If the image of slender, sunblocked yoga moms carefully selecting organic kale at the local farmers market has become a cliché of " California living," then the county fair in all its sticky, sugary, deep-fried glory is the wildly excessive opposite.
For 26 years, one man has been doing his best to bolster the fortunes of anti-cholesterol drug makers by tantalizing fair-goers with some of the most imaginative -- and most gluttonous -- deep-fried concoctions at local fairs.
They call him Chicken Charlie, and at his eponymous stand he has offered deep-fried pickles, olives, s'mores, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Twinkies, cheesecake, cupcakes, frog legs, White Castle cheeseburgers and more. Name it, and Chicken Charlie has probably battered and fried it.
Plenty of vendors offer breaded, oil-soaked concoctions, but few have so thoroughly dedicated themselves to the Way of the Deep Fryer.
"There are many other fried foods at the fair, but I specialize in it. I make it my life," he says.
An immigrant with a yen to become a police officer, he took a slight detour and through hard work and innovation ended up as Southern California's deep-fry king.
Born in Syria to Armenian parents, Charlie Boghosian arrived in the United States at age 11 with his family. They eventually settled in San Diego, where at age 14 he got a summer job from local vendor Bob Jackson selling charbroiled corn at the San Diego County Fair. "I worked it that summer, and I really enjoyed it," says Boghosian, 40. "I enjoyed cooking and selling corn. I enjoyed the people at the fair. I enjoyed the atmosphere."
One summer led to another, and 12 summers later Boghosian had worked his way through high school and college selling fried food. In 1996, he and Jackson bought a trailer specializing in broasted chicken, a method of "pressure-frying" chicken. Jackson suggested the name "Chicken Charlie" for its alliterative appeal, and the seeds of a dynasty were sown.
One day while working a fair in Miami, he noticed a vendor selling deep-fried Twinkies. "I liked the idea, but I didn't like the way it tasted," Boghosian says. "It had been dipped in a very thick, wet batter and you could barely taste the cream inside. I decided to dip it in an egg wash and roll it in dry, sweet flour, creating a thin crust that was very crispy and crunchy. You could taste how nice and warm the Twinkie was." The year he debuted it at the L.A. County Fair, 2001, he sold 10,000 pieces.
"After that, everyone asked: 'What will you do next year?' That question stayed in my head. When the season was over, I bought some portable fryers for my kitchen at home and started experimenting."
In 2002, Boghosian introduced deep-fried Oreos, which he dips in pancake batter, deep-fries, drizzles with chocolate syrup and dusts with powdered sugar. The next year, he deep-fried avocados using fish-and-chips batter. The year after that, he invented his infamous Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich: a raspberry jelly-filled doughnut, sliced in half, stuffed with a seasoned chicken breast and topped with honey sauce. "We have sold tens of thousands of those," he says. This year at the Orange County Fair, he debuted the Zucchini Weenie, a turkey frank tucked in a hollowed-out zucchini that's dipped in corn dog batter and (what else?) fried.
It's not as easy as it looks, according to Boghosian. "There is an art to frying food. What type of batter to use, whether you're going to use it wet or dry, how thick it should be, how much time it spends in the oil. And we get rid of our oil every day. That makes a big difference in the flavor."
He also uses different batters -- six to be exact -- for the more than 20 items he sells. One for vegetables, one for broasted chicken, one for chicken wings and frog legs, a sweet pancake batter for some of the desserts, a corn dog batter and a dry batter just for the Twinkies.
Beyond the fairs
These days, Boghosian is looking to expand beyond county fairs. He hopes to open his first restaurant in the San Diego area in 2010 and wants to have a chain of restaurants stretching from San Diego to L.A. within five years. He's also working on a line of deep-fryers and cooking equipment, and he's halfway through a cookbook tentatively titled "Chicken Charlie's at the Fair: 101 Ways to Blow Your Diet." No one can accuse him of dishonesty.
But Boghosian, who still loves working behind the counter at his booths, won't be giving up the fair life any time soon, especially the L.A. County Fair, which runs Sept. 5 to Oct. 4. It has a special place in his heart, he says. "I like it the best, and I started a lot of my inventions there. I love people's reactions when they come up to the stand and see that we're frying something like frog legs. They say: 'Are you crazy?' Then they say: 'Let me try one.' "