Some go for the carnival-style attractions. Others go for the garden exhibition. Thousands go for the live musical entertainment. Many go for the shopping. But the truth of the matter is, all flock to the State Fair of Texas for the food.
In its more than 125 years of existence, the State Fair of Texas has built itself quite a reputation for its deep-fried-anything-on-a-stick — stick optional — food offerings. Because who doesn't like the sinful indulgence of deep-fried foods? The millions who attend the Dallas fairgrounds each year have proven that the crazy fried-food offerings tug at their heartstrings and resonate with their cravings. This year's fair will open September 28 and run through October 21.
In the "anything-goes" fried-food playground, fair-goers find such foods as fried bacon cinnamon rolls, fried praline sweet potato poppers, fried jambalaya, apple fries, deep-fried strawberries, fried cake balls, fried Buffalo chicken in a flapjack, fried pineapple upside-down cake, deep-fried butter and Fried Beer™ (is that even food?). And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the fried-food selection.
There are literally hundreds of items to choose from. Last week, the Big Tex winners were announced: Fried jambalaya won Best Tasting and fried bacon cinnamon rolls won Most Creative.
While we're happy for the winners and all, we feel that two awards just don't recognize enough of the glorious fried foods found at the fair. Thus we bring to you the Top 10 State Fair of Texas foods:
10. Fried Stack of Taters
Listen, we know — fried potatoes are not anything innovative — they're not even close to innovative. But they're an all-American classic, and we're suckers for classic foods. Fried taters never fail to make situations better and happier. And more calorie-filled. Sprinkle them with a bit of salt, dip them in ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise — or garnish as you please. But don't even try to tell us that they don't deserve recognition for their undying goodness.
9. Deep-Fried Bubblegum
The edible properties of bubblegum are quite questionable, due to the fact that once you swallow gum, it stays in your intestines for seven years, or something like that. Which makes eating this candy ten times more fun than eating, say, a Jolly Rancher — that's just playing it safe. Eating deep-fried bubblegum is for the thousands of adventurous, kid-at-heart types, hidden under their grown-up disguises. Warning: If you like making bubbles the size of your face and then popping them, this feat may be a bit hard to accomplish with gum that's been fried.
8. Fried Juicy Lucy
For those who don't know, a Juicy Lucy is a hamburger with cheese in which the cheese is placed inside the hamburger patty rather than on top of the meat. In a word, Juicy Lucys are incredible. While adding good to already-established goodness is sometimes overkill, this is not the case here. Frying the patty is a simple way to upgrade a Juicy Lucy, as its frying requires some type of batter, and batter instantaneously ups the scrumptiousness factor in most dishes. Our mouths are watering just at the thought of this tasty creation, with its oozing cheese and slight crunch thanks to the batter.
7. Fried Gummy Worms
At some point during your childhood, you probably ate dirt and worms — both kinds, the real stuff produced by mother nature as well as the playful snack composed of chocolate pudding, gummy worms and crumbled Oreo toppings. At the State Fair of Texas, some genius thought of frying gummy worms to produce a snack that could easily be named "worms in a sand dune." Props should be given to the creator of this fun food — for originality and a high likability factor. We're thinking these would make excellent snacks for movie-watching.
6. Fried Watermelon
Doctor — what category does fried watermelon fall under in the food pyramid? Fruits and vegetables or fats, oils and sweets? What? What do you mean this fruit is unhealthy? We really gave it a shot to try to include a healthy option in this Top 10 list — hence the inclusion of fruit — but it looks like we failed miserably. Nevertheless, we still feel the least guilt in eating, looking at and thinking about this item just because it does include a fruit, unlike any of the aforementioned items, which come nowhere near anything that bears a close resemblance to "healthy." Either way, watermelon is always a crowd-pleaser.
5. Deep Fried Mac 'n' Cheese Sliders
Let us present you with a simple mathematical equation: fried macaroni and cheese + hamburger = excellence. It's simple math, folks. Take these two dishes — two of America's most delicious food items — and put them together; your end result will be nothing short of excellence. It's like a hamburger with cheese, on crack.
4. Fried Brownie
If you didn't lick your screen just now, you probably thought about it; these sweet little fritters are begging to be eaten. The sweet consistency of soft, doughy brownies enveloped in the loving embrace of batter and sprinkled with a bit of powdered sugar is just an explosion of happiness waiting to happen. While brownies are typically considered a dessert, this dish may serve as a meal in and of itself.
