It’s that time of year again, when dozens of specialty food vendors roll onto the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo carnival grounds to tempt visitors with their decadent delights. There are more batter-enrobed temptations than ever these days, with everything from deep-fried Reese’s Big Cups to strawberry Pop-Tarts.
We scouted out the carnival to find some of the best and most interesting goodies for this year. Be sure and check out last year’s list, too, since all that stuff is still available. Word to the wise: Bring moist towelettes! Some of the best carnival treats are finger food.
Bacon Cotton Candy: America’s obsession with bacon hasn’t wavered a bit, as exemplified by the fact that bacon cotton candy even exists. Find it at the Candy Factory stand at the carnival. Don’t worry — there aren’t any bacon chunks hiding in the light, sweet fluff. Instead, the confection is just a little smoky and salty. It’s odd, but not bad.
Nacho Bucket: The little standard containers of nachos always disappear way too soon, and a whole bucket full solves that problem. Layer upon layer of tortilla chips, cheese sauce and jalapeños means there’s plenty for two to share. (Make sure to grab napkins. They will be needed.) Yeah, a trick-or-treat-style bucket of nachos does seem like something that came straight out of an Invader Zim episode, but it’s a whole lot of fun.
“Cheezy Gringo” Potato: It’s warm comfort food stuffed with more comfort food — a baked potato stuffed with macaroni and cheese. There’s a ton of chopped bacon laid across the top, too. Is it the best macaroni and cheese ever? No, but it’s pretty good and the combination is quite the indulgence. Find it, and many other kinds of stuffed baked potatoes, at the big Spud Ranch booth. The Cheezy Gringo is $12.
Candy Apple With Tajin: Candied apples on-a-stick are classic carnival fare. Tajin is a powdered seasoning made with lime juice, hot chile peppers and salt. The tangy, hot spice mix sticks nicely to the candied sugar on the apple, and those who dare to bite into one will encounter an all-new flavor sensation. Find it at the Sweetie’s stand for $5.
Deep-Fried Strawberry Shortcake: Found at the Granny’s Chocolate-Dipped Sweet Stand, this is one of the more elegant deep-fried desserts at the carnival — and we daresay an improvement on the traditional take. The exterior of the yellow cake has a light crunch, and the interior is soft and rather delicate. The strawberry slices add a bit of fresh texture — even if we know darn well they come pre-packed in syrup. Never look at the man behind the curtain when it comes to carnival food. Just enjoy it.
Pickle “Fries”: Did you know there’s a trailer at the carnival that specializes in pickles? Deep-fried pickle chips, Koolicles (jarred pickles in Kool-Aid), fried pickles on-a-stick — you name it, they’ve done it with pickles. We went for a new item, pickle “fries,” which are really deep-fried pickle spears. These were delightful — hot, crunchy and much more substantial than the typical pickle chips. There was a huge pile of them in our $9 container, too. There are plenty to share.
Deep-Fried Snickers Sundae: Snickers bars are prime candidates for deep-frying. The caramel gets warm, luscious and gooey and the peanuts add a nice texture. The Fair Fix booth ups the ante by serving them alongside a hefty amount of vanilla soft-serve ice cream, then tops off everything with whipped cream and a cherry. The delightful, decadent combination is $9.
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Barbecued Pork Ribs: The boudin at the Triple J's Smokehouse trailer last year was one of our favorite food items, so we went looking for it immediately. Sure enough, during the World’s Championship Barbecue Competition, the trailer is parked in exactly the same place next to the Miller Lite stage. This time, we got a half-rack of ribs — and they were absolutely wonderful. Hands down, this was the best food we ate at the carnival. The moist, smoky meat pulls gently from the bone. These ribs are both seasoned and lightly bathed in a balanced barbecue sauce that’s not too sweet, salty or too taken over by tomato sauce. It’s just right. Who needs a tent ticket for barbecue? A half-rack is six ribs (plenty for a couple or one very hungry person) and will set you back $14.
And Don't Forget About the Free Meal at The Chuckwagon
As is traditional, during the World's Championship Barbecue Competition, anyone can head to The Chuckwagon and get a chopped barbecue sandwich, chips and barbecue beans completely free of charge with an admission ticket to NRG Park. It's not half-bad, either, and the very best thing about the experience is the volunteers, who always seem to be friendly and smiling while they feed the masses.
That's just the tip of the iceberg of all the interesting food at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo carnival this year. Exciting new finds should be posted in the comments below to help other carnival attendees seeking a culinary adventure.