There’s nothing that brings together strangers like a table full of deep-fat fried, sugary, chocolate-coated, barbecued and batter-coated foods. Except maybe indigestion and a week of caloric regret.
That’s the idea behind the second annual Fair Food Scramble, in which seven participants were given $20 each to scramble for their favorite eats from the Sonoma County Fair.
The still-sizzling windfall was collected at a communal picnic table and everyone shared in the bounty, ultimately naming this year’s Fair Food Winners. That’s $140 worth of food if you’re keeping track. Calorie-counting is an automatic disqualification. Using your fingers, accidental double-dipping and sharing bites comes with the territory.
This year’s Scramblers were selected from dozens of entries submitted to BiteClub. On the roster: BBQ-lover Scott Minaker, an engineer from Fulton (“I see food, I eat it.”); senior food adviser, Ron Reynolds (and wife Merrillee) of Rohnert Park who claims he’s been coming to the Sonoma County Fair since before he was born; adventurous eater Marlene Hudson, a freelance Spanish interpreter from Santa Rosa; funnel cake aficionado Amy Leyack, a Santa Rosa-based executive recruiter; 10-year-old food critic Logan Bello; St. Helena kindergarten teacher Robin Robert and life-long fair food enthusiast Glen Schaezlein.
Why do they do it? “Fair food is such memorable food and you only get it once a year. But your stomach is only so big, so you have to make some decisions,” Robert said. So consider it a public service of sorts.
Having learned a thing or two after last year’s inaugural Fair Food Scramble, elastic-waist pants and plenty of napkins were the order of the day. “You need a buffet-sized shirt here,” said Leyack. “And even then we’ll probably fill it out.”
Over two hours as much food as humanly possible was tasted, debated, re-tasted, re-debated and ultimately ranked. Here are the results.
Best Overall Savory Food: Johnny Garlic’s pork sliders. As cute as they are delicious, these mini pulled pork sandwiches come with a sweet, savory sauce and slaw under a fluffy micro-bun. Totally money.
Runner Up: Bubba’s Barbecue ribs were a very close second to the sliders, with several Scramblers pleading the case for the sweet sauce and smoky meat that made for some seriously good eats.
Best Overall Sweet Food: “It’s a deep-fried plate of love,” said Amy Leyack of our almost unanimous sweet favorite, the strawberry, whipped cream funnel cake from Pennsylvania Dutch Funnel Cakes.
Best Classic: Willie Bird’s smoked turkey leg is a fair favorite, and for good reason. Even though you look like a Flintstone character while eating it, it’s plenty big for sharing and packed with dark, rich leg meat that’ll keep you fueled up for hours.
Best Group Eat: There are two rules about eating Big Jim’s curly fries. Eat them piping hot, and find as many people as possible to share them. The massive brick of fried spuds is perfect for group-feeds. Toss on some salt and don’t forget a couple squirts of ketchup.
Kid favorite: Forget eating around the edges. Logan Bello dove right into the middle of a mini-apple pie from Mom’s, then proceeded to eat his way to the edges. “This rocked!” he said.
Favorite veggie: Roasted corn covered with mayonnaise, parmesan, salt and pepper from Señor Carlos. Skip the mayonnaise and you’ve got a healthy snack. Leave it on for one that tastes like a slice of summer.
Healthy Fave: One of last year’s favorite dishes, pozole from Old Mexico, got a less enthusiastic nod from eaters this year, but still shines as a hearty, nutritious and reasonably priced meal with veggies, hominy, and a rich broth and fried tortillas for dipping.
Favorite Ethnic: Old Mexico’s steak tacos and Sam Pon’s combo plate of stir-fried noodles and fried rice got high marks all around.
Most smile-worthy: The frozen, Oreo-covered banana Robin Robert wrangled at Mrs. J’s Chocolate Pot might have been a bigger sell on a warmer day, but instead sat a bit forlornly through the feast. Post-lunch, a brave Marlene Hudson declared it quite delicious, if a bit squishy.
Favorite walk-n-chew foods: “I was surprised how good those Slim Jims were,” said one BiteClubber about Lakeside Jerky’s beef sticks, which quickly disappeared from the table. Meanwhile, we pretty much had to pry the churro out of Logan’s hands, as he extolled the virtues of its fried cinnamon goodness. Because really, who doesn’t love a churro (El Churro in the Mexican village).
Most-anticipated: Hudson made a bee-line for Mackinac Island Fudge’s rich, chocolate walnut fudge. The Scramble swarm ate it before she got a bite. Sorry, Marlene.
You may also want to check out: Even after spending $140 and a few hours eating, there were plenty of edibles left on our list, including Kettle Corn, Country Fair cinnamon rolls, shaved ice, Pronto Pups, Gidget’s Waffle Cones, gyros at the Sleek Greek (a huge hit at last year’s Scramble), Mary’s Pizza Shack and the ever-popular Ibleto’s Spaghetti Palace.
At the end of the carnage, Scott Minaker looked over the caloric destruction and deadpanned, “I gotta go get something to eat.”
What are your favorite fair foods?