Maybe it's a good thing the Florida State Fair comes only once a year. When the fair leaves Tampa after Monday, it'll take with it all the obscenely greasy, insanely engineered, deep-fried foods on the midway.
Or will it?
If you dig around, you'll find that some of the fair's most Wonka-tastic inventions can be found at local restaurants and markets even after the carnival leaves town.
Take, for example, one of the fair's most popular vendors, the Amish Baking Co. Based in Sarasota, they serve platter-sized doughnuts at other markets and festivals around Tampa Bay. Owner Nate Peachy does have his limits, though. The doughnuts are generally served only at events in the cooler months, such as the Florida Strawberry Festival later this month, or Lakeland's Fun 'n Sun in April.
"The dough is really sensitive, said his sister, Sadie Peachy. "When the humidity gets heavy, he doesn't even bother."
However, doughnuts are a food you can get year-round (even if they aren't as insane as Amish Baking Co.'s). When you really think of fair food, three words immediately jump to mind: Deep-fried twinkies. And at least one local place serves them.
Hamburger Mary's in Ybor City and Clearwater is known for its cheeky, over-the-top attitude, and sure enough, that extends to the dessert menu, which offers a trio of Deep Fried Twinkies. You can tell there's a discernable difference between a Twinkie deep-fried in a truck and one deep-fried in a supremely competent kitchen — these are perfectly crisp, not at all greasy, served with generous dollops of whipped cream and a raspberry drizzle. It's a lot to handle in one setting, but at $8, it'd make a delightful dessert for two.
Deep-fried key lime pie sounds like something that should be a staple at every state and county fair in Florida. Sure enough, the Twisted Cork Grille in St. Pete serves a good one, and it's not too decadent — the dough it's fried in is more golden, buttery and flaky than your normal midway dough, almost like it's an extension of the crust. If it had a name other than Deep Fried Key Lime Pie, you could order it without shame (although if it were named something other than Deep Fried Key Lime Pie, would you?).
Lest you think state fair monstrosities are purely American inventions, the menu at Mike and Lisa's Cricketers British Pub and Restaurant in Dunedin claims that the Fried Mars Bar was "invented in Scotland." That makes sense, as the Mars bar is a decidedly Euro-centric treat, but the pub's presentation remains all over-the-top American. A couple of halved Mars bars, in all their chewy, nougaty goodness, are batter-dipped and fried, then arranged around a mound of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream and drizzled with a sunburst of chocolate and caramel sauces. Unlike the fried candy bars at the fair, this one won't blow powdered sugar all over your shirt — but that doesn't make it any healthier.
Same goes for the Deep Fried Snickers Bar, which is available at MadFish, an otherwise classy surf-and-turf joint in St. Pete Beach. At only $3.95, it's also a nice way to come down from that $24.95 filet you just inhaled.
One midway staple that has yet to catch on in finer dining establishments is the funnel cake, but the Outpost in Tampa has you covered there. In addition to Fried Oreo Sundaes (which are occasionally available in seasonal form; think peppermint Oreos at Christmas), they serve Funnel Fries, topped with salted caramel and powdered sugar. They're sticky, yes, but way less messy than actual funnel cakes (God help any fool who dares eat a funnel cake while wearing black), and you don't look like a goober while eating them. Remind us again why funnel cakes aren't the next big culinary craze? Because they should be.
Perhaps the most revolutionary local take on fair food comes at Eats American Grill in South Tampa. They, too, serve a Deep Fried Oreo Sundae, but even better is their Deep Fried Oreo Martini — Stoli Vanilla vodka, Godiva chocolate, vanilla ice cream and a deep-fried Oreo garnish. It's a real thing, thick and milky and not nearly as terrible as it ought to be. Believe it or not, deep-fried cookies actually taste even better dipped in alcohol. And that's something even the Florida State Fair wouldn't dare attempt.