3. Fried Biscuits and Gravy
Since we live in the South, it's pretty safe to assume that you have tried and you like biscuits and gravy. But have you ever tried fried biscuits and gravy? If you haven't, you should, since the fried element adds a portability factor that just doesn't exist with traditional biscuits and gravy. The portability factor adds a whole new dimension to the deliciousness of this Southern delicacy. Let's face it: Sometimes having to sit down to eat something with a knife and fork just isn't much fun, especially when you're at a fair and there are things to see and things to do all around you; a sit-down meal is simply not an option.
2. Fried Chips and Salsa
Nothing screams Tex-Mex, and Texas, for that matter, quite like chips and salsa. This dish, an homage to one of Texas's all-time favorite appetizers, is a masterpiece. Tortilla chip-crusted salsa is meant to be dipped in a side of melted queso. Once the eater bites into the queso-dipped chips and salsa, they get the crunchy component of the chips, the spiciness of the salsa and the creamy greatness of queso — a trio of simple textures and flavors that simply does not compare to any other.
1. Chicken-Fried Cactus
In a state dominated by Tex-Mex cuisine, it is a mystery why the ultra-Mexican ingredient, cactus, is often overlooked and underappreciated. The mere thought of eating cactus may sound daunting to many. With its State Fair of Texas debut in a nice, chicken-fried format, cactus may have just found its breakthrough in the Texas food scene. We predict Texans will fall in love with these little chicken-fried cacti for their flavor and consistency — a bit on the slimy side — which closely resemble those of okra. And don't worry — all spines are removed prior to consumption. Go ahead, try them — you'll be screaming "gracias" to us all the way from the Big D.
KEEP ON TRUCKIN'
A group tries to combat food truck laws.
Do you know why you never see trucks with hot food downtown? It's because a City of Houston ordinance prohibits trucks with propane tanks from being in that area. The same goes for why there is no seating around food trucks, and really, who wants to eat standing up?
Because of these and other strange ordinances, food truck owners have banded together to form Mobile Food Unit Houston, or M.F.U. Houston for short. (Thank goodness there's an "M" in front of that.) The newly formed organization seeks to change some of the regulations that are hampering their ability to freely conduct business. A Web site has been set up at www.mfuhouston.com, and a press release was sent out last week.
The movement actually started more than two years ago as Save Our Food Trucks [see "These Men Want to Save You a Taco (Truck)" by Katharine Shilcutt, November 19, 2010].
So, why the sudden activity now after being so quiet all this time?
"It's been building behind the scenes," says J.R. Cohen, founder of SLGT (Support Local Grow Together), an initiative for businesses and consumers to support and purchase local business services and products. "We've been doing a lot of due diligence." J.R. is helping the group as a volunteer with strategy, communication and public relations. "It's an all-volunteer movement," he said. "There's no money involved here."
Cohen says that he's been passionate about food trucks and carts his whole life and that this initiative is about supporting entrepreneurs. "People come to this country and need to be able to survive. Sometimes all they have are their grandmother's recipes, and cooking food is what they use to start a business and make money. We need to support that."
Specifically, the group seeks to:
• Eliminate the requirement that there be a 60-foot distance between trucks;
• Only be required to get one liquid propane (LP) permit for multiple locations;
• Be able to park next to existing seating;
• Be able to provide limited seating of their own, up to three tables and six chairs;
• Be allowed to do business in the "District of Limitations 1," a.k.a. downtown, which requires removal of the propane restriction.
Does Cohen really think that the group has a chance of getting the regulations lifted? "I'm an optimistic person," he said. "I think we have a very good chance of getting the majority of these changed. It's really important that people support this, and them signing the petition greatly helps our chances."
The group will be presenting their recommendations for changes to the relevant ordinances in front of City Council on September 26, and an Awareness Event is planned for September 23 from 4 to 10 p.m. The location for that event will be announced later this month, but it's a sucker bet that it will be at City Hall. Phaedra Cook
Meat and Greet
Tango and Steak Night Tuesdays at MKT Bar Downtown.
It's a Tuesday night, and as I enter the MKT Bar at Phoenicia Specialty Foods Downtown, there's this kind of hazy, underground, industrial vibe going on. Strains of poignant, dramatic tango music are coming across the loudspeaker, and dancers slide and sway across the concrete floor, some with the tentative steps of beginners, others with the grace and confidence born of longtime practice.
