There are a few central truths about the Arizona State Fair that seem to hold steady, season after season: The first week will likely be sweltering (the high on opening day this year was 97 degrees). Parking will be overpriced ($10 is the current going rate). The sideshow attraction advertising a “real live 12-foot Florida gator” will be disappointing (it’s just a sad-looking, slightly-oversize alligator trapped in a dim enclosure). And, of course, dozens of vendors will put out brightly colored sandwich boards advertising the season’s latest deep-fried food novelties.
There are no less than 95 food and drink vendors at this year’s Arizona State Fair, hawking everything from smoked turkey legs to deep-fried cheesecake, along with a spate of brand-new high-calorie concoctions. Just glancing through a list of the new foods this year may cause a spike in your blood pressure: deep-fried ice cream. A deep-fried tamale on a stick. Deep-fried butter. You get the idea.
American fair and carnival food, with its emphasis on shock value and low-quality ingredients, seems to represent a collective case of cognitive dissonance: It’s usually overpriced, and often pretty mediocre in flavor. So why do so many people seem to love the stuff — or do they just think they love it? And what exactly is deep-fried butter, anyway?
The phenomenon of deep-fried-everything sometimes feels like a relatively new development. Historically, though, fair food has always been less than healthy, and far more obsessed with novelty than quality. Historians point to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis as a watershed moment in American food history — that particular fair helped popularize many now-classic American fair staples like hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream cones, and cotton candy. Since then, regional and state fairs have become the place to unveil the latest in outrageous and over-the-top American food and drink.
So, how do this year’s crop of fair foods rank in terms of flavor and quality? Let’s just say you probably shouldn’t pin your hopes on anything that comes out of a deep fryer.
The natural starting point for grazing at the fair is probably “The Avenue,” the fair’s unofficial food court that stretches from the grandstand area southward toward the corner of McDowell Road and 19th Avenue.
That’s where you’ll find the Carne Café Taco Stand, which advertises a “Giant 3 LB Burrito,” and also its newest offering, a deep-fried tamale on a stick.
On a recent visit, the tamale was an unequivocal dud of a starter: mealy, bland, and extra-starchy, with barely a trace of dry, flavorless pork — or was that beef? You get your pick of red or green sauce, but both the protein and chile are so scarce, it’s hard to tell exactly what you’re eating.
The tamale also bears no discernible signs of being deep-fried, and if you try to pick it up by its wooden skewer, sort of like a tamale lollipop, the whole mealy thing crumbles like sand. False advertising? It probably wouldn’t be the first time a sandwich board didn’t tell the whole truth.
A few stands down from the Carne Café, there’s Ricardo’s Hawaiian Feast, a new vendor that was a hit earlier this year on the California fair circuit. The sleek stand is decked out in a Hawaiian Tiki motif, decorated with a bamboo façade and piles of fresh pineapples. The fruit isn’t just a sweet-smelling accessory; the staff hollows out the pineapples, turning them into vessels for a frothy, ultra-sweet piña colada.
The signature dish at Ricardo’s is the “Mowie Wowie,” a hollowed-out, halved pineapple stuffed and layered with white rice, creamy Hawaiian coleslaw, and then topped with your choice of chicken, beef, sausage, shrimp, or ribs. The final touch is a jaunty pink umbrella, which is possibly put there to distract you from the fact that you just paid $15 to $18 (depending on whether you ordered one or two meats) for a jumble of rice, coleslaw, and a few slivers of cooked protein.
On a recent visit, the Mowie Wowie with chicken and shrimp yielded a few tender, moist hunks of chicken breast, which were nicely accented with a syrupy teriyaki sauce and scatterings of sesame seeds. The shrimp, though, was a tad undercooked, and the whole thing got cold fast.
Perhaps you’ll want to console yourself with a paper boat full of deep-fried butter. You’ll find it at Fried A Fair, a sort of fair chain with three different concession stands scattered around the heart of the fair midway, where the carnival barkers shout to make themselves heard over the fuzzy stream of Top 40 hits blaring out of the speakers.
The golden, deep-fried nuggets look like small, rounded, toothpick-speared pancake poppers, heavily dusted in confectioner’s sugar and served, if you like, with a drizzle of maple syrup.
So, you pick up one of the freshly fried pancake nuggets by the toothpick — try not to choke on the thick layer of powdery white sugar — and even the most careful of bites delivers a white-hot spurt of melted butter. You may notice a glob of half-melted butter still clinging to the toothpick cocooned inside the nugget. If you can look past the trouble of searing your tongue with hot butter, the combination of sweet breading and melted, salty butter is strangely compelling.
Deep-fried butter is downright gourmet compared to Pickle Fries, though, a new food that is making its fair debut this year at a midway stand called Get Pickled O Pete’s. For a mere $10, you can get a paper boat piled with the fries, which are essentially deep-fried dill pickle spears. The pickle fries were served cold and oily on a recent visit, the thick, unseasoned breading falling apart on contact.
You’ll find better eats in the concession stands clustered around “The Backyard,” the picnicking area located just east of the fair’s creaky, old grandstand.
That’s where you’ll find Phat Dawgs, a British Columbia-based vendor that has been selling at the fair for the past five seasons. Owner Jason Au is debuting a new Sriracha Dog this year, which is made with a long, extra-juicy frank topped with tomato slices, a fried egg, and then sluiced with a pretty good Sriracha-mayonnaise sauce. He also makes a very good Japanese Dog topped with crunchy fried onions and seaweed, which adds a nice, earthy funk to the dish.
In the same general vicinity, there’s also Ricos Man Jares Mosita, a sprawling concession stand advertising Sinaloa-style tacos, mariscos, and snacks. The stand is debuting a menu of shrimp and tilapia tacos — none of which were available yet during lunch on opening day of the fair.
But Ricos is a pretty reliable source for hot, deliciously charred carne asada and juicy, well-seasoned al pastor tacos. Sure, you can find good tacos in almost any corner of the Valley, but if you want to inoculate yourself against fair food disappointment — if you want a safe, tasty bet — these tacos fit the bill.
Better yet, head over to Eggroll On a Stick, a small, unassuming concession stand located in front of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum west-side entrance. The San Francisco-based vendor is debuting its “toothless dragon wings” this year — toothless because the wings don’t have the spicy bite of traditional hot wings.
The wings are twice-fried to make them extra-crispy, and dipped in a lovely, faintly sweet orange sauce, which owner Michael Chow says is made fresh every morning using real oranges. The wings are delicately and deliciously crisp on the outside, and the meat is hot, soft, and very tender. Great wings at the fair — who knew?
For dessert, you probably won’t regret skipping all the stomach-churning, flim-flam fair food — all those deep-fried pies and cakes and blobs of butter. Instead, consider a stop at Eli’s French Bakery, a vendor debuting this year inside the noisy, airless shopping pavilion situated at the western edge of the fairgrounds. There you can buy a small bundle of light, sweet, very fresh coconut macaroons.
Save your money, and the stomachache, for another night.
Arizona State Fair
1826 West McDowell Road
Mowie Wowie $18
Deep-fried butter $8
Japanese-style hot dog $8
Coconut macaroons $7