Strap on your fanny packs, your walking shoes, and your stretchy pants. It's State Fair time and that means one thing and one thing only: Fair food.
Minnesota State Fairgrounds
Behold, your ultimate guide to the new foods of the Minnesota State Fair 2016. Plan your visit accordingly.
Candied Bacon Donut Sliders
Sliced glazed donut holes with thick candied bacon and a chocolate red wine ganache. At Minnesota Wine Country. $9
Minnesota Wine Country is the most soulless, pandering food stop in the fairgrounds. Decorated like an off-brand HGTV chalet, Wine Country preys on lowest-common-denominator trends. So of course they have bacon donut sliders. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. While the candied maple bacon is a nice blend of sweet and smoky, the delicate doughnut buns are desperately dry. Too much pizazz, not enough execution.
Grilled SPAM®, sushi rice, fried egg, and wasabi rolled in nori (dried seaweed). At Sushi Rolls. $6 for three, $8 for five.
Spam is salty. So is soy sauce. You’d think that the two would make for a particularly stifling pair, but Sushi Rolls does a great job offsetting the sodium levels with spongy fried egg. Spam sushi is also a great excuse to try wasabi on canned meat -- and that sort of anarchic culinary experimentation is what the State Far is all about.
Minnesota Corn Dog
Custom ground sausage on-a-stick made with blueberries, apples, wild rice, maple syrup, and cayenne dipped in a homemade corn dog batter and deep-fried. At Gass Station Grill. $5
As lovers of corn dogs and Minnesota, we wanted so badly to like this simple, cheap twist on a Fair classic. But whatever interest the ground sausage offered was lost in the greasy, loose batter-casing surrounding it. The key to good frying is crispness and levity. This had neither. Minnesota deserves a better namesake corndog.
A Taiyaki (fish-shaped) buttermilk miso waffle cone filled with balsamic-roasted strawberry compote and topped with vanilla ice cream, graham cracker crumble, and a fresh strawberry. At the Rabbit Hole. $6
This ice cream treat has it all: clever name, whimsical presentation, and knockout ingredients. The Carpe Diem from Rabbit Hole is served in a miso waffle cone shaped like a fish with a gaping mouth, the better to hold your sweet treat. A ladle of luxurious strawberry-balsamic sauce goes in first, followed by a generous serving of ultra-rich vanilla ice cream, topped with graham cracker crumbs and a strawberry. The miso gives the cone an unusual depth of flavor; it’s an integral part of the dish, not just a receptacle for the ice cream. Seize the day and get one of these cones.
Rustic Beef Pastry
Moroccan-spiced, grass-fed beef and baby spinach topped with creamy goat cheese and nestled in a flakey butter crust. At French Meadow Bakery & Café. $6
It’s disappointing when food looks much better than it tastes, and so it was with the rustic beef pastry from French Meadow. Moroccan-spiced grass-fed beef and baby spinach are layered into a croissant shaped like a tiny life boat, then topped with nuggets of goat cheese. The pastry was room temperature and tasted like it had been sitting out for a while. The filling was sparse, the goat cheese cold and firm instead of soft and melty. If your timing is right and you can snag one of these fresh out of the oven, they might be pretty good.
Macaroni & Cheese Curds
Rich macaroni & cheese blended with fresh cheese curds. At Oodles of Noodles. $9
This is nacho average plate of macaroni and cheese! By which we mean this incomprehensible mix of cheese curds, fancy cavatappi noodles, and honest-to-god orange nacho cheese is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted or would ever want to taste. It’s salty, it’s one-note, and it all comes served up with a dense breadstick to send your pancreas into overdrive, baby! Did we mention these are just noodles doused in nacho cheese and tossed with cheese curds for a whopping $9?
Cheesy French Onion Monkey Bread
Savory, pull-apart artisan bread loaf filled with caramelized onions, cheese, and beef broth, then baked in a wood-fired oven. At Blue Moon Dine-In Theater. $7
If you prefer your soup on a bread bowl, Blue Moon’s Cheesy French Onion Monkey Bread is ideal. A globe of stringy swiss sits atop the pullapart bread and translucent onions with a savory jus poured over the top. It’s a clever reverse engineering of the classic starter, though it’s a bit odd to eat soup with your hands. Do it anyway and gobble it quickly before the bread gets too soggy.
A bed of crispy French fries topped with Ragin’s traditional New Orleans gumbo made with andouille sausage, chicken, bell peppers, onions, celery, and a rich roux-based sauce, then finished off with cheese and green onions. At Ragin Cajun. $7
We were thoroughly surprised by these guys. At first glance, before the shredded cheese had a chance to melt atop the gravy-laden fries, we thought it would be a sloppy, two-bit rendition of a Canadian classic. But this bayou-poutine proved us wrong. It’s not exactly gumbo gracing these crispy French fries, but it’s a damn tasty gravy with bits of spicy ham that had us reaching in for more. Don’t sleep on this curious wonder.
