Eating a path through the State Fair | Rock Candy

Monday, October 13, 2014

Eating a path through the State Fair

Posted By on Mon, Oct 13, 2014 at 8:54 AM

click to enlarge MICHAEL ROBERTS
  • Michael Roberts
When it comes to eating at the Arkansas State Fair, there's probably no food writer better versed in all the goodies available than Kat Robinson of Tie Dye Travels. Every year, Kat brings readers the most comprehensive list of fair food that exists anywhere in the state, and I knew going into this year's 75th anniversary proceedings that I wasn't going to be able to keep up with her. 

But I did go to the fair, and I did eat, so I figured I'd share some of the culinary highlights will all of you. I don't think you can really go more than a few yards around the fairgrounds without fetching up against something to eat or drink, from fried Twinkies to chocolate-dipped bacon, frybread tacos to funnel cakes. I haven't heard any estimates as to how much fryer oil the vendors at the fair go through during their week in our capital city, but I imagine that a small fleet of bio-diesel vehicles could run for quite a while off it. 

The one drawback to fair food (beyond tempting the obesity, heart disease, and diabetes fates with all the high-calorie delights) is that everything is expensive. My local gas station sells a 32-ounce drink for $1; the same size drink at the fair is going to run you $5 — and refills will run $3 a pop (and the salty food is going to require refills). Jacked-up prices certainly aren't native to our fair alone — it's just the nature of the beast. They've got you trapped, because you'll want to stay all day, you're going to get hungry, and some of this stuff smells pretty good. Just be prepared to drop a large portion of your disposable income if you plan to eat at the fair.

So what tastes good? And what doesn't? Let's take a look at some of the stuff we ate.

click to enlarge Grator Tators - MICHAEL ROBERTS
  • Michael Roberts
  • Grator Tators
Grator Tators: My father-in-law thought the sign said "gator tators" when he ordered these and was taken aback when he received this plate piled with thin-sliced potato chips covered in chili and cheese sauce. And while he managed to get his hands on some actual fried gator later in the day, this massive plate of deep-fried deliciousness was one of the highlights of our fair-eating trek. The potatoes are sliced on-site, and taste just like a fresh potato chip should: slightly sweet, very salty, and with a nice crunch to chewy ratio. The chili and cheese were of the canned variety and didn't really add much to the dish, but I've got to give grator tators an A+ for the quality of their spuds. This dish has the added benefit of being huge, which makes it one of the most cost-effective items to buy at the fair, since several people can share it. 

click to enlarge Lamb Gyro - MICHAEL ROBERTS
  • Michael Roberts
  • Lamb Gyro
Lamb Gyros: While moseying through the food court, we came on a booth selling gyros with a sign up that said "WE FRY NOTHING." Normally, that wouldn't make much of an impact on us, but in the land of deep fried Oreos and funnel cakes, that stands as something tantamount to a statement of revolution. And since I love a good gyro, we bought a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of water, while my mother-in-law bought a shrimp pita. 

All the right ingredients where there to make a good gyro — thin sliced lamb, a surprisingly fresh spring mix, tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce. And for what it was, it was fine. Decent even. Unfortunately, because they're trying to serve a crowd of people in a hurry, the gyro meat is sliced and held in pan on the steam table, resulting in meat that is spongy instead of firm, and the sauce was really watery. While the sandwich might have been a little soggy compared to our favorite gyros joints, it is certainly a nice change of pace from the booths down on the midway who trumpet "FRIED DOUGH" as one of their specialties. Personally, I can't see the words "fried dough" without thinking of the Joad family slowly starving their way to California during the Dust Bowl in Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." But that's probably just me.

click to enlarge Rocky Mountain Oysters - MICHAEL ROBERTS
  • Michael Roberts
  • Rocky Mountain Oysters
Rocky Mountain Oysters: Now comes the portion of the day where I eat something just for the sake of novelty. Rocky Mountain Oysters — or, more honestly, fried bull testicles — exist at the fair for the same reason that fake samurai swords and airbrushed license plates do: they're something kitschy and fun. They exist so that girls can make gross-out faces while their boyfriends take dares from their buddies after too many beers and rides on the Zipper. They exist so that corny jokesters (like me) can make jokes like, "Man, the Arkansas State Fair sure has BALLS!," not to mention the number of hiiiii-larious sentences that all end with some variation of the phrase "in your mouth." The one thing they don't exist for is to be, you know, actual food. And thank god for that.

A paper tray of Rocky Mountain Oysters will set you back $8.50, and the result is a few scattered slices of battered bull atop a heap of soggy, useless fries. The flavor tastes like every other batter-fried thing in the world, and the texture is somewhat chewy (or extremely chewy depending on the piece). These are a fantastic "dare" food because they really don't have any kind of discernible flavor at all — it's really more of a mental thing that keeps folks from eating them. You could deep fat fry a flip-flop and get much the same result, but there's nothing funny about saying, "Hey, want to watch me put this flip-flop in my mouth?" At any rate, we took a little video of Roberts vs. the Bull, and I have to say that this one wasn't nearly as challenging as eating the durian. The Arkansas State Fair runs through October 19, so you've got plenty of time to head out to the fair!

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