First came the fried artichokes, followed by chicken tikka masala, a funnel cake, two corn dogs, a macaroni stuffed hamburger and a pork chop on a stick. And that was just the warm up.
Each year, a handful of intrepid eaters volunteer to throw caloric caution to the wind in a swirl of gastronomic mayhem on opening day of the Sonoma County Fair (July 22-August 7, 2016). Lasting a mere 90 minutes, the ten lucky BiteClub Fair Food Scramblers purchase as many fried, dipped, battered, smothered, stuffed and candied foods as a picnic table and their stomaches can hold. Once all the food has been piled high, its time to dive in to see which of this year’s foods will reign supreme, and which are best avoided.
This year’s team: Mark Walsh, 57 of Santa Rosa; Bernadette Smith, 33 of Santa Rosa; Paul Derkos, 52 of Sebastopol, Amy Meiers, 33 and her son, Cannon, 8, of Santa Rosa, Michelle Marques, 43 of Santa Rosa, Phyllis Morton, 82 of Santa Rosa; Stephanie Ainsley, 31, of Santa Rosa; Jared Wetmore, 28 of Sebastopol; and Henry Chetel, 23, of Sebastopol.
Overall, the group spent about $325 in total, tasted food from 22 vendors, with prices ranging from $5 to $16 per item.
When the powdered sugar had settled, here were their results…
Best Overall Food: Pineapple Shrimp Bowl, Ricardo’s Hawaiian Feast
A hollowed-out half pineapple, stuffed with rice, slaw and grilled shrimp. Not only was the presentation spectacular, but the fresh flavors made this a top pick. Ricardo’s is a new vendor this year, and eaters can pick out their own pineapple bowls. “I just loved that part,” said Meiers, whose son, Cannon, 8, was determined to polish off Ricardo’s non-alcoholic pina colada in a pineapple. (He succeeded, including the maraschino cherry, and was last seen walking away with the pineapple).
Best Mexican: Tacos Trios, Old Mexico
Carne asada, chicken and pork tacos were a a great combo, with something for everyone. A runner up was a cup of melon and jicama with chili spice from Pepe’s, and the Jamaica (hibiscus) drink from Rose’s Mexican Food was a refreshing drink favorite.
Best Dessert: Sticky Rice with Mango, Thai Time Asian Bistro
Funnel cakes and ice cream are fair food favorites, but sticky rice with fresh mangos is a dessert that doesn’t come with an evening of regret. This is the second year the sticky rice has gotten a big thumbs up. Funnel cake enthusiast Bernadette Smith, however, was true to the “everything” funnel cake with, well, it was hard to tell, but whipped cream, strawberries and cinnamon apples were represented. “The best part about this,” she added, “is getting to try all this without having to share with my husband.”
Best Fries: Dirty Greek Fries, The Sleek Greek
Fries slathered in tzatziki, with beef and feta were messy as heck, but the winner in this highly competitive category.
Best Indian: Chicken Tikka Masala, India Gourmet
No one was quite sure what category to put this under, but Scramblers thought it deserved a high five for taste, and was quickly polished off.
Best Pizza: Jerk Chicken Pizza, Biardelli’s
A huge slice with spicy chicken caught the attention of the pizza-loving Scramblers, who were impressed that the owner insisted on giving them a fresh slice right out of the oven. Biardelli’s is new this year.
Best Thing on a Stick: Chicken Kabobs, Big Stuffies
Though it wasn’t flashy, chicken kabobs with grilled onions and peppers were the winners in the competitive “stick” category, beating out corn dogs, fried cheese, and a few skewered items Scramblers weren’t entirely certain they could identify.
Best Thing Between Two Buns: Green Chili Philly, Big Stuffie’s
Derkos couldn’t say enough about this spicy (but not too spicy) sandwich. “I’d come back for this,” he said. As the last man standing at the table, Derkos had plans to hit a few more vendors before leaving the fair. “Life is short, eat hard,” he said.
Best Vegetarian: Fresh Summer Rolls, Thai Time Asian Bistro
Rice paper rolls with noodles, fresh veggies and peanut sauce were a needed relief from the tidal wave of greasiness on the table. “They were really one of my favorites,” said Stephanie Ainsley.
Best Fried Deliciousness: Fried Artichokes, Sharky’s
Home to pretty much anything fried you can imagine, Sharky’s is a perennial favorite, but this year’s fried artichokes were especially good on opening day. “I’m so surprised how good all the food is,” said Phyllis Morton, whose favorites were the artichoke hearts and Sharky’s Lobster Dog.” “This isn’t gourmet eating,” she said, “but it’s fun eating.” Mark Walsh echoed the enthusiasm for Sharky’s saying, “Put it on a stick, deep fry it and I’ll eat it.”
Head Scratchers: Pork Chop on a Stick and Cucumber on Lumber, Elmer Fudd’s Roasted Corn
The Scramblers wanted to love the unique concepts, which included a skewered pork chop (with a skewered roll attached), but found the chop a bit dry. The Cucumber on Lumber? It’s a cucumber on a skewer, and that’s it. So if you really want a whole cucumber on a stick, you know where to go. On the plus side, the roasted corn was yummy.
As the Scramblers began disbanding after the food frenzy, Michelle Marques summed up the experience by saying, “It’s just fun to go around to all these places, to let all the juices drip down your face, to have that nostalgic fair food experience again.”
Want to try some of the dishes the Scramblers had? Go to SonomaCountyFair.com to see a comprehensive list of food and drink vendors.