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Home Grown Fun comes fried at the county fairgrounds

A slice of fried pizza with a Ferris wheel and a crowd in the background
Where else would one eat fried pizza but at a county fair?
(Ryan Bradford)

The Del Mar Fairgrounds is still the place to find the finest fried foods.

There is nothing good for you at the county fair. I mean this in every possible way: emotionally, physically, mentally. If the fair were a video game, you level down the moment you step foot in it. I’m a little surprised there’s not an “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter” sign posted at the entrance.

But that’s the point of the fair, right? To fry your synapses and enact irreparable damage to your gastrointestinal system? It’s a little like Vegas in that way, but cheaper. If you don’t leave the fair in worse shape than when you arrived, what’s the point?

After its cancellation last year due to COVID-19, the San Diego County Fair is back — though this year it’s called Home Grown Fun and it’s much smaller than usual. I never thought the fair was something I’d miss, but given my ravenous appetite for in-person things to do lately, the prospect of putting my body and mind through the ringer suddenly felt like an itch. I knew the fair would be more than happy to oblige these self-destructive desires.

You see, few things attract/repulse me more than carny food. For me, the fair isn’t about riding the Ferris wheel or petting farm animals — it’s about eating the best and grossest foods imaginable. It’s a little like getting the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, but instead of candy, it’s culinary abominations Frankensteined into existence by the will of human curiosity.

Eager to satisfy my own curiosity, I headed to the Del Mar Fairgrounds to see what this year’s “food” selection was like, and it did not disappoint. Or maybe it disappointed profoundly. I can’t even tell the difference anymore. Anyway, here’s what I ate.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheese fries

There’s a certain scent that only exists at a county fair. Like, all the scents in existence. As I strolled down the food stand fairway, I caught hints of bacon, cotton candy, fried batter, sweat and farm animals.

My first stop was a stand called Biggy’s Meat Market, which was plastered with signs advertising all the items that it could cover with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I imagined Biggy’s proprietor stumbling into an old warehouse and finding an abandoned mountain of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos dust. “I’ve struck Flamin’ Hot gold!”

I ordered the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheese fries.

 Flamin' Hot Cheetos cheese fries at Home Grown Fun presented by the San Diego County Fair.
Behold the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheese fries at Home Grown Fun presented by the San Diego County Fair.
(Ryan Bradford)

For $12, I received a basket of undercooked shoestring fries — their color a pale translucent from their brief dunk in the fryer. A scalding dollop of nacho cheese covered the fries, which was then topped with a fistful of bright red Cheetos dust.

I gently lowered my fingers into the soggy mass, making sure to get a little bit of every magical ingredient. Into my mouth it went, and my taste buds immediately went into defense mode and my tongue recoiled.

But then my defenses relented. I took another bite and it wasn’t bad. In fact, the crunch of Cheetos dust created an intriguing texture — a nice counterbalance to the soft fries and cheese. I had to give it props for sheer audacity.

It’s that wavering between good and bad that defines a good carny dish, and the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheese fries were the best initiation into Home Grown Fun at the San Diego County Fair.

Pineapple Dole Whip

As I was downing cheese fries, my wife, Jessica, got a Pineapple Dole Whip. She’s vegan, so the dairy-free soft serve was pretty much the only thing she could eat at the fair.

I had a bite and it was fine, but too normal.

Sorry, Dole Whip. Up your freak game and then we’ll talk.

Garlic-battered artichoke

Tucked in the back corner of the food stand alley was a stand called Roxy’s, which offered a variety of Mediterranean-style food, including a falafel burger and an artichoke sandwich. In contrast to the garish food stands with names like Who Fried the Cheese and West Coast Weenies, Roxy’s had an air of — dare I say? — dignity.

It’s funny how, when you’re surrounded by garbage food, the less garbage-y food begins to look healthy. At least that was my reaction when Jessica ordered a deep-fried artichoke. “Why are we wasting money on health food?” I thought.

Fried artichoke on a stick
Does fried artichoke at the fairgrounds count as healthy?
(Ryan Bradford)

But my reservations evaporated upon delivery. Fried on a stick kebab-style, the artichoke looked straight-up Lovecraftian, like a rejected tentacle from a malformed squid. It lay in a shallow pool of ranch dressing, which must have been an attempt to assuage fears — like mine — that the food is actually healthy.

Being no friend of ranch dressing, I found a chunk that hadn’t touched the creamy bed and took a bite. The garlic batter was quite good. Not even fair-good, but good-good.

“Can an artichoke be the sleeper hit of the fair?” I wondered.

Fried pizza

As the sun was setting, I made my way back to the beginning of the food stands, for it was there, at Linda’s Pizza, that I had seen my personal white whale, the end-boss of my fair food adventure.

Deep-fried pizza.

I had tried to shake the idea of deep-fried pizza as I ate my way through the Cheetos fries, the artichoke and Dole Whip, but to no avail. It had grown into something insurmountable and sublime in my imagination. I simply couldn’t leave without eating a slice.

In the grand scheme of things, there are more bonkers foods than deep-fried pizza, but nothing really captures the je ne sais quoi of the fair as that. It’s like a 4-year-old’s concept of high cuisine, or some result of a Monkey’s Paw wish. And surprisingly, I’ve never eaten it.

I ordered a slice of deep-fried pepperoni. I slammed down my debit card before I even heard the total ($9). A few minutes later, I was holding my prize. I felt its molten heat through the plate, and I swear the air above it shimmered in the fading daylight. It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest thing I’ve ventured to put in my mouth — it looked a little like a faded piece of pie, left in the sunlight for years — but not everything delicious has to look the part.

I took a bite, savoring the sensation of teeth sinking into brittle fried skin. I pulled the slice away and the cheese stretched like it was auditioning for a commercial. Even my taste buds — worn down by relentless abuse — seemed to perk up. There was a distinct KFC-esque spice, but also, you know, pizza underneath, and the two flavors lived in some perverse harmony. It felt revelatory, the exact thing I had come to expect from a county fair. I took another bite and then another.

After finishing half of it, I threw the rest in the trash. I wanted to leave with a bit of dignity, and I figured if I could walk out with my head held high and not hovering over a trash can, that’s a win.

Home Grown Fun is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through July 4 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd. For more information, visit sdfair.com.