Every year, each member of my family gets to choose three things to top our State Fair priority list.
This year's list from Clover (age 10): ride the Apollo (a stomach-churning lesson in gravity defiance), win a fake raccoon tail (only $15 in game tickets!) and pet a pig (obviously). From Charlotte (age 14): zombie face-paint, a turn on the floating hamster balls and a ride on the Ferris wheel. Mine (age none of your business) is the same every year: raw oysters from Pristine Products, pork chop on a stick (fun to say, fun to eat!), a stuffed potato from Potato Palace and a sandwich from the Reuben Haus. Also, more oysters. I know that's more than three. Why do I get more than three? Because I'm the mom, that's why.
Last year, I made short work of my list and wrote about it here. This year, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I vowed to try only new things -- a sacrifice that should garner notice from the Pulitzer people.
For the record: At the fair, I do not eat to live. I live to eat. For one day, I set aside questions of nutrition, calories and sodium. If I eat something healthy or nutritious, I assure you, it's strictly accidental.
A quick exercise in Facebook crowdsourcing helped me to refine this year's must-eat list over my planned two visits. Here's the run-down.
Cheesesteak: J & L Granny's Concessions
This massive and messy sandwich boasts a hefty quantity of chopped beef and cheese nicely complemented by enough onions and green peppers to cut the saltiness and add some earthy depth. Its only downfall is the bun. Unless you eat quickly, the juicy filling soaks into the bread, making it not just soggy, but inedibly gummy. I abandoned it as a sandwich and finished it with a fork. It's tasty either way. Also, watching the expert-level spatula skills of Granny's cooks provides added entertainment value. ($11, Green Trail)
Shrimp Pita: Seafood Alaska
This is a fresh-tasting sandwich with nice veggie crunch and a pleasantly sweet and creamy shrimp salad. The sunflower seeds were an unexpectedly nice touch, and this sandwich actually resembles food that you might eat on days when you're not a fair-going hedonist. This may or may not be a plus in your book. ($11, Log Cabin #3, Green Trail)
Fried Dill Pickles: Cajun Cookin'
You guys. These pickles. This deep-fried nutritional non-entity was my pick of the day -- a sentiment shared by my group of co-tasters. These are not the salt-bombs that I have sampled in the past. Perfectly crunchy, with a substantial corn-meal crust that balances the saltiness of the pickle, these were decadent addictive and easy to share. The bit of spice in the batter and the side of ranch dressing for dipping make these the snack of summer. ($8, Log Cabin #2, Green Trail)
Talkeetna Spinach Bread
My other pick of the day. I have seen this adorable and shiny trailer parked at music festivals all summer, and it always has an impressive line of customers. You won't be surprised to learn that I've never tried it. Spinach? When I could be eating funnel cake? I mean spinach is right there in the name! Suffice it to say, after trying it, I have regrets. I could have been eating this crusty, cheesy, spinachy treat all summer. This hippified, spent-grain garlic bread hits the sweet spot between wholesome and decadent. Added points for a delicious, homemade Brazilian limeade ($3) that is refreshing, not too sweet, and alchemically made perfect with a splash of milk. According to my friend Alison, there's only one thing missing from this drink: vodka. And that's why we're friends. ($7, Purple Trail)
Cookies 'N' Milk: Hoop 'N' Hula
The cookies at this State Fair perennial start selling themselves before you even hit the line. The sugary whiff of homemade nostalgia makes a $3 cookie seem like the bargain of the century. Our collective three kids sampled three cookies (The Hoopadoodle, the oatmeal raisin, and the double chocolate chip) and they were all warm, gooey winners. If this ratio sounds stingy, consider that the Hoopadoodle is roughly the size of a dinner plate. One bite of each cookie and suddenly all three kids were craving glasses of cold milk (skim, 2 percent, whole, and soy are all available) so extra Mom points for tricking the kids into drinking something with nutritional value! ($3/cookie with 50 cents going to a local charity, Purple Trail)
Roscoe's Catfish & Barbecue
Fans of Roscoe's North Carolina-style barbecue have suffered from dry periods in the last decade or two as the restaurateur has opened and closed locations around Anchorage. But they've always been able to count on him working the smoker at the fair. I opted for the baby back rib platter with two sides ($15) while my husband chose the pulled pork bowl ($10). The ribs are meaty, chewy and deliciously smoky and are balanced nicely by the layer of tangy, not-too-sweet vinegariness of his house-made barbecue sauce. They're good but almost upstaged by the sides. The coleslaw was sweet, bright and crisp and the collard greens were even better -- tender, salty and meaty with just a hint of vinegar in the finish.
My husband's pulled pork bowl was delicious -- heavy on smoke with melt-in-your-mouth morsels of pork. His only complaint was the scanty portion of meat -- the bowl was mostly red beans and rice (winning, in their way, but making the dish seem overpriced). The only disappointment was the cornbread, which was thin, dry and bland. My husband made the best of his by crumbling it -- crouton-style -- into his bowl. Otherwise, Roscoe's is worth a visit. ($10-$15, Red Trail)
Honorable mentions (by nature of being tasty, quick, easy-to-carry and relatively affordable)
El Perico steak tacos ($4.50-$5.50) are a one-handed treat that get extra points for packing true heat in their salsa. The Crab Shack serves up sweet, crispy, bready crab cakes that are filling and just a bit upscale for fair food (five for $10). The Red Bird Thai Kitchen offers an order of slippery, tasty, easy-to-eat dumplings that are a good value at $6. Corn on the cob ($6) from Friar Tucks is a fun, sweet, buttery, one-handed treat (and a stop at their extensive seasoning bar allows for a highly-customized ear -- I like Old Bay). And lastly, Elephant Ears ($6), with a variety of toppings, serve up a simple, childhood palate-pleaser that is fun to rip apart and share.
Colony Theater Wine Bar: cheese plate
By the end the day, Alison and I were worn out from hours of taste testing and kid-wrangling. We were ready for a pick-me-up before the long ride home. The Colony Theater Wine Bar provided the perfect respite. We set the kids loose on the lawn and ordered a couple of glasses of cabernet and a cheese plate. (Note: I believe children are welcome here, but we kept this information from ours.) Wine, a warm crusty baguette, and a few nice cheeses provided a highly civilized bookend to the day. ($13, Red Trail)
We clinked glasses and enjoyed the sight of the Ferris wheel against the sunset and mountainous backdrop. It was all very picturesque. Don't get me wrong. I like my fair-experience to be deep-fried, covered in face paint, powdered sugar, prize-winning roosters and gigantic zucchinis. But a little peaceful down-time gave us the strength we needed to round up the kids, bribe them back to the car with an oversized bag of kettle corn and hit the road feeling happy, not harried. And just a little bit full.