Sunday at the fair. Like ducks all in a row in a vat of water in one of those games, here’s how they all stacked up:
Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger
What it is: A beef patty smothered with queso, topped with bacon and served between two funnel-cake buns. Winner of the Most Creative and Best Taste (Savory) awards. Costs 24 coupons.
Where it is: Inside the Tower Food Court; on the Kidway; on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard outside the Children’s Aquarium
How it tastes: Outstanding. And it’s at least a 16-napkin affair: The funnel cakes are bathed in powdered sugar, and the melted, hot cheese escapes once you pick it up — which you have to do, at least for the first bite. The beef has clearly been frozen but once cooked, it has a good texture that stands up to the puffy pastry. Add to the fact that there’s salty, fatty bacon here, with juices that mix with the cheese, and you have a messy but extraordinary experience. It’s at once sweet, salty and savory.
Is it worth it? Not only is it worth it, it’s worth any possible dry cleaning bill associated with its consumption.
The Tamale Donut
What it is: A tamale that looks like a doughnut, and tastes like a tamale filled with pork and masa. Costs 12 coupons.
Where it is: In our first indication that the Visitors’ Guide might not be totally accurate, we found it when we passed the Centennial Building, where the Auto Show overflows, and saw a sign. It’s not on the map, which also shows that you can get this at three closely grouped booths between the Funway and Gateway Pavilion.
How it tastes: Exactly like a tamale. Shaped like a cake doughnut, positioned on a banana leaf, and anointed with a green crema sauce, this is a cute entry. It was a little on the dry side. In retrospect, I could have asked for extra sauce, which could have amplified the taste and complemented its spice.
Is it worth it? If you like tamales, yes.
Surfin’ Turfin’ Tator Boat
What it is: A hefty baked potato stuffed with melted butter and cheddar cheese and topped with beef, lobster meat and a lobster claw. At $30 (60 coupons!) it ranks as one of the most expensive food items here.
Where it is: According to the map, only at one place — at the far end of the Grand Place building, in the Cotton Bowl Plaza.
How it tastes: This is one heavy-duty item, probably weighing at least a couple of pounds. Half of it is covered in lobster, the other in diced beef. I didn’t like the meat’s tough texture, and it was too salty — but the lobster melded well with the gooey cheese. The lobster claw was sadly dry, but the potato was fabulous, especially with a forkful of the shellfish, butter and cheese.
Is it worth it? I don’t think anything is worth $30, unless you’re talking about an entire meal out.
What it is: Two speared mini-cream puffs fried in a beignet-like batter, topped with chocolate and caramel sauce and accompanied by a whipped-cream garnish. Costs 14 coupons.
Where it is: Two booths near the Children’s Barnyard and one not-on-the-map location near the Chevrolet Main Stage.
How it tastes: Exactly how you would imagine fried cream puffs tasting, except the cream filling inside these was jarringly cold. Your experience could vary, but because of this, the hot chocolate sauce was an odd counterpoint. Our version also had two puffs, instead of the three that have been advertised. For that reason alone, we called into question its value.
Is it worth it? If you have a sweet tooth that knows no bounds.
Gulf Coast Fish Bowl
What it is: A rounded plastic cup resembling a fish bowl, filled with a blue punch made from wine, this Best Taste (Sweet) winner is a drink, topped by a pineapple ring, with Swedish Fish and Nerds candies. Will set you back 20 coupons.
Where it is: Two locations near the lagoon and between Grand Place and Big Tex.
How it tastes: Swimmingly good. The Nerds get sucked through the straw, adding a sweet counterpunch to the alcohol, and the fish are tasty though chewy, inebriated souls. (Or soles?) Not too strong, it was a great partner to the final sweet item we ate.
Is it worth it? If you’re in need of an alcoholic drink, and don’t want beer, you could do much worse.
Fernie’s Fried Texas Sheet Cake
What it is: A square of fudgy cake, fried, then smothered with thick icing (which has Dr Pepper in it) and topped with toasted pecans, whipped cream and a strawberry garnish. Costs 14 coupons.
Where it is: Near the Embarcadero building (which is adjacent to the Chevrolet Main Stage) and between Big Tex and the Perot Museum Building.
How it tastes: Fabulous. Not too sweet, but exceedingly chocolate-y, and the whipped cream makes this far from cloying. The nuts add fun texture and crunch; and the cake goes well with the remnants of the Gulf Coast Fish Bowl.
Is it worth it? Yes, it’s the perfect “meal” ender for this year’s State Fair excursion.