For native Southerners, fried alligator probably doesn’t sound that unusual.
But to a born-and-bred Californian, the sign offering seafood gumbo, crab fries, and crawfish étouffée at Southern Comfort Kitchen’s booth at the California Mid-State Fair caught my eye.
The fried gator — flown in from Louisiana and soaked overnight in a buttermilk hot sauce and a blend of spices — was the newest and most unusual offering we tried at the fair in Paso Robles this year.
My husband, Aaron, and I spent a few hours wandering around the fairgrounds Thursday evening, past the meaty smell of barbecued ribs and chicken, the sweet scent of grilled corn and lots of deep-fried goodies.
While it’s probably a good thing for my waistline that the fair only comes once a year, indulging in corn dogs, funnel cakes and a large glass of lemonade seems like one of the best ways to celebrate summer.
This year, we thought we’d try a few of the new offerings and good old standbys to help you decide how best to spend your money on fair food. Or at least make your mouth water.
TacosRating: 4 out of 5
Since it was nearly dinnertime, we decided to start with some protein. Our first stop was Tortilla Town, which also has a restaurant on 24th Street across from the fairgrounds. For $9, I ordered three tacos — chicken, carnitas and al pastor (thinly sliced grilled pork) — piled high with lettuce, cheese, sour cream and roasted red chile salsa.
The meat was well-marinated and tender, but the tortillas fell apart in our hands, dripping salsa and sour cream onto my jeans. Note: This vendor was only accepting cash.
Corn dogRating: 4 out of 5
We moved onto a tried-and-true fair staple: the hand-dipped corn dog from the Hot Dog on a Stick booth. I watched as an employee in a multi-colored hat dipped my dog into batter and then quickly deep-fried it. For $4.50, it was one of the tastier and less expensive items we tried.
Deep-fried cheeseRating: 3 out of 5
While purchasing the corn dog, we noticed another item on the menu — deep-fried cheese. For $4.50, Aaron got a stick of deep-fried pepper-jack cheese.
From the outside, with the golden batter deep-fried to perfection, it resembled a corn dog, but one bite revealed hot, gooey cheese that tasted, to me, like a squirt of hot Cheez Whiz. I couldn’t handle more than one bite; Aaron, however, ate the entire thing with relish.
CobblerRating: 5 out of 5
We were drawn to the Willamette Valley Pie Co. booth by the pink polka-dotted apron that owner Michael Compton was proudly wearing (which he called a “pie kilt”). He talked us into a piece of marionberry cobbler (a marionberry is a cross between Chehalem blackberry and an olallieberry).
The cobbler was $6; a scoop of vanilla ice cream added another $3. The berries were warm, sweet, and paired perfectly with the ice cream. We didn’t have any trouble finishing it.
Fried gatorRating: 4 out of 5
Southern Comfort Kitchen owners Brett and Jason Brill, at the Mid-State Fair for the first time, said the gator was one of their top-selling items. For $9, it came on a bed of seasoned rice, which my 11-month-old daughter appeared to enjoy.
We ate chunks of the gator off a skewer. It was chewier than chicken, encased in a light, crunchy batter and covered in a New Orleans-style rémoulade sauce that had a kick at the end.
Even Tribune photographer Joe Johnston had to taste this one, and he agreed with our assessment that it was pretty darn tasty. My only complaint is that it wasn’t a very large serving — but if you’re looking to leave some room for other fair food, maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Deep-fried Reese’s Peanut Butter CupsRating: 2 out of 5
Unless we overlooked it, we could only find one vendor, Ruthie’s Arizona Taters, offering deep-fried treats including deep-fried Snickers, Oreos, Twinkies and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which all cost $5 each (this vendor was also cash-only).
My take: Why mess with a good thing? Reese’s peanut butter cups are delicious on their own; there’s no need to dip them in dense batter and oil. The chocolate tasted pretty good heated up, but the peanut butter definitely did not. One bite was enough for me.
Aaron had a slightly different opinion: “The first bite I didn’t like, but by the third bite it was OK,” he said, finishing the dessert.
He declined to finish mine, however.