The dizzying labyrinth of a funnel cake will forever draw me in. A pastel tuft of cotton candy will always retain its magic. That these are only in reach for a couple weeks each year just raises their stock — absence makes the sweet tooth fonder.
Eel River Valley residents might feel similarly enticed by a couple food trucks from up north: Big Island Kine has rolled southward to offer its poké bowls at the fairgrounds and the small but mighty Taqueria Martinez truck brings Oaxacan and Azteca burritos to town ("Taqueria Martinez Pulls Up," Feb. 27, 2021). Fat Anne's, too, has set up shop in the Turf Room with chicken sandwiches and fried cheese curds. But as for those carnival stalls, well, let us help you choose from among their ephemeral fare.
Cook's Barbecue pulled pork sandwich $10
Did you come to play the ponies? Cook's Barbecue has set up operations under the grandstands with burgers, dogs, barbecue beef sandwiches and the like for those tethered to the racetrack. The dark horse is the deceptively plain looking pulled pork on a picnic roll. If you want it saucy, you'll have to apply barbecue and/or hot sauce at the fixings table. But take a bite plain first to appreciate the simple flavor of salted pork cooked low and slow, a buttery nub of fat here and there — nothing showy, just a solid bet.
Italian sausage sandwich, $12
A classic iteration of this staple of New York street fairs and tri-state area pizza joints is not to be found in our county. That is the price of living amid dramatic coastlines, regal redwoods and the like: Nobody will fry you up a simple freaking Italian sausage with peppers and onions on a freaking Italian roll. But while the Ferris wheel turns, you can bear right at the gates and follow your nose to a Taylor Italian hot — grilled whole, not split, keeping it juicy beneath shiny, snappy skin — with flat-top fried onions and peppers on a Franz outdoor roll, which is a few subway stops away from the traditional bread but hey — if you brought your own roll, I would back you up.
Cheese on a stick, $7
Let's address the deep-fried elephant in the room. If you dunk a batter-dipped something in a bubbling fryer basket, whether it's an Oreo or a poker chip, it's even money I'll at least try it. But curiosity isn't well rewarded with this hunk of American cheese under gritty, browned corn batter. It's nearly identical but stouter than the standard corn dogs at the same stand in the center of the outdoor food court, but lift it from the paper tray and you'll feel the stick moving freely in the molten core. The melted cheese tastes bland (how is a block of cheese not salty enough?) and clings to the teeth instead of melting into creaminess. Respect to bar mozzarella sticks and the above-mentioned fried cheese curds for nailing the texture and flavor formula.
Pacific Wings, $18
The Hale 'Aina Caterers truck beside this tent looks a little upscale for a venue that regularly offers curly fries made with a potato affixed to a modified power drill. The wings and salads — salad at the fair, who knew? — on the menu are on the fancy side, too. Hit every button with the Chinese five spice, honey and soy marinated wings, flame grilled for a little smoke and char, then tossed with a sweet lemon-cilantro peanut sauce. The pile of eight or so drums and flats are flavorful and soft-skinned, the fat getting an extra boost from the vinegar and citrus in the accompanying slaw. Don't despair at the phone number's Hawaii area code — chef and owner Kanani Lincoln has moved the Pacific Rim cuisine operation to Humboldt.
Lions Club lamb burger, $11
The Lion's Club's tandem mini cook-shacks all the way in the back of the food stall loop is an annual go-to. But take the advice of the woman at the register and up your game by getting the lamb burger with pepper jack cheese and grilled onions. Lettuce and tomato (very red and ripe tomato) are self-serve, but this one doesn't need much in the way of condiments, maybe a little salt and pepper. The browned edges of the bun and the flavor of the well-cooked ground lamb are wonderful. Grab a picnic table in the adjoining garden and enjoy the pastoral bliss.
Patches' Pastries Churro waffle, $10
Slip past the little red schoolhouse to Friendship Square and find Patches' Pastries in its newish home at the fairgrounds. It'll be here after the fair but if it's out of your regular commute, you might as well pop in. Anything from the bakery case (cookies, scones, muffins) or the mini fridge (pudding, wedges of cheesecake) will bring you joy. But the churro waffle is a whole celebration. Its crisp edges are lightly encrusted with cinnamon sugar and the springy, moist interior calls to mind a cake doughnut hot from the fryer. Whipped cream, almond slivers and lashings of caramelized dulce de leche sauce fill the waffle's grooves and the dark, empty places in your soul. That last part, like the fair, is, in fact, fleeting. Savor it.
Share your tips about What's Good with Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her), arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.