Every day is a fun day at the Alameda County Fair. For me, Thursday afternoons are special because the fair offers food bargains at many booths. For $2, you can snack on a cup of mac 'n cheese, lick a small Dole Whip or bite into a full-sized steamed bao bun.
Stories abound about the introduction of foods such as hamburgers and cotton candy at fairs.
But long before food took center stage, the first county fairs in the early 19th century were agricultural affairs with farmers holding sheep-shearing contests and sharing innovations. Tradition runs deep at the Pleasanton fair with pig races, livestock exhibits and horse racing. But there are drone shows, FMX motocross, concerts and much more to see, touch and taste.
In the food arena, the fair hosts a whopping 80 vendors located from the Grandstand and Courtyard to the Agventure Park area, Main Carnival and Kids Park. At the fair, some folks eat what is familiar at home or restaurants and others come to experiment.
On the first $2 Fair Food Bites Thursday on June 23, accompanied by a heat wave and lots of water, I discovered interesting food at new booths and classic offerings presented in new ways.
Some fair foods are hard to find elsewhere.
Take Dole Whip soft serve, a staple at Disneyland. In Pleasanton, you can enjoy strawberry-pineapple Dole Whip and be watched over by two clowns on stilts. Given that soft serve is not one of my top culinary temptations, I liked the smaller $2 Thursday portion and the Dole Whip, a smooth, cold and fruity treat.
Of course, one of the main draws of the fair is to indulge in certain calorific foods such as funnel cakes or fried cheesecake. I seriously follow this perspective.
Spotting the Sweet Cheeks booth soon after arriving, I decided to eat dessert first and mentioned that to the server, Zane Bradbury. I soon discovered that his parents, Jackie and Brian, have brought Sweet Cheeks to the fair for 40 years. With that background, Bradbury firmly told me, "After all, you can't go to the fair without fried food."
I agree with him for the most part. You can eat healthy food at the fair with many choices from the vegetarian Teriyaki Bowls to salads at Sleek Greek. Since I eat salad so frequently, I deferred to my cravings.
After eyeing the Thursday $2 special, a fried Oreo cookie, I ordered the full-sized fried cookie dough on a stick. Once I bit into the true-to-name soft center and tasted chocolate chips, I was satisfied and shared the rest.
Next up, Hog Daddy's near the Grandstand, where pork is the star, and the Thursday special is a $2 pork kebab. But I got distracted by the new offering, Truman Fries. Though I conjured up Truman's saying, "The buck stops here," I knew nothing of his food predilections.
Due to the "nuclear" mass of jalapeños and massive portion, the dish evoked Truman's historical relevance. A marriage of curly fries and jalapeño-heavy nachos, the shareable dish features Hog Daddy's freshly roasted, savory pulled pork -- an element now stored in the food memory box.
New food booths at the fairgrounds
For a change of pace, I visited a nearby first-time vendor, Piggly's Seafood that offered a Thursday $2 fried fish sample. I tried the oyster-on-a-stick, a new offering at the fair. Curious about the provenance of the oysters. site manager Charity Rocha said, "With oysters arriving daily, we are serving Royal Amethysts from Humboldt Bay today."
I asked Rocha about her first experience at the fair. "This is a lovely fairground with beautiful trees and shade, so nice on hot days," she said. Visitors ate Piggly's lobster nachos and barbecue oysters grilled over mesquite at shaded tables in front of the Grandstand.
The crust on the fried oysters on a stick had a non-greasy bite, and the sprinkle of onions and peppers on top brought additional fresh crunch. I asked Roshini Solano, a first-time oyster eater, about the Piggly's version. An intern at the fair, Solano said, "After seeing the texture of oysters, I never wanted to eat them. Prepared this way, they are quite tasty."
Another new vendor is Bunbao, a food truck operation from Fremont that serves a variety of steamed and filled bao buns. I couldn't resist the Thursday $2 special, a regular-sized vegetarian steamed bun. Packed with bok choy, mushrooms and seasoned with ginger and garlic, the bun was restaurant quality.
Intrigued by the fluffy bao dough, I asked server Jésus Zuniga about the preparation. "The dough and filling are prepared and steamed daily in the Fremont central kitchen, which also prepares buns for delivery and catering. It takes only a minute to heat them up here," Zuniga said.
