If you go to the State Fair of Texas with the ambition to taste-test all eight Big Tex Choice Awards finalists, take this unusual suggestion this year: Don't. The 2016 fleet of mostly fried dishes disappointed our team of 13 GuideLive.com taste testers.
While the Big Tex Choice Awards are certainly one of the State Fair's most delicious traditions, our tasters went wild for only one of the eight dishes -- the Injectable Great Balls of BBQ.
These fried brisket balls made by concessionaire Glen Kusak are flavorful and fun. Made with the "state meat of Texas," as copy editor Kim Oglethorpe noted, they're the quintessential Lone Star State dish your Yankee friend thinks you eat at the State Fair of Texas. And they taste great, too!
Some of the concessionaires selling Big Tex Choice Awards finalists seemed to struggle on Opening Day with execution. Fried Jell-O, for instance, won Best Taste from a panel of judges this year. During our taste test on Opening Day, we received three orders of undercooked blobs, the innards so gooey some of our tasters spit them out. This year's Most Creative dish, cookie fries, didn't seem especially novel and tasted just OK. Tasters offered flimsy compliments such as "they're cute."
If you were to purchase all eight Big Tex Choice Awards dishes this year, you'd spend 158 coupons, or $79. We recommend you save your coveted coupons for the foods you'll really love.
Here's our food 'n fun itinerary this year: Take a ride on the Texas Star Ferris wheel while you eat a Fletcher's corny dog; grab a Funnel Cake Ale with a powdered sugar rim; take a selfie with Big Tex; hug a goat in the petting zoo; and share an order of Injectable Great Balls of BBQ.
Take a look at our ranking of all eight Big Tex Choice Awards 2016, from best to worst.
The best: Injectable Great Balls of BBQ
Score: 4.36 out of 5
Price: 20 coupons, or $10
What is it? Shredded brisket tossed in barbecue sauce and rolled into balls and fried. A syringe of extra barbecue sauce on the side is both fun and functional.
Why we loved it: Barbecue snobs need not be concerned. There will always be room in Dallas for beautifully smoked brisket with ribbons of luscious fat. Separately, there's room for Kusak's brisket, which breaks all the traditional Central Texas barbecue rules by getting baptized in sauce and then deep fried. Each ball is filling and delicious, and like little bites Big Tex might eat on his lunch break. "This is fried, battered 'Texas' right here," said reporter Charles Scudder.
2. Southern Fried Chicken & Dumplins
Score: 3.45 out of 5
Price: 16 coupons, or $8
What is it? Shredded chicken, dough and gravy rolled into balls and fried, served with "biscuit bites" and gravy
Why we liked it: The peppery gravy is the star in this simple Southern dish. Several tasters said concessionaire Clint Probst's chicken and dumplings tasted like Grandma's, if Grandma had an affinity for the deep fryer. This dish will suffice as an entire meal for one person, making it a great option for those who love comfort food and want to buy a single item.
3. Deep Fried Pulled Pork Funyuns Dings
Score: 3.14 out of 5
Price: 18 coupons, or $9
What is it? A ball of Funyuns, pulled pork, pepper jack cheese, pineapple and bacon, battered and deep fried
Why we liked it: The taste-testers were divided on the texture of these "dings," as some found them mushy and others didn't seem to mind. (In other news, what's a ding? We aren't sure.) The Funyuns give these amped-up onion flavor, which caused some tasters to go so far as to say these little buggers were "complex." Others tricked themselves into thinking these count as one serving of fruit because of the small amounts of pineapple inside. Whatever works!
4. Caribbean Pineapple Korn-a-Copia
Score: 3.10 out of 5
Price: 40 coupons, or $20
What is it: A scooped-out half pineapple filled with grilled chicken, shrimp, rice, salsa and pineapple rum glaze
Why we liked it: Proceed with caution here if you're conservative with your coupons. The Caribbean Pineapple Korn-a-Copia was the most beautiful in presentation but by far the most expensive. It's also not deep-fried and was one of the only items the moms in the group would happily feed their children. Concessionaire Stephen Alade's dish is well-composed and would have been more popular if it weren't so pricey.
5. Fernie's Down Home Chicken Pot Pie Pocket with Mac 'n Cheese Dip
Score: 2.04 out of 5
Price: 16 coupons, or $8
What is it? A pot pie, deep fried, served with a sharp cheddar sauce inspired by mac and cheese
Why we didn't love it: The famous State Fair family whose carrot cake won Best Taste last year is back, this time with a savory dish. The pastry dough around the pot pie is beautifully flaky and buttery -- definitely the highlight of the dish. The pot pie filling got lost when dipped into a side of mac 'n cheese dip, which one taster called "mystery cheese." These little bites would be difficult to eat on the go.
6. State Fair Cookie Fries (winner of Most Creative)
Score: 1.90 out of 5
Price: 14 coupons or $7
What is it? Cookies shaped like crinkle-cut fries and deep fried, available in two flavors: chocolate chip or confetti. Each is served with strawberry or chocolate sauce.
Why we didn't love it: Cookie fries -- yum, right? They sound better than they taste. And they get less-good by the minute, so if you buy these, eat them while they're piping hot. Ours were overcooked and underwhelming. Skip the dipping sauces; both are sugar bombs.
7. Deep-fried Bacon Burger Dog Slider on a Stick
Score: 1.36 out of 5
Price: 18 coupons, or $9
What is it? A skewer of fried hamburger, hot dog and bacon, topped with a fried pickle
Why we didn't love it: Let's start with the one thing we love about this: the name. Just try to say "bacon burger dog slider on a stick" five times fast. The dish itself is a mess of beef, pork and fried bun that's neither pretty to look at nor fun to eat.
The worst: Fried Jell-O (winner of Best Taste)
Score: 1.14 out of 5
Price: 16 coupons or $8
What is it? Fried cherry Jell-O topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream and a cherry
Why we didn't love it: "Warm Jell-O seems sort of wrong," Oglethorpe said. Good point. But when executed properly, it's understandable how this year's panel of judges might have loved this simple, sweet dish. We received three severely undercooked orders that were inedible. Each fried ball also had a miniscule dab of Jell-O inside, which would make for occasional flavorless bites. If you like warm Jell-O and decide to order these, cut into them before you leave the concession stand to be sure they're cooked.
Methodology: Each taster ranked each dish from 1 to 5, with 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. The scores you see above are an average.
Thanks to GuideLive.com's panel of tasters: Sara Frederick Burgos, Dawn Burkes, Norma Cavazos, Kris Gutierrez, Cassandra Jaramillo, Sean Lester, Kim Oglethorpe, Britton Peele, Ann Pinson, Tiney Ricciardi, Charles Scudder and Shannon Sutlief.
Follow Sarah Blaskovich on Twitter at @sblaskovich.