Where can you devour giant turkey legs wrapped in bacon, deep fried Oreos, BBQ sandwiches, corn on the cob, and chocolate covered bacon, all in the same spot?
Only one place: the Orange County Fair, which I’ve dubbed OC Foodie Fair since the focus is on outrageous and creative culinary concoctions that get more exotic every year.
To really experience the fare at the Fair, it helps to arrive with an empty stomach and a full wallet, which my assistant Catherine and I did last week when we spent the afternoon soaking up the Fair ambiance and sampling an array of delicious dishes.
Our plan was to watch Newport’s celebrity chef Pascal Olhats (Brasserie Pascal, etc.) compete against the chef from Burnt Truck in a cooking competition (one of many scheduled at the OC Fair this year) that was billed as a cross between the Food Network’s “Chopped” and “Iron Chef,” then wander the fairgrounds and see where our palates wold lead us.
Before we left, I did some quick research on the OC Fair’s website (OCFair.com), which has a “food finder” section with lists of restaurants and cuisine available. That helped to identify a few food options, and made me even hungrier.
When we got to the fair, Pascal’s competition was about to begin. Mini-kitchens were set up on a large stage, and each team was preparing to wage culinary war.
A basket containing secret ingredients was brought on stage, and when the basket was uncovered and the ingredients – crimini mushrooms, ground turkey and plantains – revealed, the 30-minute battle began.
It was a treat to watch these culinary pros do what they do best – work their magic in the kitchen. Pascal and his assistant, Savannah Chop House chef Chris Tzorin, appeared to be having a great time in the spotlight, dancing and laughing as they worked.
When it came time to present the finished dishes to the judges, Pascal served the judges a curry-flavored turkey patty served over a plantain risotto and topped with sauteed mushrooms and bacon, served with a Dijon beurre blanc. He added a shot of cognac gazpacho on the side as a palate cleanser.
“I had a plan to do some kind of risotto with potatoes,” Pascal told me later. “When I saw the plantains – which I’ve never cooked with before – I said why not dice them and cook them with shallots and cream? I used some feta from the pantry to give it a nice smooth texture. I also rarely use ground turkey so I thought at first to mix it with the bacon and the mushroom, but if I had done that it would have been a flat presentation on the plate, so I gave it a third dimension by using those last two as a topping.”
“Pascal didn’t even break a sweat while he was on stage except for maybe when he caught his towel on fire,” said Catherine, laughing. “It was amazing to watch him go through his creative process.”
So who won the food battle?
And in true OC Fair style, he was rewarded with a big blue ribbon for his efforts.
By now, Catherine and I were really hungry, so we elected to do a foodie tour of the fair.
“The fair in my hometown is about a fourth of the size of this one, and we only have a few basic food stands,” noted Catherine. “There are so many creative food options here.”
“You mean decadent food options,” I teased as we stopped at the Bacon-A-Fair stand. “I hope you like bacon.”
We sampled the portobello kabob, which we learned was a mix of white mushrooms and baby portabello mushrooms stuffed with gouda cheese, wrapped with bacon, grilled, and topped with aged gouda cheese.
We also tried the beer battered hot dog wrapped in bacon. The bacon is soaked in a mixture of eggs and Guinness beer, and the flavors explode in your mouth.
“Bacon keeps everything moist when you cook it,” explained Bacon-A-Fair owner Mike Peterson. “When you wrap food in bacon, the bacon fat marinates into the meat.”
And of course, we had to try the chocolate covered bacon, which Peterson said is his biggest seller.
“I can see why–this is fabulous,” I said after one bite.
“Bacon lovers know where to go when they’re at the fair,” stated Peterson.
Our next stop was at Tasti Chips. Last year, I was a judge at the OC Fair’s fried potato challenge, and cast the swing vote to make Tasti Chips the winner over a local food truck.
The chips tasted as good as I remembered, and no wonder: Tasti Chips uses fresh White Rose potatoes (about 10 tons worth during the OC Fair), cheese sauce made of real cheese, and allergen-free peanut oil. Everything is made to order, with no heat lamps to keep food warm. And, they’re glutton-free if you don’t use any sauce. Then it was time for Chicken Charlie, who’s become known for his exotic deep-fried foods. He does have healthier fare available, including grilled chicken and shrimp served with rice in a hollowed out pineapple core, but we were primed for fried food, and Chicken Charlie delivered with deep fried pineapple, and a deep fried Klondike bar.
“I was curious about how the ice cream would hold up after being deep-fried,” said Catherine after a few bites. “It’s a little melted but still intact. This is very good. I’m adding this to my list of favorite unhealthy foods.”
“Can you deep fry anything? I asked the guy behind the counter.
“Sure, what do you have?”
“I brought some of my award-winning chocolate chip cookies – can you deep fry them?”
“Give me two minutes.”
He return with a small basket filled with what looked like hot puffed pastries.
“Wow. This is fabulous. Wow. Wow,” I exclaimed as I devoured one of my deep fried cookies.
“You’re right. This is like cookie crack,” he agreed.
By now, Catherine and I were getting full, but still managed to hit one or two more stands (where I did most of the eating) before heading back to the office.
“I’m looking forward to going back – although I can’t eat that much again,” said Catherine.
“Did you know that on Friday afternoons, most of the food stands offer taste portions for only $2 each?”
“Something tells me we’re going back on Friday,” she said, smiling.