Concessionaires discuss history with Texas State Fair
By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — It’s all about family. And food.
That’s the consensus of two major Jewish concessionaires when it comes to the endless array of delicacies that make the State Fair of Texas a deep-fried paradise.
Isaac Rousso and Mark Zable — who both have spent many years working there — recently shared personal stories that contribute greatly to the living history of the Texas State Fair.
Isaac Rousso and his wife Lily are Sephardic Jews from Dallas who attend Temple Shalom and Chabad of Plano. Both of these master concessionaires agree wholeheartedly that their careers are for the benefit of their son Joey, 12, and daughter Sarah, 8.
“Our business is very generational,” Isaac Rousso explained. “We’re trying to craft a footprint — leave a legacy.”
Readers might very well be familiar with the Roussos.
The two self professed foodies are still riding a wave of fame after the results of the 2015 Big Tex Choice Awards were announced: Their unconventional Smoky Bacon Margarita won “Most Creative” and their Cowboy Corn Crunch placed as a finalist.
And that wasn’t their first state fair victory. Their Deep-Fried Cuban Roll won the “Best Taste” category in the contest in 2013 and their Deep Fried Texas Bluebonnet was a finalist in 2014.
At the Texas State Fair, the Roussos run the Magnolia Beer Garden & Smokehouse in the courtyard of the historic Magnolia Lounge; the adjacent, recently-added Magnolia Pavilion; and a second Magnolia Beer Garden stand all near Gate 5 at the southwest corner of Big Tex.
They also run the “Taste of Cuba” stand inside the Cotton Bowl Plaza and the eponymous food truck in downtown Dallas.
The Roussos recently added the Magnolia Pavilion, which is located directly adjacent to their main Beer Garden. It sports a 10-foot television and six flat screens.
The Beer Garden offers as many as 50 Texas, craft and international beers and a variety of food such as German bratwurst sausage on a stick, Cuban sandwiches turkey legs, fried macaroni and cheese, and hot wings.
Isaac Rousso said he drew inspiration from two of his favorite Texas State Fair dishes while growing up: The corn dog and the Belgian waffle.
The Belgian Waffle booths, incidentally, are run by Dallasite Mark Zable. He, his wife Amber, and 10-year-old son Zachary all belong to Congregation Shearith Israel.
Zable took over the state fair Belgian Waffle business from his father, Norman Zable, about 15 years ago. That now includes one Esplanade stand and a stand-in the Tower Building Food Court.
Isaac Rousso remembers the Zables well. He said they were friendly, helpful, and of great assistance to him when he was getting started at the Texas State Fair.
“They were very kind,” he said.
In addition to his trademark Belgian Waffles, Mark Zable sells a variety of dishes ranging from deep-fried biscuits and gravy to Hawaiian Shaved Ice to corn dogs, to nachos. At the Esplanade stand location, there’s even rotisserie chicken.
Zable is easily a child of the Texas State Fair. His early memories start on the grounds with his parents Norma and Vera Zable.
“I grew up sleeping underneath counters in this same exact place when I was six months old,” Zable recalled, pointing to his food court booth. “There have been four generations of Zables that have worked at the state fair.”
Isaac Rousso said his relationship with his 12-year-old son Joey is comparable to the father-son dynamic in Jon Favreau’s 2014 movie Chef.
In that film, Favreau’s rock star chef character discovers over a period of time that he and his young son (played by Emjay Anthony) share a passion for cooking — particularly Cuban food.
Bearing that movie in mind, Isaac Rousso recalled a defining moment for his son as a cook in training:
Joey accidentally burned a batch of press Cuban sandwiches he was preparing. But rather than serve an inferior dish to customers, he decided to throw them away and start over.
“When Joey threw those sandwiches in the trash, he showed me that as a boy of 12 he truly understands his responsibilities and what they mean,” Isaac Rousso said.
Lily Rousso, who is originally from Miami, Florida, agreed it was a formative moment for young Joey.
“Joey is only 12 but he’s passionate,” she said. “My son is always here working. He wants to be a part of it. Every day he asks me, ‘Mom, please, can I go to the fair?’ and I have to tell him, “No, there’s school first.’ Joey wants to serve everyone.”
The bond between Isaac and Joey Rousso is well-known. A viral video shows Isaac Rousso getting massive hugs from his son as the 2015 Big Tex Choice Awards were being announced.
“If you can go to Facebook, you can see the video with my son running up and jumping into my arms,” Isaac Rousso said. “He’s so excited because that was the moment they announced that we won ‘Most Creative.’ Joey is so passionate about what we do. That video has been viewed over 50,000 times already.”
It was a wonderful moment for the Roussos, who said their daughter Sarah also is dedicated to the success of the family venture.
“She is so proud of this business,” Isaac Rousso said.
Lily Rousso agreed.
“She’s always behind the cash register,” she said with a laugh.
