“You got pie crust in your hair, Grandma.” Christi Erpillo’s college-aged granddaughter says to her as she drops another chicken pot pie into the fryer at her Dallas home. I was there months ago, as a part of research I was doing for a fried-fair-food story, while Christi was testing and perfecting her recipes for competition in the State Fair of Texas Big Tex Choice Awards. “I like comfort foods,” she says, “That’s what I’m all about.”
You saw Erpillo’s dish, Fernie’s Down Home Chicken Pot Pie Pocket with Mac ‘n Cheese Dip, make it all the way to the final eight of the Big Tex Choice Awards. And it’s for good reason: it tastes damn good. It’s like you rolled up every happy feeling you have about your mother and then fried it. It’s the kind of idea that seems like a no-brainer once someone says it out loud. “Fried Chicken Pot Pie.” Well, obviously that’s something that should go directly into my face right now.
Christi is no rookie to the Big Tex Choice Awards competition, or the State Fair itself. Her family was the first to bring funnel cake to the fair in the ‘80s. Erpillo’s past Big Tex Choice Awards wins include Fried Peaches (a classic in the deep-fried fair world) and the Fried Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly (if you like carrot cake, this is absolutely your jam).
On the night Christi was still testing the recipe, she tells family stories as she fries, “The year we did fried mac ’n cheese, I thought it was going to be a regular year. I didn’t go to the bathroom until 6pm. There was never not a line. There were lines out both doors, and we didn’t even win that year.” Another family member chimes in, “One time, my aunt went into labor at the booth!”
Erpillo shows me a journal she keeps of all of the ideas she has ever had for the Big Tex Choice Awards. It’s amazing. It’s pages upon pages of ideas and sketches and lists. You can see right where fried peaches started and how many times they thought and rethought about frying macaroni and cheese. It makes you realize that her whole heart is really in this, and it’s a reminder of how much work these people are putting into finding just the right fried food for their fried fanatics year after year. As I thumb through the journal, Christi points out that she had the idea for fried butter and never decided to try to test that idea or enter it—then, Abel Gonzales, Jr. won with it. She laughs it off and rolls right into the next family story, “We had this angry customer come in one time and yell at me, ‘I want to talk to your manager,’ they said. I said, ‘MOTHER!!! Somebody’s here to talk to you!’” Her family (including her mother, Fernie), roars with laughter.
Although Erpillo did not win either the Best Taste or Most Creative awards at the Big Tex Choice Awards this year, her food is always a stand-out option in the world of the fried fair. Aaaand, Christi says that this year, for the first time ever, she will have free phone charging stations at The Dock, her restaurant at the fair. Might be the best thing you can get at the fair for free (sure beats the hell out of the free cholesterol spike). So go to The Dock, charge your phone for all those Instagrammings you’ll be doing on The Cyber, and grab a fried chicken pot pie and a beer while you’re at it. It’s what Deep-Fried State Fair of Texas-ing is all about.