Six brave souls faced down the feast bravely on the opening day of the Sonoma County Fair (July 25-August 12), without health wavers or regret during the fourth annual Fair Food Scramble. The challenge? Winners secure as much food as $200 will buy (in a brisk 45 minute race), followed by a mouth-stuffing, gut-busting eat-a-thon to find the best fair food of 2012.
Within two hours, the results were in…
JJ Harris, Petaluma: Our “healthy” Scrambler, JJ was tasked with seeking out foods with some healthful nature, in addition to gluten-free foods. She is fond of the Stuffie’s Veggie Burger (without the pesto mayo) as a vegan option and loved Pepe’s Horchata.
Randy Rued: The postman with the legs of steel who took us all the way to Linwood South!
Eric and Laura Lee, Petaluma: Next Food Network Star hopeful and former Simi Chef, Eric Lee was our serious palate on the team. He took the job to heart, picking just a handful of foods that really spoke to his secret fair food fondness. His favorite food remains the corn dog. His wife, Laura, is also a chef and had plenty of great insight on the food, echoing the group’s like for the Sonora dog and fried pineapple. The couple hit many of the Shade Park eateries.
Tyffani Peters, Windsor: Having worked with chefs like John Ash and Sondra Bernstein, Tyffani knows her way around food. She was the queen of the Mexican Village, plying us with spicy mango, tacos and tamales. Her fave: Corndogs.Randy Rued. Santa Rosa: A postman by day, Randy used his powerful location skills to suss out the best foods from Lindwood North and South. His favorite: Willie Bird’s Sausage.
Tanner Moulding, Rohnert Park: The man we called “Lemonader” put his pucker to work finding the best lemonades at the fair. Favorite food: Sonora Dog.
Plus: Thanks to Mike Stewart (our Vet), Greg Retsinas (the Bossman) and Jason Stanbrough (the crepe man and pack mule).
Best Overall: Sonora Dog, $6
A newcomer to the fair, Lisa Thompson and her sister, Debra White, both of Santa Rosa, won the judges hearts with a hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with pinto beans, grilled onions, mustard and mayo. The kicker is a sweet Mexican roll specially made by Santa Rosa’s La Reyna Bakery. “It’s a hot dog on steroids,” said Thompson. Sonoran Hot Dog Stand, Magnolia. Judges loved it so much, we also named it Best Meat Dish at the Fair. Scrambler Tyffani Peters of Windsor said,” Classic fair food with a nice Mexican twist and fusion of flavors.”
Best Fried: Fried Pineapple, $7
County fairs have become ground zero for putting anything not tied down into the fryer. From pickles to Coca-Cola, there’s not much that hasn’t been tried. Pineapple, however, is a new one for us, and a hands-down winner (the judges were split on whether this should actually be Best Overall). Big chunks of juicy, ripe pineapple get batter-dipped and golden, for a sweet, crunchy combo. Cardinali Grill, Linwood South. A fried loser? Fried watermelon (also from Cardinali), $6. “Watermelon doesn’t take well to cooking,” said 2012 Scrambler JJ Harris, of Petaluma.
Best Lemonade: Phil’s Fresh Squeezed Lemonade, $4
This year, we took our drinking seriously at the Scramble. Most of the lemonades faired, well, fair, without much real lemon flavor. Phil’s tart-sweet fresh-squeezed taste won us over. Phil’s (the giant lemon) in the Shade Park. Other interesting drinks to check out: Horchata, (Pepe’s, Mexican Vilalge), Mango Cup (Michoacan Natural Ice Cream, Mexican Village), and Sarsaparilla (Rincon Valley Christian School, Shade Park).
Best Pasta: Pasta King Pesto, ($7.25)
Do we even have to say it? Art Ibleto is a legend, and all of the food is made onsite in the permanent Pasta King building on the fairgrounds. The pasta don oversees most of the operations from the air-conditioned back room throughout the fair. The pesto is just a Sonoma County Fair classic that you gotta get every year at least once. Pasta King Spaghetti Palace, Shade Park.
Best Newcomer: Crab Rarebit, $12
Though most of the group didn’t dive into this sharp melted cheese and crab concoction on toast points until it was, well, cold, those of us who got our fingers in early knew this was something special. Yes, it’s a bit pricey, but in line with the more upscale dishes served at Sliders Gastro Pub and Sports Bar in front of the Racing Grandstands. “I could really taste the crab,” said Laura Lee. A second dish, “Gastro Nachos” (also from Sliders) with cantaloupe and guacamole wasn’t as big of a hit with the group. “Unripe melon, pickled jalapenos and nachos was the worst idea ever,” said Lee.
Best Classic: Munch-a-Bunch Corndog
“For me, fair food is corndogs. It’s nostalgic and as long as a food triggers that, it’s a winner,” said Chef Eric Lee. The Next Food Network contender was a fan of the Munch-a-Bunch dog ($4), but after the Scramble, continued his search. “I’m having at least two more,” Lee said. Munch-a-Bunch, Linwood South.
Best Dessert: Brown Sugar Cinnamon Crepe
San Francisco Crepe Company (previously known to locals as Cafe Martin at the Roxy) won the judges’ coveted dessert vote for its sheer simplicity. A folded crepe with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon stood out among the frosted, fried, canned strawberry-topped desserts. Not that we didn’t love them all, but sometimes less is more. Other faves: Homemade cannoli’s from Cardinali. Look for the rehabbed cable car on Poplar.
Best Healthy: Pasta King Polenta, ($8.50)
Almost every year, we give this marinara smothered polenta a “best of” award. It’s rich, filling and just plain good without making you feel like you’ve swallowed an elephant. Plus, it’s vegetarian, making it approachable for different dietary needs. Shade Park.
A few other favorites: Baklava (Sleek Greek, Shade Park), fried artichokes (Jeanne’s Artichokes, Linwood North) and the Cajun Sausage Sandwich (WIllie Bird’s BBQ, Linwood North). We compared several carne asada tacos, as well, including the returning Soft Tacos (Linwood North). Our favorite of the bunch: Rose’s Mexican Food (Mexican Village, $4).