The State Fair of Texas opened last Friday for another fall of football, the Ferris wheel, and fried food. This year brings a new list of winners for the Big Tex Choice Awards, none of which were related to Texas-style barbecue, but there are a few smoked meat newcomers to try.
“I was surprised to see how many barbecue options are out there,” said Clint Duncan of Bluebonnet Roadhouse BBQ & Grill. He’s a veteran State Fair vendor, and this year he developed a recipe for Fried Texas BBQ Shotgun Shells. Think of them as deep-fried, brisket-stuffed manicotti. The cooks roll a flat sheet of pasta around a hefty helping of juicy chopped brisket and cheese. The stuffed pasta is then wrapped in bacon and smoked. Once smoked, it’s rolled in jalapeño breadcrumbs and deep-fried. The concoction comes with fries for $8. “If you eat this and a corn dog back to back, you’re gonna need to sit for a while,” Duncan said.
Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que has been serving barbecue at the fair since 1979, but adds something new to the menu every year. This year, it’s the honey butter brisket swirl. The cooks roll chopped brisket into croissant dough, slice it into rounds, deep-fry them, and coat them in a honey-butter glaze. Three rolls cost $12, so it’s good for sharing. The rolls are like a cross between a cinnamon roll and a donut, but with a pleasant savory note from the brisket, which doesn’t overwhelm.
If you need something a bit lighter, then Sandoitchi is a good place to start. No, it’s not barbecue, but you may remember this Dallas-based Japanese sandwich pop-up from its collaboration with Goldee’s Barbecue last year. I loved the strawberry cream sando with fruit and whipped cream between slices of fluffy Japanese milk bread ($16), and the deep-fried mochi ice cream bites (two for $20) were unexpectedly refreshing.
It’s rare that a spot from our best new joints list serves at the fair, but this is actually the second year in a row Pit Commander Barbecue is popping up with its alter ego, Texapolitan Pizza. Stephan Nedwetzky and his wife, Yolanda Russotti, serve wood-fired pizza from a booth below Big Tex’s right hand. Behind the counter you’ll see the pizza oven and the offset smoker used for the signature pork belly burnt-end pizza ($26).
Last year, the couple borrowed a wood-fired pizza oven from Antoine Cantarel of Bread Stone Ovens in Dallas to audition for fair officials. They served the smoked pork belly burnt-end pizza and got the thumbs-up. All they needed was a $30,000 oven of their own, which they acquired the week before the fair began last year. They averaged 280 pizzas per day and expect to sell the same this year. It’s challenging at times, but “it’s like a childhood dream come true,” Nedwetzky said. “It’s the State Fair of Texas and we get to work here.”
Ninety seconds is all Nedwetzky needs to fire off one of his Neapolitan-style pizzas, so they’re all made fresh. He has juggled eight pizzas in the oven at once, all of which need to be rotated as they cook, but he said five at a time is a more comfortable limit. He lights the oak fire every morning at 7 to get the oven properly preheated. When I arrived just before they started serving at 10 a.m., an infrared thermometer pointing at the center of the oven read 813 degrees, about three times hotter than the smoker, which cooks ninety whole pork bellies during the 23 days of the fair.
Nedwetzky makes the dough from scratch, and it goes through a three-day cold-fermentation process before it’s ready. I watched as his assistant cook Jon Southard stretched the dough and topped it with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, pecorino romano, shredded mozzarella, and fresh-sliced mozzarella. He nestled a half-dozen nuggets of smoked pork belly into the cheese and the same amount of fresh jalapeño slices. Then Nedwetzky moved the pizza to the oven. He rotated it as the edge closest to the fire browned, then hoisted it high to the top of the dome, where it is hottest, to get that final blast of heat on the toppings.
The final garnish is an unusual combination of crumbled cotija cheese and several drops of tangy, mustard-tinged barbecue sauce. The final flavor was creamy, savory, spicy, and sharp. The crust has a nice chew, and the twice-cooked pork belly burnt ends sizzled from the heat of the pizza oven. “It melts in your mouth like a hot marshmallow,” Nedwetzky said.
The pizza is not deep-fried nor a display of excess like so many other fair options, but it’s one heck of a meal. Pizza is as big a passion for Nedwetzky as barbecue. “I have so much more fun with this—and I hate to say it—than with barbecue,” he admitted.
Pit Commander Barbecue in Van Alstyne is temporarily closed while Nedwetzky and Russotti sling pizzas at the fair. They plan to reopen in mid-November, but only after they make sure their five-year-old daughter, Scarlet, has recovered from surgery. Scarlet has spina bifida and has gone through seven surgeries in her young life, including one in utero. The eighth will be just after the fair, and doctors expect her recovery to be swift. Once she gets the all-clear, Nedwetzky said he’ll be ready to fire up the pits again. Until then, try their barbecue pizza after you stop by to say hello to Big Tex at the State Fair.