ken and the stunt eaters vs. carnival
Rodeo Carnival Midway's maestro kicks it up with Cap’n Crunch Chicken sandos, Hot Cheetos pickle pizzas, and more bonkers bites
Each year, the gap narrows.
Am I covering the food on the RodeoCarnival Midway at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo … or is the food covering me?
After a hard Friday night of touring 32 food booths along the Carnival’s restaurant row and spread out between rides and games, it sure looked like food got the better of me this year. And it was the Hot Cheetos Cheese Pickle Pizza (you read that right) that delivered the knockout punch.
This was my 15th consecutive year of being escorted around the Carnival food stands by the Midway Gourmet himself, Dominic Palmieri of Ray Cammack Shows, which operates the food, rides and games at the Rodeo’s deep-fried fun area outside NRG Stadium.
Ray Cammack Shows is the premiere carnival company in America. They do eight events a year, including the grandest – the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which attracts about 2.5 million people each year. RCS started 65 years ago in North Dakota when Ray Cammack traded his car dealership for an amusement park ride. The rest is rollercoaster and turkey leg history.
Ken and the stunt eaters vs. Carnival food
This time, my team of mighty stunt eaters consisted of Brandon, Andrew, Todd, and Matthew. They all survived, but everybody had to loosen their belt one notch and move their car seat back for the ride home. Good thing I warned them to wear their sacrificial eatin’ pants — the outfit they’d wear to the all-night laundromat.
Palmieri met us at the Get Fried booth at the entrance to Circle Drive for the new Fruity Pebbles Pineapple Bowl. It’s a half of a giant pineapple that’s been hollowed out, chopped into bite-sized pieces and returned to the pineapple’s shell, sort of like a twice-baked potato. The dish has sticky rice and big fried shrimp. While I was appalled at the presence of a vegetable, Brandon, the health nut of the group, gave this dish an A-plus.
Next up, keeping with the Hawaiian theme, was the Honolulu Hog at the Spud Ranch booth. This is a mammoth, 1.5-lb. baked potato stuffed with pulled pork, pineapple and sweet teriyaki barbecue sauce. The Carnival smokes massive pork shoulders on the premises in a huge staging area kept out of sight of Rodeo visitors.
Then we hit our first dessert, Shipley’s Deep Fried Banana Split Sandwich. Also my first shirt stain of the night — fried bananas are slippery. My million dollar idea: selling bibs next door.
“Shipley provides all the doughnuts for the Carnival now. Shipley is a wildly popular staple in Houston, so why not use a great product that people love?” Palmieri told me.
Sweet Texas treats and savory faves
Dessert No. 2 was the Texas Two Step, available at the Swirl stand. This is a cone with double tops for two separate ice cream scoops, much like Orthrus, the two-headed dog in ancient Greek mythology. The Texas Two Step has one scoop of ice cream dipped in chocolate sauce and one scoop drizzled with salted caramel topping and rolled in kettle corn. With the weather unseasonably warm (so far) the rodeo might consider covering the entire Carnival parking lot with a drop cloth.
We tried the Loco Elote Ramen Cup at the Corn Shack. This was packed with Ramen noodles spiked with hot sauce and blended with corn and Cheetos. Fat from parmesan cheese rounds off the whole thing. Matthew, not an experienced vegetable guy, went head over heels.
Note: I am not including everything we ate this night — just some of the highlights. I wouldn’t want to wreck my image as a finicky foodie.
Palmieri kicked our porky butts into high gear at Enzo’s Pizzeria stand. You ready for a slice of Hot Cheetos Cheese Pickle Pizza? This is where I zipped my mouth shut and threw away the key. I’m such a pizza snob.
But, the other members of my troupe flipped for this pie, which happens to be Palmieri’s high-hope creation this year. Todd said, much to his surprise, he loved it.
“We’ve perfected several pickle dishes that have become super popular,” Palmieri noted to me. “I’ve been wanting to do pickles on pizza for a few years. We came up with the Hot Cheetos Cheese Pickle Pizza. Try saying that 10 times fast. It’s not your typical pizza. There’s no red sauce. It’s got a white ranch cream sauce. Extra thick, lightly brined pickles go all over it, just like pepperoni would on a traditional pizza. When it comes out of the oven, we hit it with crunchy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and a little more of the dill ranch sauce on top.”
“Even if you hate pickles, you’re really going to like this. If you like pickles, you’re going to love this. From years of learning what our customers like, I’m confident this will be super popular. Pickles, Cheetos and ranch dressing, yeah, it works.”
Serious pies and big bites
Palmieri is serious about pizza. In addition to the Hot Cheetos Cheese Pickle Pizza, Enzo’s booth has a full array of startlingly authentic Italian pizzas flying out of its oven.
“Typically, a pizza stand at a large fair like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will use pre-baked pizza crust,” Palmieri said. “We actually make our pizza dough every day, all day long. The dough we make on a particular day will be used three days later after it’s allowed to mature. We do a New York-style thin crust pizza. I’ll put my pizza makers, my pizzaiolos, up against any pizza makers in the country. My people are making thousands of pizzas every day. Our pizza is baked on an aluminum disc that heats up to almost 1,800 degrees.”
Time to stop messin’ around. On to Biggy’s, the showstopper, where all the food is biggy as advertised. My advice, whatever you order, cut it in half and share. Palmieri has introduced a trio of chicken sandwiches that will keep you drivin’ past the drive-in.
The first is the Cap’n Crunch Chicken Sandwich, which is an extra thick, 6-ounce filet, coated with Cap’n Crunch cereal and covered with a honey raspberry glaze spiked with peanut butter. Andrew’s favorite.
The second is the Hot Cheetos Chicken Sandwich, where the white meat breast filet is dipped in hot melted Cheddar cheese and rolled in pulverized Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Biggy’s has a machine that does nothing but crush Cheetos all day. It can obliterate an industrial-sized bag in less than three seconds.
A hot-ticket item
The grand finale is a Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich, which was my single favorite thing I ate all night and just may be the best dish I’ve ever had at the rodeo. It’s fantastic.
“We use real Cap’n Crunch and real Cheetos,” Palmieri told us. “It’s important to us to use top quality ingredients. You can tell the difference between Cap’n Crunch and a discount generic brand. They don’t taste the same or cook the same. When you’re making a unique product like we are, you can’t take any risks. It’s the difference between a sandwich served on a really nice artisan French bread or a loaf of white bread that’s doughy and gummy from sitting on a supermarket shelf for a week.”
While his stuff may be over-the-top, Palmieri takes his craft seriously — even if some of his concoctions seem straight-up crazy.
“Plus when I’m dealing with a top brand product, I have the support of the manufacturer. I can come up with all these great concoctions, but if I can’t deliver the product properly prepared, it’s not worth it to me.”