The hungry and the curious follow the greasy, but alluring, scent of batter frying in hot oil to Charlie Boghosian’s stand at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.
When they arrive, the menu stops them in their tracks: deep-fried Twinkies, deep-friend Oreos, deep-fried avocados, deep-fried pickles, deep-fried olives and more.
Boghosian sees himself as not just a fried-food salesman, but as a fried-food innovator. He recently saw possibilities in churros, the already deep-fried sugary treat. He bought one at a nearby stand and took it to his trailer, where he cut it into four pieces. He mixed the pieces in wet pancake batter and dunked them into a frying vat filled with 370-degree soybean oil.
After two minutes, the churros were crisp, golden pillows. Boghosian scooped them onto a wax paper tray and doused them in chocolate syrup, powdered sugar and rainbow sprinkles.
“It’s good,” Boghosian said after taking a bite. “But I think I’ve got to stuff some nuts in there. I’m thinking walnuts. And cheese. Yeah, a sweet, Greek cheese. I bet that would be phenomenal.”
At 37, Boghosian has become one of the nation’s most esteemed and creative practitioners of extreme fair food.
In a world of the South Beach Diet, counting carbs and “bad cholesterol,” he’s part of a wave of vendors who have helped breathe new life into state and county fairs with their artery-clogging culinary oddities.
At the State Fair of Texas -- known for introducing the first corn dog in 1942 -- a vendor who won the best taste category last year for his deep-fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches has stolen headlines again this year for inventing deep-fried Coke.
Other items making the rounds include deep-fried macaroni and cheese, deep-fried spaghetti and deep-fried cosmopolitans -- a pastry filled with cheesecake and topped with cranberry glaze and a lime wedge. And served on a stick.
But even rival fair food investors admit that no one takes it as seriously as Boghosian, who they say seems to have frying oil in his veins.
“Charlie would fry his watch if he knew people would pay to eat it,” said Rich Brander, a fellow L.A. County Fair vendor who gained notoriety four summers ago for serving deep-fried Snickers bars.
When not behind his fryer, Boghosian has been busy the last few weeks giving interviews for radio and TV shows.
L.A. County Fair officials said he and his extreme food cohorts have become among their biggest draws. “It’s so different that people will want to talk about it,” said spokeswoman Wendy Talarico.
At the Orange County Fair, organizers say they try to deep-fry a food to correspond with their annual theme. This year’s theme was “Flower Power.”
“We tried to deep-fry edible flowers, but they kept falling apart,” said the fair’s chief operating officer, Steve Beazley. “They wound-up on the cutting-room floor.”
Boghosian, however, had a solution: He deep-fried cauliflower.
Boghosian has spent more than half his life traveling from fair to fair. It began as a teenager growing up in San Diego. When he was 14, he saw an advertisement for the San Diego County Fair. He begged his father to let him work there, an excuse to get out of the family grocery store. He promised he’d share all his earnings. His father agreed and Boghosian spent the next 12 summers working at a charbroiled-corn stand.
“It’s a joy being at the fair,” said Boghosian, a stocky man with a thick goatee, a chunky gold crucifix dangling around his neck and a jovial demeanor. “Most people think we’re a bunch of carnies, but we’re all educated. We just happen to pick this line of work.”
Boghosian, who calls his business Chicken Charlie’s, spends his summers on the fair circuit and still calls San Diego home. During the off-season, he’s a Christmas tree wholesaler.
In 1997 he talked his corn stand boss, Bob Jackson, into partnering with him on a new stand. Jackson’s family taught Boghosian how to fry chicken, which remains a fixture at his booth and accounts for half his sales.
Two years later, Boghosian said he needed a dessert to go with his chicken “like McDonald’s has the apple pie,” he said.
Visiting a fair in Miami, he noticed a vendor making deep-fried Twinkies.
“He was using wet batter,” Boghosian said. “It absorbed too much liquid. I wanted to try myself. So I used an egg wash, then dry pancake mix. I made a real thin crust.”
“The cream!” said Shaun Halladay, a customer trying his first deep-fried Twinkie at Boghosian’s stand last week. “It turns into liquid, clear lava. It’s all locked in there.”
The first year Boghosian offered them, he sold 35,000 at the Orange County, Fresno County and L.A. County fairs.
He knew he was onto something with the Twinkies. So when fair season rolled around again, he wanted to be ready with a new product.
Boghosian and an employee went to a 7-Eleven and bought two of every Hostess item they could find.
