The 17th annual Big Tex Choice Awards winners were named by a panel of celebrity judges Aug. 29. Gourmet Royale concessionaires won two of the top three prizes: Best Taste Savory, and Most Creative, for their heritage family recipe for Deep Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls. James Barrera won Best Taste Sweet with The Armadillo, a cookie butter ice cream sandwich.
For the first time in recent memory, the event was not open to the public. Entries from the 10 finalists were whittled down from the original 43 entries. After sampling all ten dishes, the judges for the prestigious State Fair of Texas competition named winners in three categories: Best Taste Savory, Best Taste Sweet, and Most Creative.
Winner: Best Taste Savory, and Most Creative Dish
Deep Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls, by Gourmet Royale
Using a family recipe that has been handed down four generations, the base is a dark, rich, and savory roux that represents the true essence of New Orleans. The balls are then loaded with Gulf Coast shrimp, stewed chicken, blue crab meat, and andouille sausage. Then rolled in saltine cracker and breadcrumb batter and fried, creating an explosion of flavor. Served with a side of dark gumbo roux sauce for dipping, and topped with chicken fried okra spears. A small bottle of hot sauce and a package of saltine crackers accompanies the dish.
(A delightful dish, especially for gumbo lovers like me. Be warned, it has a kick, even without the hot sauce.)
Winner: Best Taste Sweet-The Armadillo, by James Barrera
Who wouldn’t want to go home with the Armadillo Cookie Butter Ice Cream Sandwich, or at least take it for a stroll on the Midway. It is made-from-scratch cookie butter semifreddo – an Italian take on ice cream that means semi-frozen. The treat is drizzled with cookie butter and sandwiched between two deep fried Armadillo-shaped cookies made with a branding iron. Finally, it is dusted with buttery sugar. Absolutely a velvety cream delight.
(They ran out of this delicacy before I got there, but my husband—who wisely decided to eat dessert first—said it was delicious. Barrera’s booth will be one of my first stops at the Fair this year.)
Big Tex Choice Awards Other Best Taste Savory Finalists
Crispy Crazy Corn, by longtime concessionaire (since 1988) Ruth Hauntz.
Sweet whole kernel corn, individually battered, fried, and dashed with secret seasoning, with slow-smoked pulled pork, tangy pineapple slaw, drizzled with jalapeño crema and cilantro.
(This is like an entire meal in a cup, and very good.)
Deep Fried I-35, by Clint and Gretchen Probst
A deep-fried Texas road trip on a plate starts in Parker County with peaches, down to West for sweet and savory kolaches, south to Waco, for Dr Pepper®. On to Austin for smoked brisket. Combine into a sweet and savory tribute to the Texas road trip.
(An interesting combination, but it somehow works.)
Lucky Duck Dumplin’
Lucky Duck Dumplin’, Bert Concessions
A delectable pastry filled with a delicious combination of rich, fluffy cream cheese, blended with succulent duck bacon and delicately roasted sweet corn, with a sprinkling of herbs and spices. These delicately filled dumplings are dropped into the deep fryer until golden-brown and fried to crispy perfection. Served with gently spicy Thai chili glaze.
(My favorite savory dish, portable, and yummy–but slightly sticky.)
Pork Shots, Glen and Sherri Kusak at Hans Mueller. Texas best smoked sausage wrapped with hickory smoked bacon and filled with creamy mac and cheese. Sprinkle the outside with a sweet, spicy BBQ rub to finalize this perfect Fair-food.
(My husband’s favorite savory dish.)
More Best Taste Sweet finalists
Brisket Brittle, another entry by longtime concessionaire Ruth Hauntz. Take the rich, crunchy, sweet deliciousness of an old-fashion peanut brittle, but replace the peanuts with smokey Texas brisket. This addictively sweet yet savory treat finishes with a satisfying hint of heat.
(My husband loved the brisket brittle, says it’s perfect for Fair food, easy to eat while walking.)
Deep-Fried Halloween, by Isaac Rousso.
A delicious chewy pretzel dropped in the fryer, bathed in candy corn syrup, with rainbow sprinkles and powdered sugar, piped in orange and white buttercream icing, stacking Halloween candies (M&M’s®, Reese’s® Pieces, Mini-Twix®, OREO® cookie crumbles, and candy corn) topped with marshmallow whip cream and crowned with Reese’s® Peanut Butter Cup crown, Hershey’s chocolate syrup caramel sauce and candy corn drizzle.
(Your trick or treaters will love this one!)
Fernie’s Fried Toffee Coffee Crunch Cake, Winter Family Concessions.
Lightly glazed cake donut crumbles with English toffee and crunchy almonds blended with a velvety custard for a bread pudding-like consistency, set in a ring mold. Dipped in an egg product, covered in panko and vanilla cookie crumbs, fried to a golden brown with a crunchy exterior and a gooey butter cake center. Served on a plate with a light dusting of powdered sugar and sprinkled with more toffee bits and mocha coffee whipped cream.
(I love coffee and toffee so this was another favorite.)
Texas Pumpkin Poke Cake, Michelle Edwards.
A Texas-shaped, decadent pumpkin cake with a finger-licking, gooey vanilla glaze, silky caramel, topped with fluffy whipped cream, and lightly sprinkled with secret spice.
(This cake was absolutely divine! All you spiced pumpkin latte drinkers, take note!)
The panel of celebrity judges had a very tough job, choosing the winners from all these truly creative and inspired dishes. They included Chef Tiffany Derry, Chef/Owner Roots Chicken Shak and contestant and judge on Top Chef and Top Chef Junior. Chef Uno Immanivong-Chef/Owner, Red Stix Street Food was also a judge. Celebrity Chef Kent Rathbun, created award-winning Abacus, and owns Imoto, Shinsei, Lover’s Seafood & Market, and a catering company with his wife Chef Tracy Rathbun.
Additional judges included broadcast personality Donovan Lewis–1310 The Ticket, is co-host of the “World’s Most Dangerous Midday Show The Norm and D Invasion, on Sports Radio 96.7/1310 The Ticket. Michelle Rodriguez–New Country 96.3, Midday On-Air Personality, she co-hosts weekday mornings with Hawkeye in the Morning Show on KSCS. The program was emceed by State Fair VP of Marketing Karissa Condoianis, with a little help from Little Big Tex.
All these dishes, plus previous winners and favorites from the annual Big Tex Choice Awards are available at concessionaires all around Fair Park again this year. Old favorites like Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs, Belgian Waffles, and candied apples will be there too. As frequent fairgoers, my husband and I are excited to learn that our previous Fair coupons, which we purchased for fifty cents each, are worth $1 this year! The Fair has decided to help save paper by only selling $1 coupons this year, but promises to honor our old coupons at the same value. An unexpected gift!
The State Fair of Texas opens Sept. 24 and runs through Oct. 17 in Fair Park. For more information, visit BigTex.com.