Eat these: State Fair of Texas announces 10 gut-busting, award-winning foods

The State Fair of Texas opens on Sept. 28, a Friday. But you can call each day after that, for 23 days, Fryday.

Of the 10 Big Tex Choice Awards finalists just announced by the State Fair of Texas, seven are fried. As they should be: The Big Tex Choice Awards' first winners, in 2005, were a fried PBJ and banana sandwich and fried ice cream. And although the contest over the years has featured both fried and not fried dishes -- and even some drinks, remember 2015's award-winning smoky bacon margarita? -- State Fair of Texas' heart has always been deep-fried.

All 10 of these new dishes will be for sale at booths throughout the State Fair of Texas.

Here are the State Fair of Texas' 10 gut-busting finalists for the Big Tex Choice Awards in 2018:

  • Cotton candy taco
  • Arroz con leche
  • Deep-fried shepherd's pie
  • Deep-fried skillet potato melt in a boat
  • Fernie's hoppin' john cake with jackpot sauce
  • Fernie's Orange You Glad We Fried it!?
  • State Fair Fun-L Cake ice cream
  • Sweet Bakin' Bacon
  • Texas Fried Hill Country
  • Texas Twang-kie

Let's go one by one, shall we?

The cotton candy taco is a graham cracker waffle cone stuffed with chocolate, toasted marshmallows and cotton candy. It's made by Justin and Rudy Martinez, the father-son duo with two entries in the Big Tex Choice Awards this year.

Denise Garza-De La Cruz holds up the arroz con leche, a cinnamon-spiced rice ball, deep-fried and served with ice cream.

Clint Probst created the deep-fried shepherd's pie, which is filled with mashed potatoes, beef, veggies and gravy. Probst is a longtime concessionaire who has been a finalist for nine years in a row.

They call the skillet potato melt in a boat a "tater tot on steroids." And it is.

Johnna McKee high-fives Little Big Tex. Her family's Fernie's Hoppin' John Cake is stuffed with black-eyed peas, white rice, sausage, green onions and spices. Fried, of course. It's named after her mother, Fernie, and her father, John.

The concessionaires who created the famous Fernie's deep-fried peaches and cream have a second semifinalist. Fernie's Orange You Glad We Fried It!? is a chiffon orange cake with a custard-like filling, deep-fried. It comes from Johnna McKee and Christi Erpillo of Winter Family Concessions.

This funnel cake-flavored ice cream was created by Tom Landis and his team at Howdy Homemade, which employs people with special needs. Howdy Homemade operates State Fair of Texas booths and a shop on Lovers Lane in Dallas.

There's bacon in there! The Sweet Bakin' Bacon is a sponge cake wrapped in bacon and dipped in funnel cake batter.

How do you fry the entire Hill Country? Justin and Rudy Martinez -- two-time Big Tex Choice Awards finalists in 2018 -- assembled a stack of mozzarella, basil and green tomatoes, then fried them. It's finished with balsamic drizzle and honey. They joke that because this item is placed on greens, it's the "healthy fried option."

Despite the play on the word 'Twinkie,' this Texas Twang-kie is a savory dish. It's a cornbread cake, hollowed out and filled with grilled chicken and white bean chili. Cornbread fries come on the side.

The 10 finalists were chosen from a list of 31 semi-finalists that included savory dishes like fried lobster pops and fried chicken nachos; and sweet ones such as mini sopaipillas and fried M&Ms.

Two groups of concessionaires have two items on the list of 10 finalists. For Christi Erpillo, whose family has been working at the fair for more than 50 years, the news was exciting. But.

"I was in euphoria," says the concessionaire whose family created Fernie's hoppin' john cake with jackpot sauce and Fernie's Orange You Glad We Fried it!?. "But then the next morning, I asked, What have we gotten ourselves into?"

One of dishes missing from the 2018 finalists list is fried ranch, the condiment that, shockingly, hadn't been deep-fried and served at the State Fair of Texas yet. (It was only a matter of time: We've already fried beer, Coke, butter and coffee. We've even seen fried Jell-O, which was 2016's winner of Best Taste created by a woman who was, at the time, 82 years old.) Fried ranch was a semifinalist but did not make the finalist round.

Justin Martinez, who created the cotton candy taco, has won Big Tex Choice Awards three times in the past, for fried bubblegum, fried Thanksgiving dinner and funnel cake ale.

The next step on this 2018 fried-food journey is for a panel of judges to pick winners: Best Taste - Savory, Best Taste - Sweet, and Most Creative on Aug. 26. In a surprising twist last year, the same dish won Best Taste - Savory and Most Creative: the funnel cake bacon queso burger. It had funnel cakes for burger buns and was, possibly, the state fairiest State Fair dish we've ever tasted. It was a queso-on-your-face kind of experience, for anyone doing it right.

The goal of winning the Big Tex Choice Awards -- besides well, winning -- is that the concessionaires who dream up these wacky ideas usually reel in significantly more customers during the State Fair's 24-day run. That kind of popularity has the potential to inch some dishes closer to becoming essential State Fair of Texas foods like Fletcher's Corny Dogs or the ubiquitous funnel cakes.

For concessionaires like Justin Martinez, who with his dad Rudy Martinez created this year's cotton candy taco and Texas Fried Hill Country, the State Fair of Texas marks the end of a months-long process of testing the same recipes over and over. Is he tired of eating cotton candy?

"Yes," he says confidently.

The State Fair of Texas runs Sept. 28 through Oct. 21 in Fair Park.

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