I ate my way through the 2022 San Diego County Fair. Here are my top 12 favorites

The Hulk Funnel Cake at H&M Funnel Cake Express is one of the new food items at the 2022 San Diego County Fair at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What to eat and drink at this year’s San Diego County Fair, where there are fewer new food items to try. That’s why we revisited some old favorites for this year’s “best of the fair” food list

The San Diego County Fair is back this month after a two-year break, and there are lots of new exhibits, vendor booths and concerts to explore.

But many fairgoers come just for the food. For some, nostalgia brings them back to eat the same dishes each year — a warm cinnamon roll or a roasted turkey leg. But others love to sample what’s new and unusual. Unfortunately, after overcoming two years of hardship, many fair food vendors have returned with only their tried-and-true dishes, rather than take a risk on an untested new item.

So this year, we not only taste-tested the new, we also revisited many of the classics, to compile a roundup of what to eat at the 2022 San Diego County Fair. And be forewarned: Like all consumer goods, fair food prices have shot up this year. Portions are generally large, but most food items this year are in the $15 to $20 range.

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The Blue Ribbon: Char-broiled corn

Roasted corn on the cob from Corn Star at the 2022 San Diego County Fair.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

An oldie but a goodie, Corn Star’s ever-reliable roasted-in-the-husk corn ears remain one of the most beloved and popular food items at the fair. Corn Star keeps things simple with choice of corn on the cob or corn served elote-style with kernels in a cup with cheese. Butter and chile seasoning is free. Optional toppings include chipotle mayo, Parmesan cheese or crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos at $2 apiece. $7 for a cob or $8 for an elote cup. Located on Avenue of the Palms near the fair entrance under the giant inflatable corn cob.

Biggest surprise: Kool-Aid Chicken at Chicken Charlie’s

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Every year at the fair, Chicken Charlie’s founder Charlie Boghosian usually comes up with four to five new items. But with the challenges of operating during the pandemic, he has only introduced one new dish for 2022 — and it tastes much better than it looks or sounds. Cherry Kool-Aid has been mixed with cayenne pepper and thickened into a not-too-sweet sauce that’s slathered on a battered and deep-fried chicken breast. The chicken breast is sandwiched in a soft bun with three crisp pickle slices on the bottom and an entire jumbo pickle skewered on top. I was a skeptic until I tried it. The tang of the pickles offset the slight sweetness of the Kool-Aid glaze for a surprisingly tasty sandwich, and the pickles add a satisfying crunch. Comes with a side of fries. $18.95. Chicken Charlie’s booths are located along the Concourse and near the entrance to the Fun Zone.

Pam Kragen discusses her favorites on our San Diego News Fix podcast:

Best play on a theme: The Hulk at H&M Funnel Cake Express

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This year’s fair has a superhero theme, and its main indoor exhibit features massive oversize statues of many Marvel Avengers characters, including the Incredible Hulk. In an homage to the giant green man, this booth has created a huge green, two-layer funnel cake, filled and topped with cream cheese frosting, apple pie compote and whipped cream. It’s a little sweet for my taste, but enough to satisfy at least two or three heroic appetites, which is good, since it costs a whopping $20. Located along the Skyway walk just west of O’Brien Hall.

Best salty snack: Chilé Limon Kettle Corn at Gourmet Popcorn

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Most kettle corn vendors at the fair serve just the standard salty-sweet flavor, but this shop offers a variety of unusual flavors, which are scooped and bagged to order and served up warm. New this year is the Chilé Limon flavor, which has the spicy and tangy flavor of Tajín, the addicting chile powder-lime-salt seasoning made in Jalisco, Mexico. $10 for a medium-size bag. Located just inside the fair’s main entry gate on the left.

Best sweet snack: Fifty-Fifty Brownie at Mom’s Bakeshoppe

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This cookie bar is made with a half-and-half mix of brownie mix and chocolate chip cookie dough, then topped with chocolate frosting and a chocolate chip cookie half. Fun Time has operated the Mom’s chocolate-chip cookie booth inside the San Diego fair’s Exhibition Hall for 26 years. But this year, it opened a second Bakeshoppe stand-alone booth on the Avenue of the Palms walkway, where workers bake cookies and brownies all day that are served up fresh and soft. The cookies are made with premium Van Leer chocolate and only brown sugar, which keeps the cookies soft for days. $7.36. Avenue of the Palms, near the fair entrance, on the right.

Best vegan snack: Strawberry Dole Whip

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

If you grew up in California like me, you first tasted the Dole Whip frozen pineapple soft-serve dessert outside the Tiki Room show in Disneyland Park in the 1980s. Over the years, Dole Whip has expanded to other flavors, but until recently, it has only been available at Disney theme parks. A new booth at the San Diego County Fair offers Dole Whip in both pineapple and strawberry flavors. The strawberry whip — which is vegan and gluten-free — is a light, refreshing, tangy and not too sweet way to beat the heat. $9. Located by the Swifty Swine Pig Races near the Del Mar Arena.

