MN State Fair food adventures by the dozen
Every year, the list of new foods to anticipate at the Great Minnesota Get-Together is overwhelming. No sane fairgoer would attempt to eat them all. But it is possible to get a broad sampling in a short amount of time without overdoing it. What follows is a blueprint for one path to new-fair-food satiety (your results may vary).
If possible, get the worst out of the way first. Arrive around lunchtime on the first day. Find that things are not boding well when you discover that the first new food-on-a-stick you want to try does not have the innocuous name of Sweetie's Delights that was promised in the fair literature. Be already annoyed that you have to say aloud the words "Sweety Balls on a Stick." Said balls ($6) turn out to be oversized battered lumps of tooth-achingly sugary sweet potatoes, served with a "dipping sauce" of whipped cream. They fall apart as soon as you pick up the stick. If these were more practicably sized they'd make a halfway decent dessert, but as it is, you decide they're best mostly forgotten and move on.
Next, happen upon one of the five Rainbow Ice Cream stands at the fair, which serve the new Bacon Ice Cream ($6 for a waffle cone). Find it underwhelming: It has a good maple flavor, but not enough bacon to make for a good salty/sweet balance.
Then decide to hit up some ringers. The odds are pretty good that the new item at Famous Dave's will be a winner, though unlikely to top their chocolate-covered bacon entry of a few years ago (and that item is improved this year, using full strips of bacon and chocolate from B.T. McElrath). Ragin' Ankles ($6) are five small chunks of pig leg, slow-smoked and then fried, cooked on the bone, which serves as a handle as well as keeping the meat wonderfully tender. They're slathered in a sauce flavored with pineapple and habanero. While more mild than the use of that pepper implies, the heat slowly sneaks up you as you polish them off.
Nearby at the French Meadow, Gluten-Free Risotto Poppers ($6) are new this year. As you order them, resist the urge to pronounce the first word as the typo on the menu board reads: "glutten." The balls of arborio rice, black beans, cheese, and scallions coated in crushed corn tortilla chips are spicy and tasty and would make a great bar snack. But even better is the other new item, a Scone with Sausage and Gravy ($7). The fluffy buttermilk scone perfectly soaks up the traditional red gravy, which has a bit of bite. Wish that you'd shown up early enough to eat this for breakfast, and regret that despite your best intentions you know you never will.
Take a break from eating. Pacing is important. Check out the crop art and take notice of the scarecrows on display in the same room: Have they always been so weird? After a visit to the Fine Arts Building, head up to Giggles Campfire Grill, where an out-of-the-way location and outdoorsy vibe belie the generally great food. Be impressed but not surprised by the debut of the excellent Classic Walleye Roll ($8.25), in which a thick piece of brioche is toasted, drenched in butter, and topped with a pile of chilled fresh walleye mixed with celery, wild rice, a blend of spices and lots of dill, and served with a lemon wedge. It's a hearty meal, yet refreshing and light amid the deep-fried everything.
Now it might be time to switch out your tasting companion; not everyone loves to try new fair foods as much as you do. Leave the fair briefly and return with someone who has talked you, against your better judgment, into attending the Bonnie Raitt concert that evening (okay, it's your mom). Before the show, try Duke's Poutine ($5). Be amazed that the Canadian delicacy of French Fries covered in cheese curds and gravy has not already been a fair staple for years. Find that this version is pretty good, and reasonably priced, but could use more cheese.
After an ear of not-new-this-year sweet corn (which is not your only detour from the mission; some old favorites are hard to resist), it's time for dessert again. Head to Ole's Cannoli in Heritage Square. The sweetened-ricotta-stuffed fried pastry tubes come sprinkled with powdered sugar or dipped in chocolate. You'd better sample both. Deem them good but not the best cannoli you've ever had, very filling, and extremely messy.
Go to the food building with the intention of trying at least two new items but find that you're losing steam. At Sausage Sisters, get the Great Balls of Fire ($5.50), three sausage meatballs to which you can add sauces, among them a cool cucumber and a sweet raspberry that both play nicely against the spicy meat.
Know when to give up. Call it a night after the concert, which Mavis Staples opens and which you enjoy more than expected before it ends early because of a threatening storm.
Delay your return trip until 8 p.m. Saturday. Bring a third tasting companion and arrive hungry. After making your way through a teeming throng of hyper teenagers, stop at a place you've walked by a hundred times but never really looked at, the Frontier Bar. Marvel at all the kitsch: a mechanical man playing piano, wagon-wheel chandeliers, cattle skulls, and much more. Order the new Yosemite SAMwich ($6): a soft sesame-seed bun filled with spiced ground beef topped with nacho cheese sauce, barbecue sauce, bacon bits, and crispy breaded and fried onions. It's a glorified sloppy joe, but the added crunchiness really does elevate the concept. Grateful that the cheese sauce has been applied sparingly, you find the whole thing delicious, but concede that hunger could be influencing that conclusion. Guzzle a Grain Belt Premium, the perfect complement to your sandwich, while watching a lovely pink and purple sunset over the Midway.
Escape the Old West and visit the more modern confines of Minnesota Wine Country. The spacious and dimly lit room offers wine by the flight and two glass sizes, as well as the new Wine Smoothie ($9). It's made with Winehaven Raspberry, which on its own is way too sweet but is perfect in this application, making for an intensely fruity, alcoholic slushie. Portobello Bites ($9) are just as crave-worthy, if a bit pricey: Four wedges of the mushroom sit atop a bit of melty cheese, roasted garlic sauce, and a slice of crunchy toasted baguette. The Antipasto Plate ($9) doesn't meet the same standard. The promised bison sausage is just two small half-circles, the roasted peppers are mere specks among the olives, and the cheese is lots of boring mild cheddar and provolone, along with a small Brie wedge: not terrible but not terribly interesting.
Take a breather from the food to drink in some live reggae and more beer. While shopping in the International Bazaar, have your plans to track down new foods further derailed by free samples of cinnamon-roasted pecans and veggie samosas. Arrive at the Blue Moon Diner just in time to place the last order of the day, for Cereal Killer Ice Cream ($5). The Cocoa Puffs version is sold out, which leaves the Honey Nut Cheerios flavor. It's supposed to taste like the milk left in the bottom of the cereal bowl, and it does, except way richer. There's dry cereal on top, more of which would be welcome to cut the heaviness of the ice cream. It's not quite perfect, but it's the perfect last thing to eat at the fair.
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