A taste for cooking cultivated in Beeville has now landed James Barrera in exclusive company.
The longtime chef and baker has finally broken through the tough competition of the Texas State Fair, recently winning the “Best Taste - Sweet” award for the 2021 event. Barrera was victorious for “The Armadillo,” a butter cookie ice cream sandwich in the shape of the titular mammal.
With competition coming down to 10 finalists, a host of celebrity chef judges tested Barrera’s dish, followed by some sparkling reviews. Barrera stated that one judge remarked ‘this really is what the state fair feeling represents, right here in my hands.’”
Saying he used a “twist” in the ice cream sandwich formula with the cookie butter addition, the dish salutes Texas with the armadillo inspiration. To formulate the armadillo shape, Barrera heats up an armadillo-shape ready branding iron, pats it the iron down with a towel, then submerges it into the butter batter. The success of the dish, Barrera states, is due to his exact sweet science.
“The whole thing about making this thing is that, people think that cooking and baking isn’t chemistry ... everything has to be perfect. (One) missing ingredient (messes it up).”
Barrera, who has worked the state fair since 1997, had previously won a “most creative” state fair award in 2005 for his “Viva Las Vegas” fried ice cream formed in the shape of an electric guitar. But, he had yet to break through in a “best tasting” category. The same result looked to be the case in 2021 after chef Greg Parish won “Best Taste - Savory” as well as the creativity honor for his deep-fried seafood gumbo balls.
“I thought I had more of a better chance winning most creative than tasting,” Barrera said. “The other competitors were pretty experienced as well. When they said the same guy won savory, also won most creative for his (gumbo dish), I thought I lost hope there. Then they said the winner of the ‘Best Taste - Sweet’ in 2021 is The Armadillo. And I was waiting to hear my name, so it took me a couple seconds to realize (it was my dish).”
On top of the award, Barrera’s stand at the Dallas fair will be highlighted in the event’s official guided tour map. The extra attention adds more stress to Barrera’s craziest time of year.
“Doing the fair is like (you’re on) train tracks, (and) there’s a freight train up your (butt). If you slow down for a bit, you’re going to get run over.”
His interest in the state fair began after crafting his culinary resume in the Dallas restaurant scene. Before getting to Dallas, however, he grew up in Beeville. On pace to graduate A.C. Jones High School, Barrera dropped out to pursue a military career, later returning to receive his GED.
After a short military stint, Barerra became a truck driver for a while, stating “that’s what (he) wanted to be” at the time.
“I was so young and dumb, I said ‘nah’ (to restaurant work), I just want to be a truck driver.”
Finally getting his feet wet into the culinary business, Barrera’s travels took him to several Dallas-area locations, including working in fine dining at the city’s Reunion Tower landmark. While working in the area, he continued to pine for the fair, talking to as many people as he could to form connections to a Texas mainstay. He stated he knew several Dallas councilmen during this time, as well as the city’s mayor pro tem, giving him the boost he needed to receive a stand in 1997.
Once he arrived in his new abode, things became hectic right away serving thousands of hungry travelers.
“I didn’t know what to expect ... they give you a stand, but they don’t tell you how to go about it ... you have to learn everything yourself.”
One item to master was time and personnel management, especially in an era with less available communication technology. For the first few years, Barrera had to install a wired phone system in his stand to keep abreast of fair happenings.
“It was tough back then. I didn’t know how many people I needed to have staffed ... and the last day is always the busiest. It was only me and two other friends for mobs and mobs of people just bombarding us.”
The high volume led to several mishaps, including pieces of glass becoming lodged in the stand’s ice chest.
“I just laughed,” Barrera said on his first fair experience. “I don’t let it get to me, you know? That’s the way you have to be out there. It’s almost a different animal ... I’m going to have 100 people on both sides of my stand (this year).”
Barrera is prepared for the month-long event with both staff and supply. On the day before the fair, he purchased 72 boxes of Oreo cookies with 130 cookies in each box. With the demand of the fair, he says, these boxes will only last a maximum of two days, requiring near-daily supply runs.
Extra supplies and staff will be needed for several key days of the fair. The Columbus Day holiday brings in many tourists, Barrera states, as does the annual “Red River Shootout” football game between Oklahoma and Texas at the Cotton Bowl inside the fairgrounds.
For the big football matchup, Barrera’s loyalty lies with who is giving him the most business, even if that isn’t the Longhorns.
“People come for the game, and then (stay) after. I always want Oklahoma to win, because then if Oklahoma loses, they go back. If they win, they stay and party all night. I sell tons and tons of beer.”
As excited as ever for his 24th fair, Barrera is ready for the extra spotlight that comes with The Armadillo’s success.
“To do the fair, you have to have a passion for it, which I definitely do. That’s my habitat. I’m happiest when I’m at the fair. I don’t know why, it’s torture mentally and physically ... it’s like running a marathon, it’s a (rewarding) pain.”