Dallas’ biggest, greasiest and weirdest food competition is back after a one-year break.
On Wednesday, Aug. 11, reps from the State Fair of Texas announced the 10 Big Tex Choice Awards finalists — a list of judges’ favorite dishes, each of which will be sold at the fair during its three-week run Sept. 24 through Oct. 17.
These foods often become the best-selling dishes at the State Fair each year, and fairgoers come from around the world to try them.
“Fairgoers love the classics, like good ol’ Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs, smoked turkey legs or iconic funnel cakes — but many live for trying the new foods every year,” says State Fair spokeswoman Karissa Condoianis.
The 2021 Big Tex Choice Awards finalists are:
5 savory items:
- Crispy Crazy Corn: fried corn kernels topped with pork and pineapple slaw
- Deep Fried I-35: fried kolache dough topped with smoked brisket and drizzled with peach juice combined with Dr Pepper
- Deep Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls: fried bites loaded with shrimp, crab and sausage, then rolled in saltine cracker and breadcrumb batter and topped chicken-fried okra spears
- Lucky Duck Dumplin’: a pastry filled with cream cheese, duck bacon and roasted corn
- Pork shots: Texas smoked sausage wrapped in bacon and filled with mac and cheese
5 sweet items:
- The Armadillo: a (big) cookie butter ice cream sandwich shaped like an armadillo
- Brisket Brittle: a traditional dessert brittle, where peanuts are replaced with Texas brisket
- Deep Fried Halloween: a large pretzel covered in candy corn syrup, topped with sprinkles, marshmallow icing, candy corn and chocolates
- Fernie’s Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake: a cake doughnut dipped in panko and vanilla cookie crumbs, then fried
- Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake: a Texas-shaped pumpkin cake with vanilla glaze and caramel
The declaration of finalists felt especially spirited — even despite the early 6:10 a.m. announcement time — because the Big Tex Choice Awards was canceled in 2020, as was the State Fair of Texas. The concessionaires who annually enter the competition had two years to prepare their recipes, and many took that time seriously.
“This is a 365-day job for us,” says Isaac Rousso, whose Deep Fried Halloween is his eighth Big Tex Choice Awards finalist. (He’s won three times, for his smoky bacon margarita, deep-fried Cuban roll, and fried Pop-Tart.)
Deep Fried Halloween is the second holiday-themed event in recent memory, after unrelated dish Fried Thanksgiving Dinner made headlines in 2013, from concessionaires Justin and Rudy Martinez. Rousso’s Halloween plate includes one lightly-fried item, a soft pretzel, that’s topped with decadence: two marshmallow-based icings, M&Ms, Twix, mini Reese’s peanut butter cups and more.
“We don’t talk about dentists, sugar or calories at the State Fair,” Rousso says. (Amen.)
The Big Tex Choice Awards announcement was special for Christi Erpillo, a 52-year concessionaire who will be serving funnel cakes, Fernie’s Deep Fried Peaches and other treats at the State Fair in her mother’s honor. Wanda “Fernie” Winter died in June at age 95. She worked at the State Fair since 1967 and was often called the “funnel cake queen” of the State Fair of Texas; her daughters now run the family’s five concession stands.
Fernie’s Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake was named after their mom, and it was perfected just days after she died.
“It’s going to be emotional being here without Mother,” Erpillo says. “But it’s wonderful to be back.”
A chair embroidered in gold with the name “Fernie” will be positioned at The Dock, where Winter often sat well into her 80s and 90s, chatting up customers and amusingly bossing around her staff.
Another longtime State Fair family, the Parishes, are missing their matriarch as well: Norma Parish died last week, after working at the fair for 35 years, under the concessions company name Gourmet Royale.
Her son Greg Parish is keeping up her legacy and is a Big Tex Choice Award finalist for his deconstructed, fried gumbo ball — a spicy, savory bite concocted from Norma Parish’s recipe. The fried okra on the side comes from South Dallas company Bonton Farms.
While the State Fair of Texas has plenty of attractions, like animals, cars, live music and games, food is now one of its main events. The Big Tex Choice Awards was established in 2005. Fried butter won awards (and expanded waistlines) in 2009. Then came fried bubblegum in 2011. Fried Jell-O in 2016. By 2019, entries included fried fettuccine Alfredo, fried chicken atop a Big Red-infused doughnut, and a fried fruit dessert with a fun name, the Fla’Mango Tango. Gosh, what haven’t they fried?
As Brent Reaves points out, the Big Tex Choice Awards today is more chef-driven than ever. No longer can you fry a candy bar and call it a winner. Reaves and his team spend all year thinking about how to develop complex yet approachable dishes with head chef Ronesha Childress. This year, the Reaves brothers — who own and operate Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que — join 87-year-old concessionaire Ruth Hauntz on two finalists, the brisket brittle and the crispy crazy corn.
In the corn dish, each kernel is deep-fried individually, a time-consuming process the Reaveses said was a company secret. The fried corn kernels are topped with pulled pork, pineapple slaw and jalapeño crema.
“It shows the evolution of the competition,” Brent Reaves says. “Let’s create levels: crispy, crunchy, smoky, tangy.”
Now that the finalists have been announced, the winners will be named Aug. 29 in a closed-to-the-public event. Previously, the State Fair hosted a taste test and awards ceremony open to folks willing to spend $100-$125 per person for a ticket, with the money going toward scholarships. That event is only for the media in 2021, for COVID-19 safety reasons, Condoianis says.
Go to dallasnews.com/food on Aug. 29 to read our story about the winners.
Condoianis says executives are “constantly in conversations” about safety protocols at the State Fair this year. She encouraged fairgoers to get vaccinated.
”It is not lost on us that without the COVID-19 vaccine and vaccination efforts throughout North Texas and the Lone Star State, the State Fair would not be possible this year,” she said at the press conference.
“We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as Opening Day draws closer,” Condoianis says.
The State Fair of Texas runs Sept. 24 through Oct. 17 at Fair Park in Dallas. All of the foods that are Big Tex Choice Awards finalists will be sold at the State Fair.