TAMPA — Is it a hot dog or is it a doughnut? Actually, it’s both.
The hot dog on a doughnut bun, topped with bacon and drizzled with glaze, was our favorite item on a food tour of last year’s Florida State Fair in Tampa, where fair guests named it the “Best Savory Treat” of the festival. Sadly, you won’t find a hot dog on a doughnut at this year’s fair, as vendors can’t repeat the previous year’s specialty foods. But its creator, DeAnna’s Diner, aims to top that combo with Mexican street corn sundaes and fried Key lime pie at this year’s event, which runs Feb. 9-20.
It’s hard to overestimate the role of food — much of it spectacularly unhealthy but oddly satisfying — at this annual extravaganza. The sights, sounds, and aromas of food frying, sizzling, smoking, and popping permeate every square foot of the 330-acre fairgrounds. More than 150 vendors offer everything from corn dogs to poutine sundaes to red velvet funnel cake. If it can be battered and fried, you’ll find it on the menu here. Fried butter, anyone?
DeAnna’s Mexican street corn sundae consists of fries layered with cheese, corn, cilantro lime crema, and crushed corn chips, topped with Cajun shrimp or sirloin steak. Fried Key lime pie combines mini coated in buttercream frosting with Key lime pie filling and whipped cream, topped with white chocolate and graham cracker crumble.
This year’s specialty foods lineup also includes: walking nacho dog, consisting of a hot dog, chips, and jalapeños topped with cheese sauce; watermelon sweet tea, cold-brewed watermelon tea sweetened with watermelon juice; Tampa Cuban funnel cake, a mix of Spanish pork, smoked ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and mustard between two four-inch cakes, heat pressed and topped with a doughnut glaze; nacho mama, corn tortilla chips topped with steak, pico de gallo, jalapenos, green onions, peppers, sour cream, cheese, and ranch dressing; mangonada, fresh mango blended into a slushy topped with chamoy (a sweet tangy syrup), tajin (tangy lime salt), and a tamarind stick (sweet chewy, spicy candy); and cookie taco supreme, a chocolate chip cookie folded into a taco, stuffed with s’mores ice cream, topped with Oreos and chocolate dip, with whipped cream on top.
Vendors start crafting their new foods a year or two in advance, said Sarah Henriksen, who handles marketing for the fair. “New food items have to follow the same theme as their contracted menu, but we ask for a fun, creative spin,” she explained. With the exception of the ban on repeats, there are no restrictions on the offerings. Early fairgoers cast their votes online for the best new foods. The results are announced toward the end of the fair, guiding later visitors.
Among the delicacies we tried last year were poutine sundaes (“Sundaes — not just for dessert anymore!”) and caramel apple cinnamon rolls roughly the size of small pizzas. With the exception of the doughnut dogs, we thought the most successful items were those that stuck to either sweet or savory. And we found that the combination of fried items, such as onion rings, with wet toppings, such as ranch dressing, typically failed to do justice to either.
Of course, the fair has lots of other attractions, besides food. There are agriculture and crafts exhibits, draft horse pulls, and a demolition derby. There’s live entertainment, trapeze acts, and a living history museum dedicated to the Florida cracker heritage. More than 80 rides run the gamut from the tame to the terrifying — but if you go all in on the food tour, you might want to save that spin on the Super Cyclone Coaster for another day. floridastatefair.com.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.