The glories of Fair grub
Culinary journalist finds deep-fried adventure
During an Italian winemaker dinner in late June, I knocked down a "raviolo" at an elegant restaurant in San Francisco. This singular ravioli was filled with "dry-farmed, organic Comic pears and truffled foie gras." I heard the vintner describe Gavi, a white wine from Piedmont, hitherto unknown to me, which fit my next writing assignment.
But I was distracted. I wanted fois gras ravioli rather than raviolo. In a few days the law to ban foie gras in California would become effective, and I wanted to savor this taste. Since my mission as a food and drink journalist is to explore gastronomy here and abroad, I daydreamed about reuniting with this delicious, cholesterolly-incorrect treat in Italy.
The next day I reached into our refrigerator groaning under bags of berries, salad and tofu from the farmers market to resume my normal home healthy menu. But I was soon sidetracked by marketing messages about "Food, Fun and Family" at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton.
I abandoned the desk, slipped into flip flops and cooked up a plan for culinary adventure at the Fair. I would hunt down new, creative deep-fried grub, validate rumors about gourmet pizza and discover secret menu items.
Speaking of grub, I had read about chocolate-covered crickets in the pre-event literature. I learned that Jungle George and his exotic treats cancelled this year, but I figured there would be plenty of food booths squeezed between fair activities, carnival rides and contests.
In the spirit of dipping into deep-fried foods while genuinely hungry, I headed straight to the Sweet Cheeks trailer. An alumna from fair food shows on the Food Network and Travel Channel, owner Jacqueline Bradbury confirmed that deep-fried fruity pebbles on a stick is the "it" item this year.
I liked the contrast between the colorful, crunchy cereal and the smooth and not-over-the-top breading. But I preferred the deep-fried red velvet cake -- I'll take my cream cheese icing in any form.
Bradbury shared some fun fair wisdom: "What you eat at the Fair stays at the Fair."
I asked her if she meant indulging in Pleasanton is like being naughty in Las Vegas. She laughed and explained that you walk the calories off at the Fair.
Next up, an investigation into the "gourmet" aspect of Cardinali Wood Fire Pizza and Grill. Here's a rare pizza vendor who lists the name of his cheese company on the ingredients, makes his sauce daily, and uses a unique, wood-fired pizza oven. I watched Fair employees line up -- a tip that this place might be a keeper.
The large, thin-crust Margherita pizza with fresh ingredients -- mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and garlic -- tasted like upscale restaurant fare and compared favorably in price at $18. For the meat pizza, Cardinali grills fresh sausage rather than purchasing frozen crumbles.
Cardinali is new to Pleasanton's Fair. He noticed the strong lineup of ethnic food from Thai to Chinese and Mexican. What also struck him was the gourmet tooth of his customers.
"I've sold more whole Margherita pizzas here than anywhere," said Cardinali.
I saved room for a triangular slice of Cardinali's new, deep-fried watermelon and my favorite, deep-fried, upside-down pineapple "cake" with a secret, light batter of five different flours.
As I finished the sweets, Cardinali shared the "secret" vegetarian menu: Simply ask for a veggie sandwich or pizza. Vegetarians can find grilled corn in the Fair's BBQ Country Corral.
The overhead sign at Juicy's reads, "World's Largest Outlaw Grill." Last year at the Fair, Juicy's broke the world record for the largest commercially available hamburger with trimmings weighing 777 pounds. On my second visit to the Fair, I demolished a measly, half-pound Outlaw Burger, which quashed my desire to eat for a week.
Thinking Juicy's was all about meat, I was surprised to see Juicy's funnel cake trailer. Who could eat the best-selling funnel cake with fresh strawberries, ice cream and whipped cream after that burger, Cowabunga corn dog or turkey leg?
OK, so I had a bite of the vanilla ice cream version. It was hot and sweet with a slightly tart hit from fresh strawberry slices. Other vendors tout real strawberries, but I saw those limp pieces submerged in sweetened strawberry syrup.
I also discovered that, improbably, Juicy's is a secret spot for romance. Manager Benny Telles shared his secret.
"Ask for the whipped cream in a heart shape. Mostly guys do this after dark to be 'smooth' and to get some brownie points," Telles said.
The Fair, after all, is a mix of food and fun. From free concerts with big names like the Temptations, to live horse racing, the BBQ Ribs-Chicken Cook-off and Gumbo Contest, this weekend is filled with action.
I also paid my annual homage to the All-Alaskan Pig Racing. This year I felt special kinship with the stars, especially 12-week-old Soapy Smith who will soon outgrow piglet status. Unlike most of us fair-goers, Soapy eats a wholesome mix of corn, grains and nutrients. But his feed is coated in a molasses glaze to pump up his appetite.
"These pigs are athletes," owner Donald Noll explained.
Strolling to the exit in a food haze, I spied Colossal Italian Gelato and experienced an unexpected farm-to-table moment. Owner Matt Hoguin extolled the virtue of local produce in his preservative-free, creamy fruit creations with cherries from Brentwood and strawberries from Livermore.
Miraculously I found room for a spoonful of peach and champagne gelato.
If only I could get my hands on a foie gras raviolo, this refreshing dessert would be the perfect ending to my fantasy Italian dinner.