By Liora Engel-Smith and Rose Hoban

When you think of the North Carolina State Fair, you’d invariably conjure images of deep-fried concoctions of all kinds, from the traditional french fries or beignets or donuts to newer creations (We’re looking at you, fried Oreo). But the annual 10-day extravaganza in Raleigh also has another side, and it’s filled with fresh and delicious, healthier options.

You heard us right — healthy.

The fair has become a destination for sampling unusual and interesting options, many of them are not only delicious but better for you. And if you have dietary restrictions, such as gluten intolerance or a dairy allergy, you might be surprised to know that you can still partake in the fun. We’ve rounded up some of the tasty, yet healthy, morsels you may want to try. Looking for another type of food, not on our list? Check out the fair’s food and ride finder.

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Basnight’s Lone Cedar

Where: Near the Pitzer Heritage Circle and the Village of Yesteryear

What: North Carolina shrimp, tuna and crab, chicken and sweet potato fries

Basnight’s food truck brings favorites from the Outer Banks restaurant by the same name to Raleigh. The sea-blue booth offers several fried seafood options, but two crowd favorites — the shrimp and grits and the lump crab dip — actually feature sauteed and roasted seafood, said Victoria Mawyer, a manager at the Nag’s Head-based business.

Staff cook grits in water, she said, and add cheese, not butter to the southern staple. They top it with sauteed shrimp with peppers, onions and Andouille Sausage. The lump crab for the dip is roasted, she added, and blended with cheese and served with crackers.

People come to the booth near gate 8 for the delicious seafood, but also childhood memories. The Outer Banks Restaurant has been around since 1996.

“People love our menu,” Mawyer said. “And you’ll see a lot of locals come from the Outer Banks and they like our crab dip and our shrimp and grits because those are things that they’ve had at the restaurant for 10, 15, 20 years and they’ve been enjoying since they were younger.”

Cool Runnings Jamaican

Where: Across from the north side of Dorton Arena

What: Jerk pork and chicken, curry, rice bowls, bean wrap and some fair favorites such as chili dogs and tacos

Andrea Millington, who owns the food truck with her husband Stephen, has been sharing the flavors of her childhood with fairgoers in Raleigh since 2000. She immigrated to the United States from Jamaica as a child and she likes to feed people the things she enjoys.

“Everything for us is baked, we don’t have anything fried here,” she said. “ … We sell what we eat and that’s how we eat.”

And people, it seems, can’t get enough of the spiced meats, baked plantains and the traditional rice and peas. Last year, Millington’s jerk pork with mango salsa earned the distinction of being named among the best new foods at the fair. Millington says customers ask her two questions most frequently: “What’s good here?” And “What’s healthy?”

The first question, she says, is hard to answer, but the second is a little easier. For vegetarians and vegans, Millington offers rice bowls with traditional rice and peas and baked plantains or wraps with spiced beans. Meat eaters may enjoy the famed pork and mango salsa or the jerk barbecue wings.

Tropical Delights

Where: Across from Dorton Arena

What: Plant-based fruit smoothies in hollowed out pineapples, vegan soft serve

If you’re near Cool Runnings and want a sweet treat, Tropical Delights, just a few booths away, has you covered. With refreshing frozen fruit smoothies served inside a hollowed out pineapple and Dole Whip, a coconut-based soft-serve in flavors like vanilla and pineapple. The coconut-based treat, made by fruit giant Dole, is popular at Disney World and is only available through food vendors.

a man working at the NC State Fair shows a bunch of bananas.
Bryan Chester shows off some of the fruit that will make its way into drinks at the Smoothie in a Pineapple Cup booth near the grandstand. Photo creditL Rose Hoban

Owners Reggie and Wendy Burnette, who serve the gluten-free whip at the state fair and other events they cater, said the creamy and tangy pineapple flavor is popular with fair customers too. It is also among this year’s best new foods crop. But the smoothies are popular in their own right: The couple said staff core roughly 2,000 pineapples a day for serving smoothies.

Wendy Burnette said she’s been having the same conversation with many of the customers: they come to the booth in search of plant-based, healthier option.

“We realize how needed it is in the market that they are excited to see (our menu,)” she said.

