KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — They say money can't buy happiness, but I think - and hear me on this - whoever said that never happily dropped a clean $36 on homemade tacos and deep fried delicacies shoved onto a stick.
Within the deep recesses of my fast foodie heart lies a respect for the culinary chaos of country, state, or local fairs. Can't choose between a burger and donut? Combine the two! Need something to really amp this dish up? Cover it in bacon! Deep fry it once, soak it in cheese, then wrap it in bacon again! It's within that topsy-turvy world of sublime sauces and processed cheeses that I thrive.
^^ Me in my natural habitat, thriving.
So when the WBIR newsroom *begged* me go to the Tennessee Valley Fair and eat as much food as possible (they didn't beg but whatever) I obliged.
Here are some super good food haunches I tried that will take your fair food experience to the next level. Please don't stop reading until you meet taco master Sacramento Guerrero.
Chocolate Covered Strawberries on a Stick - $7
It's hardly a fair without something on a stick to nosh on. I considered the chicken and steak ones before settling finally on some frozen chocolate covered strawberries.
If you remember going to Dairy Queen after soccer practice, this actually tastes a lot like a Dilly Bar. But it also has this wonderful pretension of like, oh. I'm at the fair enjoying a SIMPLE snack of healthy fruit. I didn't overindulge. I've cultivated a life where I have willpower over loaded nacho fries and do yoga at 4:30 a.m. unlike you people.
I've never been on a private jet. But I imagine it feels a lot like this.
But my uppity Real Housewives of Beverly Hills vibe was soon shattered by my next stop in the best possible way.
Ruby's Beans & Cornbread - $6
Confession: I trust people who cook out of crockpots with my entire life. Not all heroes wear capes, but I bet a lot of them used crockpots for efficiency's sake if you really think about it.
Anyway. When I saw a whole row of them posted up outside one of those Viking swing rides that had been redesigned as a spaceship or something, I ducked in line for a homemade meal of cornbread and beans.
It was divine. It's also at this point I realize fair food doesn't always favor the fast or convenient. Owner and chef Janie Richards told me she had been selling this specialty at the fair for a dozen or so years. It's her mother's recipe and cooked, from beans to bread, with her legacy in mind.
Lumpia at The Philippine Connection - $6
At first glance, The Philippine Connection truck has it all. Rice dishes, spring rolls, the works. It all looked amazing so I asked one of the women inside for guidance.
"Hello!" I inquired, bright-eyed and full idiot. "What on your menu is most popular?"
She stared for a second.
"Like do you..do you have anything a lot of people like? Anything that's really good?" I asked.
She then said, "Everything I make is good."
Very iconic response and she wasn't wrong. I tried the chicken lumpia and it was so comforting.
Also look how petite they look on the inside! Super cute.
The people who run this truck are also in the restaurant business, operating a successful one on Magnolia Avenue not far from the fair. They've set up a nice awning with tables and fans right beside the truck to give you a restaurant experience, but it's for paying customers only, so this is a great place to escape the heat.
Iced Pumpkin Pie Latte at The Gas Station Coffee - $5
The Gas Station is brand new to the fair this year and it sucked me in with promises of being the only place you can get an espresso! Weary parents rejoice.
But they also offered a Pumpkin Pie latte, which is available iced or hot and which I sipped down in seconds. They also offer a bunch of really good teas and a many of the menu items can be served hot or cold!
Like the Philippine Connection, this stop also had a wonderful seated patio out back so you can sip your drink in peace.
This drink also scores pretty high for sheer Instagram potential because it comes garnished with an adorable pumpkin candy that got me in a fall sweater mood despite the small pockets of sweat dripping down my back.
Cowboy Nachos at Pappy's Pig Parlor - $9
If you're traveling with a party that can't choose between savory and sweet, Pappy's Pig Parlor is a fantastic option that will make everyone happy. You can choose their Cowboy nachos or BBQ waffle bowl, but they also offer up a lot of strawberry shortcake iterations that looked really good.
At $9, this is one of the pricier things I ordered. But it's also bold and intense so if you're feeling a little shaky from all the sugar this is a perfect way to get some protein in before you head home.
Taco of your choice at Tacos El Cuaño - $3 for one taco
Tacos El Cuaño is a family operation serving up tacos that are "made with love" and super authentic.
Owner Sacramento Guerrero has over thirty years of experience in the taco industry. His family business operates a taco truck in Cleveland, Tennessee, has a restaurant in Chattanooga, and is opening another one in Athens.
It's the family's first year at the Tennessee Valley Fair.
When I walk by their stand, an enthusiastic fair goer yells, "You got the best tacos man. Seriously."
The response he gets from people eating his tacos, his daughter Cassandra Guerrero tells me, makes her dad emotional and proud.
"He feels proud," she said. "He feels really proud that his wife and kids help him."
Sacramento Guerrero recommends the tacos al pastor, or seasoned pork, which is made with his secret recipe.
So there it is! Of course I couldn't hit all the trucks or check out all delicious spots the fair has to offer. But my brief excursion showed me that while I'll always love the deep fried glory of the fair, there are some really cool chefs making homemade, fair-friendly variations of food that isn't just microwaved up in masses.
Think I missed something? The fair lasts all week! Go leave a comment back on the WBIR Facebook page so we can check it out before the fair ends on September 15!
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