It’s opening day of the OC Fair, and Charlie Boghosian is being pulled into so many different directions, it’s a surprise his limbs haven’t fallen off. His phone is ringing off the hook, as every local morning news program covering the fair wants a piece of his new deep-fried goodies. As he walks toward his newest “Pineapple Express” stand to see what’s going on in the kitchen, his family arrives at the fair. His oldest daughter Abby, 6, passes by, realizes it’s him and yells, “Daddy!”
It’s total chaos as summer fair season kicks off in Southern California, and as is the case every year for the last 20+ years, “Chicken Charlie” is the man of the hour, every hour.
“Let’s take this into my office,” Boghosian tells me, as the attention storm seemingly passes and he finally gets a chance to breathe and give his wife and four children proper hugs.
His office is a trailer behind one of his four food stands within the Orange County Fairgrounds. Before we go inside, we walk by a graveyard of pineapple boxes, easily in the hundreds, as he debuts a deep-fried pineapple on a stick, to accompany his classic hollowed out pineapple bowls.
With beads of sweat dripping from his brow, the 95-degree Southern California heat was in full effect, but still not stopping the hottest summertime commodity.
Boghosian is living the classic American dream: At the tender age of 11, his family immigrated to the U.S. from Syria, with dreams of working toward a better life. Boghosian took those dreams into a new dimension, however, creating a name for himself as the “Fry King,” and bringing off-kilter concepts into the mainstream, paving the way for the mind-blowing fried fair foods that have now become commonplace.
Charlie and his father atop the World Trade Center on their first day in the U.S./Photo courtesy of Charlie Boghosian
Make no mistake, that very American Dream that Charlie is living, has been molded by the fair.
Before foods such as fried Kool-Aid or bacon-wrapped pickles launched him into stardom, Boghosian was a kid who just wanted to get out of the routine of working at his dad’s San Diego grocery store.
“I saw an ad for the [San Diego County] fair, Del Mar Fair at the time,” Boghosian recalls. “I said, ‘Hey, Dad, can I go get a job at the fair? We can call it my vacation.'”
His dad gave him permission, and Boghosian worked the 1984 summer with a fair vendor by the name of Robert Jackson, who sold charbroiled corn at the Del Mar Fair and showed him the ropes.
What was supposed to be a break from monotony for Boghosian, turned into 12 straight summers of working the fair with Jackson.
With two criminal justice degrees in hand from San Diego State University, Boghosian was done with school. But instead of joining the force like he originally planned, he knew his true passion was making people smile with the power of food.
Deep-Fried Filet Mignon/Photo by Peter Pham/Foodbeast
The inspiration for his fried foods can come from anywhere, whether it’s strolling through the supermarket or sitting at a drive-thru. However, there are times that Boghoshian’s innovation comes, literally, from home.
Charlie and his wife Dawn Boghosian will take a couple of days out of the year to gather friends and family for what they call “Fry Fests.” The Fry Fests are a free-for-all at their San Diego home, and some items even make it onto the fair menu, like the iconic deep-fried Kool-Aid.
“They’re fun, crazy and a whole lot of mess, but all worth it,” Dawn Boghosian said of the backyard Fry Fests. “We invite whoever wants to be part of our shenanigans—family, friends…anyone who’s a little creative and likes to eat.”
Charlie with Guy Fieri/Photo courtesy of Charlie Boghosian
Boghosian recalls 1996 being special, as it was the year he took the fair into his own hands. After purchasing a vendor’s old broasted chicken trailer, and re-branding it as “Chicken Charlie’s,” Boghosian finally decided to take what he learned the last 12 years, and start his own fair food legacy.
After a couple of years selling broasted chicken, Charlie felt he needed to mix things up from just chicken and fries — that’s when the deep-fried Oreo was born.
“I went to the Hostess rack at 7-Eleven and started frying everything under the sun,” Boghosian said. “The Oreo cookie ended up being the best tasting one.”
Being a huge fan of McDonald’s growing up, Boghosian was inspired by the McDonald’s apple pie, which was previously fried before the 1992 baked version debuted. He knew his chicken needed a sweet pairing, and the Oreo experiment ended up being a hit.
Content with the deep-fried Oreo’s success, Charlie didn’t even anticipate going any further with fried items, but when pressed for more by a reporter at the Fresno County Fair, Boghosian felt he had to think of a way to top himself the next year.
“I was like, ‘Well, I fried an Oreo and it was delicious. Everyone loved it. What do you guys want?” Boghosian remembered.
An expectation of new fried foods was set, and Charlie wanted to deliver.
The following years, Boghosian started deep frying strawberries, bananas, pretzels, and even avocados — and the reputation of Chicken Charlie catapulted into stuff of legend.
“I’ll deep fry just about anything I can get my hands on. I’m looking at your glasses right now, and I want to fry them,” teased Charlie.
For the summer of 2018, Chicken Charlie’s hot new item is deep-fried filet mignon, where he fried 7,000 pounds of the premium cut for the San Diego County Fair alone. You’d never expect that a steak that’s considered a top cut, would work as a deep-fried food, but Charlie made it work, deliciously.
To produce such a massive frying operation for the fair, Chicken Charlie requires five truckloads, carrying around 22 pallets full of frying oil. Not to mention another two truckloads for the flour that coats all these delicious fried concoctions.
And the fairs love it all.
“Charlie is a great ambassador for the OC Fair and his innovative creations keep fairgoers coming back year after year to see what’s new, and what’s crazy,” Terry Moore OC Fair spokesperson said. “He has a knack for combining things that shouldn’t work together, but do. He really is an institution at the OC Fair.”
Being in fairs across California, Texas, and Arizona, Boghosian has launched an unexpected food career that has transitioned into the brick-and mortar Chicken Charlie’s FRYBQ in San Diego, California. At the FRYBQ, Boghosian offers an array of fried foods that he has built his name with, along with some less intense salads and wraps, for those who need a breather from all the fried food madness.
Grilled teriyaki chicken and rice inside a pineapple bowl/Photo by Peter Pham/Foodbeast
Now, Charlie is opening a second San Diego location, as he envisions his restaurant becoming a nationwide chain, and eventually even finding a spot on The Las Vegas Strip.
“I want to be a legit restaurateur and have restaurants across America,” a determined Boghosian expressed. “My dream is to have a restaurant in Las Vegas, on the strip. Las Vegas, here I come.”
Chicken Charlie sure has come a long way from the young boy who just wanted a new summer job.
“Coming to America as a young kid, I wanted to work. I wanted to do great things. Who knew a little Oreo cookie would change my life the way it did?”