The cotton candy taco was the big cotton-candy talker in Fair Park on Sunday. It won "most creative" during an awards ceremony for the State Fair of Texas' popular Big Tex Choice Awards.
The ceremony crowned two other winners, too: a best-tasting sweet and savory dish. Fernie's Hoppin' John Cake was the judges' pick for "best taste - savory." A dessert called arroz con leche, which concessionaire Marcella Rodriguez-Arms describes as fried "Mexican morning oatmeal" won "best taste - sweet."
The concessionaires who enter the contest wait all year long for the awards ceremony, and a win means bigger revenues and more Texas-sized notoriety for the families behind each dish.
"I don't think a lot of people understand the science that goes into frying items," says Karissa Condoianis, spokeswoman for the State Fair of Texas. The awards have taken place since 2005 and have established dishes like fried beer, fried Thanksgiving dinner and fried Jell-O as standards for oddly alluring State Fair fare.
The concessionaires who created arroz con leche experienced their first State Fair of Texas win this year -- very exciting for the family who first started serving food at the fair in 1984. (Further, they applied to be concessionaires 10 years before that, getting accepted on the 11th try.) The matriarch of the family, Bennie Garza, served the State Fair of Texas' first beef fajitas. The family now sells nachos, gorditas, chocolate tres leches cake (a Big Tex Choice Awards finalist in 2012) and the new arroz con leche.
"Arroz con leche is something we grew up with as a family," says Jerome Garza, who was born and raised in Oak Cliff. His sister, Denise De La Cruz, dreamed up the idea to fry sweet rice balls like the ones they make at home.
The hoppin' John cake is another family favorite, this one created by Johnna McKee and Christi Erpillo, whose parents first worked at the fair more than 50 years ago. The hoppin' John cake is a fried patty stuffed with black-eyed peas, rice, sausage, green onions and spices, then deep fried. It's special to the family because it's "named for Daddy," John Winter, Erpillo says.
The most eye-catching dish, cotton candy taco, wasn't a surprise as the judges' "most creative" pick. The giant fluff of white cotton candy, stuffed inside a graham cracker waffle cone, is eye-catching.
"Kids, especially, want cotton candy at the fair," says Justin Martinez, whose family has been serving food at the State Fair of Texas since 1978. "But you know we had to Texify it."
A panel of six Dallas-area dignitaries served as judges for the Big Tex Choice Awards. The addition of one audience member, Prosper man Laurence Michlin, completed the group.
Eating all 10 is "like going to every station at the fair in an hour," says Bobby Abtahi, city of Dallas park and recreation board president.
It's a fun job. But it's tough, says D'Andra Simmons, a judge this year. "My goal every year is to come to the State Fair with an appetite and leave with a tummy ache," says the Real Housewives of Dallas cast member. "And I've achieved that today."
Attendees paid $125 to attend the ceremony and taste each item. The money goes goes toward scholarships and offers the State Fair of Texas another opportunity to give its wacky fried foods a moment in the spotlight.