Biggest belly-buster: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Cheeseburger

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This year, the Biggys booth is filling, topping and dusting many of its menu items with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The most ludicrous — or wonderful, depending on your fair food perspective — is this mountain of gooey madness. A 1/3-pound char-grilled Black Angus cheeseburger and fixings are topped with a pile of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and sandwiched between bun slices that have been slathered on the outside with creamy cheese sauce and rolled in crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The burger is impossible to pick up without getting the cheese and Cheetos all over yourself. But if you can figure out a way, the Cheetos add a nice crunch and spice to the smoky beef. $18.75. Located in the Plaza de Mexico.

Healthiest food at the fair: Veggie Burrito

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Palapo Taco stand serves not only the healthiest food at the fair, but also some of the most affordable. The taco and burrito stand serves a few high-fiber items that are lard- and cholesterol-free, with no trans and saturated fats. And best of all, they taste delicious, are good-size portions and are a satisfying respite from the fair’s heavier, calorie-laden options. The Veggie Burrito features homestyle cooked pinto beans with vegan cheese, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cilantro on a tasty grilled herbal tortilla. Another option is the Fresh Spinach Wrap, which includes baby spinach leaves, brown rice, beans, veggies and salsa on a grilled spinach tortilla. $11. Avenue of the Palms before the Plaza de Mexico.

Meat-lovers magic: Turkey Leg with Bacon

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bacon A-Fair hasn’t introduced any new bacon-wrapped items this year, but its bacon-wrapped roasted turkey leg remains one of the fair’s most popular meals, particularly among men. A jumbo bacon-wrapped turkey leg isn’t cheap, but it will fill you up and it has a rich smoky, salty, savory flavor you won’t get at the Thanksgiving dinner table. $30.34. Avenue of the Palms near the entrance to the Fun Zone.

Best cocktail: Pineapple Express

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The fair’s secret speakeasy, this year named Destination Unknown, has a tiki-flamingo theme, with an all-new lineup of cocktails. But the Pineapple Express, first served at the 2019 fair, was such a big-seller that it was brought back this year. Bacardi light rum and dark rum are generously poured in this tropical drink that includes pineapple juice, fresh-squeezed orange juice, cream of coconut, a dark rum float, pineapple wedge, maraschino cherry and sprinkle of nutmeg. $20.66. It’s served only at Destination Unknown, a bar hidden high above the fair atop the grandstand. Ask any bartender at the fair for directions, or follow the flamingo posters through the Paddock entry toward the fine art show building and get your wristband at the Destination Unknown box office right outside the doors. Ages 21 and up only.

Best hometown favorite: Cardiff Crack Tater Tots

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Cardiff’s Seaside Market is best known for its Burgundy pepper-marinated tri-tip steak, better known as Cardiff Crack. The tasty roasted beef can be sampled on grilled-cheese sandwiches, nachos and tater tots this summer at the fair. I opted for the hearty tots dish, which can easily serve two. Crispy tots are layered with creamy cheese sauce, Cardiff Crack shredded beef, tomatoes, onions, green onions and sour cream. This dish will fill you up, so plan your culinary adventures wisely if this is on your day trip list. $20. Located in the Plaza de Mexico.

Best fair food to take home for later: Cinnamon Rolls

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

If you haven’t had your fill of the fair yet, the always-popular Fair Cinnamon Rolls travel well, keep fresh for days in the fridge or freezer, and can be warmed up in the microwave in seconds. If you’re a purist, go for the Original, a frosting-free swirl of pastry, butter, cinnamon and sugar baked to gooey, crispy perfection ($8). But the stand’s premium roll is the Bacon Bomb, an Original topped with cream cheese frosting, chopped walnuts and crumbled bacon ($12). How popular are these rolls as take-home souvenirs? The booth sells grab-and-go six-packs, as well frozen rolls that can be defrosted and baked at home. Located along the Concourse across from Chicken Charlie’s.

Fairground officials, vendors and fairgoers are excited to have annual tradition restored

San Diego County Fair

When: Gates open at 11 a.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, except July 4. Through July 4.

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

Tickets (online only and by reservation): Adults ages 13 to 61 are $20 for Fridays-Sundays and July 4, and $15 on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Seniors 62 and up are $17 on Fridays-Sundays and July 4. Youth (ages 6 to 12) are $17 on Saturdays, Sundays and July 4, $12 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and free on Fridays. Children 5 and under are always free.

Parking (online sales only): Onsite and Del Mar Horsepark parking (with free shuttle service) is $15. Onsite preferred parking is $30. Offsite parking at Torrey Pines High School (with free shuttle service) is free.

Phone: (858) 755-1161