The beer at the Denver County Fair is $8 for 20 ounces — that’s nearly ten bucks for a big cup of Coors, Coors Light or Blue Moon. Yes, those are the only options (but at least the brews are local). I was so stunned by the cost that I didn’t even ask if there were orange slices for the Blue Moon; that could depend on where you’re buying your beer. If you’re in the Cattleman’s Grill, a permanent fixture inside the National Western Complex that serves a fourteen-ounce. Cattleman’s Cut steak with a side of “dinner salad, whipped cheddar potatoes, fresh corn, roll and butter,” you could probably find an orange slice. But you’ll have to fork over $18.95 in order to search.
The fair may be all about natural, local and homemade, but that’s not represented in most of the fare at the fair. Some of the vendors offer local products, ranging from a pomegranate-based reduction (called Pomegranate Splash) to chocolate, and some even let you sample them, but that’s the only way you’re going to eat local.
Aside from the samples and Cattleman’s Grill, the options were typical carnival food: nachos, hot dogs, pizza, a couple places called “Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ,” funnel cake and a lot of fruit smoothies that cost $5 for a very small cup. A vendor with Fancy Tiger mentioned he’d heard about food trucks, and though he hadn’t actually found one, he was hopeful. When I asked a woman working the ticket booth about it, she responded, “Food, in a truck? What’s that?” Bad sign.
Like the beer, the food at the County Fair is expensive. And don’t bother shopping around for bargains: All the stands sell the same items at the same prices.
My evening started at the Nathan’s booth in the National Western Complex. When I asked the guy behind the counter what he thought was his best item, he looked up and said, “Well, it’s expensive but the brisket will actually fill you up.” I should have taken that less-than-ringing endorsement as another bad sign. He pulled out a squished Sara Lee bun from a plastic bag (the bread wasn’t bad for being processed bread from a bag), lifted a lid and plopped a few slices of a saucy brisket onto the bun. He added some baked beans and fries that were suspiciously colorful — covering the entire spectrum of browns from beige to coffee — and charged me $8.50, before tax, for what looked like cafeteria food.
It tasted like it, too. While some of the fries had a little crisp left in them, they were salty and nearly inedible. The blandness of the baked beans actually paired pretty well with the vinegar-heavy brisket — but it didn’t take long for me to not want to eat more of that. I also wanted to wipe off all the artificial flavors and high-fructose corn syrup still dancing on my tongue.
Next, I tried that fair staple, the corn dog. Like the hot dogs at the fair, the corn dogs were not satisfied with being normal sized. These were jumbo, about a foot long. At $5, the price was okay, and so was the corn dog, which had been sitting in a warming case for who knows how long. The breading was surprisingly crisp, and while the sausage had a peppery kick, it basically tasted like a cheap wiener.
The funnel cake, which I got at a stand on the Midway, was legitimately good. It was made to order and sent off great smells as it cooked. When finished, the outside was crisp, the inside soft, and the dough bland — although a dusting of powdered sugar perked it up. But be warned: The girl in front of me in line shrieked and walked away when she saw the $6 price tag.
In general, the Midway was the best place to go for food, at least in terms of selection, since it had multiple stands selling burgers, hot dogs and the like. Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ’s open grills were cooking giant turkey legs.
But ultimately, the most appetizing and local food items I saw were the heirloom tomatoes on display in the Farm & Garden Pavilion. They were there to demonstrate what could grow in the Denver area — but they weren’t for eating, unfortunately. There were also pies in cases from the pie-making contest, which looked pretty tasty but were off limits to the public.
For an event meant to showcase everything local and homemade in Denver — with a strong focus on food and food agriculture — the dining choices were disappointing. As I went from booth to booth, looking for something interesting to eat, I kept dreaming about food trucks. Those would have been great. And a $5 Great Divide beer.