My first strategy at the OC Fair was to follow the smoke. Where there’s smoke, there will also be good food. Or so it usually goes.
I spotted the beef tri-tips smoldering on a grill. They looked awesome. They looked like real Santa Maria barbecue. I immediately got in line and ordered the tri-tip sandwich. It was gross.
They took that beautiful, smokey, charred and glistening meat and shaved it like processed deli ham — not thickly sliced like real bbq. Then they tossed it with the world’s worst sauce and stuffed it into a hotdog bun. When I was a child, I ate at Arby’s once. I’ve never gone back because that was one of the most horrifying food memories of my life. Deja vu.
I decided to try a different tack. I started looking at the pictures. Almost every food booth at the fair has big colorful photos of their food plastered across their walls. I spotted a picture of turkey-leg tacos. They looked like great street tacos. I like turkey legs, especially when they’re cooked over charcoal. I just don’t particularly enjoy walking around the fair holding a six-pound hunk of meat that’s bigger than my face. But if you were to take some of that same meat and turn it into tacos? I was starting to drool.
My mouth went dry as soon as the cashier handed me my plate. The tacos looked nothing like the oversized advertisement hanging above the booth. Thinking as far back as I can remember, I can’t think of a single taco that looked less appetizing than these. The tortillas were cold. The meat looked like canned deviled ham. I tried doctoring them with the flavorless chopped tomatoes and onions they were passing off as salsa, but there was nothing I could do to save them.
I circled the fairgrounds three or four more times before I finally found the booth that sells the bacon-wrapped baked potatoes, a new item this year. I’d seen a beautiful picture of these in the Register, and I thought to myself, “That actually looks like something I want to eat.”
When I finally found the booth, near the children’s section, I stood in line watching the food come out of the kitchen window. What I witnessed looked nothing like what I’d seen days earlier in that photograph. The potatoes did not look like something I wanted to eat, but it was now my turn to order. I stood there like a deer in headlights. “What can I get you?” the boy behind the counter asked, cheerily, as if he’d just gotten high off a pound of sugary funnel cake.
“Um,” I stammered. “I don’t know.” Meanwhile the line behind me was growing longer by the second. I panicked. “I’ve got to go,” I mumbled. I diverted my eyes and extracted myself from the queue. That was a close call.
I didn’t get very far before I noticed a sign advertising burgers by the pound. The smallest burger weighed half a pound. That’s my kind of burger. I stepped up to have a closer look at the grill. Powered by mesquite charcoal, it was billowing with smoke. It smelled like heaven on fire. The beef looked impressive. The patties were beautifully thick, definitely not your typical frozen disks. I rushed to the counter and placed an order. The cashier took $10 from me and in return handed me a severely squished sesame-seed bun with a cold piece of cheese on one half, a piece of lettuce, red onion and tomato on the other.
“You can pick up your meat over there,” she said, pointing toward the grill. The cook grabbed a patty and slapped it onto the bun. Sadly it wasn’t warm enough to melt the cheese. Even more sadly, it was dryer than styrofoam. I squirted it liberally with mayonnaise to give it some moisture, but it still tasted like a jerky burger. Defeated yet again, I moved on.
I cleansed my palate with an ice cream cone, and I felt better again. The ice cream was advertised as “freshly made.” I figure it was “freshly made” in the same sense that the ice cream at Ikea and Dairy Queen is freshly made. But that’s always been an acceptable guilty pleasure in my book, so I happily ate it.
I took one bite of teriyaki chicken and decided I didn’t want another. I ate a fried ball of butter and asked myself, “Why the hell did I just do that?”
I passed a sign advertising Doritos topped with escargot and caviar and wondered if anyone has ever actually ordered that mess. I bought an ear of corn, and it wasn’t exactly terrible but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I ate a few bites of a friend’s funnel cake, and then I spotted the fries.
What caught my attention first was they way “frys” was spelled. And then I noticed through the kitchen window a machine that slices real potatoes to be fried on the spot. I got in line and waited. And waited. This was the slowest queue at the fair, far slower than the line to see the world’s smallest horse. I gleefully inhaled the exhaust from the fryers as I waited.
“Number 127!” she yelled. “That’s me,” I said, and I stepped up to receive my box of beautiful golden fries. I took them to the condiment table and sprinkled them with super-fine salt. I shook the box vigorously, then showered the hot potatoes with a still a bit more salt, making sure every fry was perfectly seasoned.
I took a bite. My mission here was complete. This would be my dinner. I didn’t need ketchup. I didn’t need meat. Or cheese. Or sugar. Or beer. This is all I needed: a perfect french fry. It’s the very last thing I expected to find at the fair, but here it was. I felt like I had just won the biggest stuffed animal at the carnival. I was in my happy place.
Where: Orange County Fairgrounds, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 12 p.m. to 12 a.m Wednesday-Friday.; 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. Saturday-Sunday. Closed Monday-Tuesday. Runs through August 14
Don’t miss: Fresh Frys
Cost: Admission, $7 – $14; Fresh Frys, $6
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.