They brought the treats home and began to batter them and dunk them into a vat of oil. Something about the surface of the Ding Dong and Sno Ball caused the batter to slip off, so the pastries ended up deflating in the fryer.
But Boghosian’s younger brother loved Oreos and always had a packet of the black and white cookies lying around the house. So Boghosian tried battering and frying them.
“Oh my God, it tasted the best,” he said, adding that the dessert almost resembles a soft brownie fresh out of the oven, with batter surrounding it, of course.
The next year, 2003, Boghosian wanted to deep-fry a banana split. That didn’t work, so he stuck to just frying bananas, topping them with chocolate syrup, whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles.
He followed the bananas with deep-fried strawberries, then deep-fried avocados with tomatoes, and this year, deep-fried olives and pickles.
He’s already experimenting with some new ideas: deep-fried vanilla wafers and deep-fried Fig Newtons.
Boghosian said he had success the other day peeling a peach, placing a scoop of ice-cream where the pit would have been, and then battering and deep-frying it.
“You can’t just fry anything,” said Boghosian. “It has to look good, it has to taste good and it has to be so different that people will be in awe.”
At the stand, loyal customers are quick to ask “what’s next.” A few even bring their own items -- one an apple pie, another okra -- and ask him to deep-fry them.
He always says yes, unless its fish, which will ruin the oil.
Some who encounter Boghosian’s stand walk away disgusted.
But people who track fair food say that indulging in the forbidden food only seen once a year has long been part of the fair experience.
“If you go to the county fair, you’re deciding that you’re not going to eat well,” said Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University’s Denver campus “This is your time to cheat and have fun. People like to tell stories. It’s their personal ‘Fear Factor.’ ”
Friends Crystal Padilla and Marianne Zacher come to the L.A. County Fair every year. “I’m proud to say I tried the deep-fried Snickers two years ago,” said Zacher, 22, of West Covina. “We’re big food people.”
She took a few more bites of deep-fried avocados -- thick slices of buttery fruit encased in a crusty brown batter -- before deciding it was wasn’t salty enough.
“Americans are gluttonous,” Zacher said. “We like eating things we shouldn’t. We also like the carbs. It’s comforting.”
This year, Boghosian’s new item is the Krispy Kreme Chicken and Swiss sandwich with a side of honey. Imagine a jelly doughnut hollowed out, cut in half and garnished with a fried chicken patty and slice of gooey Swiss cheese.
Boghosian says he came up with the idea one night while buying a dozen doughnuts for his staff at a Krispy Kreme with his manager, Jerald Smith, who said he had a hankering for a chicken sandwich instead.
“And then a light went on,” Smith said.
The reaction has exceeded Boghosian’s expectations. He sold nearly 1,000 of them his first weekend at the L.A. County Fair at $5.95 apiece.
Susan Johnston and Tina Wright said they scoured the fair’s website to see what strange foods were being sold this year. They immediately decided that the Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich would be on their list.
“I can feel my arteries tightening,” Wright, 29, of Ontario said after taking a bite.
Still, they hope next year’s fair will offer even more extreme food, such as fried macaroni and cheese on a stick and fried spaghetti on a stick. “We heard they were being sold somewhere in New York,” Johnston said.
Boghosian brushes off health concerns, such as the calories in his chicken-and-doughnut sandwich. With a laugh, he said: “We fry the fat out of it.”
But Abel Gonzales, the man responsible for the deep-fried Coke in Texas (which is essentially fried batter made out of Coke), takes the question more seriously.
“If I was serving this every day, it would give me pause,” said Gonzales, who is a computer analyst when he’s not at the fair. “This is not affecting anybody long term.”
Gonzales said he was intrigued by Boghosian’s Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich, saying he’d heard of grilling a Krispy Kreme doughnut with a burger patty but never with chicken.
“You have the healthier one in California with the chicken on it,” he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
At Chicken Charlie’s at the Los Angeles County Fair, owner and chef Charlie Boghosian has served thousands of his Krispy Kreme chicken sandwiches.
Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwich
*--* Ingredient Estimated calories Glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut 200 Slice Swiss cheese 45 Packet of honey (optional) 40 Chicken patty 180 Soybean oil to fry chicken patty 50 to 100* Total 515 to 565
* Depends on how much oil remains on patty after frying.
*--* Sandwich Calories Big Mac 560 Quarter Pounder with cheese 510 Jumbo Jack with cheese 690
Other deep-fried offerings on Boghosian’s menu
Avocados and tomatoes
Veggie combo (zucchini, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, asparagus)
Jumbo potato wedges
Sources: Charlie Boghosian, McDonald’s, Jack in the Box