Another place for smoothies is the Smoothie in a Pineapple Cup stand, near the tractor pull grandstand. There, you can get all-fruit-plus-ice smoothies in strawberry, strawberry/ banana, mango and piña colada (coconut plus pineapple).

Vendor Bryan Chester said, “Most of the people who come up while we’re at the fairs are like, ‘Wow, there’s something actually healthy here that I can eat, I don’t just have to eat everything fried?’”

While being interviewed, Chester’s tongue was blue. He said they do have sugar-syrup based smoothie flavors, but the fruit-only drinks are a crowd favorite.

Info box: All things in moderation, even moderation

You can still have your (perhaps deep-fried?) cake and eat it too. Here are some tips from UNC Health Talk that will help you indulge sensibly:

  • Eat a few bites of high-calorie foods, rather than the whole thing.
  • Share your food with others.
  • Eat a healthy meal or snack before you go.
  • Stay hydrated, drink plenty of water.
  • Choose the food you’re going to eat ahead of time. Focus on a few favorites and forget about the rest.
  • Opt for healthier, but still traditional, snacky favorites such as roasted corn (skip the butter dunk), caramel apples and fresh fruit.

Neomonde Mediterranean

Where: On the backside of Kiddieland, across from the church booths

What: Middle Eastern cuisine, including hummus, falafel, beef and chicken kebabs. Gluten-free pita is available.

Celebrating their 10th year at the fair, staff from the venerable Neomonde have quietly carved a haven for fairgoers looking for gluten-free offerings. The Mediterranean booth offers more, though, serving favorites from its restaurants in Durham, Raleigh and Morrisville.

“We’re kind of a secret healthy spot at the fair,” said owner Christopher Saleh.

Staff dubbed the full-kitchen booth they occupy at the fair “Restaurant Number 4.” They prepare and serve many crowd favorites on the premises, including hummus, falafel, minty cucumber yogurt sauce and lamb kebabs. Saleh said the booth produces roughly a 1,000 pounds of hummus per day and somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 pounds of falafel, fried in sunflower oil.

All of the sides on the menu, including tabbouleh, a grain and veggie salad, are gluten free. Though tabbouleh is often made with bulgar wheat, Neomonde’s version features quinoa, which does not have gluten. Staff will even make sandwiches with gluten-free pita, for an additional charge of $2, he added.

This year, Neomonde debuted a nacho-like concoction featuring ground lamb, baked pita chips, pico, feta cheese and harissa yogurt sauce, which was named among the best new foods at the fair.

Butcher Boys

Where: Near the Village of Yesteryear, also near the Grandstand

What: Grilled chicken and London broil pita wraps

Butcher Boys have three booths in a row right across from the Howling Cow ice cream stand. Manager Scott Brandt said the company started with the sliced London broil sandwich three decades ago when the company started serving at the N.C. State Fair.

“That’s our bread and butter,” he said.

They extended the menu to grilled chicken a few years ago, that comes served on a pita with tzatziki sauce, lettuce, onions and tomatoes.

Brandt said they would go through several tons each of beef and chicken, a ton and a half of sausages, and more than a ton of onions during the 10-day run of the fair. A gallon jar of pickled banana peppers (a favorite condiment) lasts just half a day.

For a sweet treat after a healthy meal, you can choose between the N.C. State-produced Howling Cow, across the way, or Fluffy’s Doughnuts, another of the Butcher Boys trucks, right next to the three sandwich stands.

La Farm Bakery

Where: Between the sky grazer and the Graham Building

What: Artisan bread and pastries, granola, some meal options such as lobster rolls, Monte Cristo and chicken salad sandwiches.

The big draw at La Farm’s stand is chef Lionel Vatinet’s crusty, whole-grain breads used in making some of their signature sandwiches (you can also buy Vatinet’s cookbooks there). You can get a good cup of espresso-based coffee to go with your crusty bread.

The food truck also sells big bags of Hearth Baked granola made with toasted oats, sesame seeds, almonds and honey, baked in the hearth ovens at the Cary-based shop. It’d be the kind of treat to bring home from the fair that won’t make your blood sugar ring the bell.

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Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...