If you go with the group decision, judges chose a fried carrot cake as the best-tasting new dish at the State Fair of Texas. If you ask chef John Tesar, though -- he was one of the judges on the State Fair panel -- it was his fourth favorite out of the eight dishes.
Tesar, a take-no-prisoners kind of guy, said "there wasn't a loser in the bunch," however. That's high praise. Tesar is chef-owner at Knife, a hotel steakhouse and burger restaurant; chef-partner Mexican restaurant El Bolero; and chef-partner at Oak, one of Dallas' most upscale dining rooms. He doesn't eat a ton of fried food. And yet:
"There's nothing there I wouldn't eat," chef Tesar said of the eight fried foods he sampled on Sunday. "Some of it was restaurant quality."
We asked Tesar, the only chef on the judging panel, to rank each of the eight fried foods.
Protip: Order the cowboy corn crunch, then the bacon margarita. They go together "brilliantly," Tesar says.
Chef Tesar ranks each new fried food, 1 through 8:
1. Cowboy corn crunch
- What is it: a fried tater-tot-like ball made with sweet corn, jalapeño, cream cheese and bacon -- from Isaac Rousso
- Tesar's comments: "That guy really thought it out," Tesar says. "I just think it was executed well. It was tight and firm. It wasn't greasy at all. ... The jalapeño really really hung in there and made it very Texas."
2. Smoky bacon margarita
- What is it: a lime green margarita topped with fried bacon crumbles -- also from Rousso
- Tesar's comments: "I thought it was going to be weird, but it was really good," the chef says. "The smoky bacon margarita will be perfect when you're walking around." He notes: It's too cold to get any smoky bacon flavor when it's first served. But in this Texas heat, he suggests taking a few bites of your cowboy corn crunch first -- they go together anyhow -- and then sipping on the margarita after it's melted a bit.
3. Chicken-fried lobster with Champagne gravy
- What is it: fried lobster tail -- expensive! -- from Abel Gonzales
- Tesar's comments: "It's as good as Dean Fearing's," says Tesar, speaking of the famous dish at Fearing's Restaurant, in the Ritz-Carlton in Uptown Dallas.
4. Fernie's Holy Moly Carrot Cake
- What is it: a blend of carrot cake and cream cheese, fried in a graham cracker breading -- from Christi Erpillo
- Tesar's comments: Tesar is a self-proclaimed "carrot cake fanatic." He called Erpillo's rendition "executed well and flavorful," but he didn't pick it as his personal favorite because he thought the sauces were better than the actual carrot cake. (Those sauces: cream cheese frosting and caramel macchiato cream sauce, according to an explanation of the dish from the State Fair.)
5. Lone Star pork handle
- What is it: a fried pork chop with bourbon barbecue glaze -- from Justin Martinez
- Tesar's comments: "That was just fun, really fun," Tesar says. He considered it a reinvented version of a turkey leg.
6. Fried beer-battered buffalo
- What is it: ground buffalo coated in Pequin chili pepper, crusted in Corn Nuts and fried in Shiner Bock batter -- from James Barrera
- Tesar's comments: "It tasted like a small fried hamburger, with onions in there." He said the dish was moist -- an important note since buffalo can be dry.
7. Pretzel-crusted pollo queso
- What is it: a ball of fried chicken, cheese, bacon, cilantro and Sriracha -- from Allan Weiss
- Tesar's comments: "It was good, but the breading was a little thick," Tesar says. "When I went back to it, the other ones had a little more finesse." But he "liked it."
8. Deep-fried alligator's nest
- What is it: fried alligator, cheese, jalapeños, onions and garlic, served atop shoestring fries -- from Cassy Jones
- Tesar's comments: The alligator tasted like chicken, Tesar says. "It was ambiguous. There wasn't anything outstanding about it."
The State Fair of Texas runs Sept. 25 through Oct. 18 in Dallas. You're destined to find "elevated fair food" if you ask fine-dining chef Tesar.