Wacky Arizona State Fair food gets graded by dining critic – The Arizona Republic

That screaming you hear isn’t coming from the thrill rides, it’s coming from your arteries.
It is, once again, time for the shameless caloric excess of the Arizona State Fair. Through October 28, dozens of stands will feature the kinds of sweet treats, fried foods and grilled meats that have come to define American fair fare. But just because you’re indulging your baser culinary urges doesn’t mean you can’t still be a little discerning.
There’s good food. Then there’s bad food. Then there’s food that’s so bad it’s good.
For the fourth year running, I scoured the fair in search of a little from Column A and a little from Column C.
Here’s what I found:
Stand: Biggy’s
Price: $16
I’m a little surprised turkey legs haven’t been subjected to the same kind of arms race we’ve seen with deep-fried desserts, but perhaps their time has finally come. The signage implies that the spicy turkey leg is imbued with the liquid fire of Cholula hot sauce, which sounds great in theory. In practice, however, this is closer to a standard issue fairground turkey leg with a hint of nondescript spicy buzz and not a whiff of vinegary kick. But hey, it’s still a pretty decent fairground turkey leg.
Grade: B
Stand: Old West Cinnamon Rolls
Price: $5 (add $1 for topping)
Not that anyone at the fair is expecting freshly made cinnamon rolls, but the fact that you can buy a pack of frozen “Take N Bake” rolls makes it pretty clear that this is a turnkey operation. And you know what? That’s a good thing. Defensive ordering 101: a frozen product might not be the best, but it probably won’t be the worst. And these are perfectly tasty, soft and appropriately gooey, even before you add sweet cream cheese frosting, stewed apples that actually have some texture and nuts that are toasted and crisp.
Grade: B-
Stand: Piggly’s Seafood
Price: $7
Y’know, it’s great that Phoenix is experiencing something of a seafood renaissance right now, but there’s a disturbing uptick in seafood activity at the state fair, which is really the last place anybody should be looking for it. And it’s a shame because this had so much potential. What says state fair more than taking plain old fried calamari and serving it as a whole, footlong deep-fried kraken? Nice job on the crisp coating, but the soles of my shoes were more tender than this critter, and a pile of limp, grease-soaked fries didn’t help.
Grade: D-
Stand: Biggy’s
Price: $8
Ahhhh, now here’s the kind of ode to excess that is the state fair’s raison d’être. In any other context, French fries would be one of the most calorie-dense foods in the arsenal. At the state fair, they’re the baseline. Biggy’s tosses them with butter, dusts them with cinnamon sugar, drizzles them with caramel sauce and tops them with whipped cream and Fruity Pebbles. Two of my molars rotted and fell out after the first bite. My heart is still palpitating. But if you’re a hummingbird, boy, have I found the state fair food for you.
Grade: C+
Stand: Texas Donuts
Price: $10
Just because something is excessive doesn’t mean it can’t also be elegant, and its equine namesake notwithstanding, there is nothing elegant about the Unicorn Donut. Take a sticky, gummy doughnut, dip it in sour nerds and plunk a misshapen tuft of cotton candy on top. I suppose there might be some appeal here for the pretty pretty princess contingent, but any discerning princess will tell you that looks less like a unicorn’s mane and more like fiberglass insulation.
Grade: C-
Stand: Fresh & Fruiti Raspados
Price: $4 each ($11.50 for a plate of three)
Fresh & Fruiti isn’t going to supplant your favorite local taco stand, but those in search of actual food rather than food-themed gimmicks will be pleased to find a meal that can be described as “pretty tasty” without any qualifiers. Tender, well-seasoned chicken, beef or pork are griddled and served up on respectable tortillas with a selection of fresh salsas that have some kick. Heck, I’d eat these even if I weren’t at the fair.
Grade: B
Stand: Pickle Pete’s
Price: $2
Pickle Pete’s would make Gordon Gekko proud. They’ve found a way to monetize their byproducts, turning pickle brine into a radioactive green test tube of a shot that sells for $2. But as a friend once said, the best kind of scam is the one in which you willingly participate. “People who love pickles but hate to chew” may seem like a dubious target market, but the truth is I’d happily take another salty swig of this stuff. I want to joke about spent fryer grease being the next frontier in state fair beverages, but I’m kind of scared that if I say it three times it’ll actually happen.
