The State Fair of Texas officially kicks off on Friday, September 24. After hosting a drive-through version of the fair last year, the fairgrounds in Dallas’s Fair Park will be teeming with visitors through October 17—although the president of the state fair told the Dallas Morning News he’s not trying to break any attendance records. Masks will be required for all indoor spaces, and for those who are not yet vaccinated, first doses will be offered right behind Big Tex from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the fair. Dallas County residents receiving their first dose will receive $20 in fair coupons. That’s enough for a turkey leg from Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que with a little left over.

Still, many folks, especially parents of children ages eleven and younger, will be weighing the risk of attending such a massive gathering. With just a hair under 60 percent of the Dallas County population fully vaccinated, and vaccines for young children still at least a month away, some families will choose not to attend for safety reasons. Or maybe they just won’t want to pay for parking. Or maybe they don’t have the patience for long lines. But whether you choose to attend the official state fair or not, every Texan deserves fair food. If you skip this year’s festivities, you can still get your fix at a number of Dallas–Fort Worth barbecue joints. Thanks to innovative local restaurants—which are well aware that hungry hordes of fried-food fans will descend over the next few weeks—sausage on a stick is only the beginning.

Buc-ee’s

Statewide

The statewide chain that’s a gas station, bathroom stop, and emporium of all things consumable also sells a variety of barbecue items, the most festive being sausage on a stick. Junior’s Smokehouse in Wharton makes the sausage, and there’s a tortilla wrapped around it, which you may find unnecessary. With or without the tortilla, it’s a good deal at just under $4.

Jalapeño-Cheese Corn Dogs Ferris Wheeler's Backyard & BBQ
Jalapeño-cheese corn dogs available at Ferris Wheeler’s Backyard & BBQ.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Ferris Wheelers Backyard & BBQ

Dallas

There’s an actual Ferris wheel in the backyard of Ferris Wheelers, though thanks to COVID, it’s not currently running. In the meantime, the rest of the backyard is open Tuesdays through Sundays for a pop-up event (which begins at 4:00 each afternoon) titled the State Ferris of Wheelers. It’ll run until October 16, and will feature games, live music, and fair food. Go for the jalapeño-cheese corn dogs, which are a bargain at $6 for a pair, and are thankfully part of the permanent menu.

Heim Barbecue

Fort Worth and Dallas

Heim makes good use of the deep fryer. The joint sells some of the best onion rings in town, and a corn dog that rivals anything you can get at the fair. Choose from a 44 Farms hot dog or three kinds of sausage—original, jalapeño and cheese, or pepper jack—and they’ll dip it in batter and fry it to order. The corn portion of this dog comes out fluffy and sweet, and while I appreciate all the sausage choices, my favorite was the good ol’ fashioned hot dog.

Hutchins BBQ

McKinney and Frisco

Even though they’ve never been sold under the watchful eyes of Big Tex, the famous Texas Twinkies at Hutchins might as well be fair food. They’re made with a festive combination of bacon, cheese, and jalapeños stuffed with brisket. The bacon is delightfully crisp and a little sweet thanks to the barbecue sauce brushed on before serving. It’s a decadent treat not meant for daily consumption, which means it perfectly embodies the ethos of dining at the fair.

Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery

Garland

Garland has turned its proximity to the fair into its own fall event, Fair Fare on the Square. Thirteen different downtown restaurants joined forces to offer special menu items for the month of September. Intrinsic, a can’t-miss option on the list, has infused almost every item on its menu with Fruity Pebbles. There’s a Fruity Flakes cream ale on tap, Fruity Pebbles cheesecake, and a Fruity Pebbles take on the joint’s masterpiece: funnel-cake fries. The concoction is made up of fried strips of sweet dough topped with a raspberry drizzle, whipped cream, and, of course, Fruity Pebbles.

Panther City BBQ

Fort Worth

These poppers are over the top. Panther City serves a half jalapeño stuffed with cream cheese and a massive, sweet-glazed, pork-belly burnt end, then wrapped in bacon and smoked until crisp. The layers of bacon and meltingly tender pork belly create a great contrast in textures, and the whole thing is one impressive flavor bomb.

Smoke-A-Holics BBQ

Fort Worth

Every Tuesday, Smoke-A-Holics transforms from a barbecue joint into a smoked–turkey leg emporium. They serve up a plain turkey leg for $12, or for $25 you can get it stuffed with shrimp and grits, sausage-and-chicken-alfredo pasta, or sausage and dirty rice. Bring the whole family to try them all.

Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que

Dallas

Smokey John’s has been a fixture at the State Fair of Texas since 1979. They’ll be there again this year, serving from a half dozen booths, and if you see them, be sure to try the brisket brittle, which is fantastic. If you’d rather visit the restaurant, you won’t be able to get one of their famous turkey legs, which are all accounted for at the fair. But the chopped-brisket sandwich or a rib sandwich on Texas toast, just like they serve at the fair, aren’t bad consolation prizes.

Smoky Rose

Dallas

Every good day at the fair (or at your own personal un-fair) requires something sweet. Smoky Rose fries up a variety of fruits in house-made fried pies. Cherry and apple were on offer recently, and both came out of the fryer hot and crisp. The buttery exterior has a nice chew to it, and the hot filling is best cooled off with a scoop of ice cream.

Black Margarita Terry Black's Barbecue
The Black Margarita from Terry Black’s Barbecue. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Terry Black’s Barbecue

Dallas

I’ve never seen anything quite like the Terry Black’s black margarita at the fair, but it seems designed to win a Big Tex Choice Award. It arrives in a clear, frosted cup rimmed with red salt, and garnished with a slice of blood orange that’s been tinted black. The frozen concoction is as black as the napkin it sits on, and it packs a tequila punch. The owners are mum on what they use to make the margarita black, and the mystery makes for one memorable cocktail.