Judging at the Fair Snackdown

How I survived Kool-Aid pickles, pastrami pizza, PB&J cheesecake and 10 other delicacies

On the Grandstand stage of the Alameda County Fair, three judges and I faced off with platters of French fries bathed in peanut butter and jelly, pork belly bound in bacon and sour pickles soaked in tropical punch Kool-Aid.

While most Bay Area eyes focused on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors' victory celebration in sunny Oakland, we diligently plowed through 13 delicacies from eight vendors to identify the best fair food at the 2nd annual Fair Snackdown.

I survived judging last year's eat-a-thon. But this year, I had recently forked too many agnolotti pasta stuffed with truffles onto my plate in Piedmont, Italy.

Liam Mayclem, the Foodie Chap of KCBS radio fame, looked way too fit to serve as emcee. He proclaimed love for each high-cholesterol offering, but gave the extras to the audience. He did sneak some tastes and declared, "Who doesn't love a dish called deep-fried PB&J cheesecake on a stick with bubblegum frosting?"

As a PB&J lover, this trendlet looked good on paper. In reality, PB&J was barely detectable in the cheesecake. But the entry won the theme award for "Rock the Red, White and Blue" presentation with a clever array of red, white and blue gum balls in the frosting. The flavor muddle of PB&J fries, though, was tough to swallow.

Mayclem elevated one entry to national status. After Erica Quintero of Pepe's Mariscos described her chipotle shrimp avocado bites as "a combination of everything on our menu in one bite." Mayclem declared, "These represent current menu mania for 'small bites.'"

Several vendors, including Jackie Bradbury of Sweet Cheeks with the PB&J cheesecake, already had national exposure on Food Network. Tony Cardinali of Cardinali Grill, another Food Network alum and previous Snackdown winner, won the "Most Creative" award for his new, deep-fried caramelized bananas Foster.

But I want to know who decided to feed us bananas Foster first. Oh, I get it. Folks at the fair eat anything, anytime. The second dish was supposed to be a funnel cake cheeseburger but was MIA (on the display table but never served to us). Next up were "the world's most sour" ice cream and then pineapple sriracha wings. Ouch.

The official title for the fourth entry was "Cap'n Crunch shrimp on a stick with sweet sriracha sauce." But Don Delahoyde of Sharky's Fish Fry also served sriracha mayonnaise in case we needed more cholesterol on the side.

Cap'n Crunch is not in my pantry or my food fantasies. But I told Mayclem I wanted more of the cereal-crusted shrimp though we had nine more entries to taste. The seafood skewers won the "Best Taste" award.

Nate Janousek of Spud Ranch created a theme-oriented "red, white and blue baked potato" with chicken, white Alfredo sauce, blue cheese and sriracha sauce, another trendlet. I liked the over-rich combo to a point, but the cheese didn't add a blue hue and overwhelmed everything. Fair food doesn't get more filling than this.

A lighter snack was "red, white and blue kettle corn" from The Klassy Kernel. I was suspicious of the teal kernels. I desperately wanted sweet blueberry, but alas, the flavor was acidic black raspberry. I perked up at the idea of Frosted Flakes Chicken with maple syrup, but unlike the positive showing by Cap'n Crunch, this dish was not a winner.

The bacon-wrapped pork belly on a stick was not my favorite. But several judges, including Jerry Wang of Pleasanton, gave "porktastic" raves.

Wang won the fair's "Why I Should be a Judge" Facebook contest with his passion for greasy, bad-for-you food. The amiable oral surgeon gobbled down most entries and the entire "Koolickle" sample. Perhaps as an oral surgeon he intuitively knew the acid in the Kool-Aid marinated pickle counteracted the fat in the pork belly and sugar in the PB&J cheesecake.

Miraculously, our taste buds weren't dead by the 13th and final entry: deep-fried pastrami pizza.

Since I crave sampling Reubens on rye as well as agnolotti as a food writer, this was my ideal fair fast food. We unanimously voted Cardinali's creation with deep-fried crust, mozzarella cheese, pastrami, red onions, sauerkraut and homemade mustard sauce as the "Snackdown Grand Champion."

Thankfully fair food is a few miles away from the house for only a few weeks of the year. This year Kaiser Permanente has designated "Healthy Picks" at the fair such as salads and vegetarian pizza -- without deep-fried crust.

Also, fair-goers may not know the culinary roots of many vendors. I was pleased to hear that Delahoyde makes his sriracha sauce daily. My eyes glazed over as Cardinali shared the multiple steps needed to make his bananas Foster.

After the event Mayclem said, "These fun fair food creators cranked it up an '11' with flavors. They crafted many food memories."

Well, I don't want to relive the sour ice cream and "Koolickle" experience during the final days of the fair. But what about a small version of the MIA funnel cake cheeseburger? That's an oxymoron. Who ever heard of a small funnel cake? And who wants tiny or healthy bites at the fair anyway?

Deborah Grossman is a freelance writer for the Pleasanton Weekly.

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