This year’s theme, “The Adventure Continues ...,” seemed fitting for my heroic return to the fair — and probably a way for fair officials to play it safe after the false hope of last year’s theme.
As much as I wanted to repeat some of my favorites from last year like the Southern fried chicken sandwich from the Southern Comfort Kitchen food truck, I decided to try a few different things including a fair food staple, an interesting fried thistle and a whole lot of dessert.
Dressed like a tablecloth and accompanied by my eating partner, Tribune photographer Joe Johnston, I walked through the gates on a scorching hot Thursday a little bit older but not much wiser, as evidenced by my first food choice.
Bacon-wrapped hot dog
My love for bacon rivals that of Ron Swanson and Jim Gaffigan, so of course the first thing that caught my eye was a bacon-wrapped hot dog ($12) on the massive grill at Good Ol’ Burgers, located in front of the Ponderosa Stage.
The other options, a chicken kabob ($15) fit to feed a family of four and burgers, looked good, too. I also thought briefly about ordering the bacon-wrapped pork belly ($15) but wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment so early in the day.
Grill master Jorge was in charge of the iron beast that’s nearly as big as my apartment.
“Mucho calor,” Jorge said of the 102-degree midday temperatures plus whatever heat the grill was putting off.
Mucho calor, indeed.
The cashier at Good Ol’ Burgers wasn’t accepting credit cards, though she said they usually do, so after a trip to the ATM and a $4 service charge, I had the funds for the foot-long dog.
It was love at first bite.
The crispiness of the bacon paired with the juicy hot dog and the crunchy, warm bun made for a perfect combination. Joe agreed. I did catch some flak on Twitter for my topping — only ketchup. I’m not a fan of traditional toppings like relish or mustard, but they’re there if you want them. You can even get your dog topped with onions and peppers or a grilled jalapeño.
The only drawback was the cost. Twelve bucks for a hot dog is a little mucho if you ask me.
BBQ pork tacos
Our next stop was Jimmy’s Catering food truck on the main drag.
I asked for a recommendation and was pointed in the direction of the BBQ pork tacos ($12). Maybe they should rethink that.
I was encouraged by the description: two tacos on a flour tortilla with cheddar cheese, cilantro-lime slaw and Sriracha ranch sauce. And when my order arrived, I was impressed by the amount of food. I needed two hands to carry it.
But when it came time to take a bite, I was disappointed.
The tortillas were OK, and cheddar cheese seemed out of place with the other flavors, but it was the BBQ pork that proved the biggest letdown. There was way too much of the watery sauce and not much taste to the pork.
Really, I’m against the whole idea of merging BBQ sauce and tacos. The two go together like a cow pie and a pair of white shoes.
When I picked up my order, the server said, “I think our burgers are really good, too.”
My recommendation: Maybe try the burgers instead.
I’m always down to try new food. Especially if that food is battered and deep-fried.
So next we checked out The Choke Coach, a big green food truck next to the Headliner Stage advertising “World Famous Fried Artichokes” ($8).
The truck, which hails from Castroville, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Capital of the World,” batters its artichokes back home and fries them on the spot. They serve them up with a little bit of Parmesan cheese and a side of dipping sauce. I went with creamy garlic Dijon.
My first thought when I took a bite was, too much of a good thing.
The fried batter and the Dijon were great, but for the first time in my life, I thought, this thing needs more vegetable. All I could taste was the batter.
If the artichoke were a bit bigger, it would have been a perfect snack, but because it wasn’t, I’m going to have to drop it a letter grade. (FYI: There are steamed and grilled artichoke options.)
Strawberry and Nutella crepe
After a couple of sub-par savory meals, I was ready to explore the sweet side of the fair. Luckily for me, the fair’s got more dessert options than cowboy boots.
Opting to go a little unconventional, I stopped by the crepe truck, a Paso Robles-based staple for 20 years.
The crepe chef recommended either the sugar and cinnamon ($5.50) or the strawberries and Nutella ($8.50). I went for the second choice.
Joe tapped out at this point because the heat and the calories were getting to him, but I powered through this airy treat topped with a bit of powdered sugar without a problem.
It was delicious. Probably why they keep getting invited back.
I’m not sure which made me sweat more, the inordinate amount of food I was stuffing in my face or the soaring temperatures, but I knew one thing for sure — it was time for ice cream.
As we entered the fair, I noticed the nifty old white-and-neon-green Harmony Valley Creamery milk truck selling ice cream, and knew I would circle back.
In the sweltering heat, it really hit the spot.
Joe, who would never pass up a chance at ice cream, ordered a vanilla bean cake cone, and I got a cup of the fresh mint ’n’ chip (both $5.25).
Joe’s ice cream started to melt before we could even get a photo. But once we dug in, we were stoked. I was told the mint ’n’ chip uses no artificial flavors, and I believe it because I could see specks of green mint in my cup. It was a perfect way to end our food adventure.
So yeah, I’m a sucker for rich desserts and tube-shaped meat, so maybe I’m not exactly fit to be a food critic. But I won’t apologize for wanting to live in a world that has more giant grills and bacon, and fewer $12 hot dogs and BBQ tacos.
In any case, I enjoyed my fair experience. Hopefully I get the chance to do it again next year.