This story was created by #ThisIsTucson and underwritten by the Pima County Fair. Thank you for supporting the local organizations that support us!
Imagine a place beyond the confines of what we should eat: a playground ruled by our appetites alone. Here, you’re free to experiment. What have you always found tantalizing, but been too afraid to try?
At the fair, cultural expectations around eating are gleefully subverted. What unorthodox extravagance can you only find in this liminal realm?
The Pima County Fair has come to Tucson, for 11 days only, after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Past the turnstiles and the carny games, the delightfully stomach-churning rides and grotesquely huge stuffed animals, is a wonderland of gluttony. Here, it’s no sin to indulge.
Dominic Palmieri, the CEO of the fair’s catering group Odyssey Food LLC, is this foodie circus’ ringleader. While his company’s concoctions — Flamin’ Hot pickles doused in nacho cheese, cotton candy tacos filled with ice cream, deep-fried butter — seem to defy all the rules, they actually abide by one enduring principle: balance (if not moderation).
Take, for instance, the crunchy, Flamin’ Hot pickles. “It’s the quintessential blend of salt, fat, and acid,” Dominic said, “the three components you absolutely have to have for your taste buds to do a dance in your mouth.”
He argued that the composition of the dish is what made it work: the crunchy, cold pickles juxtaposed against molten nacho cheese; the heat of the Cheetos defanged by the cheese’s fattiness.
But the adjacent menu item, Flamin’ Hot Cheese Fries, was my choice. It pulls off the delicate balance with a more neutral base canvas of beer-battered french fries.
The crisp fry exterior gave way to the custardy potato. The cheese glued together the crunchy textures of the Cheetos and the fries. The flavor profile was clear: the indulgent fries and cheese propped up the bright acid tang of the Hot Cheetos.
For every few bites of fry, I wanted the clarifying vinegary, slimy-yet-firm crunch of a pickle chip, but in isolation from the other elements. Pickle is a loud flavor, and so are Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I found their combination overwhelmed the cheese flavor, rather than complement it as the fries did.
Dominic explained these concoctions are the kind of food that, when shared, are fought over: everyone has their idea of a perfect bite, the ideal ratio of each ingredient.
“When you put it in your mouth, it just works,” Dominic said. You want — need? — a perfect balance of each component part to create a maniacal gestalt masterpiece.
You’ll see this bizarre logic extends across the menu. The uuuuber-sugary cotton candy taco actually has a harmony of textures: if both the cotton candy and ice cream melt away, they are grounded by a generous sprinkling of — wait for it — Fruity Pebbles. Their crunch adds texture — the missing link.
Deep-fried butter, Dominic contends, is ready for a redemption arc. While the maligned treat was once a poster child for fair food excess (you can close your eyes and picture the half-cup of butter, battered and fried on a stick), he has completely reimagined it.
It starts with the portions: a melon baller used to scoop, then freeze, half-ounce servings of butter, that are then dipped in pancake batter and fried.
“When you go to that amazing Sunday brunch, and you see the chef with the tall white hat making that extra thick Belgian waffle,” Dominic said, “and it’s super crispy with all those nooks and crannies in it. Then the butter sinks into all those nooks and crannies. You try to keep the butter and syrup in the squares only. You cut around it to preserve each bite.
“With deep-fried butter, that’s what you’re eating but inside-out,” he said. “When it’s frying, that butter starts to melt, and it melts into the crispy pancake waffle batter. When you finally get the chance to eat it, there might be a little tiny sliver of butter that’s left inside, but the rest has melted.”
Standout menu items also include tender pork belly wrapped in crispy bacon and a float made out of Slice soda, tinged with red and topped with whipped cream and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “You’re supposed to dip the Cheetos in the cream, like a french fry in a Wendy’s Frosty,” Dominic said.
My favorite item we tried, though, was the Dole Whip in a taco shell made out of sliced watermelon. Dominic described it as an object of nostalgia evoking a hot summer day, and I couldn’t agree more.
The mouth-puckering Tajin amplified the light sweetness of both the ripe fruit and the creamy pineapple whip. It looked extravagant with a stick of chamoy, but the flavors were classic (almost safe, compared to the other wild combinations out there). In the heat of a Tucson spring, the treat was perfectly refreshing.
When the fair puts up its stakes and moves onto its next home (in this case, the LA County Fair in Pomona, California), Dominic will continue to be as devoted to structure and composition as John McPhee or Samin Nosrat. Salt, fat, acid, heat.
Dominic made the comparison to a cocktail. He’s not a gin guy, but in a Negroni, with the right amount of Campari and sweet vermouth? It’s heaven.
“The orange twist — when you twist it, the skin releases that essence of orange oil. When it hits the top of that cocktail and you get the essence in your nose? It helps create that overall flavor you can really taste.”
Here are more zany concoctions you’ll find at the fair:
- Big Daddy Cheeto cheese corn dog
- Cheeto caramel apples
- Chicago caramel cheese kettle corn
- Candy Pop kettle corn
- Cheeto cotton candy
- Sour apple or wild cherry lemonade, with flavored rims like lime sugar, strawberry sugar or Chamoy
- Deep-fried cookie dough
If you go
When: Now through May 1. Gates open at 3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday-Sunday
Where: Pima County Fairgrounds, 11300 S. Houghton Road
Cost: General admission is $10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 6-10. Parking is $5, cash only.
For more information, check out their website.
Time for a fair food frenzy! (Sponsored)