SALEM. Ore. — The Oregon State Fair comes but once a year, offering us one fleeting moment to explore the strange culinary delight that is fair food.
Often greasy, typically sweet and undoubtedly playing to our baser instincts, fair food is one of the few truly unifying cultural institutions in America. From Pocatello to Poughkeepsie, the food is familiar: meat on sticks, fried dough, colorful slushies, and deep fried everything.
For generations, Oregonians have found it at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem, where the aroma of Pronto Pups wafts past the Ferris wheel, melting ice cream cones are carried through the 4-H barn, and kettle corn is hawked to people young and old.
In 2020, when the pandemic robbed Oregonians of the beloved state fair, people lined up instead for a pop-up fair food restaurant in Salem, Taste of a Fair, which offered cotton candy and corn dogs to satiate state fair appetites.
And It wasn’t the only game in town: Just down the road from the fairgrounds, Golden Grill Restaurant serves those same staples year-round, boasting “that big top vibe” no matter the season, they say.
But fair food culture also seems to permeate the very soul of Salem-area food carts and restaurants. All over town, you can find deep fried, sweet and colorful foods that hit those same notes you’d find at the Oregon State Fair. And while not explicitly advertised as “fair food,” the common thread is visible.
You might not find deep-fried cheesecake outside of the fairgrounds, but you will find plenty of interesting dishes, from novelty desserts to deep fried delights. Here are eight spots around Salem to get a small taste of fair food culture.
Churro Sunday at Don Bigote
Warm churros and ice cream are a match made in heaven, and nobody seems to understand the potential of that combination quite like Don Bigote. The churreria is anchored in a food cart on the north end of Salem, serving a dozen different churro desserts alongside ice cream, crepes and savory snacks. The Churro Sunday – a scoop of ice cream with a chocolate shell, toppings and a ribbon of sweet churro – is a clear standout.
Open noon-9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, noon-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3390 Portland Road N.E.; 503-990-4860.
Elephant Ear at Golden Grill
Golden Grill is a whole restaurant dedicated to fair food, meaning you can get your Pronto Pups and chicken skewers any time of year. But among its menu of fair food staples, the elephant ear stands out as both a nostalgic favorite and a mouth-watering sweet, served up in a small pizza box from the drive-thru window.
Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily; 2325 Fairgrounds Road N.E.; 503-339-7293.
Bin-yay Fried Chicken Sliders at Noble Wave
The Baton Rouge inspired Noble Wave has a colorful menu that includes the likes of fried alligator and king cake bread pudding, but it’s their Bin-yay Fried Chicken Sliders that really stand out. Fried chicken tenders are served with coleslaw between two beignet pastries as buns, all dusted with powdered sugar.
Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 189 Liberty St. N.E.; 971-304-7974.
Ono Bombs at Get Some Aloha
Get Some Aloha, a food cart stationed at The Yard Food Park on the east side of Salem, has a perfectly good menu of Hawaiian plate lunches and sides, but those in search of something different should order a pair of Ono Bombs, deconstructed spam musubi that is rolled into a ball and deep fried, drizzled with sauce and topped with furikake. Snag an order if you can: Ono bombs are typically available only on the weekends, according to the food cart, and even then they might run out fast.
Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; 4106 State St.
Choco Taco at On Any Sundae
On Any Sundae is one of Salem’s best ice cream shops, serving up everything from classic ice cream cones to a fascinating novelty called ice cream lasagna. Their best and most accessible offering might be their homemade Choco Tacos, which come in several flavors and are big enough to satiate any sweet tooth.
Open noon to 9 p.m. daily; 3987 Commercial St. S.E.; 503-588-6605.
Cereal Fruity Pebbles Donut at Dough Hook Bake Shop
An unassuming bakery nestled into a strip mall, Dough Hook Bake Shop makes some of Salem’s best and most creative donuts. There is a whole host of good choices here (the Marionberry Donut with lemon drizzle is a standout), but the real crowd pleaser might just be the Cereal Fruity Pebbles Donut, with the colorful cereal covering a sweet icing atop the thick pastry.
Open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday; 1970 Lancaster Dr. N.E.; 503-990-6251.
Pretzel Nugs at Peace. Love. Pretzels.
A homey cart in Salem’s Beehive Station, Peace. Love. Pretzels. brings an east coast staple to the Pacific Northwest, offering several takes on the humble soft pretzel. The jalapeno cheese pretzels and peanut butter cup pretzel balls are certainly tempting, but there’s just something so comforting about a box of simple pretzel nuggets, which come with flavored salt and a dipping sauce.
Open noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Friday, noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; 1510 Fabry Road S.E.; 503-779-7510.
Island Lemonade at Shaka Brah
Colorful, tasty and super sweet, the Island Lemonade at Shaka Brah, a Hawaiian food cart stationed outside Divine Distillers, is a perfect on a hot day. They come over ice or as slushies, and can be made with any number of flavors (if you’re indecisive, just go with POG: passion fruit, orange and guava). Shaka Brah can also infuse their lemonades with red bull for a jolt of energy, or booze for the adults in the crowd.
Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 2475 25th St. S.E.; 503-871-7521.