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A Foodie’s Guide to the San Mateo County Fair

The Menlo Park Patch Subcommittee on Local Cuisine created a five-course meal at the fair, giving consideration to what would taste best in the summer heat.

No self-respecting foodie in the Bay Area needs a guide to the restaurants along Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Foodies, those ardent and discerning diners who can be found haunting Chowhound posts and Yelp reviews, can list off the best taquerias in San Jose without breaking a sweat.  Want to know where to find the best seafood in the Bay?  Just ask a foodie.

For the dining options in San Mateo, however, many foodies lack the same familiarity.  This shortcoming in mind, we were excited to learn of the .  Surely, San Mateo’s local culinary lights would shine brightly at the festival.

The Menlo Park Patch Subcommittee on Local Cuisine put together a team for the festival with a specific task.  We would judge dishes on a five-point scale across several criteria: locally sourced, organic, ethical, created on site and presentation.  Among the Fair’s food options, we would try to create a five-course meal with selections that met these guidelines. 

 

Appetizer: Churro

 

Locally Sourced: 0

Created on-site: 1 *[1]

Organic: 0

Presentation: 0

Ethical: 0

Total: 1/20

 

We started our trip with a review of the fairground map.  Confused by the absence of a “Taste of San Mateo” area, we decided to venture out on our own to find an appetizer to start our meal.  At the end of a warm day, we were hopeful we could find a San Mateo tapas bar to start the meal with a light dish.

It became quickly evident that it was not a mistake that there was no “Taste of San Mateo” on the map.  Rather than giving diners the option of a variety of high-end restaurants, the Fair mainly provides a flotilla of sweet treat trailers for hungry fairgoers to choose from.  Featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos and churros *[2], the vendors at Candy Land advised us that, of their menu, churros would be a fitting start to our meal. 

We inquired about the origin of the churros.  Our server told us the churros were sourced “from the refrigerator straight to the fryer.”  The churros tended to the undercooked side, with a heavy helping of sugar.   As most of the fairgoers were drinking distinctively large sodas, we also ordered Pepsis.  We are not sure we would recommend Sweet Treats’ bold pairing of a sugary churro with a hyper-sweet Pepsi to prospective diners.

 

Salad: Fried Artichoke Hearts

 

Locally Sourced: 2

Created on-site: 1 *[3]

Organic: 0

Presentation: 2

Ethical: 5

Total: 10/20

 

Feeling energized by our appetizer, we resolved to sample one of San Mateo’s distinctive salad offerings for our second course.  One reporter thought a caprese salad would provide a nice counterpoint to the summer heat and the lingering taste of the appetizer’s sugar. However, like our tapas search, our quest to find a cool summer salad was in vain.

In fact, the closest dish we could find resembling a salad—or any vegetable, for that matter—were the fried artichoke hearts served by Jeanne’s Fried Artichoke Hearts.  Founded in 1976 as part of a church fundraising effort, Jeanne’s Fried Artichoke Hearts have enjoyed some fame among Pacific Northwest carnivals for their eponymous dish.

In our, well, salad, crispy batter surrounds a slender band of artichoke.  Although the batter here was more robust than the Sweet Treats’ churro, both ultimately felt undercooked.  One reporter’s jaw felt clenched from the sugar and caffeine from the appetizer, which may impact this evaluation.

Heinz Ranch Dressing complemented the hearts.  We were able to determine that the dressing was manufactured in Pittsburgh, PA, which we decided merited Jeanne’s a couple of points on being locally sourced, in that we could figure out where it was from at all.  Not to be discouraged, we were excited (and slightly woozy) as we began our search for a distinctively San Matean meal to make our entrée.

 

Entrée: Turkey Leg

 

Locally Sourced: 1

Created on-site: 4

Organic: 0

Presentation: 3

Ethical: 0

Total: 8/20

 

Big Bubba’s Bad Barbeque (their name, not ours) occupies the center of the San Mateo County Fair.*[4]  Here, a faux wood cabin-trailer serves a variety of barbeque to fairgoers.  Well, not a variety.  Turkey legs, two types of meat sandwiches and corn on the cob are on the menu, as well as the option to have the meal served “dinner style,” which means the entrée is served with baked beans and cole slaw.  (We elected for turkey legs “dinner style,” though we review the beans and slaw in the next section.)

We were disappointed by what seemed like a missed opportunity by Big Bubba’s Bad Barbeque.  San Mateo, settled in the late eighteenth century, has a storied history of Spanish, Mexican and Native American influences.  Hoping for a dish informed by this heritage, we found that the turkey legs we sampled seemed to neglect this history.

