The OC Fair is canceled, but the food isn’t: Drive-thru option worth the ride

The Hawaiian Chicken Bowls offers a fair staple -- turkey legs for $15 each.

Used with permission from Heather Dean

The Hawaiian Chicken Bowls offers a fair staple — turkey legs for $15 each.

Alice Lee

For many families, the Orange County Fair has been a summertime staple. 

Held annually at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, the event has been known for its rides, entertainment and most important of all, its food offerings like deep fried Twinkies and barbecue turkey legs.

But this year, the fair — like several venues nationwide — was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, so organizers took a unique turn to make it “corona appropriate.” 

To adjust to the COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, the OC Fair focused on its more popular attraction — the food. Organizers invited many of the event’s traditional dining services to set up shop on the fairgrounds parking lot, creating a drive-thru atmosphere for customers looking for tasty sweets or spicy meats. 

The format does not allow for walkups, and so that safely allows for motorists and their passengers to stay inside their vehicles at all times. Credit card payment is preferred to prevent the potential passing of germs from cash and coin transactions, while all are required to wear masks. 

During my Sept. 6 visit, I arrived after the lunchtime rush at 3 p.m. Two car lines are set up, one for ordering and another for “window shoppers” who want to just take in the aroma of various meats being cooked or grilled on a barbecue. Orange cones separate the lines, and between the two lines are fairgrounds associates who answer any questions.

Customers are treated with food options from 11 dining establishments, including Dole Whip, Hawaiian Chicken Bowls, Hot Dog on a Stick, Dippin’ Dots, Funnel Cakes and Cathy’s Cookies.

When entering the parking lot, fair employees wearing masks greet the customers pulling up in their cars by handing them a menu along with a map of where each restaurant or dessert shop is located.

At first, the set up seems confusing and abrupt because not all of the food services are visible at once. I’d highly recommend that you go online to the drive-thru’s website to review the map before arriving because you’re not going to have enough time to comprehend the diagram and choose what you want to order. 

The Hawaiian Chicken Bowls stands out above the rest because it is the only one that offers meat on its menu; its Luau Bowl at $11 features a combination of pineapples and chicken.

Upon removing the lid, I take a quick glance at the bowl’s contents. The rice is not too dry or sticky, which matches well with the drizzle of sweet teriyaki sauce. The combination of the soft and tangy chicken and sweet and juicy pineapple creates a sweet and savory dish.

This would be similar to a bowl from Flame Broiler or Waba Grill, but the unique combination of the toppings is what differentiates the Luau Bowl from the others. Also, its taste is also one step ahead, having the more street-like vibe. 

I also couldn’t resist ordering a $15 turkey leg, one of what seems like hundreds stacked on top of one another on a table. What’s OC Fair food without a giant drumstick, right? 

Presented on a plate with nachos, the well-roasted turkey leg is wrapped in foil; its rough, outer layer makes it hard to chew, but if you stick with it, the meat gets more tender and almost melts in the mouth. 

Eating the turkey leg may be difficult for those who don’t like to get their fingers or mouth messy as the only way to eat it is to directly bite into it.
And for those looking for vegan options, forget it — unless you want to just eat the pineapples from the Luau Bowl.

I didn’t try anything else. The prices for other menu items at the other drive-thru options range from $3 to $55 (excluding drinks), much higher than usual fast-food restaurants or dessert shops because — hey, this is fair food similar to meals you would buy at Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm.

Although the OC Fair Food Drive-thru has since added more restaurants to its line-up, it would be thoughtful of organizers to add portable restrooms for use and to find a way to make the lines less confusing.

Nevertheless, it offers an enjoyable way for families to spend a weekend, especially for those who miss their OC Fair food and want to get away from their screens at home. 

The drive-thru is located at 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa, and opens from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. It’s scheduled to end after Sunday, Oct. 25, according to the event’s website.