Fair warning

The California State Fair offers some good dining options, along with plenty of crummy ones.

If you grew up in the country, you know about fair people. Fair people raise goats, put up preserves and sew quilts all year long in preparation for what they consider a week-long party: the county or state fair. Fair people attend seminars to learn how best to present their roses and dahlias and pies. Fair people collect ribbons and compete, in an oh-so-friendly fashion, with other fair people, for those ribbons. Fair people are obsessed. The fair is their calling.

And there’s the rest of us ordinary folks, who couldn’t can a peach to save our lives, who have never seen a cow up close and personal. But you don’t have to be a fair person to enjoy the fair. The fair offers us a chance to live that life vicariously—to admire the creativity that goes into making jelly, to watch a litter of piglets being born. And there are plenty of other worthwhile distractions: classic car displays and plenty of rides to put your fortitude to test. And, of course, food.

Sure, maybe in the Midwest, fair food is still synonymous with corn dogs and cotton candy. But this is California, baby, and just about every cuisine in the world can be found at the State Fair. And, face it, the ambience of a fair is unique: hucksters selling cookware, carnies hawking games of chance, teens screaming as they hurtle upside down at high speeds, even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police performing intricate maneuvers in the horse arena as the enormous Ferris wheel turns serenely above it all.

So you can get sushi and Gardenburgers and fajitas and shrimp Étouffée at the fair. But is any of it any good? Well, yes, but it’s somewhat of a crapshoot. While the majority of the food booths are concentrated in one area with tables and awnings, there are dozens scattered throughout the grounds. So finding one thing in particular can be difficult. For example, the legendary fried cheesecake was impossible to find.

The teriyaki chicken on a stick ($4 for one stick and a drink) from the Hawaiian Teriyaki booth was possibly the worst teriyaki chicken I’ve ever eaten, and I thought the dish was practically foolproof. Although there was a grill in the booth, my chicken had no grill marks or grill flavor. It was swimming in a bland salty sauce with no trace of teriyaki flavor and was gristly to boot.

A smoked turkey leg daunted us by its sheer size. After all, portability is definitely an important factor in judging fair food. Who wants to waste time sitting down to eat when there’s so much to see?

The spanakopita ($3.25) at the Mediterranean booth got high marks for portability and taste. Rather than being cut from a pan, the filo pastry enclosing the spinach and egg filling was wrapped into a self-contained triangle. The filling was well seasoned and the pastry was flaky and golden, just as it should be. The booth also offered gyros, Greek salads with tomatoes and feta cheese, and falafel.

Asian food at fairs can be a horrifying experience, with the selections tending to the fluorescent and sugary or the sadly bland. But I went out on a limb at the Thai Spice booth. One clue? The cook spoke only Thai. Another clue? Offerings that were not standard fare. While that was all to the good for discerning fairgoers, it proved to be a bit of a gamble for the booth owners. Although they had advertised “pearl drinks” (sweet drinks with tapioca pearls), no one ordered them.

I had Thai iced tea instead, along with chicken satay and angel wings ($8.50 for all). It’s unusual to find these on the menu at a restaurant, much less a fair booth. Angel wings are chicken legs that have been de-boned and stuffed with a mixture of silver rice noodles, vegetables and spices, and then grilled, sliced and served with a sweet chili sauce. While the satay was fine, the angel wings were very good. The chicken was tender and juicy and the cool noodle filling provided a tasty and textural counterpoint. I could have eaten about five of these, no problem.

My son opted for the traditional corn dog at the Super Diner ($2.75). After four years of covering the county fair for a daily newspaper, I’ve eaten more than my fair share of corn dogs. While most corn dogs are huge swaths of cornbread covering a measly dog, Super Diner’s reverses the formula. A fat and juicy dog with a thin coating of cornbread batter means that you’re ingesting less pure fat and more nitrates.

We then did what any self-respecting fairgoer would do: hit the rides before our stomachs had a chance to digest any of that enormous amount of food. I particularly recommend the Tilt-A-Whirl, three times in a row.