Almost 70 food vendors are waiting for you at the Alaska State Fair. And you only have one stomach. The odds are stacked -- like a Reuben sandwich -- against you. Which is why eating at the fair is all about strategy. You need a plan if you intend to eat well from each of the fair's main food groups (carbs, food on a stick, deep-fried and the extremely important powdered-sugar group).
The perfect fair foods can give you the energy you need for llama-petting, quilt-gazing and Tilt-A-Whirling, and can be eaten with ease while elbowing your way through strollers, tourists and the occasional animatronic dinosaur. Like a general, I gathered my troops (my husband, my two daughters and my daughter's best friend) and, armed with only a plastic fork, we prepared to storm the fair.
J & L Grannys (Green Trail)
My family's fair strategy always involves hitting the rides early on a weekday to avoid the after-school lines. My crew arrived hungry (another essential part of fair-eating strategy), so I hit J & L Granny's near the midway to stave off faintness until we could address lunch, or, as I call it, the first wave of attack.
I opted for the tater chip loaf -- a 3-D rectangle of greasy, crispy, delicately sliced potatoes. These are a crowd-pleaser. You can grab clusters of the chips off the loaf and eat as you walk -- unless, that is, you're the person holding them. Inconveniently, these are handed to you -- piping hot -- on two overlapping, somewhat flimsy paper plates. My 9-year-old was instructed to feed chips to me at regular intervals so I didn't lose the whole potato structure by juggling my hands.
This stand would benefit from improved packaging. Also, the seasoning station, while comprehensive, is not terribly user-friendly. The huge, industrial-sized container of salt was too hard to lift with one hand (which you have to do, since you're holding the chips with the other). I would have loved to pocket a salt packet or two to freshen up the seasoning when we got halfway through the loaf. Hats off, however, to the clever spray bottles of vinegar.
Ease: (C) Tricky to carry and tricky to season.
Value: (C) $9 seems a bit pricey for a potato or two.
Oysters by Pristine Products (Red Trail)
I've made this my first and sometimes my last stop at the fair for years. These plump, briny beauties fresh out of Prince William Sound are, for me, the most luxurious offering at the fair. My children do not participate in this annual slurp-off but enjoy watching the team shuck oysters with speed, ease and finesse. Last year, I found a worm in one oyster. A staff member flicked it out with the tip of his knife, told me to eat it anyway and still gave me another. That's service. A lot of sauces are at your disposal -- cocktail, vinaigrette, Sriracha, Frank's hot sauce -- but use these sparingly. These beautiful oysters can stand alone.
Ease: (B-) These oysters need to be tossed back on-site. Or you could take them across the way to the Sluice Box and wash them down with a beer or two.
Value: (A) $11 for a half-dozen and $21 for a full dozen. I don't know their market price -- I just know I would still buy them at twice the price.
Porkys (Red Trail)
Pork Chop on a Stick. Let's face it: It's just fun to say. I grabbed one of these at a friend's suggestion and it was the sleeper hit of the fair. It's a pork chop. On a stick. The marinade, which I think relies pretty heavily on seasoning salt, packs in a ton of flavor. This is perfect fair food: satisfying, substantial, fun to eat and easy to share.
Value: (A) At $5 per chop, this was the deal of the day (next to the $1 face-paint mustaches).
Tres Amigos Tacos (Purple Trail)
The Taco of Your Life comes stuffed with jerk chicken, beans, rice, cilantro and a yogurt sauce. Served folded into a paper plate (which needs to remain folded to keep the taco together), the over-laden taco was too messy to deal with while fair-roving.
We decided to contend with it at a briefly empty picnic table (some rare real estate on a busy fair day) but even then it was difficult to eat and share. We tried cutting and we tried tearing but ended by eating it as an entrée with forks, which meant we never really got all of the flavors into one bite. Once we got into it, we wished we had partaken of the myriad hot sauces the stand offers -- it's a bit bland -- but by then we didn't want to trek back for the proper condiments. On the plus side, it was one of the healthier options at the fair and made us feel justified in enjoying a third dessert later on.
Value: (B-) $13
Reuben Haus (Purple Trail)
This stall is relatively new at the fair but it has developed some buzz, some rabid fans and a perfect sandwich recipe. This Reuben is beautiful. The corned beef retains its beefy flavor through the saltiness of the corning spices. The beer-braised sauerkraut brightens up the flavor and melted Swiss cheese and a house-made Russian dressing add creaminess. The kids weren't interested in this sandwich, which was just as well because my husband and I weren't interested in sharing it.
Value: (B+) $11 for a whole sandwich (halves are available).
The Potato Palace (Log Cabin No. 1 on the Green Trail)
Celebrating the booth's 30th year at the state fair, Kevin Worrell and his mom Marian Romano have been doling out hot, stuffed potatoes since he was 6 years old. I have always given this stand a miss -- mostly because I frequently bake potatoes at home. But I don't make them like this. If you're undecided, and the stand isn't swamped, Kevin will wax poetic about the menu choices and that is worth a visit right there. I opted for their newest creation -- the Philly Cheesesteak potato. Hot, fluffy and tender, this innocent little potato was smothered in a salty, cheesy cream sauce studded with bits of shredded beef. Potato Palace lives somewhere between sinful and wholesome, and who doesn't want to live there?
Ease: (B) Not the most portable choice but so tender that it was easy to share, even with a plastic fork.
Value: (B+) I ordered the menu's most expensive item at $12.50 but most other items are considerably lower. The cheese and chili potato, for example is only $7.50.
Denali Cream Puffs ($7.50, Red Trail) are vanilla whipped-cream puffs of pastry. They aren't so much drizzled with as pleasantly drowning in either chocolate sauce or berry compote. Original Gourmet hand-dipped ice creams ($6, Green Trail) are vanilla ice-cream bars coated in your choice of chocolate or white chocolate, then rolled in Oreo crumbs, sprinkles or nuts. Aunt Linda's funnel cake ($6, Red Trail) is a faithful execution of the carnival classic. I'm grouping these three together because they ran neck-in-neck in the ratings.
Ease: Who cares? These sweet treats aren't around long enough to matter.
By evening, as we trudged back to the car, my troops were tired and full but not vanquished. To quote Napoleon Bonaparte, truly, an army marches on its stomach.