I’ll be honest: I’ve slept on the New Mexico State Fair for the last few years. Maybe it’s a romanticized notion in my brain that the fair is for young lovers running around, petting cows, chomping down elotes and trying to win oversized teddy bears from rigged carnival games. To me, the fair signaled a dramatic rise in my allergy symptoms and a struggle to drive anywhere around the general neighborhood of the fairgrounds. Yes, at the ripe old age of 30, I have become a bitter and grumpy man, devoid of joy. But this year was different. Not because I was the less interesting half of a young lover couplet but because I owe it to this city to cover the food within it. This includes the food of the fair, so I jumped right in to find a good mix of old favorites and new takes on classics. Here’s what I discovered.
Frito Pie, the apple of my eye
It would be disingenuous to start with anyone else. Sopa’s Restaurant, known by the phrase “The Heart Beat of Bosque Farms,” are a staple of the fair. They’ve been around for over 19 years, they’re family owned and at this point, it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing. I was at the window of their fairgrounds storefront bright and early at 10am in the morning, to get in on the action. It was of little surprise to me that they were already bustling with people, the kitchen rocking and rolling right from the get-go. This was the first step of reclaiming my lost love for the fair, and it had to be a good step. So I ran with the classic Frito pie. I dove in immediately and remembered what the Sopa’s difference is: Classic New Mexican heat. The chile didn’t crush me like some expect it to. What it did do was instantaneously give me the hiccups, for which the only solution was to finish the rest of the meal. Was the warmth in my heart from discovering lost feelings of nostalgia for the fair or was it the chile? I’m still not sure.
Fried Turkey Legs and Roasted Corn
Arguably the best smell in the world
I don’t have a specific vendor to mention here, as there is no shortage of folks selling these in any direction you turn. But I got to get up close to those smokers, and lemme tell you, there needs to be a cologne imbued with hickory smoke, because I was getting all the right kind of wrong attention walking around later that day.
Is it really the NMSF without corn being roasted?
You’re going to be hard pressed to find a time that’s not good for either one of these amazing handheld meals, but I might recommend that if you plan to do any climbing challenges in the rides area, maybe don’t do it with slicked-up, greasy turkey fingers. That would be the advice of my friend, and definitely not an experience I personally went through at the age of 15 on a date. I’m sure my friend remembers that date, and though the loss of pride hurt, the acquisition of turkey was a worthwhile venture.
Asbury Cafe is a must, no matter what your plans are.
Any mention of long-held traditions of the fair would be incomplete without speaking of Asbury Cafe, who has been treating all fair-goers to the highest quality pies and desserts for just shy of 60 years now. Of the limited memories I have of attending the fair when I was much younger, the one that stands out the most is my father’s insistence on us going in for pie, above anything else to do at the fair. Donating 100 percent of their profits to charities that focus on feeding those in need, these homemade pies are too good to pass up. I was lucky enough to get to try their red chile brownie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, dubbed the Fire and Ice, which had been created for an eating competition later that day. The chocolate and chile combo worked in tandem to provide a simply divine medley in my mouth of the smooth, richness that I expect from a brownie, peppered with sparks of fire from the red chile. All that with the cool sweetness of the ice cream, and it was so decadent I almost felt bad for moaning softly after a few bites. Almost. Childhood memories sparked a red chile fire back up. My old grumpy heart was beginning to soften, much like ice cream in the sun.
Cheese in any form is amazing. Fried is next level.
I was on a date a month ago, and somehow our waitress got onto the topic of cheese curds with us, her being from Wisconsin. Needless to say, it set into motion a desire for cheese curds that I had been putting off satiating for all this time. Like a wanderer in the desert stumbling upon an oasis, I saw the bright sign that said “Deep Fried Green Chile Cheese Curds” and knew I had finally escaped my “curdy” exile. Hot, melty gooey cheese and chile inside, crunchy batter-fried outside, these are arguably one of the best walk around snacks you can find at the fair. There are few things in this world better than fried cheese, and with green chile literally fried inside along with it, well, you have a formula for the ideal fair food. You can’t be grumpy while eating fried cheese. It’s actually a law probably, somewhere.
Indian Fry Bread
For some, this is the only reason they go to the fair.
There are two types of people at the state fair: Those who make a beeline for the Indian Village to get Indian fry bread and those who haven’t ever tried it. Additionally, you can dig into the much-loved taco version, a clear-cut favorite of my mother’s. There’s simply no joy greater than consuming Indian fry bread. This year I procured mine at Native Cafe, winner of best Indian Taco from 2017.
As many of us tend to do, maybe I over-built the idea of what I wanted in my mind, barring me from the real joy; in this instance, that’s the food. My road to emotional recovery, of navigating the fair by myself, taught me an important lesson. When doing a small food tour, sometimes it’s actually best not to have to share your food with someone else.