Excess is my favorite flavor, especially when it comes to carnival food. Fried Kool-Aid? I think it's underrated as a food group. I've eaten enough chocolate-covered bacon to have strong opinions about its correct preparation. In other words, I was born to judge Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo's Gold Buckle Foodie Awards, a competition aimed at naming the best dishes made by vendors at the monthlong event. From 11 a.m. until about 1:30 p.m. yesterday, I tied the bib on in NRG Center's Main Club, which was basically a very large hotel conference room.
Media judges, from outlets ranging from Radio Disney to ESPN Deportes, sat at round tables, while "table captains" cut up entries brought from the midway in styrofoam containers. What dishes made it to each group of judges was luck of the draw and apparently, my group lost. Below is the list of winners in each category.
1st: Stubby’s cinnamon roll
2nd: Stubby’s “Big Stone” breakfast sandwich
3rd: Barton Sausage Kitchen Sink Taco
1st: Stubby’s original cinnamon roll
2nd: Ranch House Meats barbecue plate
3rd: Stubby’s loaded baked potato
Food On A Stick
1st: Berryhill Shrimp Diablo Kabob
2nd: Saltgrass steak kabob
3rd: Fair Fix deep-fried cookie dough
Classic Fair Food
1st: Holmes Smokehouse bacon-chili cheeseburger
2nd: Biggie's Barbecue Big Daddy Corn Dog
3rd: Saltgrass pork-stuffed potato
Best Fried Food
1st: Custom Confections fried brownie with ice cream
2nd: Aunt Ed-Moe’s fried cookie dough on a stick
3rd: Berryhill Baja Grill original fish taco
Most Creative Food
1st: Custom Confections "The Ultimate"
2nd: Taco Me Crazy pulled pork Mexican bowl
3rd: Fried What bacon-wrapped Oreo
Best New Flavor
1st: Paradise Burgers “The Rookie”
2nd: Stills Funnel Cakes fried s’mores
3rd: Taco Me Crazy brisket tacos
1st: Custom Confections “The Emma”
2nd: Fried Fair deep-fried butter
3rd: Granny’s Cheesecake & More cheesecake with strawberries and caramel
All I saw of the dishes listed above was the specimen at right:
As promised, it was loose, raw cookie dough that oozed out of a deep-fried jacket like salty, clumpy custard. But somehow it netted the title of second best fried food. Was competition that slim? Since I didn't get to try the other winners, I'm not sure. But I can show you a sample of what I did taste.
I'm still not sure what this was, other than the ruination of some very nicely cooked corn. I love elote, just not this oddly sweet, oddly red version. Apparently, Taco Me Crazy, the food truck from Cadillac Bar, did much better with its other dishes. My other tastings included pizza on a stick flowing with molten cheese that I suspect wasn't actually cheese, a dry burger paired with a bag of Lay's and a waffle that was burnt on the bottom and cold and soggy on top.
Not surprisingly, at the end of the competition, I wasn't full, so I devoted some time to walking the midway and NRG Park to find my own Gold Buckle winner. And there's no question. The weirdest collection of fried oddities belongs to the Finer Diner.
Besides some perfectly respectable foods including gyros and rotisserie chicken, the stand is also home to fried biscuits and gravy, fried chocolate-covered strawberry waffle balls and fried Sriracha balls. The description of the latter was so complicated that I eventually stopped listening to the cook who took the time to tell me about it. Strangely, I could have gotten the two items I did order from another vendor, right on the midway.
But I was lazy and stayed close to where there were tables. Next time, I'll have to compare and contrast the two, and stock up on bigos at Polonia's booth, which was my greatest unfried temptation.
It boggles my mind that the fried biscuits and gravy doesn't somehow break Geneva Conventions. I could eat only one bite before gagging and throwing it away. It sounded like a promising idea, but the doughy, undercooked but oil-soaked biscuits, oozing peppery gravy was difficult to stomach.
By contrast, the strawberries in the waffle balls were the only fresh food I'd eaten all day. It felt wonderful. But so did the gush of dark chocolate as I bit into the lightly sweet waffle batter coating. The effect was as much strawberry daifuku (strawberry-filled Japanese mochi) as greasy fair food, but the combination of high and lowbrow was what made it. Finally, after a day of tasting, I had found my fair food spirit animal. With creativity, good ingredients and a just-right dip in the fryolator, Finer Diner's chocolate-covered strawberry waffle balls win Houstonia's 2016 Fried Day Rodeo Prize.