What to eat at the San Diego County Fair this summer


Ticket-holders won’t need a twister to head over the rainbow on May 31, when the “Wizard of Oz”-themed 2019 San Diego County Fair opens its annual run at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

To celebrate San Diego’s connection to author L. Frank Baum — who is said to have written several of his “Oz” books while wintering in Coronado from 1904 to 1910 — this year’s fair will have an “Oz-some” exhibition on Baum and his book series and lots of Emerald City-themed treats.

With the fair expanded to 27 days this year, it’s now the longest fair in North America as well as the largest in the U.S., according Tim Fennell, general manager and CEO of the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Racetrack. It’s also one of the oldest on the West Coast, having started in 1880 as an agricultural fair.

“The fair celebrates agriculture and community pride,” Fennell said Tuesday. “No two days are alike and there’s something for everyone.”

This year’s fair — which is expected to draw nearly 1.6 million visitors during its five-day-a-week run May 31 through July 4 — will feature 4,187 attractions, 1,879 concerts, 83 rides, 21 contests, hundreds of animals and dozens of exhibits, festivals and special events. But let’s face it: Most San Diego County fairgoers come for the food, and vendors compete to dream up the weirdest and tastiest “must-try” new food items each year.

As always, “Chicken” Charlie Boghosian of Chicken Charlie’s FRYBQ in Clairemont Mesa will have an outsize presence at the fair, with nearly a dozen deep-fried delights including his top-selling deep-fried Oreo, and this year’s two newest entries, deep-fried crème brûlée and mammoth 1.5-pound buffalo chicken chimichanga. Boghosian said he started dreaming up ideas for this year’s fair the day after last year’s fair closed.

“It’s not a job, it’s fun,” he said of the food-development process. “There’s no limit to what we can do. Frying is an art.”

To help fairgoers choose which new items to try this year, we did a taste test at a media preview event on Tuesday and offer a few of our favorites.

The Blue Ribbon: Octo-tacos at Reno’s Fish & Chips
The Pignotti family has been serving up fish & chips and Italian food in separate booths at the fair since 1968. This year they’re introducing four new food items, including mac ‘n’ cheese egg rolls, lasagna egg rolls and waffle pizza. But the true star is the new octopus taco, with tender strips of octopus, dipped in a light batter and fried, and served on a flour tortilla with slaw and choice of yogurt or Sriracha sauce.

Biggest surprise: Deep-fried crème brûlée at Chicken Charlie’s
Traditional crème brûlée is made into a frozen custard that’s scooped, dipped in a waffle-style batter colored red (in honor of Dorothy’s ruby slippers) and fried, then topped with caramel sauce and powdered sugar. They’re crunchy on the outside and oozy and creamy on the inside.

Best play on a theme: Wizard of Haze from Mike Hess Brewing
For the fourth year in a row, this North Park brewery has created a limited edition themed beer for the fair. Wizard of Haze is a refreshing hazy India Pale Ale with tropical notes and a slightly lower alcohol content than regular IPA. It’s being sold in cans through July 4 at Albertsons and Vons markets and on tap at the fairgrounds.

Weird but it works award: Chocolate bacon baklava at The Mediterranean
Since 1973, Cardiff native Ted Platis’ family has been selling the traditional Greek phyllo pastry at the fair. But this year, he and his partner Catherine Behrend have introduced chocolate bacon baklava and chocolate baklava. The chocolate flavor is mild and the salty bacon balances the sweetness of the baklava.

Best twist on an old favorite: Bacon and cheese papusas at Bacon A-Fair
This 24-year-old booth owned by Mike Peterson and Gene Edick usually serves bacon-wrapped American classics, like sausages and turkey legs. But this year, Peterson, who lives most of the year in El Salvador, decided to baconize one the Central American country’s most popular dishes. The pancake-style snack food is cooked to order in two varieties, bacon and cheese or bacon, bean and cheese, and topped with traditional fermented vegetables and mildly spiced tomato salsa.

Best for your waistline fair food: Good Witch Toast at Emerald Farms Eatery
Most fairgoers aren’t counting calories, but these light snacks on toasted French bread are still wickedly good. There’s a green Bad Witch toast with a schmear of edamame hummus, but it’s the Good Witch version, with black pepper ricotta, black mission figs and lavender honey, that’s truly heavenly.

Best belly-buster: Buffalo chicken chimichanga at Chicken Charlie’s
If you’ve come to the fair to indulge, Chicken Charlie’s newest savory item will keep you full all day long. Fried chicken tenders, mac ‘n’ cheese and spicy buffalo sauce is wrapped in a witchy green spinach flour tortilla and deep-fried. Then it’s sliced in half and dipped in crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It’s 1.5 pounds of decadence.

Best local import: Cardiff Crack sliders
San Diegans already know the wonders of Seaside Market in Cardiff’s marinated tri-tip that’s served here with barbecue sauce on a brioche roll. But for out-of-towners, treat them to these tender and flavorful meat sandwiches that locals have been raving about for years.

New food honorable mentions:

  • Pink’s Hot Dogs’ Scarecrow Dog - A mild Polish dog with chipotle mayo and fried jalapenos
  • Tasti-Burgers’ Emerald City Fire Burger - With spicy aioli, spicy cheese and jalapenos this is one hot burger
  • Patron pineapple margarita - This cocktail, served only in the fair’s Wicked Wahini speakeasy, has quite a kick.

San Diego County Fair

When: Opens at 4 p.m. May 31 and runs through July 4. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, except July 1 and 2. Gates open at 11 a.m. daily, except opening day (when it opens at 4) and closing day (when it opens at 10 a.m.). Gates close at 10 p.m. Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and July 4.

Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Tickets: $20 for adults, ages 13 to 61. $12 for seniors. $14 for children ages 6 to 12 and seniors 62 and over. Children 5 and under are free. A 27-day season pass is available for $32 at that the fair box office and at San Diego County Albertsons and Vons stores. Children 12 and under get in free on Fridays. Albertsons and Vons supermarkets are also offering a $6 Fair Days ticket deal for admission only on May 31, June 1 and June 5 ($10 minimum store purchase required)

Parking: Onsite parking is $17 ($27 in the preferred lot). Off-site parking is $5 at the Del Mar Horsepark, at 14550 El Camino Real, Del Mar, with free shuttle service from 9 a.m. to closing every day. Free off-site parking with shuttle service is available on weekends only and July 1-4 at Torrey Pines High School, 3710 Del Mar Heights Rd, San Diego; and MiraCosta College San Elijo campus, 3333 Manchester Ave, Cardiff.

Public transit: For $21, adult fairgoers can buy a Fair Tripper combo ticket ($13 for children ages 6 to 12 and seniors 65 and over), which includes one-day fair admission and round-trip transportation on the Coaster and Sprinter trains to the Solana Beach station, where Breeze special route 408 buses leave every 20 minutes for the fair’s west gate.

Phone: (858) 755-1161