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SMORGASBORD : Fantasy Fare : The Ventura County Fair is a fast-food lover's delight.

August 22, 1991|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There will be no Kamakazeride, mouse circus or Wave Swinger. In these late-August days I'll not even hesitate as I walk down the midway past the Mini-Basketball Game, underneath several varieties of Ferris wheels, past something called a Go-Gator and away from the spinal analysis machine.

For me, the Ventura County Fair has always been sort of a food fantasy, and wandering through the 66 food and drink concessions this year is like being a kid in a video arcade. I hardly know to which counter I should dash first. Should I eat hot dogs, cotton candy, tacos or dill pickles? It's fast-food heaven and junk food paradise wrapped into one.

But fair food has changed over the years. No longer are the fair's avenues lined with booths staffed with Rainbow Girls selling hot dogs, B'nai B'rith matrons dishing out potato latkes, Girl Scouts hawking baked goods or Latino political action committee volunteers raising money with homemade tamales.

A few remain. There's the Job's Daughters booth on the main drag as you enter the fairgrounds, which features a fairly conventional menu of hot dogs, hamburgers, etc. And also on the main drag, at the second turnoff to the left, is a booth operated by the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. It is serving tasty bowls of noodle soup and soft, tender sticks of teriyaki-marinated chicken (two sticks for $1.50).

A few booths down is one of this year's most savory operations, the Music Ministries booth. Not only does the nonprofit operation make perhaps the best iced tea on the grounds--a sun tea variety--but it's got the only deep-fried artichoke hearts ($3) around, and maybe the best ones this side of Castroville. My batch came out without too much grease and the oil was still clean. They do zucchini the same way, as well as an item they call avocado gems.

Looking around, I notice that the booths aren't the family-oriented, civic-group, fund-raising sort once associated with county fairs. "We don't get as many of those applications as we used to," Concessions Manager Barbara Boester said. "It's just too hard for volunteers to man these booths 12 hours a day for 12 days."

That's too bad because the best food generally comes from the civic group booths or from one or two local entrepreneurs. One of the latter is Lupita Ramirez, operator of the Garden Restaurant in Port Hueneme.

She runs the fair's Casa de Burritos, about two-thirds of the way down the main drag, which, for my money, has the best Mexican food at the fair this year. Her homemade chile relleno burrito ($2.75) is in a whole different category from the food over at Cortez Tacos, whose tacos remind me of those at Taco Bell.

The greatest variety of tempting junk food can be found next to the bandstand as you enter the fairgrounds. Booths sell pita pockets and hot pretzels, egg rolls on sticks, crepes and ice cream cones. The Crispy Golden Chicken wings are crisp and moist and come with french fries ($3.50).

Not quite next door is the European Bakery, one of several spots serving baked goods. The cherry and apple strudels ($3.50), though crammed with fruit, are simply too sweet to handle.

In the same area is a booth featuring varieties of baked potatoes and one featuring pork tenderloin sandwiches--just like a hamburger except with a breaded piece of pork instead of hamburger ($3.75), a product I found dry and dull.

Imagine, I thought, paying a $6 cover charge to eat a $1.75 corn dog. Imagine paying any kind of cover charge to eat a corn dog. Which reminds me, is there a difference between a corn dog and a hot dog on a stick?

Not at the Ventura County Fair. As a longtime corn-dog addict, I tried several and have to admit that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between one and another. But it seemed to me that the corn dogs in the first booth on the left as you walk down the main drag are better than the one I tried at another booth. The coating tasted fresher.

After the corn dog, I start to panic. There is still so much to choose from. Chocolate-dipped bananas, chili, french fries, Coors, Budweiser, barbecue, cinnamon rolls, Texas doughnuts--just a bit larger than we're used to--fish and chips, fudge--I count at least three Mackinac Island fudge booths. And the 1991 Ventura County Fair Chili Cookoff is coming up on Saturday. I'll have to recover fast to make it to that one.

I take a deep breath and head toward the main grandstand, where at the Original Bratwurst I find a really good, hot, sizzling sausage ($3.75) on a small, stale bun.

But just yards away there are heaps of spiral fries ($2.50), crisp potatoes cooked quickly with the skins on. Down the same lane is a venture without much competition, the Monterey Bay Calamari stand. Its calamari marinara ($4.50) is tender enough, but the marinara sauce seems as though it was recently scooped out of a can.

Back on the main drag is an unorthodox taco at the Palapa Taco stand. Its version, a fish taco on a soft tortilla ($2.75), is made with mayonnaise. That's a new one to me, but to my surprise, it works.

I still say I'll take the food--you can have that Kamakaze ride.

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