Finally, we’re back at the State Fair of Texas in 2021 after a hiatus in 2020. And our first stop was for fried food.
This year’s fleet of 10 Big Tex Choice Awards finalists brought loads of creativity and flavor. But it also had more disappointing bites than in any year we could remember.
It cost $139 to buy and sample all 10 of these foods, and one thing was very clear: Don’t do that. Use this list as a primer for which foods you should buy and which you can skip.
Note: We did not rank all the new drinks and food at the State Fair; there are more than three dozen. This list focuses on the 10 Big Tex Choice Awards finalists only, which we have called the fried-food “royalty” of the State Fair. Find a list of 25 other new items here.
Use this map to find all the Big Tex Choice Awards finalists; detailed locations are not listed for every dish.
#1: Deep-fried seafood gumbo balls — $25
The deep-fried seafood gumbo balls were, unquestionably, the best bite we had all day. I’d eat these for dinner and skip every other fried option, if I had to.
And I might: At a whopping $25, or 25 coupons, these are the highest priced of the Big Tex Choice Awards finalists, by far. We didn’t take that lightly.
My taste-testing partner Britton Peele thinks these gumbo balls were better than real gumbo. “I feel like I’m never filled up by a soup. This is all the great parts of a soup — but filling,” he says. The Big Tex Choice Awards judges also agreed and gave Greg Parish’s gumbo balls a rare two awards this year: best taste (savory) and most creative.
For $25, you get two hefty gumbo balls made with shrimp, chicken, crab, Andouille sausage and rice, a dark roux on top and on the side. Squeeze a little of the provided Tabasco on each one if you want more heat. Or, if you’re really ready, bring Crystal Hot Sauce in your bag.
These fried gumbo balls are the most talked-about new fried food at the fair this year. And they’re the most complex bite I’ve ever eaten at the State Fair of Texas.
Find them inside, at the Tower Building food court; and outside, across from the livestock birthing barn. Note that the Tower Building can get crowded and many people are not masked because they are eating.
#2: The Armadillo — $16
The remaining winner of the Big Tex Choice Awards was The Armadillo, a delicious cookie butter ice cream sandwich. We agree with the judges: The Armadillo is the best new dessert this year.
We couldn’t stop eating this generously-portioned dessert oozing with caramel and sticky ice cream. We kept wondering why it was so big: An ice cream sandwich half the size would still delight anyone with a sweet tooth.
But we’re not complaining. Grab this delicious dessert with two hands and repeat after me: Everything’s bigger in Texas.
Find it at just one stand: Barrera concessions on the Funway.
#3: Fernie’s Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake — $10
We almost named this our second-favorite dish, it was that good. The family that brought funnel cakes to the State Fair of Texas has made a comforting new dessert with cake doughnuts, buttered up and mixed with almonds and toffee. It’s panko breaded and fried, then topped with coffee whipped cream. We didn’t get much coffee flavor in each bite, but not to worry: If not for the adorably rhyming name, we’d like it with or without the coffee perk.
Fernie’s Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake tastes like your grandma’s best cake recipe, but with a toss in the fryer for some fair-food fun. “Absolutely anybody would like this dish,” Peele says.
#4: Lucky Duck Dumplin’ — $12
Nevermind that you’ve never had duck at the State Fair before. Or that Peele thought the Lucky Duck Dumplin’ sounded “too fancy.” I say grab a basket of Lucky Duck Dumplins as an appetizer before you dive into the rest of your fried-food adventure. Make it a progressive dinner! The dumplins are a great start.
Each order comes with three fried dumplings filled with cream cheese and duck bacon. The drizzle of Thai chili glaze is sweet, spicy and just right. I could have eaten another helping.
#5: Pork Shots — $12
Grease went running down my chin after my first bite of Pork Shots. Each eat-with-your-hands appetizer is a piece of sausage wrapped in bacon and topped with mac and cheese. Three come to each order.
The Pork Shots are a salty splurge — the kind of food your doctor tells you to avoid. But they taste so quintessentially fair-like, and they’ll please the carnivores in your group.
Note that Pork Shots are available at just one stand, the purple Hans Mueller tent next to the Chevy main stage. They were hard to find, tucked back in the left corner of the tent.
#6: Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake — $10
Pumpkin spice latte drinkers will surely love the Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake, a simple pumpkin bread covered in vanilla glaze.
We found the fall spice to be overpowering and the cake was somewhat dry. But they get extra points for the large portion size.
#7: Crispy Crazy Corn — $12
The word “crazy” does seem appropriate here, because each individual kernel of corn is battered and fried. How do they do that? I’m not sure, but the result gets points for innovation — though it’s lacking in flavor.
Each bowl of fried corn kernels is topped with smoked pulled pork and slaw, making for a bowl of Southern ingredients that didn’t seem to go together. We wanted more personality.
#8: Deep-fried I-35 — $15
The inspiration for this dish is that its concessionaires wanted to show off great ingredients that can be gathered up with a drive north or south on I-35. The base is a fried kolache, though it’s missing the fluffiness of a great kolache that Czech Texans made so popular. Atop each kolache is smoked brisket — the star of the dish — topped with Dr Pepper-peach glaze and slices of peaches. The trouble is, how do you eat this barbecue pile? We had a fork but no knife, so we tried to pick it up and eat from the side, like a piece of pizza. Bad idea, because the peach juice drizzled out the side and made for a messy, soggy base.
#9: Brisket Brittle — $12
Brisket, for dessert? We were into it until the sticky, sugary brittle was stuck in our teeth three hours later. Peele thought the brittle had an odd aftertaste of spice and smoke. I wished they’d candied the brisket instead of locking it inside this hard-to-eat dessert.
#10: Deep-fried Halloween — $15
If you have kids, this is going to be first on their list. We happily pointed an elementary-school kid and her mom toward the booth, where they bought this giant soft pretzel loaded with marshmallow whipped cream, candy corn syrup, sprinkles and a mess of chocolate Halloween candy.
But adults: Leave this to the kids. Deep-fried Halloween is a bomb of sugar and an overload of calories, even at the State Fair of Texas.