This year’s Big Tex Choice winner for Best Taste is Abel Gonzales’s Deep Fried Jambalaya. (Photo/ Vanessa A. Alvarez )

[PHOTOS] Meet the fried food masters at the Texas State Fair

Forget the diet and leave all judgement at home, you’re entering a calorie-free zone. And truth be told, if it’s fried, battered or fried and on a stick, and served at the State Fair of Texas, you know it’s gonna be good.

Since 2005, America’s largest fair has upped the ante in the world of fry by holding the Big Tex Choice Awards, a contest only described as the Oscars of fried foods. So, come Labor Day each year – The heat is on!

It’s a healthy dose of competition and because winning the contest pretty much guarantees concession sales will skyrocket, it sure means motivation.

This year, five out of the eight semi-finalist treats belonged to Latino fry masters.

For Abel Gonzales, 42, of Dallas, Texas, this is a day he lives for…literally.

Gonzales is the guy behind wins for the infamous but delicious Deep Fried Butter, Fried Coke, Deep Fried Peanut Butter, Jelly and Banana Sandwich, the Texas Fried Cookie Dough and now this year’s winner of the Best Taste award, the Deep Fried Jambalaya.  A succulent spin on the Cajun fave, Gonzales’s sole adult-friendly item  — as he calls it — is made from scratch with shrimp, Cajun sausage and seasonings, rolled into a small ball that is then lightly coated in seasoned flour, fried and topped with homemade spicy ranch — Yum!

Gonzales’s notable wins make him the must-stop at the fair every year and that’s his golden ticket to only having to work three weeks out of the year. The rest of the time, he just chills.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” says the once computer analyst. “I’m blessed, truly blessed. When you’re that guy getting Oprah coming to your booth; I always tell everybody, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

And with the stakes so high, he’s clearly been the one to beat. Until now. Enter Butch Benavides, who finally got his place in Big Tex history.

Benavides’ Nachos have been a fair favorite for over 25 years and  he is the one who introduced the Fried Snickers on a Stick into the fair in 2003.  After entering items into the contest every year and never making it past the first round, Benavides not only entered two items this year but walked away with the Most Creative award for  his Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll. His Chicken Fried Cactus Bites with agave nectar dipping sauce also made top eight.

Cactus is supposed to boast vitamin B, C and calcium, but “I just don’t know how healthy it is fried,” he jokes.

The Fried Bacon Cinnamon roll, which is dipped in a sweet pancake batter with every layer then rolled in crispy, sweet bacon crumbles, is deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar and lathered in sweet vanilla frosting. It’s also on a stick because Benavides loves his stick food and has already been outselling the cactus, two to one, according to Benavides.

On Friday, the day the fair opened, lines ran long with fair goers waiting patiently to get a taste of the sinful treat and it was all everyone kept talking about well into the weekend.

Benavides credits his son-in-law, Dr. Monte Anderson, for coming up with the idea.  A lover of bacon, Benavides describes Anderson as a lover of the kitchen and of fried foods and he gives him a fryer every year so he can “fry stuff” and experiment to come up with the next winner.

Like child’s play, all contestants shared yet another commonality: They all say they retreat to their kitchens and, with help from family and friends, focus on perfecting their next big winner months before the contest ever opens.

“I don’t know what it is, I think it’s in the blood. It’s like we’re all luchadores,” says Denise Garza, whose Deep-Fried Divine Chocolate Tres Leches Cake also wowed the judges and placed top eight.

Garza and her sisters, as well as niece Roxanne Herrera, 30, grew up working the family restaurant and have made a name for themselves with their tacos al pastor, their tamales, their succulent elote (a corn dish made with cream and queso blanco), and their Heavenly Deep-Fried Brownies, which made their debut on fair grounds last year.

For the Garzas, the only all-female-owned concession business that placed in the contest this year, the Big Tex Choice Awards are a goal to strive for.

Another notable mention this year also went to Steve Velasquez for his Deep Fried Mac-N-Cheese slider, and to Isaac Rousso for his Fried Pork Wing, which is actually not really fried.

Slow cooked for six hours, flash fried and topped in a chipotle, molasses, and smoked bacon BBQ sauce, the pork wing is so tender, it melts in your mouth. Rousso is also known for his Deep Fried Pop Tart and his Deep Fried Salsa, which placed in 2010 and 2011, respectively.  Rousso operates the Taste of Cuba stand and the Magnolia Beer Garden — a courtyard adorned with plants, tree lights and outdoor seating where adults can retreat to for beer and restaurant-quality food at the fair.

But success on fair grounds didn’t come immediately for the Roussos. In fact, it took him ten years to be given the opportunity to operate his concessions business at the fair.  Now every January he finds himself retreating to his off-site kitchen and just letting loose until he comes up with his next big item.

“For nine years, I would walk to the mailbox and would always get a letter from the State Fair denying my request, until the tenth time I walked to the mailbox and got a ‘Yes,'” says Rousso. “In life you’re going to have adversity but I always remember that if my father could come to this country from Cuba in 1962 without speaking one word of English and make it, I owe it to my family not to give up and I knew I would have my chance one day.”

The State Fair of Texas runs through October 21 at the Fair Park in Dallas, Texas.

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