Stomaching the State Fair

When I think of drinking at the California State Fair, I used to think of (A) tepid Bud Light in a plastic cup; or (B) the tooth-achingly sweet, headache-inducing Carlo Rossi wine slushies. But in the last few years, the Craft Brew Pub area has become pretty legit. It’s equipped with stools and shaded outdoor furniture and, if you are lucky enough to snag a seat, you might be serenaded with “Sister Goldenhair” by a one-man cover band while sipping a citrusy Mosaic Session IPA from Karl Strauss Brewing Co.

This got me to wondering if the food has gotten similarly craft-y. Most years I eat an identical litany of phallic foods: a corn dog and a chocolate covered frozen banana. This year, in service to journalistic curiosity, I branched out.

I found some trendy fusion food mere steps from Bonney Field where the Cali Grill offers a Korean naan beef “taco.” The naan seemed store-bought and could have benefited from a quick grilling—it was thick and brittle and began to break when folded over the filling. The filling itself, which seemed sparse in relation to the giant slab of bread, consisted of tender, smoky cubes of beef, nicely marbled with fat and lightly coated with a sweet sauce alongside a pedestrian cabbage slaw. It cost $10 and was served on top of a large portion of soggy fries. I threw out most of the naan and fries, but some tasty bites were still had.

The daily thoroughbred race was about to start, so I made a beeline for the track. The old-school vibe here called for a Seven & Seven cocktail, which never disappoints, but I can’t say the same for my horse Sassy Jazzy or my $4 “street taco” at the racetrack food stand. The pale ground chicken tasted oddly of celery salt and was topped with a stingy smattering of pico de gallo.

The pho at the Thai Spice booth was much better. That’s right, fair pho and it was beyond decent, tasty, even. The small $8 portion had a cloudy, fatty broth redolent of five-spice powder and cilantro. The few slices of tender beef nestled in a clump of soft noodles and both soaked up the flavor of the rich broth. I asked if the booth was associated with Thai Spice on Broadway and the young man who handed me my soup answered that they’d sold it, but still vend at Cal Expo twice a year—for the fair and also at Winter Wonderland. Pho in the heat of the fair was sweat-inducing but I’m sure it would hit the spot in the winter months.

Now onto dessert, which at the fair tends toward the gimmicky and deep-fried. But where’s the craft in that? Colossal Gelato advertises that its gelato is made fresh daily, and a crate of fresh peaches was in view on the counter. I went for peanut-butter cup and “locally grown” strawberry. Both flavors lacked the elastic texture I associate with gelato, but were passable as ice cream, although the strawberry was ice-crystal laden.

As such, I longed for my customary frozen banana as the gelato melted in the cup. And on my second trip to the craft beer area my overly malty, dank Alpine Duet IPA made me long for a watery Bud Light. Sometimes tradition is best.