Look closely in the windows of the vendor booths that line the food court at the Amarillo Tri-State Fair. Beside the health inspection certificates, beyond the menus, next to the specials and add-ons, and through the extra toppings and napkins, you will notice photos, trophies and other assorted documentation of fair food awards. It’s an increasingly competitive field.
Bragging rights are big at county and state fairs, but the blue ribbons are a way of life for many of the people who have dedicated their time and taste buds to perfecting fair fare year after year. Those awards also provide a look into where those vendors have traveled from—and what meals connect Tri-State Fair goers with others around the country. At the same time, some local vendors don’t list their accolades in the windows, but instead let the food and their reputations speak for themselves.
Vendors of all types contribute to the culinary culture at this year’s Centennial Tri-State Fair.
During my “research” in the early days of this year’s Tri-State Fair, I treated the food court as a multi-course buffet, trying one thing here and taking several bites before surveying the spread of booths for what my stomach craved next. I easily could have spent several more hours reloading my Magic Money card (most vendors take both credit cards or Magic Money cards loaded from onsite kiosks) and working my way through each booth. There truly is something for everyone in the food court.
Corn in a cup from a local vendor was my appetizer. The corn was being roasted and shucked onsite in the back of the red shack, and the smell of the cooked corn cut through the combination of other aromas emitting from the deep-fried everything, including turkey legs being smoked just across the breezeway. A couple of scoops of cooked corn were topped with a creamy sauce (mayonnaise, I think, but I cannot say for certain) and a zesty red chile salt. Neither of which packed a huge punch or overwhelmed the sweet corn itself. The booth has bonus salts and toppings that are serve-yourself, so diners can flavor the corn to their own liking.
I surveyed the grounds for distinctive styles of corn dogs and found two vendors I hoped would have different takes on the fair food staple. They didn’t disappoint.
The first corn dog I ordered came from Boydston’s, which operates several different booths around the food court. Their Regular Corn Dog has a thick, slightly sweet, soft, pancake-like dough. It’s fried to a deep brown but retains its sponginess on the inside. A zigzag of serve-yourself mustard ties the sweet and savory elements of the corn dog together.
Another vendor offering corn dogs this year is Hoops. Their Jumbo Corn dog is dipped in a cornmeal batter before being fried to a deep brown. The batter itself has a neutral flavor—not too sweet, not too salty, and retains a slightly grainy texture, making for a more toothsome eating experience. I enjoyed the mix of textures, and the rich meaty flavor of the dog itself.
Sweet-and-savory is a combination of flavors I particularly enjoy, so it was back to Boydston’s for cheese on a stick. The melty sharp cheddar cheese—bright orange in contrast to its fried exterior—was more manageable thanks to the thick barrier of puffy dough keeping everything in place. I found it easy to eat, and immensely satisfying. (Pro tip for making things on sticks easier to eat: push up on the food from the bottom of the stick as you eat it and you won’t have to risk being interrupted mid-bite by a woody, flavorless intruder.)
The Hog Heaven booth enticed my interest, and the next “course” in my fair food tour came from there. Fried to order, the Everything Wrapped in Bacon booth has thick-cut Bacon on a Stick as a dish itself, plus a bucket of thin fries that can come topped with nacho cheese, jalapeños, and bacon bits. They also served Bacon-Wrapped Jalapenos, Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dogs, Bacon-Wrapped Chicken, and Nachos topped with—you guessed it—bacon. I opted for a Bacon-Wrapped Chicken on a Stick and had a few extra minutes to work up an appetite while it cooked.
It was well worth the wait. The Bacon-Wrapped Chicken on a Stick is dipped in a batter that tastes similar to a chicken tender from Raising Cane’s, but wrapped in a thick-cut bacon before it is fried to golden-crispy perfection. I found it to be flavorful, juicy and unique.
Two Tri-State Fair traditions were next on the menu for me: Curly Q Tators and a fry-bread (“Indian”) Taco. Curly Q Tators are a spiralized delight, freshly fried until golden, and served in a generous helping, which fills more than half a to-go box. I ordered them as I typically do, doused in cheese sauce. Extra salt, ketchup and other toppings are available to flavor them to a diner’s own preference. Eating them is like deconstructing a french-fry nacho plate, and I look forward to them every year. This dish requires extra napkins, but decorum is not required in the food court. Looking around while I was working my way through my yearly stack of tators, it became clear I was one of many customers too happy with my order to worry about a little cheese sauce spill.
My other annual Tri-State Fair food tradition is eating a Fry Bread (“Indian”) Taco. Rising in popularity in the national fine dining scene, the Fry Bread Taco is a puffy, crispy, savory sopapilla-like fried dough base, topped with all the taco fixings. Getting “everything on it” means a thick layer of fried bread, heaps of taco meat, pinto beans, lettuce, cheese, picante salsa, onions, sour cream, and pickled jalapeños on the side. The Fry Bread is the size of a dinner plate, and with all the additional toppings it will easily act as a whole meal—or in this diner’s case, the perfect final course.
After a few laps around the Midway and through the Rex Baxter Building’s exhibits, I had enough of an appetite to grab a bag of tongue-dyingly blue Cotton Candy to complete my Tri-State Fair food tour. The local and national vendors who provide all those delicious dishes have worked long hours—in all kinds of weather—to provide me what I love most about the Tri-State Fair, year after year.
I say they all deserve blue ribbons.