I jumped in my car this morning and twisted in the key. The car wheezed to life. From the radio blared an exuberant voice. That voice was talking about one of the newest eats at the Arizona State Fair: chocolate-covered tamales.
Yep, a chocolate tamale. And the thing comes on a stick. News of the creation got me jazzed up. Why? The fair was opening in a few hours, and I was on my way to do some eating. Here's what I ate earlier this afternoon in the oily hours just after the gates of the fair opened. It runs through October 29.
Flamin' Hot Cheetos Cheese Fries
This dish sounds like an idea pulled out of an acid trip, an ill-considered, Seussian case of cheese-on-cheese crime. But no! The fries drowned in nacho cheese and covered with a blizzard of bright-red crumbled Cheetos lived up to the hype. What hype? A vendor billed the fries as "excellent." The man was right. Strips of potatoes, hand-cut to-order, tasted light and fresh. A high tide of softness and moistness from the cheese and fries foiled the crunch of the Cheetos nicely. If you dig cheese fries, check this solid take.
Fried Oreo and Fried Butter
One viewer of the Facebook Live video of me sampling this trio of fried food claimed a five-pound weight gain upon watching the damage. Fried butter. Holy shit.
The fried Oreos had curiously three-dimensional shapes. They puffed almost into spheres, tasting light like the inside of funnel cake, with the chocolate spirit of the Oreo flowing through in a giddy rush to your taste buds. This staple lived up to its reputation as a top fried fair food.
And the fried butter. The butter starts frozen, and that's how the yellow pat encased in batter survives its long dunk in sizzling oil. When you think fried butter, think waffles. Soft and glorious waffles, fluffy inside and a little crisp out... but with half a stick of butter melted on top. That's what this take on fried butter conjures in my mind almost exactly. Really good buttered waffles with maple syrup, the ratios messed with to make butter the main component. Be careful biting into these! Warm butter squirts insanely.
(The fried Twinkie, the last element of this above-mentioned fried trio, wasn't the best. More on that below.)
Pop Rocks Doughnut
I wanted to opt for a bacon doughnut, but the nuclear pink glow of the Pop Rocks doughnut hooked my eye. A sticky circle of icing tops the doughnut, crowned with a generous dusting of Pop Rocks. The doughnut offers no real resistance, just pure give with a trace of sponginess. Those soft textures jive with the in-mouth fireworks of the Pop Rocks, which build a layer of texture and crackle on and on and on, looping into your next bite. Bonus: The doughnut was ready within 10 seconds of ordering. Magic stuff.
Baked Potato Loaded with Bacon Mac and Cheese The high today was projected to be 97 degrees. It was way too hot to be walking around eating a baked potato with mac and cheese. Maybe this would have hit the spot on a later October day. Not today. The potato, though baked to cloudy softness, felt diluted down to 50% of what it should have been. The mac and cheese had a sad, anemic flavor, and not even bacon could come to the rescue.
Fried Twinkie The fried Twinkie wasn't my favorite. The exterior had the look, texture, and taste of the outside of a corn dog. Nothing to complain about there. But the inner Twinkie was flavorless, the soft white exterior lost in a rush of frying oil richness and chocolate sauce on top, the weird Twinkie cream barely peeping through.
At a fair, bacon is like oxygen. You just can't really live without some. Strips of chocolate-covered bacon came cold and folded and in a Chinese-food-style box. This wasn't thick cut bacon or any kind of porcine delight that punches you in the mouth with flavor. Milk chocolate's sweetness dominated and the goodness of the bacon was snuffed out. For the $8 price tag, you could score much headier pork from the farmers' market.
Unicorn Leg: A $30 PORK LEG WRAPPED IN BACON.
A thrill ran through my crew when we spotted the unicorn leg. The leg is a massive pork haunch that strip after strip of bacon cling to, glued by spending an illogical length of time on the grill. I was the first person to order a unicorn leg at the fair this year. Hopefully, I am the last. I really wanted this thing to rock. I really wanted to say, reader, throw down your $30 and partake in this glorious Flinstonian hunk of meat. But the pork was cooked so eternally that my teeth could barely penetrate its rock flesh. The leg was inedible. I trashed the whole thing after one crunchy bite of hard plastic "meat." Maybe this was just an off-batch.
At last: the new and elusive CHOCOLATE-COVERED TAMALE ON A STICK
We didn't think we would ever get to the chocolate-covered tamale on a stick. At stand after stand we browsed the dish names emblazoned on cardboard, but nobody was offering the tamale. And then, as far away from the south parking lot as possible, there she was.
When you lift the chocolate-covered tamale's stick, the wan mass of chips (white and normal chocolate), masa, caramel, peanut butter, and powdered sugar unceremoniously plop down into the carton. It's a fugue of sweet chocolaty goop. The flavors don't meld together at all. What a bummer.
My advice: stick to standard tamales. And stick to normal eats when possible, as most of the crazy shit didn't quite electrify the taste buds. If you want to feast on some crazy eats, be sure to look up the deep-fried butter, which is pure euphoria, and the Pop Rocks doughnut for something both thoughtful and novel.
The Quick Lowdown
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Drink Tips. Check out the fruit-in-fruit stand, which serves fruit slushies, blended from nothing but ice and fruit, cold in the scooped-out rind of whatever fruit you choose. (Go pineapple!)
Boozy options are simple on the mixed-drink side of things, with margaritas and sangria dominant. The beer selection is strong overall, with a good class of Arizona brewers repped. On a hot fair day, joy is cupping your hand around a cold Four Peaks' Peach Ale or Mudshark's Pumpkin Ale.
Arizona State Fair. 1826 W McDowell Road
Wed and Thu 12 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 12 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday and Tuesday closed.