A Deep-Fried Pho Sparks Scandal at the State Fair of Texas

On a recent afternoon at the State Fair of Texas, in Dallas, Tori Valdez and Jordan Johnson moved through the crowd to join nearly two dozen customers lined up at the Eat Crispies concession booth. Nearby, gleeful screams emanated from a ride shaped like a double helix, and a child reached into a shoulder holster of baby-pink cotton candy for a bite of fluff.

The couple reached the front of the booth, which Michelle Le, a concessionaire and entrepreneur, has operated since 2011. They exchanged tickets for an order of deep-fried pho, a version of the Vietnamese soup in which noodles and thinly sliced beef were tightly swaddled in a stiff tortilla carapace like an egg roll. Within a minute, the whole thing was gone. Ms. Valdez called it a “10 of 10,” as she wiped her hands with a napkin.

“They took Vietnamese food and made it Texas,” Mr. Johnson said.

Behind them, the line only grew — so long that an out-of-towner might not have guessed that scandal was afoot.

Only a few weeks earlier, chaos had rocked the world of fair food when the finalists of the Big Tex Choice Awards were announced. The concessions contest, which has encouraged chimeric creations like the cotton candy taco and deep-fried cherry Jell-O since 2005, is a major draw for fairgoers like Ms. Valdez, who had come specifically to try this year’s new dishes. She carried with her a list of eight items, including a skewered slice of Biscoff-cookie-coated cheesecake, deep-fried sushi and the winner of the Big Tex Choice Awards’ savory category: Ms. Le’s deep-fried pho.

When a photograph of the deep-fried pho appeared on the State Fair of Texas’ Instagram account in August, eyebrows shot up all over town. It looked just like the deep-fried pho at the Dallas restaurant Cris and John, where the wrap had thrived for years under the moniker “phorrito.” A small mutiny broke out beneath the post, as commenters tagged Cris and John in their denouncements of the alleged copycat.

Soon after, since-deleted social media posts, as reported by D Magazine in August, suggested there was more to the twin phos than likeness, and raised questions of foul play.

The version at the state fair, which costs $24, is deep-fried and the size of a salami. The hulking phorrito at Cris and John, a Vietnamese Mexican restaurant, is pan-fried, as stocky as a cocktail shaker and starts at $10. Each is served with broth as a dipping sauce, though Ms. Le’s is a light, aromatic infusion, while the phorrito’s accouterment is somewhere between traditional pho broth and birria consomé.

As the State Fair of Texas enters its third week of operation, a debate about the bounds of culinary innovation and the burden of credit rages on — on and off the fairgrounds.

“There’s not just one taco shop, is there?” said Jessica Wise, a fairgoer from Forney, Texas, who sought out the fried pho after seeing photos of it online. “Fried Oreos — they’re everywhere now.”

Cristina Mendez and John Pham, the owners of Cris and John, have never participated in the state fair. They said they were surprised when fair representatives courted them, asking for a tasting last spring. The restaurateurs served the phorrito and some other items.

There was a sticking point: Because of the restaurateurs’ religious beliefs, Mr. Pham said, Cris and John would need to shutter its stand on Saturdays throughout the 24-day fair.

“After they left, we were disappointed but hopeful,” Ms. Mendez said. “We never heard anything again.”

In May, Cris and John received an inquiry from Michelle Le, Ms. Mendez told The Times. The message asked whether they would be interested in working with Eat Crispies to create a new menu item for the fair. (Ms. Mendez said Mr. Pham called Ms. Le to discuss, but never heard back.) Ms. Mendez also noticed that Ms. Le’s sister-in-law had tagged the restaurant in previous Instagram Stories about dishes at Cris and John.

Still, Ms. Le said that deep-fried pho had been on her mind since her husband floated the idea in 2011, and that her version is based on a family recipe.

“I had researched deep-fried pho forwards and backward, and never saw anything like it,” she said.

Both Ms. Le and Karissa Condoianis, a senior vice president of public relations for the state fair, denied that fair officials colluded with Ms. Le to produce a deep-fried pho, or plagiarized the restaurant’s version.

Ms. Le said that she had neither seen in-person nor tasted the Cris and John phorrito before entering her deep-fried pho in the Big Tex Choice Awards, and that she had approached a number of restaurants asking to collaborate.

“For us, it was too many coincidences,” Ms. Mendez said. “Why this year, all of a sudden?”

The Big Tex Choice Awards has long spawned deep-fried versions of dishes that might exist elsewhere. “I was eating gumbo, and I was like, ‘I think I can fry this,’” said Greg Parish, owner of the concessions business Gourmet Royale, of one of his past winning dishes.

At the fair, dunking a familiar item into the deep fryer until it’s the color of caramel and saturated with flavorful fat just makes sense: It’s an efficient way to ensure everything is warm to order and, most important, delicious. And for concessionaires, sheathing an item that’s already perceived as indulgent in a gratuitous layer of batter attracts eyeballs in a crowded marketplace. Last year, more than 2.5 million people visited the State Fair of Texas.

This year, 91 vendors are operating 264 stands across the fairgrounds. Deep frying, say, butter — a feat for which Abel Gonzales, a concessionaire known as Fried Jesus, won not only a 2009 Big Tex Choice Award but also a visit from Oprah Winfrey — is sure to turn heads.

With attention comes outsize sales. Stephen El Gidi, whose composition of tangy, dense cheesecake coated in Belgian chocolate and jacketed in Biscoff crumbs won the sweet category this year, estimates he has sold more than 700 slices a day so far this season. He sells about a total of 300 to 400 slices of all his other flavors daily.

“It is the American dream,” Mr. Gonzales said. Six years into his run at the state fair, he was able to retire from his 9-to-5 job.

Mr. Pham and Ms. Mendez, who recalled painful criticism of their third-culture fusion cuisine when they opened their restaurant in 2017, are the first to relinquish credit for the phorrito. They based their version on one sold by the Los Angeles restaurant Komodo.

“We didn’t want to come off as bullies or as victimizing ourselves,” Ms. Mendez said. “We weren’t asking for credit.” Perhaps, she said, it would have stung less if Ms. Le had cited the phorrito as an inspiration.

“We definitely feel like we put it on the map in Texas,” she added.

Still, Mr. Pham, who moved to the United States in 2013 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is proud to see any version of pho at the state fair. “It’s really cool to see something Vietnamese winning.”

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