Pallookaville Fine Foods is a deliciously wild, deep-fried ride
Jim Stacy masters the art of kitsch with corn dogs and shakes
It was 1980. I'd checked into a $10-a-night motel room in Gibsonton, Fla., where many of the nation's carnival people resided when not on the road. On a writing assignment, my particular goal was meeting sideshow performers, those human anomalies whose performances in rural American carnivals and fairs cast a dark spell, a call to compassion more compelling and convincing than the sweaty rhetoric of countless evangelists pissing on the flames of hell.
Every visit to Gibsonton — I made several over the years — turned into an adventure. Food was among them. It was in Gibsonton that I ate my first and last corn dog, until my recent visit to the new Pallookaville Fine Foods in Avondale Estates.
It's hard to describe how much I hated the idea of corn dogs when I had my first in Gibsonton. Hot dogs made me instantly sick when I was a kid and the sight of one impaled on a stick, wrapped in charred cornmeal, and dripping with grease was especially nauseating. All my instincts were validated in Gibsonton, when a bartender plopped a complimentary one — happy hour! — in front of a drunk me. I decided to give it a try and, well, I died.
So, decades later, I heard about Jim Stacy's Pallookaville food truck, saw a few video clips of him on TV, and was super impressed. His résumé includes work as a clown, tattoo artist, and carnival worker. He's wonderfully funny, articulate, and kind. He acknowledges that corn dogs are "worse than fast food," but loves the challenge of making "something gourmet of something that lowly." Stacy is a master of kitsch — that low-grade aesthetic that can be at once vile and lovable.
You'll see what I mean the instant you walk through Pallookaville's door. There are cases of strange little toys that might have been prizes at midway games. There are circus posters and a warning to "behave yourself" from a nun brandishing a ruler. I didn't scour every inch of the walls, but I didn't see any images of Joe Palooka, the comic-book boxer that I assume gives the restaurant its name (despite the different spelling). There is, however, a gaudy portrait of boxer Muhammad Ali next to one of Col. Sanders over the front door.
Armed with my bottle of gastrointestinal pills, I decided to try a corn dog, as did most of my friends during my initial visit. You choose your sausage: a beef frank (Corndogula), Polish kielbasa (Corndogski), or Italian (Cornleone). Then, if you like, you can tweak the golden cornbread batter by double-dipping it or adding pepper or cheese.
I ordered the Fryinstein Monster, featuring a link of each sausage. It arrived at the table looking like a mutant, elongated hushpuppy impaled on a stick. I bit into it and was amazed. The cornbread coating was sweet, slightly crisp, and crumbly. I'd be happy with a huge wedge of it and a bowl of potlikker. Then I bit into the frank. Sorry. I just will never really dig plain American hot dogs, even when boiled in beer and made by fussy butchers. Things got much better with the kielbasa. The Italian sausage was my favorite and brought back memories of carney food trucks. You can also order the sausages (plus a Patak footlong) on bread without the cornbread coating.
Let's not make total pretend. Beside the salads for your vegetarian friends, you're not going to eat anything at Pallookaville that doesn't ooze fat. That's part of the cuisine, of course, and I'm only warning you because if you order a corn dog, particularly the Fryinstein, you're going to have difficulty eating much of anything else. I suggest the tater tots instead of the fries. The hand-cut russets were limp and way, way greasy. You can, for a dollar or so extra, doll them up with cheese, grilled onions, and jalapeños. Or you can have them poutined with cheese curds and gravy.
I decided to make my gut bomb thermonuclear by also ordering a quarter-pound burger. Stacy makes his patties with fresh pork, including bacon, from pedigreed pigs. The effect is a little like breakfast sausage on the first bite (and you can top it with a fried egg). But with each bite, the mildly spicy flavor ascends. This is a burger and you are dining with Meatloaf.
I returned for a quick lunch a few days later and ordered a Reuben made with the house-cured pastrami (corned beef is also available). I got the quarter-pound size instead of the half-pounder. The meat is about perfect. While Stacy's menu warns that corned beef and pastrami are made from fatty beef brisket, I loved the pastrami specifically because it wasn't ultra-greasy, as it so often is.
Stacy's greatest alchemy du kitsch may be his milk shake specials. They're sweet and spicy-hot. I ordered one that was made with coffee ice cream, molasses, toasted coconut, candied ginger, and — sit down — Sriracha sauce. Most of the latter was in a dollop at the bottom of my glass. I still haven't made up my mind about it. I loved it and I kind of hated it — just the effect of kitsch. You can, all on your own, also fashion "shaketails" — chocolate, strawberry or vanilla milk shakes to which you add your choice of booze. And there is a menu of 30 syrups for creating your own soda.
I love Pallookaville. It's pure fun and it's a window to the American aesthetic of carnival kitsch that's probably unknown to most at this point. Come one, come all! You'll be amazed! Only $4.50 for a corn dog that won't kill you!