Dominic Palmieri is lord master over the ridiculously irresistible food stands on the carnival midway at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
The carnival’s “restaurant row” offers everything from traditional cotton candy and corn dogs to restaurant-quality practically fine-dining pork belly and steak kabobs. Of course, let’s not forget where you are. It wouldn’t be the Carnival without Deep-Fried Butter, Doughnut Chicken Sandwiches, Hot Cheetos Floats, Watermelon Dole Whip Tacos, and Flamin’ Hot Pickles.
I need to lie down just thinking of Palmieri’s tempting — but clearly evil — genius. If you can dip it in Cheetos, sprinkle it with powdered sugar, deep-fry it, wrap it with bacon, cover it with chocolate, or eat it on a stick, there’s a good chance that Palmieri either invented it, or at least approved it and test-marketed it back home in Arizona.
Now, he sells it by the truckload.
They don’t call him the “Midway Gourmet” for nothing. That’s him in chef’s jacket and cowboy hat, obsessing over every turkey leg sold, picking up stray wrappers on the ground, making sure every light is lit, tables are bussed and, most important, the crowd is well fed and smiling.
Palmieri gave me and my merry band of food tasters our annual guided tour of the carnival’s treats, meats, and sweets. This year, my tasters included: Brandon, Tyler, Andrew, and Matthew. They’re all good eaters, but I still warned them to wear their “eatin’ pants.”
The Midway Gourmet is passionate about his craft. He has taken carnival food above and beyond. He ain’t messing around.
Over two hours, my gang was treated to (deep breath and unbuckle your belt two notches): Fried Chicken Donut Sandwiches, Watermelon Dole Whip Tacos, Street Corn, Sausage Tater Twisters, Deep-Fried OREO and Deep-Fried Butter, Cheetos-covered Pizza, Bacon-Wrapped Pork Belly on a Stick, Half-Pound Angus Burgers, Cheetos Cheese Tots, Steak Kabob and Chicken Kabobs, Chicago-style Popcorn, Deep-Fried Cheesecake and freshly baked Chocolate Chip Cookies.
It was a whole month’s worth of cheat days.
Palmieri called it a “grazing gauntlet.” I called it, “I won’t be coming into work tomorrow.” (Editor’s note: This all makes sense now.)
We grilled Palmieri on the midway majesty.
Ken Hoffman: The 2020 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was abruptly canceled mid-run because of the coronavirus outbreak. The 2021 Rodeo never happened. How has the pandemic’s timeout affected you personally?
Midway Gourmet: That was ground zero for us. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. Our children are fourth generation in this business and it was ripped right out from under us.
Of course we were disappointed. To have it taken away was very difficult. I don’t think anybody was expecting the Rodeo to cancel when it did in 2020. Houston was the first major fair to close and it started a ripple effect. Within hours fairs started canceling across the country.
KH: So what did you do the past two years?
MG: We didn’t just sit back and wait out the pandemic. It gave us an opportunity to innovate, come up with new food items. We knew we wouldn’t have a second chance to make a new first impression. It gave us time to repaint, re-think, and re-imagine everything. Why let a good pandemic go to waste?
It would have been easy to come back with what we had previously. But we knew it was important to up our game. We wanted to show Houston that we’re back and we’re doing it right in 2022.
KH: Everybody has been affected by price increases and supply chain problems. How has the Carnival dealt with these issues?
MG: The toughest part this year is the supply chain. Trying to get anything in bulk has been brutal. When we buy stuff we buy it by the semi-trailer. Getting commitments from vendors has been really difficult. I got a call last October from one of the biggest potato suppliers. They didn’t know if they would be able to send us all the French fries and tots we’ll need for the Rodeo.
It’s not because there’s a shortage of potatoes. It’s because suppliers are having trouble finding enough cardboard for the boxes they use to pack potatoes.
Price increases absolutely have been killing us. We can’t control that. Poultry has gone up the most. Cheese is through the roof. Fry oil was $20 for a 5-gallon jug in 2020, now it’s $57.
We’re used to dealing with rising prices in one or two items, we can work around that. But now everything is up 30 to 60 percent across the board. The cost of freight is four times higher than 2020. We’ve had to raise the price on some items, some we’ve kept the same. One thing, though, we promise never to compromise on quality.
KH: Practically every restaurant has a “Help Wanted” sign in its window. Are you able to find enough workers to cover your food stands?
MG: We are short 40 percent of employees right now in the food department. It’s been really hard to find people to work.
When we were able to return, our overtime was out of control. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. If you added up all my overtime, I guarantee it was not more than 500 hours. We had such a large labor pool we could schedule it and run it right.
At the Orange County Fair last year, I was averaging 425 hours of overtime a week. I’m short 60 employees in Houston. We still drug-test applicants. We’re managing to operate efficiently because we’re working really hard.
KH: What surprises Rodeo guests the most about the food offerings at the carnival?
MG: Our meat items are amazing. People ask how can a carnival company do barbecue so well? We have great contractors who work with us. This is all they do for a living. We have really fantastic brisket and pulled pork sandwiches. We have half-pound Angus burgers and pork belly, too. I’ve got a beef kabob here.
These people are cutting and tenderizing and marinating high-end quality beef for those kabobs. They’re juicy and they look incredible. They’re a whole meal for two people really so the value is there.
KH: Give us a veteran’s secret on how to eat a carnival treat.
MG: You know how you see the chef with the tall, white hat making delicious fluffy Belgian waffles at a Sunday brunch? You put butter on them to fill the little squares in the waffle.
Well, our Deep-Fried Butter is that, only inside out. They’re delicious! Everybody loves them. Here’s the tip: when you bite into the Deep-Fried Butter, make sure you bend forward and hold it out in front of you. That way, if it drips it won’t get on your clothes. (Note: it definitely will drip.)