Deep Fried, Tried and True: A Culinary Tour of the Utah State Fair

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Fair food is many things, but its chief characteristic is honesty. When you visit the fair, it’s expected that you try something that has no illusions about what it is. You’re encouraged to expand your horizons regarding the sheer scope of food that can be improved with a trip through the deep fryer. While the menu tends to change from year to year, I’ve made a special project out of cataloguing some of the most notable items that you can get at the Utah State Fair. Remember, as far as eating goes, what happens at the fair stays at the fair.


The Staples

Everyone who goes to the fair has that one thing that they absolutely need to eat in order to complete their experience. Some people dig caramel apples and cotton candy; others crave fry bread and ice cream. If I’m at a fair and I’m not eating something deep fried, the whole experience is ruined. This is why my go-to pairing is a corn dog with lots of mustard and a strawberry funnel cake. One of the singular joys in life is catching the scent of hot oil and fried batter as it mingles with a brisk autumn breeze, only to be presented with something sweet and something savory, fresh out of the deep fryer.

I can’t say that one purveyor of corn dogs is better than another, nor can I recommend the best place to get a funnel cake—but that’s not the point, is it? The point of dunking an all-beef hot dog in pancake batter and deep frying it to crispy, golden perfection is to show your inner kid that you still know how to party. The point of receiving a decadent tangle of fried dough, piled high with whipped cream, strawberries and chocolate, is to prove that you’re not dead yet.

Hidden Gems

Photo: Talyn Sherer
Guys! There are donut burgers at the Utah State Fair! Photo: Talyn Sherer

In addition to the fair food necessities, it’s worth looking a little bit deeper for the unexpectedly tasty food that is only available come fair season. One of the problems with hunting down fair food, however, is that very few of the vendors have things like company names, websites or Facebook pages—they seem to appear during fair season and vanish for the rest of the year. They designate themselves by what they sell, so that’s the best road map that I can give you.

There’s a barbecue joint that usually sets up shop next to the Pioneer Building, and their specialty is smoked meat sandwiches. You can get smoked beef here, and it’s great, but I happen to love their smoked turkey sandwich. There’s not much to them—just a bun stuffed to capacity with thinly-sliced smoked turkey that you can load up with all kinds of different barbecue sauces. The smoked meat stands on its own—it’s deep, flavorful and plays well with any of the homemade sauces.

On the opposite side of the fairpark, a place called Peaches N’ Cream (they have a Facebook page!) rents one of the food court spaces. There’s a reason why they’ve named themselves after their signature dessert, which consists of fresh peaches doused with heavy cream. Fair food is known and loved for being heavy and aggressive, so it’s nice to mosey on over here for something a bit lighter and refreshing.

For those new to the whole “deep fry everything” movement, a nice entry point is the fried Oreo. I love the principle behind deep frying things like cheesecake, candy bars and bacon, but most of the time, it just tastes like fried dough with a sucker punch of sweet or salty. For some reason, dunking Oreos in batter and frying them to a golden brown creates a rare alchemy of flavors and textures. The cookie and the cream filling heat up and melt together in a kind of cookie butter, so you get this great textural experience. It’s crunchy on the outside and equal parts chewy and silky on the inside. You get those little guys dusted with powdered sugar, and suddenly, you’re eating the best damn beignet you’ve ever had.

The Weird Stuff

I make it a point to try something batshit crazy every time I go to the fair, and it seems like each year, there is something that was specifically designed to help me meet that challenge. The most notorious of fair foods comes in the form of a Donut Burger from Tooele-based Rocky Mountain Concessions. They slice a glazed donut in half and stuff it with a cheeseburger, lettuce, tomato and, upon request, fried bacon. It’s a monument to excess, and I love it for that, but it’s an absolute nightmare to eat. Each bite is a surreal mixture of sweet and savory terror that leaves your fingers sticky with shame. I cannot recommend this enough.

On the flipside, there’s a place in the same, dark corner of the fair that serves up a sandwich called the Mac Attack. It’s essentially a pulled-pork sandwich with barbecue sauce, grilled onions and a softball-sized scoop of macaroni and cheese. This one was surprisingly complex—there’s something delicious about melty cheese, barbecue sauce and pulled pork.

The best thing about eating at the Utah State Fair is that there will always be something new to challenge your culinary boundaries—just remember to do your experimentation after going on the Tilt-a-Whirl.