Grade: B-
Stand: Dole Soft Serve
Price: $9
Like a cool, creamy oasis of sanity in this deep-fried desert, the Dole Soft Serve stand may be the most exciting addition to the state fair lineup. There is a reason Dole Whip is a cult phenomenon and quite possibly the best thing about going to Disneyland. Silky pineapple soft serve with just the right balance of sweet and tart only gets better when it’s floating in a cup filled with icy cold pineapple juice. The blacktop jungle of the state fair never felt so tropical, even without the paper umbrella.
Grade: A
Stand: Baja Lobster
Price: $18
Jesus, take the wheel. When I tried the lobster fettuccine, I think I momentarily left my body. Not because it was heavenly, but because I was trying to escape. I realize I brought this on myself, but the mind boggles at the sheer wrongness of this dish. Start with a thick, goopy cream sauce. Follow with a spicy, seasoned pile of stuff that I’m going to (somewhat naively) trust is actually lobster, but if so, might best be described as some manner of lobster-based industrial byproduct. And on top? A heavy drizzle of garlic mayonnaise, because why not. So why only a D-minus? The pasta was actually al dente. Which is more than I can say for a lot of Italian restaurants around town.
Grade: D-
Stand: Baja Lobster
Price: $14
After savaging the fettuccine, I felt compelled to give Baja Lobster one more try and opted for something that I figured would be difficult to screw up. The coconut shrimp are dumped frozen from a box into the deep fryer before joining a handful of factory French fries and a boat full of cocktail sauce. They are exactly what you expect. And that’s probably for the best.
Grade: C+
Stand: Mad Hatter Funnel Cakes
Price: $8 (add $1 for topping)
The grounds are peppered with stands serving this fair food classic, but not all of them are the same. The funnel cakes at Mad Hatter are exceptional specimens, made with a flavorful batter and fried in cast-iron pans to a tangled, lacy crisp. Searing hot, tender inside and topped as you wish, this is classic fairground fare at its absolute best.
Grade: A
Stand: Island Noodles
Price: $11
Yeah, it was about as good as it looks. Yakisoba should be such a fair food gimme. Mix up some noodles, some fresh veggies and a splash of sauce, add a little wok hei and you’d have something that takes seconds to prepare, fresh and tasty to order. So naturally, they chose to cook up a giant batch and let it steam, slowly dissolving into a pile of vaguely Asian-ish mush, redolent of creosote and sadness. They say 21 vegetables went into the dish’s creation, but I could only taste one: regret.
Grade: F
Stand: Chicago Style Hot Dogs
Price: $8.50
As a native Chicagoan, I have steadfastly avoided this stand for years, but could resist no longer. To my surprise, this was a pretty decent Chicago dog. It’s a skinless frank, unfortunately, but still Vienna Beef, topped by the staff with all of the applicable accoutrements, save one: mustard. You have to apply it yourself from an industrial squirt bottle. Problem is, drizzling mustard over an already dressed Chicago dog is like eating a Twinkie with the cream spread across the top. It just ain’t right.
Grade: B-
Stand: Nitro Treats
Price: $7.50
This looks like a really dumb gimmick. I am here to tell you it is not. They take candy popcorn, briefly douse it with liquid nitrogen, drain it and serve it simply in a plastic cup. The result is fluffy popcorn kernels encased in an impossibly light, crisp candy shell that releases an ephemeral burst of chilling mist when you bite into it. This is what homemade dessert must be like if your mom’s from Salt Lake City and your dad’s from Hoth. I have never in my life cared about candy popcorn until now.
Grade: A
Stand: Cardinali’s
Price: $10
How did it take me four years to try the deep fried watermelon? A crisp, savory batter shell gives way to the juicy crunch of a watermelon wedge, its understated sweetness bolstered by a drizzle of strawberry syrup and a dash of powdered sugar. It’s crunchy, sweet and just a little greasy, a symphony of temperatures and textures that’s served on a stick. This may be the perfect state fair food.
Grade: A+
Reach Armato at dominic.armato@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8533. Interact with him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.


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