Amid a Food Truck Renaissance, has Fair Food Jumped the Shark? [Video]

By Jay Cridlin | Tampa Bay Times

Banana split nachos. Macaroni and cheese in a cone. Chicken and waffle sandwiches — that’s a breaded chicken breast smothered in gravy, wedged between two waffles.

You’re thinking: The Florida State Fair must be back in town, right?

Well, yes, it is. But if you go, you’ll find none of those foods on the menu. They all came from locally based food trucks — and you can get them just about any weekend in Tampa Bay.

For years, one of my favorite events to cover each year has been State Fair’s menu of greasy, gut-busting foods. Chocolate-dipped bacon, deep-fried Pepsi, red velvet funnel cake, pizza on a stick, something called a “Tornado Potato” — I’ve conquered them all in the name of good ol’ fashioned journalism.

But when I look at this year’s slate of new foods, I no longer get that warm, tingly sensation in my esophageal tract. A mac ‘n’ cheese burger, a peanut butter and bacon burger, deep-fried bubble gum … sure, it sounds like the cuisine of kings. But when you step back and compare those items to the menus of some of the truck foods whizzing around Tampa Bay, you have to wonder: Has the food truck craze rendered exotic fair fare irrelevant? At the very least, hasn’t it proved that creative chefs can do more from the back of a truck than just plop wads of dough in a vat of gurgling lard?

Over the past year, food trucks have nailed the bullseye on a few key culinary trends: convenience, portability, an expectation on the part of consumers for a sense of whimsy and uniqueness. You see it come to life every week on TV in the adventurous dishes whipped up on shows like Top Chef and Chopped.

But as those shows consistently reiterate, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. This is where fair foods and food truck foods diverge. At the fair, the mandate is usually for bigger, crazier, double-dog-dare-you items — foods that, in the eyes of the maker, probably Should Not Be. If there is any sense of one-upsmanship at food truck rallies, it’s rooted in creativity, not obscenity.

There really should be a way to incorporate more mobile chefs into the Florida State Fair. I propose this: Starting in 2013, the fair should host the biggest annual food truck rally in the state.

Trucks could come from all over Florida and set up shop at the fairgrounds. To inspire the chefs, make it a judged competition, similar to the wine and baked goods contests. Award medals for the most creative menu. You could still have your typical midway fare, but this would be a great way to show off some of the culinary talent and entrepreneurial spirit that has risen up around the state. I’d buy a separate ticket for an event like that. Wouldn’t you?

Until then, enjoy your chicken-fried bacon and deep-fried Kool-Aid at the fairgrounds. Just know that your gustatory adventures don’t have to end when the fair leaves town.