Monday, September 3, 2012

State Fair of Texas food veteran fries up another winner in Dallas - Dallas Morning News

In grease we trust.

This year, like every year, the top prizes in the Big Tex Choice Awards for the State Fair of Texas went to fried foods.

This year’s big winners were fried jambalaya and fried bacon cinnamon rolls.

Should you be surprised? Nope. This is the state fair that rocketed the corny dog into food fame some seven decades ago, or so Texas lore goes.

And this is the food contest that gave top honors to fried butter, fried Coke, fried cookie dough and fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches.

Abel Gonzales Jr., the 42-year-old son of a Tex-Mex restaurateur, cooked up those winning recipes. Monday’s victory for Gonzales’ fried jambalaya was in the Best Taste category. Two past victories were in the Most Creative category.

Gonzales, dressed in a blue State Fair T-shirt, jeans and dusty cowboy boots, looked dazed by his victory â€" at first.

“I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t win again,’” he kept saying. Then, with cameras blinking, his inner ham emerged and he waved around his trophy with a sleek golden Oscar body and a fat cartoonish Big Tex cowboy head.

Jambalaya is linked to Louisiana like a cheese enchilada to Texas, but Gonzales said he did no research in New Orleans. He joked he put on 20 pounds in testing recipes that included Cajun sausage, shrimp and seasoned flour.

“A lot of bad jambalaya was eaten before the good jambalaya,” he said.

Gonzales credited this year’s creativity to his friend Matthew Rangel, who insisted “jambalaya” spells “triumph.”

“It was our first try into nonsweets and into food-food,” Gonzales said.

Any tricks? Maybe peanut oil.

Peanut oil locks in flavor and keeps an even temperature, said Gonzales, who worked in his father’s restaurant for years.

Butch Benavides also dunks in peanut oil. He took top prize in the Most Creative category for fried bacon cinnamon rolls. He lavished a cinnamon roll in sweet pancake batter, tumbled it in bacon crumbles, deep-fried it and then dusted it with powdered sugar.

Why bacon? “I really don’t like sweets,” said Benavides, who has also spent decades in the food business.

Another Benavides concoction placed in the final eight recipes of 2012: chicken-fried cactus bites, which he labored on despite dangers.

“The first time we put the cactus in the oil, it sort of blew up,” the chef said. He acknowledged the mistake of placing the whole green cactus paddle into the oil without cutting it into pieces that might pop gently in the blistering peanut oil.

Food sales are serious business at the fair.

When the Big Tex Choice Awards began in 2005, food coupons raked in nearly $16 million. Last year, food sales nearly topped $23 million. Rides brought in half that amount in 2011, fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding said.

That might explain why Gonzales no longer toils as a computer programmer. His revenue stream flows from the three-week run of the State Fair. “This is my fifth year in being semi-retired.”

AT A GLANCE: The winners


What is it? Jambalaya is created using shrimp, Cajun sausage and seasonings, then coated in lightly seasoned flour and fried. Served with a side of spicy ranch sauce.

Who made it: Abel Gonzales Jr.


What is it? Cinnamon roll dipped in sweet pancake batter, rolled in crispy fried bacon crumbles, deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Who made it: Butch Benavides

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