Mid-State Fair

How a Southerner rates the Mid-State Fair's Southern food

The Tribune's Travis Gibson samples the fried gator bites on a stick from Southern Comfort Kitchen food truck at the California Mid-State Fair.
The Tribune's Travis Gibson samples the fried gator bites on a stick from Southern Comfort Kitchen food truck at the California Mid-State Fair. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Armed with a fist full of antacid and an easily adjustable belt, I set off Thursday on my most ambitious assignment yet as a journalist — to conquer the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, one food item at a time.

I was chosen for this assignment, in part, for my culinary background. Before I moved to the Central Coast a little more than a month ago, I was firmly planted in the South (Jacksonville, Fla.) for 27 years. My objective was to focus on the Southern fare based on the fair’s theme, “Puttin’ On The Gritz.” My résumé includes a strong appreciation for macaroni and cheese, a refrigerator usually stocked with at least 10 different barbecue sauces and a gut stronger than Paula Deen’s Southern accent.

After a light lunch and the regrettable decision of skipping The Tribune’s Ice Cream Social, the first stop on my Fair Food Tour was the Southern Comfort Kitchen food truck located behind Adelaide Hall.

Fried gator bites on a stick

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

Being from Florida, it was only natural my first order was the fried gator bites on a stick, ($9) though this gator was flown in from New Orleans, the menu said. The bites were served on a bed of rice and covered in a rich remoulade sauce. The gator was fairly tender and its fried shell featured the perfect amount of crunch, but it was the remoulade that made this dish. The French-inspired mayonnaise-based sauce was right on par with sauces I had during a trip to New Orleans. (Grade: B)

Southern fried chicken sandwich

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

The Southern Comfort Kitchen also has a tent location right next to the Frontier Stage with a shorter menu. I stopped by that spot following a recommendation by my server at the truck to try the Southern fried chicken sandwich ($9). Let me tell you, this sandwich was a revelation, but not for the faint of heart, or stomach. The sandwich carries two deep-fried chicken breasts — marinated in buttermilk, garlic and spices — topped with a “sassy vinaigrette coleslaw” and slathered with garlic aioli. The sandwich was served fresh out of the fryer, and after one bite I wished they would have fit two more breasts on the French bun. Nailed it. (Grade: A)

Tri-tip sandwich

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

In my short time on the Central Coast I must say I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the barbecue here. But during visits to BBQ joints in the South, I’ve never seen a tri-tip sandwich on the menu, something that seems to be a staple here. At the fair I tried the tri-tip sandwich ($12) from Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ. The meat was tasty and tender, but the bun was basic and the sauce was too ketchupy. Surely no match for Firestone Grill or Old San Luis BBQ. I did see one customer order what looked like a spectacular chicken kabob, but my chicken quota for the day had been met. (Grade: C)

Corn on the cob

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

Based on the theme of the fair, I figured my food tour would include grits. But after circling the fair three times one thing was clear — there were no grits to be found! A rather ironic twist. I guess I’ll have to wait until I return home to try them again. With no grits in sight, I made a stop to try some corn on the cob ($3.50), parent to the grit. It was an acceptable, buttery and grilled substitute from The Corn Shuck. (Grade: B)

Deep-fried Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

My final stop of the day was at Ruthie’s Arizona Taters, but not for spuds. When Ruthie isn’t doling out french fries and potato chips, she’s deep-frying Twinkies, Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I tried the Reese’s ($5). They were served on a stick covered in powdered sugar as a bonus. This, obviously, was the highlight of my day. But don’t tell my doctor. (Grade: A+)

The fair still has plenty of typical food options like corn dogs, tacos and funnel cakes. And there were a lot of dishes and other BBQ trucks that I couldn’t try because it was physically impossible. But even without grits, the mix of regional and southern food made it enjoyable and better than most fairs I’ve attended.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a nap.