County fair will revive San Diego’s ‘Wild West’ roots

Giddyup, cowpokes: it’s about time to saddle up for the annual stampede that is the San Diego County Fair.

This year’s fair opens June 2 and stretches for its customary 26 days, bringing more than a million visitors to the largest event in San Diego County — and one of the five largest fairs in the country. The “Where the West is Fun” theme will harken back to the 1880s, blending historical perspective with pop culture romanticism.

“Get ready for 26 days of rootin’ tootin’ stampeding fun!” said Tim Fennell, CEO and general manager of the fairgrounds. “From June 2 through July 4, we’ll be hollering and a-howling from dawn until well after the cows have gone home.”

In keeping with the theme, the fair will feature a frontier-era town, replete with a replica saloon, as well as several exhibits from local Native American tribes.

Hoping to surpass last year’s bar of all-time high 1.6 million visitors, fair organizers have rolled out a new website, augmented their social media presence and even developed an app that for the first time will let visitors coordinate tickets and travel.

All 26 days can be had for only $26, with a spattering of free-entry days. On opening day, members of the military and their families get in free. Entry will be free again on June 8 by bringing clothes between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to benefit foster kids, sponsored by Mattress Firm. And on June 27, children 12 years old and younger get in without charge.

As always, the fair is stocked with festivals within festivals. And there’s plenty on tap. including:

The Toast of the Coast wine festival on June 10, with hundreds of vintages on hand for sampling and purchase.

The San Diego International Beer Festival — hailed as one of the country’s top beer festivals — will take over the Del Mar Arena from June 16 to 18. For those with a taste for the harder stuff, June 24 brings the San Diego Spirit & Cocktail Festival, with 100 handcrafted spirits available for tasting.

Another new twist: a speakeasy hidden away somewhere on the fairgrounds. Patrons at any of the fair’s bars can ask for a special phone number to text and await instructions to a secret elevator that leads to a speakeasy designed to celebrate the Asian immigrant experience of the 19th century.

And, of course, what would the fair be if not a chance to expand your culinary horizons — by which we mean waistline.

A sampling of this year’s gastronomic creations was on display for reporters last week — tough job —as fair organizers and sponsors whooped up excitement.

A range of culinary concoctions will be dished out at this year’s county fair, including the donut fried chicken ice cream sandwich by Chicken Charlie’s.
A range of culinary concoctions will be dished out at this year’s county fair, including the donut fried chicken ice cream sandwich by Chicken Charlie’s. (Sebastian Montes)

Leading the way was Chicken Charlie’s, a fair fixture for the past three decades. Their new offerings this year will include bacon-wrapped chicken legs and an Italian meatball slathered in peanut butter and sweet batter, then deep-fried and drizzled with peanut sauce.

But by far their biggest draw was a caloric monstrosity the likes of which has never been seen. Charlie Boghosian and crew conjured up a fried chicken patty topped with a two-inch-thick puck of Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream, nestled betwixt a splayed-open Krispy Kreme donut, all of it drizzled in syrup, topped with Fruity Pebbles and dusted with a puff of powdered sugar.

The “sandwich” — if it can even be called that — is the latest evolution of Chicken Charlie’s signature creation, the Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich that brought Boghosian widespread acclaim 12 years ago.

With more than 30 county fairs under his belt, Boghosian was pondering a few weeks ago how he could possibly raise the culinary bar yet again, and he teemed with pride as he handed over the plate.

“When I first took a bite — the very, very first time I had ice cream and chicken in the same bite — my mind stopped working,” he said. “Two or three seconds later I thought ‘What did I just eat, it’s amazing, I can’t wait for everyone to try it.’”

If music is more your bag, this year’s headline acts in the Toyota Summer Concert Series include Toby Keith, Patti LaBelle, Darius Rucker, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Leann Rimes, Switchfoot, Grand Funk Railroad and Collective Soul.

On the comedy side, catch Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, on June 27 and Jeff Foxworthy on July 1.

And lest there be misgivings that the fair is all booze and bands, fair organizers played up the tried and true classics that fairgoers have come to count on. Top billing goes to 4H, the Future Farmers of America and the junior livestock auction, the fine art and photography exhibit, the ever-popular flower and garden show, and the exhibit California Grown, which will put on display how agriculture has evolved into its modern forms.

“It is a wonderful tradition that reminds us of our agricultural roots as we become a more urban environment,” Schenk said.

All of it culminates with a patriotic blowout celebration.

“On the Fourth of July, we plan to celebrate in grand fashion,” Fennell said, with a parade into the grandstand for a show that will include a World Trade Center first responder and the oldest living survivor of Pearl Harbor, “followed by the best fireworks in San Diego.”

The fair is closed on the first four Mondays (June 5, 12, 19 and 26) and the first three Tuesdays (June 6, 13 and 20).

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