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Food by VICE

Carnies Might Murder You, But Their Brunch Is Delicious

Follow me into a world of broken glass and shattered dreams, and see where the menu for Straw, a restaurant dedicated to serving upscale carnival fare, was born.

by Jules Suzdaltsev
Jun 14 2014, 2:00pm

Before the internet ruined everything, but after we stopped throwing people into lion's dens for entertainment (damnatio ad bestias)—a family on the hunt for some new and exciting distraction from the poverty of pre-millennial America could find a world of untold wonder and excitement at (where else?) the carnival. This loud, shady, inbred cousin of a circus used to be the perfect place to find unbeatable games, dogshit prizes for winning them, Dean Koontz-inspired carnies, and above all else: the unholiest of bastard food combinations, guaranteed to ruin your life in much the same way that heroin and autoerotic asphyxiation are bound to eventually. These gooey, deep-fried, buttery, sugar-laden, half-grease, half-cheese, heart-failure countdowns, invented by a carnie on psilocybin, break all the rules when it comes to "reasonable things to put in your mouth." But against all odds, carnival food might literally be the closest thing to transcendental happiness we can achieve in our material lives.

Unfortunately, with the advent of transistors in the mid-20th century came a new means of entertainment that didn't require you to go to a shitty, dusty lot covered in faded neon signage to hand over a week's paycheck to someone with unusually large and unusually few teeth. Therefore, carnivals—and with them, carnival food—fell by the wayside: a greasy, glimmering diamond buried in actual horse shit.

Fortunately, because San Francisco is always concerned with irrelevant revivals and dietary regression, in 2011 a new restaurant called Straw opened up in an isolated corner of Hayes Valley, dedicated to serving the greatest affront to haute-cuisine and cheap eats at the same time: upscale carnival fare. While you're tearing up a chicken-n-waffle sandwich drenched in ketchup and syrup in one of the more fashionable San Fran neighborhoods, it's important to remember the squalor in which these meals were made and depressingly savored. Follow me into a world of broken glass and shattered dreams, and see where Straw's menu was born.

The Bearded Lady You are your job. After 14 years of agonizing medieval hair removal procedures, only to awaken each morning with an Ambrose Burnside splashed across your face, you have finally found your true calling as a sideshow attraction with a goddamn traveling carnival. Third from last, right between a guy suffering from polymelia after reabsorbing his twin, and a guy with microcephaly whose IQ spikes at 72. You're having an affair with both of them. Although the men on either side of you have one-way mirrors in their booths (to spare them the humiliation of having to stare at gawk-eyed teenagers and disgusted adults), the women's rights movement hasn't quite yet dominated your goddamn traveling carnival, and to cut costs, you are stuck with a piece of clear plexiglass. Times are tough, but at least you get a discount on your eponymous sandwich: pulled pork with blackberry coulis, chipotle BBQ sauce, and cider slaw. You one day dream of being on The Price is Right, but since the motorcycle stunt death of host Bob Barker, you feel as though you will never truly achieve your potential. You eat your sandwich in silence.

The Monte Christo Ringmaster Holy shit, you are fat. That's a medical diagnosis as well as a testament to your commitment. Your scooter is made by John Deere, and both of your cup holders are fitted with the same bolts used on the new Bay Bridge. Saddled up with your pre-bankruptcy stash of Twinkies, you gun it to the carnival having skipped your midday-brunch-snack to make room for what will soon be dripping sticky sweet sugar onto each balloon-y hand. As you wait in line, the people around you are slightly pulled closer due to a faint gravitation attraction. The food truck makes three times its normal sales. You roll away from the stand, double fisting your prizes: a fried chicken-n-waffle monte christo sandwich, layered with fried chicken strips, homemade Belgian waffles, raspberry jam, maple syrup, and powdered sugar. In the other hand, The Ringmaster: a cheddar double cheeseburger topped with bacon and a fried egg sandwiched in a home-made glazed doughnut bun. After this meal, you will literally have type 12 diabetes. They haven't discovered it yet.

The Very Out of Place Asian Family You are a family halfway through a sightseeing tour of America, sadly via the dirty dog (Greyhound). When your bus breaks down in the Great Plains of Montana, it only serendipity that the steps of the bus lead to the front gate of a 30-year-old dilapidated carnival called "Swank's Tip Top Amusements." Confusing the most despondent, wretched aspects of a long-gone form of entertainment with what you think is a regular cultural celebration, you cautiously walk into the most bizarre display of human behavior on record. After the Tilt-A-Whirl collapses, almost decapitating the father, and the third stranger of the day farts right in the six-year-old's face, causing lasting respiratory distress, you gather yourselves and stop at the food stands for something, anything familiar. You are harshly disappointed. Before you lay a Philly cheeseteakadilla, and despite having absolutely impeccable English, you do not recognize a single word of the name besides "cheese." You know cheese, so you split a marinated tri-tip, sautéed pepper and onion, cheddar and jack cheese stuffed quesadilla, served with a sharp cheddar dipping sauce, which the vendor carefully explains not to drink, as they've had a lot of that lately. While you eat, your bus leaves without you.

The Carnie You are a stranger in every town. You are viewed with suspicion and people wonder if you're avoiding a troubled past, or perhaps you're not fit to be among decent people and life on the road is the cure. It is you against them, and your only support is an intricate network of other carnies who very realistically just got out of prison, communicating by a ciazarn closely related to Double Dutch. You know the rules: don't be nosy, don't screw up anyone else's game, pay your debts before the trucks leave, and don't give your real name. You run a milk bottle game, the bottles solidly epoxied together since 1921 and covered in a layer of thick, sandy dust. The only person you've had sex with in the last twelve years is the bearded lady, but you're a carnie, so who cares? Every day at 6 AM, you trade a little bit of low grade methamphetamine to the liquor stocker, and walk away with a 24 case of La Fin Du Monde Golden Ale. It's the end of the fucking world, and it's not ironic.