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6 Weird & Delicious Foods to Eat at the San Diego County Fair

Food critic Troy Johnson tries all 18 finalists at this year’s Fairtastic Food Competition and names a winner
San Diego County Fair food featuring a cotton candy stand and other local food vendors
Courtesy of Wikipedia

There’s an evolution to how you experience the county fair as a human. It’s the marker of our lives in San Diego. Each year leaves a ring on the tree of us. You spend the first six years of your fair existence just adjusting to the colors and lights.

By age seven, you’ve processed all the visual stimuli (not without a touch of trauma, some synapses had to be reduced to charcoal in the pursuit of this joy). Then, some parental figure wins you a giant plushie and you finally know what love feels like. 

By the time you reach middle school, it’s a training facility for learning to flirt with other middle-school kids. You “cruise” with new hormones in your blood and old terrors in your heart. Then you enter your thrill ride phase, where you are shaken and twisted and hurled in ways the gods never accounted for in the blueprints for mortal bodies. 

When the thought of “The Kraken” brings your therapist to mind, you’re finally ready. From here on out, it’s about the food. Finally, you have reached fair enlightenment, discovered true fair purpose. You are a seasonal attraction monk. 

2024 San Diego County Fair Food featuring Chicken on a Stick from food vendor Chan’s Chicken on a Stick
Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I don’t care how many three-star Michelins you’ve degustated at. If you’ve lost the ability to appreciate the blue-collar entrepreneurial mayhem of American fair food, your life battery is on yellow and you should plug back in for a bit, or see if you qualify for a free upgrade on your life. 

Hot Cheetos dust is the black truffle of the county fair.

Because, with all due respect to the performers and sows the size of minivans and quality woodwork, it is all about the food. The San Diego County Fair was started by farmers, after all. And while a deep-fried Oreo may be a stern rebuttal to the entire concept of agriculture, it’s ingestible and glorious in all the ways. 

So the question every year becomes, what are you gonna eat? You need to have a meal plan. You’re gonna need some rational food to set a base for survival (things like roasted corn or a sandwich or a fifty-pound turkey leg) and then you’ll need to try a few things that just might be the fall of American civilization. 

To assist you in this pursuit—a few of us each year get together for a group project called the Fairtastic Food Competition. The good people of the fair whittled down each year’s offerings to 18 finalists, and on Friday we tried them all. We named some winners. 

It’s a friendly competition. The true reason is to highlight the moms and pops and families who work their duffs off to create the food of the annual gathering. They travel from fair to fair each year, raising their families on the road, an entire community of people who try to feed us beasts as entertainingly as they possibly can. 

2024 San Diego County Fair Food featuring the Hot Honey Funnel Cake Chicken Sandwich from food vendor Chicken Charlie’s
Courtesy of Chicken Charlie’s

Troy’s Favorite Food from the San Diego County Fair (In Order)

Hot Honey Funnel Cake Chicken Sandwich

Chicken Charlie’s

The legend strikes again. The man who invented the deep-fried Oreo (ahem, Library of Congress) took funnel cake, glued it into the shape of a bun using hot honey, then placed a fried chicken breast between it. Sticky, sweet, salty, savory, crimes. 

2024 San Diego County Fair Food featuring The Cali Dog from food vendor Pink’s Hot Dogs
Courtesy of the San Diego County Fair

The Cali Dog

Pink’s Hot Dogs

I’m a hot dog purist at heart (yellow mustard, relish, onions), but I’m getting into the loaded dog movement. This one is a quarter-pound spicy sausage topped with french fries, guacamole, sour cream, and Hot Cheetos crumbles. Hot Cheetos dust is the black truffle of the liquor store… and the county fair. 

2024 San Diego County Fair Food featuring Chicken on a Stick from food vendor Chan’s Chicken on a Stick

Chicken on a Stick

Chan’s Chicken on a Stick

Welcome to your rational base. Just 12 ounces of good, moist chicken on a stick, kissed (not overly slathered) in a teriyaki sauce that’s been a family recipe for 40 years. Judge’s note: “That’s just delicious chicken.”

2024 San Diego County Fair Food featuring the Disco Pop Shake from food vendor TJ’s Ice Cream

Disco Pop Shake

TJ’s Ice Cream

Grape soda is the yeti of the soda world. Never included in the standard rotation, always craved by those with high-quality soda mouths. TJ’s owners mix it with vanilla ice cream, then top it with a thicker whipped cream and a dusting of Pop Rocks. Gimmicks don’t usually taste this good.

The Fruit Caboose milkshake from Surfin’ USA Party Shake
Courtesy of the San Diego County Fair

The Fruit Caboose

Surfin’ USA Party Shake

When you want a shake but it’s 85 degrees, 180 degrees on the asphalt. Frozen lemonade blended with housemade vanilla soft-serve, a graham cracker crust on the rim. Part shake, part hydration.

Candied Bacon-Wrapped Pork Belly Bites from food vendor Bacon A Fair

Candied Bacon-Wrapped Pork Belly Bites

Bacon A Fair

Close to vegetarian, but not totally there. Cubes of tender, juicy, slow-smoked pork belly wrapped in thick-cut bacon, then fried in a skillet with a brown sugar glaze. This is just delicious food. 

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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