Some 30 miles east of USC, as the urban-sprawl strip malls blur together along the ever-expanding lanes of the 10 Freeway, the Fairplex exit passes as a blip as one speeds through Pomona. A quick detour through a sleepy neighborhood reveals the Los Angeles County Fair.
Surrounded by a moat masquerading as a dirt parking lot, the L.A. County Fair is a glinting neon oasis that emerges annually in September to provide any and every sense of entertainment desired.
Walking past the pie display case, the miracle medicine exhibitions, the lumberjack competition and the animatronic dinosaurs, each seems more anachronistic than the previous, and yet nothing seems particularly wrong. The county fair is the catchall: no carnival ride too daunting, no musical act too obscure and no peddled knickknack too homey to be turned away.
Ultimately, though a relic of the days of swelling pride over blue-ribbon hogs, today’s county fairs have remained relevant for one purpose: the celebration and advancement of fried food.
Although it does not feature trendy national darlings such as deep-fried beer or butter, the L.A. County Fair makes an impressive effort to provide a culinary spread fit for a coronary embolism.
As a fried-food enthusiast and longtime resident of the South, my quest was to uncover the inventive, alarming and obscene fried fare, the food whose name alone evokes simultaneous glee and disgust; the items our bodies regret eating almost immediately. The stuff that makes Thomas Keller hang his head in shame; not your run-of-the-mill deep-fried frog legs, mushrooms and Twinkies.
Under the blistering sun, my heart sputtering, I put forth this not-quite-definitive highlight reel of the L.A. County Fair’s fried food feast.
Perhaps there’s a reason why one rarely sees fried avocado on a menu — it’s just not any good. A cakey batter and a hot temperature betray the cool, buttery purpose of eating an avocado in the first place. Combined with the fact that the advertised pesto dip was nowhere to be found, the avocado lies squarely in the “don’t buy” column. Save your money, save your waistline and keep walking.
Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich
On paper, this seems like a flawless idea — essentially, the distant culinary cousin of a jelly doughnut. Unfortunately, the nuance of food preparation was checked at the entrance gate. What amounts to a glorified, crunchy Uncrustable fails to deliver any sort of lasting impression. Doughy white bread, a small squirt of peanut butter and seemingly molten hot jelly combine for a rare and painfully disappointing item.
Boasting arguably the biggest upside/downside of the fried food array, the Klondike Bar appears to be (based on advertising and signage) the food providers’ crown jewel. Admittedly, from conception to execution, this could be the greatest fair food invented — but it isn’t.
Taking a large bite, I expected a seamless blend of crispy batter, chocolate coating and vanilla ice cream. Instead my Klondike Bar had transformed into the world’s largest vanilla gusher.
Some of the blame falls squarely on me: I let this glimmering cube sit for five minutes, giving it ample melting time. Mind the brief expiration date, and you might find the future king of desserts.
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
The discovery of a Reese’s Peanut Butter bar this entire eating adventure a success. As is often the case, the simplest concept yields the tastiest result, with only one bar, one stick and one vat of corn oil.
A bite reveals a perfect pairing of semi-solid milk chocolate and viscous peanut butter, accompanied by a resounding crunch through the batter. The stick brings everything together, making this the ideal walking snack, or frankly, the ideal snack in general.
White Castle Hamburger
Ironically, the food item that seems to have the least to gain from a hot oil bath came the closest to golden, gleaming perfection. Freed from the hindrance of vegetables, this is straight hamburger: bun, ground beef and cheese.
The fryer engineers really hit the construction on the mark, here. The bun disintegrates into the batter, leaving the eater with three distinct layers: warm, velvety bread, a steaming slice of patty and a show-stopping, oozing layer of melted cheese leaking through every crevasse of the glistening dome. Order the hamburger.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, or if you just came in a couple pounds under your goal, or heck — if it’s a Friday night — order two. This culinary behemoth, this abomination of food, this is why a county fair exists.