It's a scene straight from the streets of Buenos Aires, where Argentinian tango is not only the national dance but a national pastime. "It reminds me of a milonga," I said as I took in the surrounding scene, thinking of the tango dance clubs all around Argentina. There we were, in the heart of downtown Houston, in the bar adjacent to a grocery store, no less, and lo and behold, a bona fide milonga was taking place.
MKT Bar is one of those places that might be easily overlooked because of its association with a grocery store. At night, however, the space turns into a full-service wine bar/cafe, with dimmed lights and daily entertainment (they have a full calendar, with local artists, DJs, etc.). Each time I've visited, it has felt like a cool hangout in some hip city. On that Tuesday night, the city would have been Buenos Aires. On other nights, I could have been somewhere in San Francisco, Seattle or Vancouver.
Tuesday and Thursday nights also happen to be steak night, another reason I'd made it a point to visit MKT Bar that night. For $12, you get a six-ounce grilled steak topped with chimichurri sauce, a mound of thin onion rings, a potato and a Mediterranean side salad. For the price paid, the quality of the food we received was remarkable. My steak was the perfect size for a midweek meal, the chimichurri sauce adding a good dose of garlicky herbaceousness that is typical of Argentinian steak preparations. The accompaniments were fun to eat, and the side salad was fantastic — cool and crisp, with olives and feta cheese, tomatoes and red onions. I'd ordered a lovely glass of sparkling rosé that night as well, another bargain at $7 for a generous pour presented in a fluted glass.
I had my dancing shoes with me that night, but by the time I arrived at 8 p.m., it was too late for the beginner lessons. It didn't matter. It was enough for me to sit at the bar with my girlfriend, both of us enjoying good conversation and banter with our bartender as we dined on steak and listened to the sultry sounds of tango filling the air. Mai Pham
Openings & Closings
Adiós Concepción, y bienvenidos Alma
Although there are only four items in this week's roundup of openings and closings, all of them are rather big deals (arbitrarily speaking, of course — there's still a presidential election going on and all that). Starting with the news that chef Jonathan Jones is out at Concepción.
I made one visit to Concepción and looked forward to making many others — Jones's food was an expanded yet streamlined version of the pan-Latin American cuisine he had begun experimenting with at Xuco Xicana. Housemade morcilla with the plush warmth of nutmeg, fresh and musky huitlacoche, stunning ceviches and the silky, hummus-like sikil pak made with pumpkin seeds (an old Mayan recipe) all stood out as some of the best dishes I'd eaten all year.
However, it was clear that Jones wasn't receiving the kind of support that he needed to make a go of it at Concepción. Although owner Jorge Alvarez had built Concepción out of the maddeningly inferior Oceans that previously occupied the big white house on West Alabama (it's not even fair to call it a rebranding, as Jones's ceviches were so superior), they never got around to getting a sign for the restaurant — which still bore the Oceans name — and support staff was limited. The night that I went, two waiters were being run ragged by a full dining room. Another night, a fellow food writer reported to me in confidence, she was told that the kitchen had only three burners working. And once I heard news that trusty general manager Matthew McLaughlin had left, it seemed likely that Jones would follow soon after.
When asked what happened by a fan on Twitter, Jones's only response was: "The sky fell..."
In other sad news, local dairy Way Back When will no longer be selling its excellent milk or dairy products in Houston, although it remains open and operational. The dairy was notable for providing the milk used in Greenway Coffee & Tea's coffees, the milk sold at Revival Market and the ice cream made by Fat Cat Creamery.
In better news, the newest location of local chain Barnaby's has finally opened in the old Convey space downtown. The corner restaurant space on Market Square always provided attractive views and a good location, but never had the right tenant. With Barnaby's in the spot, I predict the little corner unit will finally get the traffic it's long deserved.
And although we were all bereft when Samba Grille closed in July (well, at least I was), there's more good news to be had this week: Chef David Guerrero has resurfaced, and quickly — but far away from the downtown location of his South American steakhouse. Guerrero has already opened his first new concept, an "intentionally casual and approachable" Peruvian restaurant called Alma in the Energy Corridor of far west Houston. Alma occupies the space vacated by Chatters, which — like Convey — was located in a charming corner space that never saw the crowds it deserved.
