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We tasted new Florida State Fair foods, from Cuban sandwich pizza to spaghetti grilled cheese

We sacrificed our stomachs to test out waffle-topped pizza, sweet and savory funnel cakes, and five varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Cuban sandwich pizza, rainbow grilled cheese and a savory funnel cake topped with red beans and sausage. Martha Asencio-Rhine | TIMES]
Published Feb. 14
Updated Feb. 14

The Florida State Fair is back, and with it comes all kinds of culinary oddities. Vendors new and old have filled the midway with ridiculous flavor combinations, outrageous portions and plenty of deep-fried delicacies.

This year’s new offerings include a savory twist on funnel cake, grilled cheeses stuffed with dinner foods and Cuban sandwich pizza. At the risk of our health and sanity, we decided to put some of the most unusual foods to the test. Most of the dishes we ate were new to the fair, although we did sample a few strange treats that have returned due to popular demand. Here’s what we thought.

Cuban sandwich pizza from Pizza Emporium ($5)

Cuban Sandwich pizza from Pizza Emporium. [Martha Rhine | TIMES]

Pizza Emporium received a lot of attention for its new Cuban sandwich pizza this year. The pie features salami, mojo pork, ham, swiss cheese, dijonnaise, and, of course, pickles.

Gabrielle Calise: This has a stronger Cuban sandwich taste than an actual sandwich might since the ingredients are right on top of the pizza instead of hiding between two pieces of bread. I didn’t know how I would feel about the pickles on top, but they add a nice sour crunch. I would order this in a restaurant.

Martha Asencio-Rhine: This is basically a flat Cuban sandwich. It tastes exactly like a Cuban. It’s the norm for Tampa Bay Cuban sandwich lovers to have their favorite spots. I know I certainly have mine. But pizza is sacred. Or so I thought. A Cuban sandwich is a Cuban sandwich and pizza is pizza. The two have no business mixing. But this is the Florida State Fair, and weird food combos seem to be required. This was good, I enjoyed it, but afterward I decided I probably wouldn’t eat my Cuban in pizza form again.

Chicken and waffle pizza from Pizza Emporium ($5)

Chicken 'n Waffle pizza from Pizza Emporium. [Martha Rhine | TIMES]

Pizza Emporium created the chicken and waffle pizza last year while they were doing the music festival circuit. The dish became so popular that they added it to their year-round menu. Instead of red sauce, maple syrup acts as the base for cheese, chunks of waffles and fried chicken.

Gabrielle: First impression: This pizza reeks of maple syrup. It feels like more of a brunch or dessert dish, especially since the pieces of chicken on my slice were so small. It looks like they used frozen waffles that got soggy after soaking in maple syrup. Still, the dough is chewy and delicious, and the whole thing is quite tasty. I’m a waffle fanatic, so I loved this.

Martha: I know I just said that pizza should not be messed with, and this crazy combo both, terrified and intrigued me, but I actually liked it. There was something about the salty and sweet combo that really appealed to me; the cheese and the chicken really vibed with the maple syrup. Maple syrup, on a pizza! Gosh.

Red bean, sausage and rice funnel cake from The Best Around Concessions ($10)

Red bean, sausage and rice funnel cake from The Best Around Concessions. [Martha Rhine | TIMES]

The genius behind the red bean, sausage and rice funnel cake is Mama Jane Harris, who showed us a folder on her phone filled with shots of other strange flavors she’s concocted. Think pizza funnel cake, cheesy fried enchilada funnel cake, cotton candy funnel cake and mint chocolate chip funnel cake. Florida State Fair regulars might also recognize her as the creator of the funnel cake burger from a few years ago.

“I like to take foods that traditionally aren’t a funnel cake and make it a funnel cake,” she said.

Gabrielle: It’s not the prettiest cake, but it’s warm and comforting, perfect on the cloudy day that we went to the fair. Beans are pureed and mixed into the batter, and the fluffy, crispy cake is topped with a hearty dollop of more beans, onions, peppers and sausage. It felt like I was having dinner instead of junk food at the fair. Both the cake and the toppings are really flavorful. I would eat this again.

Martha: Eating at the fair can be overwhelming because there are so many choices. I think you can approach it in one of two ways: Either snack your way around, trying a lot of different things in snack form (although you might want to share with a friend), or go for one main lunch or dinner item. This funnel cake with a New Orleans twist could be a good choice for option two. It’s hearty and yummy enough, comforting and even a little homey. I did think that the funnel cake was a little heavy, and it could have used spice for some good zip.

Red velvet funnel cake from The Best Around Concessions ($8)

Red velvet funnel cake, topped with cream cheese glaze and powdered sugar. [Martha Rhine | TIMES]

The Best Around’s red velvet funnel cake was featured on the Travel Channel in 2011.

Stroll around the midway and you’ll see varieties of the treat all over, but Mama Jane claims that she was the first person to make it.

“Since then, it’s been copied all around the world,” she said.

Gabrielle: This is really chocolatey and gooey, especially when you get to the center. I have a big sweet tooth, so I loved the homemade cream cheese glaze on top, but I could see it being too sugary for some. I couldn’t stop sneaking bites though.

Martha: This red velvet funnel cake was a treat. The real selling point was that cream cheese glaze over the top. It was warm with a nice hint of cocoa, sweet but not too sweet, gooey and satisfying. What would have made it better? A cup of coffee. I’ll have another, please.

