In a way, the North Carolina State Fair is really just a food festival. This buffet of the culinary creations of food artisans and deep fryer fiends offers a feast unlike any other.
After last year’s COVID hiatus, the State Fair food is back with many new food options.
Here’s are our ranking of every bite from this year’s media preview, starting with our favorite and working down.
1. Atomic Tots by Chef’s D’Lites: This is a plate for folks who crave the heat, with cayenne and ghost peppers playing a part in just about every component. Pub food aficionados will recognize these as tot-chos, a cousin of nachos, but made of tater tots. Here they’re topped with pulled chicken, a thick and spicy cheese sauce, ranch dressing with a kick and a little cooling sour cream. The heat dances from a tingle to a sear, depending on the bite, making for kind of a delicious adventure. It’s a perfect plate of food that perfectly embodies the kind of dish we should probably only eat once a year.
2. Carolina Cowboy Roll by Fatboys BBQ: Inspired by eggrolls, this one is filled with mac and cheese and smoked beef brisket, then topped with a bit of a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. Though it’s flat and rectangular and resembles a brick, the Carolina Cowboy Roll is anything but. There are shredded jewels of smoky brisket mixed into creamy mac and cheese. It’s a lot to ask of a deep fried wrapper, but it all holds together, making for one of this year’s fair food stars.
3. Jerk BBQ Chicken sliders by Cool Runnings Jamaican: This is a sandwich you’d be lucky to run into anywhere, not just 11 days in October on the fairgrounds in Raleigh. Whole boneless chicken thighs are coated with a Jerk barbecue sauce, delivering all the heat and allspice Jerk fans crave, topped with a coleslaw studded with pineapple. It’s fruity and spicy and not reminiscent of any State Fair memories of yore, but it will be from now on. It was also voted the best new fair food at the 2021 Media Day preview.
4. La Sureña, The Crazy Southerner by Arepa Loca: Arepas are excellent finger foods, making them perfect for wandering the madness of the State Fair. This version is filled with the best pulled pork you’re likely to find at the fair, topped with deeply caramelized sweet plaintains and a guacamole sauce, all held together by a crisp and airy corn and cheese arepa. It’s kind of a dream meal, State Fair or not.
5. Shrimp Mac and Cheese Eggroll by Waypoint Oyster Bar: Eggrolls have been the downfall of many ambitious fair food vendors, dreaming of packing flavors into a wrapper and sending it to the deep fryer, as the fair food gods intended. Often the result is gluey and dense. These eggrolls will make you forget all those disappointments, filled with plenty of shrimp and a creamy mac and cheese, held together by a crispy, but not tough, fried wrapper, managing to make mac and cheese a finger food.
6. Shrimp and grits on a stick by Ezzell’s Something Good: One of the most successful feats at this year’s tasting was the magic trick of getting a Southern favorite like shrimp and grits, typically served in bowl, and serving it on a stick. These shrimp and grits balls eat like hushpuppies, but creamy on the inside, while staying crisp on the outside. Most bites have plenty of shrimp and plenty to love.
7. Lobster Pop by Oak City Fish & Chips: Let’s just be honest about what this is. It’s a lobster corndog, and it’s wonderful. It takes a deft touch with the deep fryer to avoid taking tender lobster tails and turning them into rubber. These are lightly fried and delicate and any fan of fried scallops will be a fan of fried lobster on a stick.
8. Strawberry Cheesecake Smoothie by Tropical Delights: Somewhere between a strawberry milkshake and a smoothie is this drink, tasting of ripe and sweet strawberries. Served with a tiny umbrella that, even in North Carolina’s October, makes the beach feel a little closer, plus a block of creamy cheesecake. It’s a hearty dessert that still feels lighter than a lot of the fried foods you’ll find at the fair, pushing it in that rare fried food category: refreshing.
9. OMG Banana Pudding by OMG! Foods: This is a tried and true banana pudding that could claim a prime spot on any potluck dessert table. The ratio of pudding to wafer tips toward the cookie side and the banana is present but not overwhelming.
10. Fresh Creamy Lemonade by Bayshore Services: If you take your lemonade on the tart side, this is a glass for you, with the flavor of fresh-squeezed lemons shining through with just a touch of sweetness. There’s a dollop of whipped cream for some reason, which is never a bad thing.
11. Twisted Chicken on Tots by Hot Chix Hotcakes & Chicken: This is a savory parfait, layered with tater tots at the bottom, then cheddar mac and cheese, fried chicken tenders and sauces like barbecue, buffalo and garlic Parmesan. Buffalo and garlic parm work the best, and the mac and cheese is probably the creamiest, cheesiest version you’ll find at the fair.
12. Alcohol-infused popcorn by Just Popping Around: Popcorn is a staple of the State Fair, whether it’s kettle, caramel or old fashioned salt and butter. You probably haven’t seen popcorn like this before, taking its cue from the cocktail bar. Flavors include Jack Daniels caramel, Ciroc vanilla and Jose Cuervo berry, which is dyed a bright blue. All the popcorns are well seasoned and tasty, but the booze flavors are subtle, perhaps lending a bit of depth to the Jack Daniels caramel.
13. Bacon Bourbon Chicken by Bubba’s Bacon: Here, unbreaded chicken tenders are wrapped in bacon and grilled, then slathered in a bourbon barbecue sauce. Most North Carolinians used to a vinegary tang in their sauce might find this one heavy on the sweetness and light on the bourbon. But hey, bacon wrapped anything served on a stick is not a bad way to spend a day at the fair.
14. Shrimp Alfredo stuffed turkey leg by Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ: Ambition should be applauded, but not always rewarded. No State Fair food dreamed bigger than the bombardment of shrimp Alfredo and a smoked turkey leg and dirty rice. These delicious foods are best left to shine as solo acts instead of a trio.
This story was originally published October 11, 2021 4:34 PM.