IT’S BACK! Big Tex Choice Awards Finalists

Have you missed your deep fried twinkies? A funnel cake bacon queso burger? Maybe fried jello? Have no fear! The deep fried, super creative State Fair of Texas’ food competition returns this fall after a very long year. Not only will we have brand new culinary creations, all the other things we loved about the State Fair are returning, too. The Dallas Morning News has all the details.

State Fair announces 10 food finalists: brisket brittle, ‘fried Halloween’ and more

Fair food fanatics waited two years for the Big Tex Choice Awards to return.

IT'S BACK!  Big Tex Choice Awards Finalists

 

Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake was created by State Fair concessionaire Michelle Edwards. It’s a fall-themed dessert that will be served alongside her family’s famous chicken salad sandwich at their State Fair booth.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

By Sarah Blaskovich

6:11 AM on Aug 11, 2021 CDT

Dallas’ biggest, greasiest and weirdest food competition is back after a one-year break.

IT'S BACK!  Big Tex Choice Awards Finalists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the State Fair of Texas opens Sept. 24, 2021, concessionaires will serve a host of new fried foods — made from recipes some have been tweaking for two years. The fair was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)

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:

IT'S BACK!  Big Tex Choice Awards Finalists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deep Fried I-35: Fun to say, but what’s in it? It’s a kolache topped with smoked brisket, peaches and a Dr Pepper barbecue sauce. It was inspired by Texas ingredients Clint and Gretchen Probst found on trips up and down Interstate 35E.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

  • 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:

IT'S BACK!  Big Tex Choice Awards Finalists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concessionaire James Barrera has served fried ice cream at his State Fair booth since 2005. He’s back with another fried ice cream dish in 2021. The Armadillo is bigger than it looks: It’s the size of two outstretched hands and is made with two fried sugar cookie fritters on the outside, cookie butter ice cream in the middle.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

  • 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.

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Imagine if you took the best of your kids’ Halloween basket and put it on top of a soft pretzel. That’s Isaac Rousso’s vision with his deep-fried Halloween dessert. It was inspired by his two kids.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

“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.”

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A picture of Wanda “Fernie” Winter rests on the table of her daughter Christi Erpillo’s entry during the unveiling of the Big Tex Choice Awards finalists at the Briscoe Carpenter Livestock Center at Fair Park on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Dallas.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

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.

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Keep an eye out for Greg Parish’s fried gumbo balls. They’re made from his late mother’s gumbo recipe. The final product gets the State Fair of Texas treatment: It’s deep fried, y’all.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

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.

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Crispy crazy corn, created by 87-year-old Ruth Hauntz (in conjunction with Brent and Juan Reaves, owners of Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que) layers fried corn with silky pulled pork, cold and crunchy coleslaw and a zingy dressing.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

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.

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