Isaac Rousso said the values his children show mirror those of his family, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1962.
He said his father, the late Jose Rousso, and his mother, Bertha Rousso, taught him determination, dedication, and loyalty.
Isaac Rousso said his father, who passed away a few years ago, ran a merchant clothing store in west Dallas for over 40 years. (Other members of his family are still running that business.)
“My first job when I was 11 was making cotton candy for a five and dime and selling it in mornings and afternoon,” Isaac Rousso said. “Afterward, I would sweep out the back of my dad’s store. That was my first memory of the food business.”
Lily Rousso’s parents — Samuel and Magali Naon — imparted similar life lessons to her.
Lily Rousso said as a Cuban and Sephardic Jewish family they see a lot of different, unique foods cross their table during meals.
“I cook Cuban food and Jewish food all the time at home,” she said. “Our Shabbat dinners are Cuban and Sephardic. We have our challah, our rice and beans and our roast. It’s a nice combination.”
Tinkering with recipes
At times, Mark Zable comes across more like an inventor than a cook.
He likes to invent dishes such as “fried beer,” which is a pretzel pocket filled with liquid Shiner Bock and deep-fried.
“Remember the squirt gum?” Zable asked. “It’s like that — but with beer.”
Zable said he tries his best to stay inventive. Right now he is looking into creating “fried matzo ball soup.”
As someone who spent a major portion of his life working on the grounds of the fair, Mark Zable shared some of the funny stories he has to tell. Some are fairly historic.
There’s that time when, as a child, his father gave him a large sum of money and told him to exchange it for quarters for the concession stand. That was before everything at the Texas State Fair was paid for with tickets.
Zable remembers spending a large chunk of time dragging a huge, dead-heavy bag of quarters across the grounds of the Texas State Fair. It was a long, slow journey back to his father’s concession stand.
Then there’s the story of how Zable’s father originally created this Belgian Waffles stand business in the first place.
His father, Norman Zable, apparently “bent the truth” to get permission to sell the goods at the Texas State Fair in the early 1960s.
“He lied,” Mark Zable said with a laugh.
Norman Zable came forward to provide some clarity to the tale, which begins around 1962.
A young attorney at the time, Norman Zable said he first learned about Belgian waffles while reading a magazine article about the 1963 Seattle World’s Fair.
According to that magazine story, the national rights to the Belgian waffle recipe had been sold to a man named J. William Smith, who has since died.
A subsequent magazine article that Norman Zable read showed people eating Belgian waffles at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
Norman Zable decided to travel to New York and sample the waffles himself. That’s exactly what he and his wife did.
The Zables arrived and sampled the Belgian waffles. Impressed, Norman Zable tried to contact J. William Smith then and there to strike up a concession deal.
But Smith was not around at the time. Zable managed to get the owner’s name and address from the people working his stand.
After the couple returned to Dallas, Norman Zable immediately wrote separate letters to Smith and Texas State Fair officials trying to strike a concession deal.
He claimed he had exclusive rights to sell Belgian waffles at the Texas State Fair.
The truth is, he had no such rights. He was telling them a huge falsehood.
Shortly thereafter, Norman Zable received a letter from Texas State Fair officials informing him there were no concession stands available. So the entire effort seemed a waste of time.
But then, in July, a huge surprise came that changed everything.
A friend of Norman Zable’s sister, who was secretary to the general manager of the state fair at the time, revealed that his Belgian Waffles offer to the Texas State Fair had actually been accepted. No one knew of any refusal letter being sent.
“My sister’s girlfriend had actually prepared my contract,” Norman Zable said. “She said, ‘we (the Texas State Fair) are going to be the only fair besides New York that has Belgian waffles.”
With maybe 45 days before the opening of the Texas State Fair, Norman Zable was forced to make a mad dash:
He had to double back and secure Belgian waffles concession rights from Smith.
Then he had to procure the equipment and supplies needed to run a concessions stand.
“I had to make a lot of long-distance phone calls before I made the deal,” Norman Zable said. “After I got permission I agreed to front all the cash and he would provide the equipment.”
Making the deal with J. William Smith took some doing, but it got done, Norman Zable said.
During the first year of operations for the Zable Belgian Waffles stand, all that was on the menu was Belgian waffles, coffee, tea and ice cream sandwiches.
“Now we have wall-to-wall products with our waffles and it’s all held up pretty well,” Norman Zable said.
Business is still looking good for the Zables after all these years.
Mark Zable said the city of Dallas’ health department inspects his stands as many as 10 times over four days.
“One time I asked them ‘Why?’ and they told me ‘Because you serve more customers in one day than most places do in a year,’ ” Mark Zable said.
Mark Zable said many of the second and third generation concession stand workers who have grown up working at the fair have bonded over the years.
“I grew up with half of them and their kids,” he said. “When the fair starts each year, we have kind of a family reunion that lasts 24 days.”
The fair runs through Oct. 18.