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Deep-fried -- devilishly delicious; From cheesecakes to Snickers bars to Moose Nutz, Erie County fare has it all, including the 'donut burger' that's touted as the must-have new food sensation

It's hard to view the menu in front of Tony and Sara Diventuri's concession stand without experiencing some culinary shock. From mashed potatoes and mac and cheese to pickles and Snickers bars, their menu is proof that there is no food that can't be deep-fried.

It's like that all over the Erie County Fair. And people love it.

"You should have been here an hour ago," said the couple from St. Paul, Minn.

A patron had come by with a backpack full of brand new Tupperware.

"He'd been looking for us for two days and couldn't find us," Tony Diventuri said. "So he paid a guy $10 to find us and tell him where we were."

Then he ordered one of almost everything on the main menu, loaded up his Tupperware containers and took off. He paid $5 for parking and $10 for fair admission, bought his food and left.

Surely stories like this are rare, we thought. But we were wrong.

For many fairgoers, the eating experience is a prime reason why they show up. Every year, the fair bills a new and unusual -- and grossly unhealthy -- food choice. This year, the Big Kahuna "donut burger" was king.

But it was far from the lone food novelty.

Squeezed between the traditional funnel cakes and corndog vendors were newer fair foods hoping to become the 21st century equivalent of what the ice cream cone was to fairs at the turn of the last century.

"If you're at the fair, you don't go there to count calories," Diventuri said. "You go there to eat."

So a Buffalo News reporter and photographer ventured out Thursday afternoon on their own gastronomic odyssey at this year's Erie County Fair. We sampled a half dozen of the more bizarre food choices, and interviewed the vendors who made them and the people who purchased and ate them.

Hamburg resident Lauren Ward, 28, was the first to offer us a comprehensive guide to fair food. When we met up with her early in the afternoon, she'd already sampled the fried macaroni and cheese, the doughnut burger and something called "Mini Dirty Moose Nutz."

"If you're at the fair, you've got to go all out, right?" she said.

Diventuri said his deep-fried mashed potatoes on a stick are the most popular item on the menu. That's four balls of garlic mashed potatoes, rolled in batter and dropped in 400-degree soybean oil.

Hmmm. Not bad, we thought.

South Buffalo resident John Spradley offered a more thorough review.

"This is really good," he said between bites dunked in sour cream. "Crispy on the outside, and there's chunks of potato inside, and the mashed potatoes make it squishy."

Next door, Dave Orlandi was selling his signature deep-fried cheesecake -- a wedge of classic Philadelphia cheesecake on a stick, battered, deep-fried and topped with whipped cream and strawberries.

He started out with the concept 10 years ago at the Eastern States Exposition, he said. He was frying cheesecake nuggets, but the nuggets were so popular that he ran out after the first day, so he scrambled, bought up wheels of regular cheesecake slices and started frying those.

Calories? "I don't know," he said. "I wouldn't dare tell anybody if I knew."

Susan Baldwin, assistant professor with Buffalo State College's Department of Health and Wellness, said that as long as people plan ahead for the fair food experience and are prepared to work off the calories later, most folks will be OK.

"Moderation is important," she said.

Following Ward's advice, we made our way to Don's food stand, home of the twice-fried, beer-battered, two-thirds-pound burger and the "Original Mini Dirty Moose Nutz." Owner Don Markham was a man we were happy to meet -- a local who used to run Don's Lil Bistro in Lancaster and now lives in Alden.

We asked about Moose Nutz, by far the ugliest dish we encountered at the fair.

The plate is a combination of five different kinds of fries: sweet potato fries, curly fries, cajun fries, waffle fries and regular fries, blended with baby potatoes and topped with chili, cheddar cheese sauce, bacon, sour cream and spices.

We looked at the heaping plate, then at each other. No way we were finishing this. But we did try it.

Imagine an ultimate nacho tray without the crunch. It was kind of like that. And people come from miles around to have it, said Markham, who now does seven to 12 fairs a year.

Back in his restaurant days, Markham said, he'd always be left with tons of potatoes at the end of the night, especially after Friday-night fish fries.

He created the dish as a way to clear the pantry of potatoes and they've been "gastronomically awesome" ever since.

Amanda Steiner seemed to think so. She and her boyfriend discovered the dish this year at the fair and she returned Thursday for her second dish.

"It's very delicious; I highly recommend it," the Depew resident said.

We saved the "donut burger" for last. It already is being touted as the must-have new food sensation at the upcoming New York State Fair. Big Kahuna food stand manager Samuel Moser said he and his boss decided they needed to do a trial run at a county fair first.

The Erie County Fair was an easy choice for the burger's state debut, given Buffalo's reputation for working-class gourmet fare like beef on weck and wings, Moser said.

This doughnut burger is actually a quarter-pound burger with bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese and onions stuck between sliced, glazed doughnut halves. The doughnuts come from the nearby Tops, are piled in a pickup truck each morning and stashed in an air-conditioned house trailer until they're needed.

A father and daughter were disappointed to learn that the burger was not available outside the fair. "Honestly, it's the best burger ever!" said Abbey Miller, 12.

The food hunters actually finished this burger creation. Bottom line: If you have an adventurous spirit, like the idea of a fresh, savory-sweet taste combination and don't mind getting your hands sticky, it works. If you're a purist, stay away.

Moser, who hails from South Hadley, Mass., said the burger is the Big Kahuna's first real novelty food product.

"Could you mention the calorie count?" he asked.

Really? You want us to tell people how many calories it has?

Sure, Moser said. He has the Jenny Craig weight watcher's app on his smartphone and totaled up the calories himself. It's not low, he said, but it's less than you might imagine.

He tells people it's 665 calories, even though his calculation came to 666.

"I rounded down a little," he said. "I don't want people thinking we have a Satanic burger."

email: stan@buffnews.com