The Guilty Pleasure: Deep fried everything on a stick. Where to Get It: The Arizona State Fair. Price: $5 and up. What it Really Costs: I'm staying the hell off my bathroom scale for at least a week.
Ladies and gentlemen, the high holy days of guilty pleasure food are upon us once more. That's right, it's time for the annual cavalcade of weird food on a stick at the Arizona State Fair, which runs every day (except Mondays and Tuesdays) through November 2.
Certain foods from previous years have quietly disappeared, sometimes to my chagrin. Pumpkin-batter corn dogs, you shall be missed. But as things go away, others rise to take their place. Some are surprising delights. Others, I wish I could forget. But one thing is for sure, there's nothing like many of these anywhere else.
The Big Hit Before I headed out to the fair this year, I wondered if pumpkin spice mania would make its way to any food vendors. Specifically, I realized that somehow, I had never seen deep-fried pumpkin pie at the fair, and I hoped I would encounter one. My wish was granted.
Thanks to the nice people at The Original Minneapple Pie, not only did I find a deep-fried pumpkin pie, I found a damn good one. In fact, of everything that I've sampled at the Arizona State Fair over the years, this is possibly my absolute favorite. And the apple pie they make is right up there too. As far as I'm concerned, a visit to the fair just isn't complete without at least one of their fried pies.
This style of pie isn't anything original or new. It's been a staple of the American South for ages, and has been bastardized by Hostess and McDonald's, among others. However, it merits inclusion here for a couple of reasons.
Mainly, it's something I haven't ever seen at the fair. For some reason, pie hasn't been on the list of fried fair food until now. The other thing is that this is just an outstanding product, at a price that's very reasonable as far as fair food goes.
Seven bucks gets you a handmade fried apple or pumpkin pie, topped with either vanilla or cinnamon ice cream. There are no wrong answers; you'll be delighted no matter what you get.
Other Hits One of the most novel creations at the Arizona State Fair this year (at least, one of the most novel worth eating again) is a head-scratcher: deep-fried coffee, available on the north side of the coliseum from a small vendor that does other oddities such as deep-fried butter.
There are a couple of ways to make it. You can cheat by making fritters flavored with the liquid in question, much like deep-fried Coca-Cola at fairs several years ago. The other way is better, similar to the deep-fried butter route. You make strong coffee with milk and sugar, freeze it, then batter-dip and deep-fry those. The end result is inside-out coffee and doughnuts. I would have bought a second serving if I didn't have a lot of other deep-fried goodies to try.
One of my perennial favorite stops is Sweet Cheeks, on the south side of the grandstand. They have one of the widest selections of deep-fried sweets, including the standby fried candy bars, Oreos, and Twinkies, plus quite a few other selections. I'm thrilled to see the deep-fried Nutella is back again. A new one in the weird-but-good category is a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped Reese's peanut butter cup.
This sucker is better than it has any right to be. Bacon and peanut butter are an unnaturally good match, and deep-frying the whole thing gets the peanut butter and chocolate delightfully gooey.
If you want to be a little silly, there's a stand that does oversized doughnuts. One of them is frosted with cherry frosting, and given a generous dusting of cherry Pop Rocks.
They've had the cherry Pop Rocks doughnut in years past, but it I felt like it was too tame compared to other Fair offerings. But, when a friend said he really wanted to try it, I had to beg him for a bite.
Let's be frank: It's an ordinary cherry-frosted doughnut, albeit a mutant-sized one. But, the addition of the Pop Rocks made it unique and more fun than I expected. It was on the expensive side for a doughnut (blame all those Pop Rocks), but it was enjoyable for how giggle-inducing it was.
A worthy honorable mention goes to the deep-fried pecan pie spotted at a couple of booths. It was quite good (with the warm, gooey, nutty filling, how could you go wrong?), but the Minneapple Pie blew it clean out of the water in pretty much every way possible.
Misses One of the items I was a little disappointed by is a veritable flagship for weird fair food: a maple bacon doughnut cheeseburger. It's exactly what it sounds like, a bacon cheeseburger that uses maple doughnuts for buns.
The combination of sweet and savory can be tricky, and in this case it fell too far on the sweet side. I felt like it either needed less frosting (the doughnuts were glazed and maple-frosted), or more burger. I think the optimal solution is the latter, making it even more over the top as a maple bacon doughnut double cheeseburger.
The other swing-and-a-miss that I encountered was a bar snack mash-up. Jalapeño poppers have been on menus for decades. Fried pickle slices have been popping up at sports bars recently. So, someone had the idea to combine the two, add a shot of booze, and make drunken pickle poppers.
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They took a big kosher pickle, hollowed it, stuffed it with cream cheese and jalapeño (and there's some tequila in there too, probably mixed in the filling), then gave it a cornmeal breading and fried it.
In theory, this is crazy enough that it just might work. In practice, it was nightmare fuel. I know exactly what I don't like about it. There's way too much pickle. All you taste is a hot, salty gush of pickle juice. I'm curious if it could be improved with a retool to sharply reduce the ratio of pickle to filling and breading.
Even though I wouldn't get the pickle poppers again, the pickle booth did have something very nice: fresh cucumber-mint lemonade. After running around in the sun all day, its refreshing, restorative powers were almost magic.