Hoffman's Houston
RodeoHouston 2018

Ken Hoffman chows down on Rodeo Carnival's 9 best dishes

Ken Hoffman chows down on Rodeo Carnival's 9 best dishes

Rodeo Carnival Dominic Palmieri popcorn
The “Midway Gourmet" Dominic Palmieri is a deep-frying maestro. Photo by Brandon Strange
Rodeo Carnival Cheeto caramel apple
The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos caramel apple. Photo by Brandon Strange
Rodeo Carnival girl with fajita fries
A massive mound of fajita fries.  Photo by Brandon Strange
Rodeo Carnival Raheel cheeto corn
ESPN 97.5 host Raheel Ramzanali with the Cheeto corn.  Photo by Brandon Strange
Rodeo Carnival kabob grill
The sizzling kabob grill.  Photo by Brandon Strange
Rodeo Carnival Cheeto fried chicken on a stick
Fried chicken on a stick.  Photo by Brandon Strange
Rodeo Carnival Dominic Palmieri popcorn
Rodeo Carnival Cheeto caramel apple
Rodeo Carnival girl with fajita fries
Rodeo Carnival Raheel cheeto corn
Rodeo Carnival kabob grill
Rodeo Carnival Cheeto fried chicken on a stick

To you, and millions of visitors to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a corn dog is a corn dog — a yummy treat along the Carnival Midway. So simple, yet so elegant. A juicy frank covered with golden cornbread batter on a stick.

Chomp, chomp, chomp — okay, maybe four bites if you’re on crumb alert — what could taste more delicious during rodeo week?

But to Dominic Palmieri, the “Midway Gourmet,” a corn dog is his passion, his quest for perfection on a stick. Palmieri obsesses over all the food goodies for Ray Cammack Shows, which operates all the concessions and rides at the carnival. He is an artist, and the deep-fryer is his canvas.

“Let’s take the Big Daddy corn dog: it took me three years and just short of 100 attempts to come up with the perfect corn dog batter,” he says. “I had to find the right recipe that wouldn’t hold oil in the finished product, that had just the right crunch, that fries up an aesthetically pleasing corn dog.”

The maestro continues: “We use Holmes sausage, which is a very popular local brand. We use a stick that is longer than average in corn dogs. The right oil is critical to a corn dog. If it smokes at high temperature, we can’t use it. If the batter is too sweet, it will fry up dark and won’t look pleasing to the customer. Some batter wouldn’t stay crispy long enough for the customer’s last bite. Some batter would hold too much oil and taste greasy. If the baking soda isn’t just right, it could get too puffy and blow the batter off the dog. There’s a lot of science that goes into a corn dog.”

Finding the perfect batter recipe isn’t the end of the corn dog road. Palmieri has to make sure he can make it in 25-gallon batches, and procure the ingredients in large quantities at the right price — and get them delivered fast on the road.

In my annual rite of Rodeo, Palmieri takes me around the Carnival’s “restaurant row” to try all his new items — and more. I’m not passing up a traditional funnel cake. I’m weak.

This time, I bring along a new crew of “taste testers.” My former allies in gross consumption have gone off to college. Deep-fried Twinkie fans...they grow up so fast. I recruit ESPN 97.5 FM talk host Raheel Ramzanali and Gow Media V.P of Digital Products (I have no idea what that means) Brandon Strange, who doubles as our photographer.

They don’t let me down. They put on an eating display that stuns the locals: Carnival workers are taking photos of them.

“We have several new items on the midway this year,” Palmieri says. “We have a deep-fried cannoli, a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos caramel apple, a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Big Daddy corn dog covered with cheddar cheese, and a spicy turkey leg. The spicy turkey leg won for ‘Best Traditional Fair Food’ at the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards this year. It’s the first time we’ve had the spicy turkey leg here in Houston,” Palmieri says.

The Carnival will sell 11 truckloads of turkey legs at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo this year. I asked how many turkey legs are in a truckload. He said, “A lot.”

That’s the thing about the rodeo — there’s no shortage of comedians around here.

This rodeo is Flamin’
Palmieri says last year’s big hit new item — ears of corn covered in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — is back. He will use one-and-a-half truckloads of Cheetos, and three fields of corn to cover this year’s event. (I didn't ask how much that was.)

“The hot trend this year is spicy food. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were so popular last year that we had to get a machine that does nothing but crunch Cheetos. Bacon, surprisingly, is trending down. Bacon had a good five or six-year run, but people seem to be going for our spicy items now,” Palmieri says.

Then Palmieri drops a bombshell — the kind of blockbuster scoop that hard-hitting investigative reporters like myself live for:

Greatest fries...ever?
“We just, and I mean only a half-hour ago, tested something that we’re going to debut at the San Diego fair later this year,” Palmieri says. “You ready? It’s Salted Caramel Fries!”

Ramzanali and Strange have to pick me up off the floor.

He’s talking French fries smothered in warm salted caramel sauce.

“The inspiration was watching young people at a burger place dip their fries in a chocolate shake. We thought we can improve on that. This is a competitive game. Every year, no matter how good we think we are, we have to up our game. Customers expect it. We’re always trying to raise the bar. If we want to stay the same, at the top of our industry, we have to continually change, that’s the quest we strive for. So get ready for Salted Caramel Fries!” Palmieri says. 

If only Palmieri would use his genius for good instead of evil, the world would be a better place.

How do Ramzanali and Strange do on their rookie laps of the Carnival food booths?

“By far the best thing I ate was the fried butter,” Raheel says. “I heard about the legendary fried butter, but had no idea it was such a game changer. The best way to describe the fried butter is the most amazing Belgium waffle you’ve ever had. I know people would love to enjoy a chef's menu with world famous masters, but to me, nothing will top my Rodeo food graze.”

Strange exults, “The most surprising item was the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos caramel apple. The combination of flavor and texture was incredible.”

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What’s your favorite Carnival food? Let Ken know in the comments, or on Twitter