Jalapeño popper grilled cheese from the Giddy Piggy ($10)

The jalapeño popper grilled cheese sandwich is stuffed with bacon, jalapeños and cream cheese. [Martha Asencio-Rhine | TIMES]

Beverlie Lee started the Giddy Piggy in 2018 with the goal to create fun fair food that wasn’t fried and greasy. Her grilled cheese sandwiches are filled with dishes you might find on your dinner table, like pot roast, BBQ chicken, Philly cheesesteak and spaghetti.

This sandwich features bacon, jalapeños and cream cheese.

Gabrielle: I was excited to try this one, but it was underwhelming for me. The cream cheese overpowered the sandwich and the slices of cheese weren’t melty enough. I did like the kick from the jalapeños at the end.

Martha: I respectfully disagree. This was the best grilled cheese. I liked the cream cheese and jalapeño combo, nice kick and not too hard to eat while walking around the fair and people- watching. The bread was buttery and the different cheeses were complementary. Confession: I know we were just tasting, but I ate my entire half. I picked up Tums on the way home.

Rainbow grilled cheese from the Giddy Piggy ($10)

Gabrielle Calise pulls apart a rainbow grilled cheese at the Florida State Fair. [Martha Asencio-Rhine | TIMES]

This is one of the most popular items at the Giddy Piggy, thanks to the rise of rainbow foods on social media. Lee adds dyes to her homemade cheese in order to achieve the technicolor effect. If you want to get that Instagram-worthy photo of melty rainbow cheese as you pull the sandwich apart, ask the cook to only cut the top slice of bread.

Gabrielle: This tastes like a standard grilled cheese sandwich, but it’s really delicious. When I visited New York City a few years ago, I bought one of those ridiculous rainbow bagels and remember it having a disappointing consistency and taste because of all of the dyes. That wasn’t the case here. I love the gouda cheese that Beverlie used, and the bread is nice and thick.

Martha: If you need to order this one, do it for the ‘gram. It’s pretty to pull apart and pose with, but that’s about it. I’ve made this exact grilled cheese at home many times, sans rainbow.

Buffalo ranch chicken grilled cheese from the Giddy Piggy ($12)

A buffalo ranch chicken grilled cheese sandwich. [Martha Asencio-Rhine | TIMES]

Gabrielle: I thought the Buffalo flavor was overwhelming, but the melted cheese was great. The ranch part gets lost in it all. If I was a bigger Buffalo chicken fan I probably would have enjoyed it more, but I think that the Giddy Piggy has more spectacular sandwiches than this one.

Martha: Look, I didn’t eat anything at the fair I thought was gross but this is not a sandwich I’d order again. It had way too much meat in it and the Buffalo sauce was so intense, it made me cough. Perhaps diehard Buffalo wing lovers would find this appealing and fun, but it was not my cup of tea.

Spaghetti grilled cheese from the Giddy Piggy ($10)

A messy spaghetti grilled cheese sandwich. [Martha Asencio-Rhine | TIMES]

Gabrielle: This sandwich is served with a fork, but I still ate the first few bites with my hands. The bread is sprinkled with garlic powder, so you end up with a steaming lump of saucy, sliced-up spaghetti noodles between two thick pieces of Texas toast. It’s still technically a grilled cheese (there’s a gooey layer of parmesan and mozzarella in there), even though the bread falls apart after just a few bites. This was the least graceful dining experience I had all day (even worse than getting covered in powdered sugar while destroying a red velvet funnel cake), but I would still order it again.

Martha: What a mess! Don’t eat this one on a first date and don’t wear anything you want to keep stain-free. This is a difficult sandwich to eat standing up. You have to use a fork and honestly, I could have benefitted from a knife, too. It tasted good, like mom’s home cooking. But I don’t think it merits being called a “grilled cheese.” You have garlic bread instead of buttery bread, and spaghetti instead of melty cheese. It is creative, though.

Taco grilled cheese from the Giddy Piggy ($10)

A taco grilled cheese. [Martha Asencio-Rhine | TIMES]

This sandwich is filled with a hearty helping of taco meat, melted cheese, salsa and lettuce. It’s served with a cup of sour cream for dipping. Use two hands for this one.

Gabrielle: We were not planning on ordering five grilled cheese sandwiches (or spending $52 on them!) But I loved the spaghetti grilled cheese so much that I just had to order one more thing from the Giddy Piggy. There’s so much taco filling in this sandwich that the cheese was the last thing on my mind, but I loved the salsa and the crunch of the lettuce. I thought having sour cream on the side for dunking was really smart. I’ll have to replicate this at home.

Martha: This sandwich take on a taco was stuffed with ground beef and also too messy to eat standing up or walking around. It was seasoned well and was very tasty, especially if you add sour cream. The cool, fresh sour cream contrasts nicely with the more intense flavors of the seasoned beef and cheese. Messy, yes, but I’d find a place to sit for a few minutes and eat it again.

Final thoughts

Gabrielle: I was shocked by how delicious everything we ate was. Going into this, I assumed that certain dishes would be gross, but I ended up eating way more of everything than I planned to. After talking with the vendors who concocted the recipes, I can see how much care and creativity they put into these dishes. My favorite entree was the spaghetti grilled cheese, and for dessert I loved the chicken and waffle pizza.

Martha: This was a lot of fun. Not sure I would have done something like this if I didn’t have another food lover with me. The portions are huge at the fair, so it’s a good idea to share with an adventurous friend. I was surprised by the ingenuity of these food vendors and the passion with which the vendors approach their creations. Some of these foods might be created to be more shocking than delicious (I’m looking at you, doughnut burger), but there is some real quality to be found if you’re not impulsive and you take your time exploring and sampling. The important thing is to have fun, and carry antacids.

Did you try any of these when you went to the fair? Would you? Let us know in the comments!


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