If there's anything that signals to avid fairgoers that Big Tex will soon make his annual return to his perch at Fair Park in Dallas, it's the announcement of the annual Big Tex Choice Awards competition finalists. With just 50 days remaining until opening day, State Fair of Texas officials gathered early this morning to share which concessionaires and which fantastic foods will be in the spotlight from Sept. 30 to Oct. 23.
This year's finalists, culled from 51 entries previously narrowed down to 36 semifinalists are:
Best Taste - Savory
Chicharron Explosion Nachos, by Glen & Sherri Kusak
With pork rinds for the base, these nachos are topped with beef fajita meat, queso AND chopped bbq beef. The Kusak's booth at the fair (Yoakum Meat Packing Co) specializes in smoked meats, as does their full time business outside the fair, so this combination of meaty magic is sure to please.
They're not new to this fair food competition either; in 2016, their entry Injectable Great Balls of Barbecue made the Big Tex Choice Awards finals.
Deep Fried BLT, by Tom Grace
Bacon and cheddar cheese deep fried in a tortilla wrapper become the bread for this special sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayo in between, and garlic parmesan chips on the side.
Grace has created numerous semifinalist and finalist dishes in the fair food competition. In 2017, his Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger was named "Most Creative" and "Best Taste - Savory." The double award was a first for the Big Tex Choice Awards competition.
Deep Fried Lasagna Roll, by the Parish Family
This lasagna roll dipped in a cheddar and herb batter and deep fried is topped with marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil. The Parish family fair food "tradition" of serving a veggie on the side continues with deep fried zucchini fries accompanying this dish.
The Parish family is also a double-awarded Big Tex Choice Awards winner. Last year, their Deep Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls won Best Taste - Savory and Most Creative.
Fried Charcuterie Board, by Tami Nevins-Mayes & Josey Mayes
If you're wondering what in the world this is, it’s fresh mozzarella, salami, and crisp green apples tossed in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Italian herbs, wrapped in a wonton, deep fried and topped with goat cheese and hot honey.
Featured on the A&E series Deep Fried Dynasty, Nevins-Mayes and Mayes are the third and fourth generation respectively to run the Nevins’ Consessions booths at the State Fair Of Texas.
Holy Biscuit, by Isaac Rousso
This not-fried biscuit is topped with brisket, street corn queso, hot-honey-drizzled bacon, and crispy pickle French fries. After making it to the finals last year with Deep Fried Halloween, Russo is now turning his attention to savory flavors.
Among the numerous food spots Russo operates at the state fair is the Magnolia Beer Garden , a perfect place to sit and savor this brisket biscuit.
Best Taste - Sweet
Cha-Cha Chata, by the Garza Family
With previous “Most Creative” (Fla'Mango Tango) and “Best Taste - Sweet” (Arroz con Leche) winners to their credit, the Garza family has brought another potential sweet winner with this delicous-sounding drink. It’s made with a horchata blend of milk and ice cream topped with caramel and cinnamon, whipped topping, crushed candy, cinnamon galletas de gragega, and deep-fried arroz con leche bites.
The Garzas run several booths at the fair including Ranchero Norteño in the Tower Building food hall.
Deep Fried Rocky Road with Blue Bell Ice Cream®, by Cody & Lauren Hays
For this oh-so-sweet dish, battered and fried Rocky Road Kettle Fresh Fudge is drizzled with chocolate syrup and condensed milk, topped with mini marshmallows, chopped cinnamon glazed nuts and powdered sugar. A scoop of Bluebell homemade vanilla ice cream takes it over the top.
La Bluebonnet, by Milton & Grace Whitley
Here's another entry that you drink! A sugar base is made tasty and oh-so-Texas with fresh citrus juices and blueberries, served over ice, of course. This drink sounds like a fair food you can have more than one of without guilt.
The Ultimate Brookie Monster, by Juan & Brent Reaves
The Reaves brothers have won this category before with their Big Red Chicken Bread in 2019. This year they bring you a sweet dessert that will leave you breathless. Chocolate chip cookies, layered with Oreos and marshmallows are covered in triple-chocolate brownie batter and baked together into a super brookie.The resulting brookie is then deep fried, topped with powdered sugar, vanilla ice cream, cheesecake crumbles and strawberry sauce.
The Reaves are perhaps best known for turkey legs at the fair, and they run a family business, Smokey John's Bar-B-Que and Home Cooking in Dallas year round.
PEANUT BUTTER PARADISE, Chris Easter & Nicole Sternes
The tale of this dish is a sweet story. Owners of SouthSide Steaks and Cakes restaurant in the Fair Park neighborhood, Easter and Sterns were first-time State Fair of Texas concessionaires last year. That made this year their first year to be eligible to enter the Big Tex Choice Awards.
Inspired by the deep fried honey buns they sometimes sell at their restaurant, they brought extra creativity to make it Big Tex worthy. It starts with a deep fried honey bun with caramel inside, with peanut butter, Reese’s Pieces, crushed Butterfinger crumbles, peanut butter cups and more on top. Oh yeah, there’s powdered sugar and more caramel on top too.
You'll no doubt be hearing more about these dishes and concessionaires over the next few weeks. The next round of competition, the finals, will take place on Aug. 28, where three winners will be named live at the Big Tex Choice Awards event. Judges will taste and discuss the dishes during a fun live show, and the top scoring dishes will win "Best Taste - Sweet", "Best Taste - Savory" and "Most Creative" which can be from either category. Usually this means there are three winners, but last year's "Best Taste - Savory dish (Gourmet Royale’s Deep Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls) also won "Most Creative" which has only happened once before in the history of the awards.)
This year's awards party will be streamed live on the State Fair of Texas Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels.
The fair food frenzy may be even greater than usual this fair season for a number of reasons. Eight fair food vendors including Amber Fletcher, Tom Grace, and Chris and Sherry Howard were featured on episodes of this summer season's Carnival Eats on The Cooking Channel. Several other concessionaires appeared on "Deep Fried Dynasty", an A&E series offering a glimpse into their lives (and their concession booth kitchens) at the 2021 State Fair. With "Treats of Texas" as this year's commemorative theme, the focus on food at the fair might be at an all-time high this year.
If you're not familiar with the Big Tex Choice Awards, you can get up to speed on its history pretty quickly. First launched in 2005, the competition invites concessionaires to enter their best idea of a tasty fair-themed food with mass appeal. Entries are narrowed down to a set of semifinalists by state fair officials and other judges based solely on the concepts and descriptions of the food.
Those semifinalists then compete for a finalist slot by preparing their dishes for tasting, and five finalists each in sweet and savory categories are named. Judges at the live event then select their favorite sweet, savory and most creative dishes from among the finalists. While there isn't a cash prize for winning, cash does seem to flow from winning. The winning entries are highlighted on State Fair of Texas maps (online and in printed Visitors Guides) and receive a notable amount of press coverage leading up to the fair.
The competitions judging--from the first round to the finals--is "blind," so which vendor created which specialty item remains a secret until finalists are named. For longtime followers of the awards, the mystery builds yet more anticipation for the sights, sounds and tastes to come at the fair.
And although the concessionaires at the fair have a unique camaraderie and many long-time friendships among themselves, this contest is quite competitive, for good reason. If preparing fair food is your livelihood, nabbing one of those Big Tex shaped trophies can mean a lot.
Of course, the food options at the State Fair of Texas go beyond these award winners, and as always, the choices will be varied and plentiful. For a passport to the world of Big Tex Choice Awards winners and all the "Treats of Texas," purchase a season pass or tickets at BigTex.com.