Instead, the flavor of the turkey legs was described as “salty,” “briny,” “mouth-drying,” while the texture was “tough,” “demanding,” “over-cooked.”  One reporter suggested eating the turkey was akin to “trying to eat cheap deli ham through the sole of a shoe.”  Rather than smoking the meat, “Big Bubba might have just put wood in right here.  Really—what is this?  I think I’m eating a woodchip,” the reporter posited. 

The bright blue of the Pepsi cups seduced us again at the end of the meal.  The large cola served double duty: it made the rush of sodium more bearable while also cooling off an overworked jaw.

 

Sides: Baked Beans/Cole Slaw

 

Locally Sourced: 1

Created on-site: 0

Organic: 0

Presentation: 2

Ethical: 0

Total: 3/20

 

For as sinewy and salty the turkey leg was, the beans were soft and, well, also quite salty.  This soft texture and aggressive salting made them a strong counterpoint to the Pepsi.  At this point, the number of grams of Pepsi-sugar we had ingested was moving into triple digits. *[5] The beans made us want more Pepsi.

The coleslaw was plated with the beans so that neither touched the other, which we thought was considerate. This was reflected in our presentation rating.

At the end of this portion of the meal, we found that the meal paired well with vigorously walking in circles around the floral exhibit, if only to work out the Restless Leg Syndrome one reporter developed.*[6] 

 

Dessert: Fudge

 

Locally Sourced: 0

Created on-site: 0

Organic: 0

Presentation: 2

Ethical: 1

Total: 3/20

 

After walking through the Fair’s floral exhibit until the jitters subsided, we began our search for our dessert.  Four courses into this meal and we were under no delusions about what we might find here.  We were only concerned with whether vendors would take off the wrapper before deep-frying the Snickers bar.

Instead, we came across Bubba Jack’s Fudge, a small business operated from a recreational vehicle.  “I started selling fudge because my wife sells yarn here and she wanted me to stop watching NASCAR while she worked,” said Bubba Jack, the owner and namesake of the business.*[7]

This sounded promising, so we tried the chocolate pecan crunch fudge.  The consistency of the fudge was smooth, with a consistent distribution of pecans.  We thought the flavor of the chocolate came out nicely, but our taste buds had also developed a sky-high tolerance to sugar (the Pepsi), so we cannot say whether this will be true for all diners.

The fudge proved to be the bookend to a surprising and demanding day of food reporting.*[8]  In all, we were disappointed that the San Mateo County Fair did not offer the local cuisines we had anticipated.  It turns out that diners eager to sample locally-sourced, organic, ethically-produced dishes that were created on-site with an eye to presentation should look elsewhere than the food trailers of the San Mateo County Fair.

For those with a taste for (a lot of) Pepsi, will be running through Sunday, June 17. It is located at 1346 Saratoga Drive, San Mateo.  Additional information can be found at www.sanmateocountyfair.com.

 

[1] The “created on site” criterion proved harder than expected to judge.  Most foods at the fair, it turns out, are produced off-site while deep-fried on the premises.  Is a churro a churro until it is deep-fried?  That said, we gave it a 1 for the on-site frying.

[2] It is unclear if this is a seasonal menu or more of an all-year selection.

[3] As with churros, the fried artichoke hearts are factory produced while fried on-site.  Our server was unsure if the vegetable oil was locally sourced.

[4] Big Bubba’s Bad Barbeque was, in fact, one of three “Bubba”-operated establishments within a 100-foot radius at the Fair.  There was also a bull-riding challenge organized by a second Bubba and a fudge manufacturer run by a third Bubba.  It emerged that the bull-riding Bubba and the Bubba of turkey leg infamy were brothers estranged by a romantic dispute, while Fudge Bubba was unrelated to the other two.  He will be profiled in greater depth at the Dessert section of this article.

[5] The sugar and caffeine would, after a while, make us anxious and clenched, which would make us want to drink more Pepsi to get over that uptight feeling.  Additional Pepsi would make us even more tightly wound, which made us turn to the Pepsi all the more heavily.  Around this time, one reporter’s notes began to feature an increase in underlining and illustrations.

[6] Indeed, the savory-sweet-savory-sweet strategy we adopted for our reportage did not work out as planned.  Rather than the sugar canceling out the sodium and vice versa, it seemed that each amplified the effects of the other.  Hyperactivity, it turns out, is only heightened by hypertension.

[7] Because of Bubba Jack’s thoughtful attitude re NASCAR, we added some points to the fudge’s ethical rating, though in all fairness, it didn’t really have anything to do with the ethics of the fudge itself.  This is mostly the Pepsi talking by now.

[8] It was demanding in a physical sense: at the end of our meal, we felt “anxious,” “compulsive,” “fidgety,” “achy,” and “high-strung.”  A paramedic staffing the Fair took our blood pressure and heart rate.  At a troubling 144/98 and 108 bpm, one reporter learned (with unsettling detail) the impact the meal had.

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