The most popular selections, added Zuniga, are the barbecue or beef jalapeño buns.
By this time, I was thirsty. Though there are numerous lemonades, coffee drinks, beers, vodka sodas and other cocktails, plus a Wine Slush Bar, I ambled over to Boba King.
Typical of wandering the fair, I found Boba King opposite the Main Carnival and next to a pirate ship.
Boba King is new to the fair though boba -- aka bubble tea -- gained popularity in the 1980s and is broadly available. I tasted the Thursday $2 banana slushie special, and decided I also needed the full-size Mango Madness Slushie with bursting mango boba. The drink was cold, fruity and fun with the pop of the mango bursting boba.
But I thought boba were tapioca pearls, and received a quick tutorial from Sean Rocha, manager of the booth: "We make the boba pearls ourselves from 'raw' tapioca which we boil, simmer and then mix with vegan honey syrup that darkens the pearls. The bursting or 'popping' boba that we buy are juice-filled."
The Thai milk tea is a crowd favorite, he added, along with peach tea and the mango slushie.
Speaking of bubbles, I found another new food booth, Bubble Waffle, with a namesake offering. The baking mold gives the waffles "bubble" pop-ups in the dough.
The waffle is served as a cone to hold strawberry or banana and various toppings or as pop-outs served along with mini-pancakes and fruit -- or in fair fashion, fillings with Oreos, Nutella, or s'mores.
Mac and cheese is a longstanding All-American favorite. Yet at another Hog Daddy's booth commonly called the Mac Shack, I spied a sign for fried cheese balls and immediately thought of tasting arancini in Italy.
These breaded and fried balls of rice and cheese are quite addictive. The fried mac and cheese balls with ancho chipotle sauce ladled on top looked interesting, but I had maxed out the fried food quota and also declined the Thursday $2 special of a cup of regular mac and cheese.
Moving on to the 50th state, I stopped by Ricardos Hawaiian Feast for a final taste of the fair.
Many people were talking about the Hawaiian bowls, and I learned the $2 Thursday special was a pineapple slice on a stick, a refreshing option as the afternoon heat intensified.
Their signature offerings are Hawaiian Mowie Bowls. Piled into a scooped pineapple, the shrimp Mowie Bowl was filled with roasted pineapple, an ample portion of grilled shrimp and rice and a dollop of coleslaw.
Since the hot day kept visitors indoors and he wasn't overly busy, I asked owner Ricardo Tapia and his wife Mariana from Bakersfield about their experience at the Pleasanton fair.
"We've been in the same spot for five years and have regular customers. Some come early for a breakfast Moco Loco with eggs, rice and homemade hamburger patty with gravy. We love this location at the fair, and the people are friendly," Mariana Tapia said.
Mariana brought over a virgin piña colada from the far side of the booth and noted that you can buy liquor shots at the nearby Farmhouse Bar. I continued sipping my Mango Madness slushie.
Favorites at other longstanding booths are the ginormous turkey legs, funnel cakes with numerous toppings, Italian, Greek and Mexican food. Don't forget the corn dogs. I was happy to hold the $2 Thursday special of a cocktail-sized corn "puppy" compared to its big 18-inch brother.
My friends highly recommended gyros this year, but I will hold them for another time. The fair food craze I missed was Flamin' Hot Cheetos. A more recent trend than bacon-wrapped everything, hot Cheetos were everywhere, crushed as a coating or ingredient or placed whole as a topping on pizza, nachos or corn-on-the-cob.
The fair is open for two more Thursday food specials, this week and next (June 30 and July 7) running until 5 p.m., and 10 more days of fun overall. Armed with a plan to eat lightly beforehand and a hope for cooler weather, I will check out more fair attractions and shop before I nibble on a gyro, taste a slice of Flamin' Hot Cheetos pizza and devour one fried Oreo cookie for dessert.
Find fair food
The Alameda County Fair website features a food finder page to help attendees locate their favorite treats around the Pleasanton fairgrounds. Go to https://annual.alamedacountyfair.com/fair-food/ .
The fair is open for its third week from now through next Thursday, except for a regular closure day on Tuesday. The fair is open on reduced hours on Monday for the Fourth of July, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with the parking lots closing at 3 p.m. and gates closing at 4 p.m.