The countdown to the State Fair of Texas has officially begun, now that we know which new crazy-decadent fried food dishes took top honors in this year’s Big Tex Choice Awards. To find out more about the winning dishes, which emerged from a field of 43 concessionaires’ entries, Texas Highways chatted with the creators, Greg Parish of Gourmet Royale and James Barrera. After a year without the state fair, these food artists were ready for the challenge. Pick up a guide to the fair at entrances, and get those stretchy pants ready. The State Fair of Texas opens Sept. 24.
James Barrera, winner Best Taste: Sweet for The Armadillo
Texas Highways: We hear you’re a State Fair of Texas veteran, with established cred in this contest. True?
James Barrera: I’ve had a concession stand at the fair since 1997, so this is my 25th anniversary. I’ve entered the competition since it began in 2005, and I’ve made it to the finals several times, but 2005 is the only other year I’ve won—that was for my Viva Las Vegas Ice Cream, a fried ice cream treat that I still sell at our stand, sometimes as many as 500 a day.
TH: How long did it take you to pull together The Armadillo?
JB: It was a work in progress a long time. I wanted an all-Texan sweet, so I chose the official small mammal of Texas. But I had to figure out a way to get just the right look. I ordered clay to make molds of an armadillo. I bought a graphite mold and made a smelter from cinder blocks, and still couldn’t get it. Finally, I found a guy in Las Vegas—I was working at the Paris hotel and casino before recently moving home to Red Oak—who made the perfect metal mold for me. So I got him to make five of them.
TH: It’s quite an ornate creation: a cookie butter ice cream sandwich. How did you get it just right?
JB: I worked a long time on the pastry. Funnel cake batter wasn’t right. I went to Asian grocers to find ingredients for this really light, pliable pastry. It’s kind of like a buñuelo pastry; the batter has to be exactly the right consistency and the right temperature for frying. Then I had to figure out the ice cream. Soft-serve wasn’t right, but then I found out about semifreddo, the Italian half-frozen ice cream, which was perfect. I wanted a buttery effect, so there’s cookie butter in there, along with crushed Biscoff cookies. Granulated sugar is sprinkled on top. It’s all labor intensive but everything is made ahead of time, then assembled to order.
TH: Even your presentation deserves a prize. What inspired it?
JB: To make it easy to handle, we put The Armadillo in a paper sleeve. The Texas flag on the sleeve is shaped like the state, and there’s a star set within a little blue topaz sticker that marks the location of our concession stand at the state fair in Dallas.
TH: Where do we find your stand at the fair?
JB: We’re just inside the Midway arch, near the Cotton Bowl, on the left.
Greg Parish of Gourmet Royale, winner Best Taste: Savory and Most Creative for Deep Fried Seafood Gumbo Balls
Texas Highways: Your family has a long concessionaire history at the State Fair. Have you entered this contest before?
Greg Parish: We’re based in Dallas and we’ve been at the fair since 1985. We’ve entered for seven years, and we’ve made the finals, but this is our first win.
TH: You’re a classically trained chef with a restaurant, Gourmet Royale. This must mean your R&D is an involved process?
GP: We work on ideas year-round. When I get an idea, I usually write it down and go back to revisit when it’s time to pick an entry. We have a small panel of family and friends who taste test with us.
TH: Can you describe what goes into this creation?
GP: We started with a family recipe for gumbo that goes back four generations, using a dark, savory roux that’s true to New Orleans. We add Gulf shrimp, stewed chicken, blue crab meat, and andouille sausage and shape this into balls. We roll those in saltine cracker-breadcrumb batter, then fry them. These are served in a basket with a side of our dark gumbo roux as a sauce, chicken-fried okra spears, saltine crackers, and a tiny bottle of Louisiana hot sauce.
TH: What do you want eaters to experience when they take a bite of your dish? And what should we pair with gumbo balls?
GP: I would like for them to taste the rich family history that goes back for generations. These will go well with ice-cold beer.
TH: Where do we find your food at the state fair?
GP: We have two locations: our Gourmet Royale booth is on MLK Jr., at 28F. And in the Tower Building, we have our Southern Fried Chicken stand, with our fried red velvet cupcake, chicken and waffles, and Kool-Aid Pickles.
The State Fair of Texas takes place in Dallas from Sept. 24 to Oct. 17.
Tickets are available here.