The Hungry Chum: An eater’s guide to the Alaska State Fair
Sports fans talk about opening day like it’s a religious experience of sorts. Some have called it a rebirth, heralded with pageantry. The players are nervous, the fans are on the edge of their seats and everyone hopes the weather holds.
For food fanatics in the Last Frontier, that day is the first day of the Alaska State Fair.
Now, I don’t like opening days of anything as a general rule, but the veritable smorgasbord at the fair was something even a curmudgeon couldn’t pass up. With Thursday evening crowds tamped down by the on again off again rains, I ate my way through the fair for hours and barely scratched the surface of what’s available.
The fair’s website has a list of all the food booths, arranged by trail, so you can navigate your gastronomical adventure. Working from recommendations from longtime fairgoers and following my nose, here are some of my favorites from this year.
Must Go – Talkeetna Spinach Bread – Spinach bread – $7
A healthy mix of spinach, cheese and herbs coat the top of fluffy spent grain bread making for a delectable snack. Yes, it’s a snack. With only four slices for the price, the small portion will definitely leave you wanting more. However, it’s worth making part of your fair experience.
Only in Alaska – The Crab Shack – The Fair Special – $19
Serving up seafood they say is fresh from Alaska waters, The Crab Shack is hard to miss if you enter from the yellow parking area. Their special combo of five salmon cakes and a bacon wrapped scallop skewer is not a bad way to fill your belly while exploring the fair. The dark brown fried cakes are served with tartar sauce that compliments the flavors of the moist salmon interior and crunchy outer coating. The bacon wrapped scallops weren’t at that level, but weren’t far behind. The bacon was where it lost points with me — it wasn’t crisp, but wasn’t quite chewy and it was just kind of weird like it had been sitting around for a while. Though small, the scallops were good quality, and some bacon was woven on the stick in between them.
Only at the Fair – Donut Burgers & Chipstix – Donut Burger – $11
Fairs and carnivals give you a ‘get out shame free’ card where you can eat things like chocolate-dipped bacon on a stick and another novelty I heard about multiple times: the donut burger. Yes, this is a beef patty in between a glazed donut cut in two. It’s topped with bacon, cheddar cheese and a fried egg. While it was pretty good, I felt a sausage patty would have been a better choice. The meat was on the bland side, so it didn’t stand up to the sweetness of the donut which left you needing a drink to wash it down. I’d say try it since you’ve got your Shame Free Card, but it’s not the best thing to eat at the Alaska State Fair.
Must Go – Taco Dan’s – Parmesan Taco – $3
These little hard shelled tacos are filled with seasoned ground beef, lettuce and cheese then topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. This is one of the best deals on food at the fair, at $3 each, you can eat a few and not feel the pain in your pocketbook. Based on the numerous recommendations, many Alaskans are in on the secret.
Only in Alaska – Lionel’s Seafood – Steamer clams – $14
The people operating this booth said they’ve been in the same place at the fair for more than 30 years. The guy in charge this day is the namesake’s son, who steamed our basket of clams with a practiced hand. Served with drawn butter in a plastic Dixie cup, the fresh little hardshell beauties were a great break from the fried fair staples.
Only at the Fair – The Boardwalk – Deep Fried Peaches & Ice Cream – $8
Holy buckets, y’all. These may be my favorite find this year and I’m not the only one. “Hot diggity damn!” said a man standing next to us under the shelter of the awning. The peaches come from Northern California and were breaded in a thin, sweet batter and fried to first-day-of-the-fair fryer oil golden brown perfection. Served with ice cream, whipped cream and topped with a dusting of cinnamon, they were crispy on the outside and warm like cobbler on the inside. Get your Shame Free card and wave it all day for these.
Pit stop – Beer gardens
Like it has a tendency to do, the weather changed suddenly and the sky opened and August rain drenched everyone without shelter. We found refuge in one of the beer gardens throughout the fair. The one we stopped in, on the green spur trail near the carnival midway, was warm and dry. What took me by surprise were the prices ($7 for a pint, $6 for some domestics) and the selection (25+ beers on tap, plus wine and cider). So while the food may punch you in the bank account, the beer is on par with anywhere else in town.
Must Go – Denali Cream Puffs – $8
These are a beloved Alaska State Fair tradition. Take a light, airy pastry and fill it with smooth, rich cream and cover it in your choice of chocolate, caramel or berries. Now imagine that on steroids and you’ll have the Denali Cream Puff. We decided to split the topping, half chocolate and half salted caramel. There was a perfect balance of the three elements and it was sweet but not sickeningly so. It’s easy to see why this is a crowd-pleaser with fairgoers.
Only in Alaska – Pristine Products – Fresh raw oysters on the half shell – $2.50 each
Fresh from the waters of Katchemak Bay, these oysters are one of those things that you’d only get at the Alaska State Fair. A man in line told us that he only comes to the fair because of this booth and he didn’t share a single oyster with the woman who accompanied him. With our stomachs well on their way to full, we tried one raw oyster each. They were fresh, briny and beautiful to look at. If Denali Cream Puffs weren’t on the same trail, these would be my Must Go pick.
Only at the Fair – Great Alaskan Food Adventure – Pork chop on a stick – $5.50
Nicely seasoned, though a little dry for my liking, the pork chop on a stick is another food that comes with the territory of fairs because it’s easier to eat them while standing and walking. What more can you say about a pork chop on a stick? Well, for $5.50 each, they are another great deal on a meal. If you want to eat on the cheap, stop by Porkey’s. If you want to eat well, go around the time the fair closes and you may get a little extra as they try to get rid of the food for the night.
The shortest of of the four trails, I left the yellow trail for last. We came in this way, but didn’t want to stop because we had just begun our culinary tour de force. As the light dwindled and the vendors started closing up, we didn’t have time to sample the wares of the two new booths at the fair: Los Tacos and Moose Bites Personal Chefs. What I was really sad about, was missing out on Fish On! Camp Grill at the Gathering Place.
Only in Alaska – Fish On! Camp Grill at the Gathering Place
Fish On! is brings the flavors of a fish camp to the fair. Their Umiak — a salmon, bacon and cheese-stuffed jalapeño — called to me early in the evening yet I didn’t heed the call. As we left Thursday night, a young girl walked by with a piece of fry bread covered in powdered sugar and I knew what a mistake I had made. Luckily for me, I have two more weeks to right my wrong.
Due to popular demand, The Hungry Chum has issued everyone their very own Shame Free card.
The Hungry Chum wants to know what your favorite fair foods are — share yours in the comments below!
Always in search of the next great meal, The Hungry Chum brings you regular restaurant reviews with honest opinions. The views expressed are the writer’s, not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.