Tastes of the fair

This year’s California State Fair & Food Festival offers unique menu items from more than 30 different vendors—and there’s even a vegan option

Frik’n Vegan’s Philly cheesesteak sandwich is 100% plant-based with a nacho cheese-like sauce.

Frik’n Vegan’s Philly cheesesteak sandwich is 100% plant-based with a nacho cheese-like sauce.

Photo courtesy of frik’n vegan

Hungry for your favorite state fair comforts? Visit castatefair.org/food-festival-2019 to purchase tickets and learn more.

Each summer, the California State Fair rolls into town illuminating the night sky in neon lights as the sweet and smoky aromas of funnel cakes and meats on-a-stick waft from the peak of the giant Ferris wheel down to the main stage. This year, organizers are putting more emphasis on fair eats by branding it the California State Fair & Food Festival.

From July 12 through July 28, fairgoers can purchase a food festival pass for $28, which comes with four vouchers that allows them to enjoy special menu items from more than 30 vendors scattered throughout Cal Expo. Items such as a vegan Philly cheesesteak sandwich, deep-fried Fanta (yes, the soft drink!), loaded mac ’n’ cheese and large taco bowls stuffed with all the traditional fixings are just a taste of what to expect.

“We have several new food vendors coming this year. The one I’m most excited about is Frik’n Vegan,” said Sabrina Washington, media director for Cal Expo and the State Fair. “However, longtime fairgoers will be happy to hear about the return of the original state fair tacos … There are people who have been coming for 30-plus years just for these tacos.”

Paz Negrette and his family have been selling their soft, rolled beef tacos to loyal customers since 1947. Located in the Mexican Village behind the rodeo, The Original State Fair Taco booth is run by Negrette’s daughter Nina Martinez and her husband Benny Martinez nowadays, but the family recipe has remained the same. Last year, Negrette wasn’t able to make the trip to Sacramento from his home in Stockton, and customers definitely noticed.

“We had phones ringing off the hook,” Benny Martinez said. “People were very angry that we weren’t there because they’ve been eating tacos for four to five generations. They said it’s the only thing they come to the fair for.”

He remembers attending the Fresno County Fair when he was 4 with his dad, who worked as a maintenance employee. The Negrette family was there selling their popular tacos.

“We would drive around in a little golf cart and we’d stop and we would get some tacos. That’s my memory. That’s what I love,” Martinez said. “If you’ve never had one, I guarantee you, you’re never going to find one like it anywhere else.”

Although the festival pass doesn’t buy the taco as the special menu item, the Negrette family is preparing a crispy taco bowl filled with the same beef that’s rolled in their beloved tacos.

Beyond Mexican food, there are several bites that are the epitome of classic fair fare: Giant corn dogs, egg rolls on a stick, smoked turkey legs, a huge pile of curly French fries, funnel cakes and, of course, more deep-fried sweets.

Jacqueline Bradbury of Sweet Cheeks Fried Treats has been selling deep-fried Oreos, Pop-Tarts and other crispy confections for the past 10 years at the fair. For this year’s food festival, Bradbury came up with a new menu item: deep-fried Fanta.

“It always gives us a bit of a challenge to create stuff that’s unique and fun,” Bradbury said. “We do the liquid in the batter, it’s in a cup and it has powdered sugar with orange Fanta on top of it. You don’t drink it. You eat it.”

After stopping by various food booths and braving a few wild rides, all of those sweet treats and greasy bites can turn into real gut busters.

Blake Aguilar of Frik’n Vegan hopes to be the plant-based answer for fairgoers looking for healthier options. Located in B Building next to the main stage, Aguilar and his small team will dish out vegan Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. When he went full vegan last November, Aguilar said he was on a mission to recreate his favorite comfort food without compromising taste.

So he spent months perfecting both the faux meat and cheese recipes before finding the precise texture and flavor he craved. The “meat” is made from a flour extract called vital wheat gluten and the sandwich is packed with traditional ingredients such as onions, bell peppers and a nacho cheese-style cheese sauce served on a fresh hoagie. Each Philly has 22 grams of protein, which Aguilar said beats out a regular cheesesteak.

“Back when I ate meat, you season everything … With that in mind, it’s really no surprise that the same flavors can be replicated in plant-based products,” Aguilar said. “I wasn’t going to do my previous favorite food a disservice … I know it sounds silly, but it just showed me what could be done with plant-based foods in a home kitchen.”