And even though Guerrero is Ecuadorian, his menu at Alma will highlight Peruvian cuisine, says a press release:
"Opening menu highlights include his take on traditional Peruvian favorites and hearty regional offerings, some of which he first began experimenting with at Samba Grille, like Antichucho Limeno, beef heart, huacatay sauce, choclo potatoes, panca powder, Scallop Tiradito, chicha morada, cured scallops, rocoto seeds, creamy Tiger's milk avocado puree; Arroz con Pato, duck confit, duck chicharron, green peas, ají escabeche, dark beer."
In addition to Alma — which is now open — Guerrero is already planning a second restaurant, called EVO. Says the same press release:
"Named to mark his evolution as a chef and honor the current renaissance of Latin American fare, EVO is intended to serve as an incubator and creative showcase for experiential dining in the category. Weekly small plate, plus four-, six- and nine-course tasting menus will be built around concepts of feeling and emotion as inspiration and be accompanied by changing sensory clues, ranging from audio and visual elements, that aim to reinforce the intended mood. Each tasting menu will have its own theme rich in history that will tell a story inspired by the staff's own lives."
EVO will occupy a 1920s-era Montrose bungalow at 1722 California, and serves to bring the chef's talents to the already popular Lower Westheimer restaurant corridor, where it will be a most welcome addition to the eclectic area. Katharine Shilcutt
Homeroom Home Run
My First Taste of Bernie's Burger Bus.
What's bright yellow, has four wheels and could be mistaken for a school bus at a quick glance? In Houston, that would be the ultra-gourmet burger joint by the name of Bernie's Burger Bus. And if you haven't yet tried it, you're seriously missing out.
I'd heard great things about Bernie's, but what really got my attention was the fact that it took the top spot as this year's Houston Press Burger Bracket winner. (Which led to their recent invitation to participate in the World Food Championships in Las Vegas.) Still, it took me several months of hearing about Bernie's before I decided to chase it down, mainly because I was too lazy to figure out where I could find it.
That's the tough thing about food trucks. If you're one of those people who get cravings and follow those whims, like me, it's not as easy as going directly to a specific brick-and-mortar location whenever the craving hits you. If you don't know a particular food truck's schedule, you have to find them on Twitter, Facebook or their Web page and figure out exactly where the truck is parked.
For Inner Loopers, there are several locations where food trucks usually park: Bo Concept, Inversion Coffee on Montrose, Soundwaves, MFAH, the new H-E-B on Dunlavy and West Alabama, Agora Coffee House, Grand Prize Bar (inside the kitchen). The problem is, the trucks rotate locations, so just because you saw it parked in one spot on one day doesn't mean it will be parked there the next.
Luckily for me, on the night that I was craving burgers, I checked Twitter, then their Web site, www.berniesburgerbus.com, to find them parked at Inversion Coffee House. Inversion is convenient because there's usually ample parking, and you can eat inside the coffeehouse (and benefit from the air conditioning) or sit at one of the tables outside.
Bernie's menu is fun and catchy. Each burger has a school-themed name. The Principal is their classic American burger with all the trimmings. The Substitute has blue cheese, bacon, mushrooms and caramelized onions. The Bully is a big one, with two signature patties and all the trimmings. And so on.
It was a tough decision, but eventually I opted for the Homeroom, a single-patty burger topped with applewood bacon, cheddar, caramelized onions, chipotle aioli and a fried egg. My friend got the Substitute, sans blue cheese. We got a side order of truffle fries to share.
They said it would take about ten minutes for us to get the burgers, so we headed inside to get some coffee drinks and came back outside to pick up our burgers.
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I don't know what I expected when I unwrapped my burger, but I have to tell you that the glistening, fluffy bun and thick, heavy patty were a sight to behold, worthy of most sit-down restaurants and putting many to shame.
The patty looked to be about a half pound or more, and the toppings were applied generously. My friend's mushrooms oozed out of her burger as she took a bite. My egg- and bacon-topped burger was also bursting at the seams.
The very generous portion of truffle fries was also excellent. The thin-cut fries were crispy, the truffle oil applied with restraint so that the aroma was not overpowering.
As I got to the second half of the burger, it started to fall apart in my hands. The bun broke apart, and the meat and insides were falling apart everywhere. My hands were a gooey mess of whatever condiments had been applied coupled with juice that had oozed from the patty — and I couldn't have been happier. If only all burgers were that delicious. Mai Pham