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Three Rivers Festival: A city boy in Food Alley

Saturday, July 13, 2013 - 5:27 am

I'll admit it. I've never really enjoyed fried foods. Back in my hometown, Chicago, fried foods at summer fairs aren't very common. I try to eat healthy and make a point to exercise frequently. So this Friday afternoon when I headed out to Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival Food Alley, I didn't know what to expect.

Would my body reject the deep fried goodness? Would my taste buds become hooked on the saccharine treats and saturated fats? I hit the Alley with an empty stomach to find out.

If you close your eyes, it would be hard to tell if you're eating bacon and pancakes or one of the new items at the festival, the maple bacon funnel cake at The Best Around Funnel Cake booth.

The $7 treat is made by deep frying batter that includes bacon bits. Once cooked, the funnel cake is topped off with a maple buttercream topping that is strong throughout, perhaps a bit too strong. A finishing touch of crunchy, salted bacon bits helps cut back on the sweetness of the dessert while complimenting the maple flavor quite well. Overall, the strong maple and bacon flavors are pleasing, if not a slightly too sweet.

Another new buzzed about item on the Alley is the deep fried version of the Fort Wayne classic Bun Bar ($5). The Best Around booth flash freezes the maple variety of the bar before deep frying and finishing with a coat of powdered sugar. I learned quickly to let the skewered bar cool for a few minutes before biting in.

The powdered sugar wasn't necessary on the deep fried bar; the nutty, chocolate-heavy interior was overwhelmingly sweet. The thick, fried coating help together well, keeping the molten interior on the stick and not on your hands. Be sure to keep some water on hand for this treat. You'll need it to clear out your palate between bites.

The original Hot Wisconsin Cheese booth serves up deep-fried cheese. I tried the $7 cheddar nuggets (mozzarella fingers also available, $7). Now this may be sacrilege, but in addition to my aversion to fried foods, I also stay away from most cheeses. They're just not my thing. But I couldn't avoid the cheddar nugget when a kind woman at the picnic table across for me offered me a taste.

The golden brown coating was still warm. I bit through the crisp exterior and into the soft, though not melted cheddar cheese. The warm center was, wait for it, better than I expected. Who knew I would find cheddar cheese considerable more palatable after a swim in batter and oil? I might just need to take a trip to Wisconsin to further investigate this phenomenon.

I couldn't pass up the peanut butter cup elephant ears by Withers Concessions. The cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar varieties are $5, and for a dollar more you can add other toppings, including caramel, apple, raspberry, chocolate and Bavarian cream. The fried dough was bigger than my head, and I mean that literally. The peanut butter dominated the flavor of the piece, but as I really enjoy the creamy spread, I liked the elephant ear.

As with all of the deep fried desserts I tried, I walked away in a slight sugar coma, so I would recommend sharing these treats with another. There was certainly enough elephant ear for two-three people.

If you're looking for more of a hearty meal on the Alley, head to Whistle Stop for the Hobo Potato ($7). It's a very hearty offering, starting with seasoned red potatoes at the base. Mixed in are grilled tomatoes, onions and green peppers and your choice of sausage (my choice), chicken or sirloin steak. A drizzle or cheese or ranch dressing tops off the meal, which tasted much like a breakfast skillet. Rich in spices, the sausage paired well with the grilled veggies.

Meat lovers will enjoy the steak tips ($7) from Mr. Beefy's. The generous portion of bite-sized sirloin steak tips was more than enough for one person. The beef was lean, tender and didn't require much chewing. The booth's special seasoning that includes paprika and onion powder flavors the beef well, and I would recommend an extra dash or two of the bottled power once you get your hot tips. This stop was one of my favorites of my trip.

Water is necessary for staying hydrated during the festival, so don't forget about it in the midst of so many other beverage options. If you're looking for a refreshing drink with a bit of extra flavor, try Pence's lemonade shakeups. Shaken by my count for 12 seconds, the drink ($3/$5) was more tart than sweet. It was a welcome change from the many sweet options on the alley.

I could only sample a small fragment of the hundreds of items for sale at the 25-plus vendors on the Alley. Though, it is open all nine days of the festival, so I'm sure I could make a sizable dent in the list if I really tried. From gyros to slushies to grilled corn on the cob, there's more than just deep fried sweets to keep you full and happy.

I didn't find any garden salads or whole wheat wraps, but that was half the fun of Food Alley: ignoring the nutritional label and simply enjoying the food before me.