Iron Range Meat & Potatoes
A hearty portion of seasoned beef with a layer of cheddar cheese, topped with mashed potatoes, baked, and drizzled with a wild rice gravy. At Giggles’ Campfire Grill. $8
So maybe you didn’t come to the State Fair to get a solid, rib-sticking meal. But let’s say you did, eh? The Iron Range Meat and Potatoes would be your first and only stop. This hearty shepherd’s pie is actual food in a sea of gimmicky pretenders. Real meatloaf with bits of sweet corn is frosted with real mashed potatoes (with bits of red potato skin!) and dressed with a savory gravy. If you’re looking for sustenance -- and flavor -- look no further.
A flour tortilla baked with butter and shredded parmesan, filled with Italian sausage and mozzarella, topped with roasted bruschetta, romaine lettuce, Caesar dressing, pesto, pizza sauce, and parmesan cheese, and then drizzled with a balsamic glaze. At Green Mill. $5
When a pizza has “everything but the kitchen sink” we still expect a bit of thought will go into the combination of toppings. But here, we truly have the kitchen sink. This amalgam of Italian flavors runs roughshod over any sense of propriety and order. Caesar dressing, pesto, marinara, balsamic -- find all this and some sausage bits, soggy lettuce, and cheese wrapped in a parmesan-crusted flour tortilla. It’s cheap at just $5, but what cost dignity?
Strawberry Donut Delight
A fresh glazed donut sliced in half and filled with strawberries and whipped cream – like a shortcake sandwich! At the Strawberry Patch. $6
While we give them an “A” for using local donut juggernaut Grandma’s Bakery donuts in this anted-up version of a strawberry shortcake, this is more proof that classics are rarely improved upon. A glazed donut, split and filled with macerated strawberries and whipped cream is still too sweet for its own good, and in the end begs for the time-honored subtlety of shortcake. Luckily, they’ve got that too, so don’t be like us and succumb to the siren song of “new.”
Lamb dog served hot in a bun with garlic sautéed kale, raw fermented sauerkraut, quinoa, and honey mustard drizzle. (Gluten-free option without the bun.) At Lamb Shoppe. $8
It may seem like a strange juxtaposition to top a hot dog with fresh, healthy ingredients, but the fair is all about odd food combinations. The centerpiece of the sheep dog from the Lamb Shoppe is a honey-infused lamb dog that is a standout on its own, made from grass-fed sheep raised by Doug Rathke and Connie Karsten in Hutchinson. But it is buried beneath three of-the-moment foodie ingredients: quinoa, kale, and raw kraut. The kale and the kraut added some crunch, along with some tang from the kraut, but the quinoa gave a strange texture to every bite.
Deep Fried Nachos Supreme
Pepper jack cheese cubes coated with a mixture of crushed seasoned tortilla chips and nacho cheese, then deep-fried, covered with taco meat, guacamole, more nacho cheese, and sour cream, and served with jalapeños on the side. Also available traditional-style without the supreme toppings. At Texas Steak Out. $9
We chuckle at the thought that there is a “traditional style” of deep-fried nachos. Nothing about this dish speaks to tradition. What it does speak to -- scream, in fact -- is a desire to be the most outrageous, state-fairiest food of all. And in that contest, this would be a serious contender. Otherwise, this one's a clunker. The crushed nacho tortilla chips feel already chewed. (It gave us hideous flashbacks to a girl in middle school who used to chew up Doritos and store them in the top of her retainer for later.) These are then balled up around cheese, fried into a crust, and served with lunchroom-quality ground beef, salsa, sour cream, and a squirt of liquid guacamole. Nothing supreme about it.
Paneer On A Spear
Deep-fried Indian-seasoned paneer cheese coated with a local craft beer batter and served with tomato garlic chutney. (Gluten-free) At Hot Indian at the Midtown Global Market booth. Available Aug. 31-Sept. 5 only.
Barbecued Shrimp Taco
Sweet, smoky, slightly spicy barbecued shrimp and cool, fresh jicama slaw in a warm flour tortilla. At Tejas Express. $10
The barbecued shrimp tacos at Tejas Express were the most pleasant surprise of the day. It can seem like seafood and the State Fair don’t really go together. But the shrimp were big and succulent, and there were lots of them. The chipotle barbecue sauce was definitely a few notches past Minnesota spicy, and the fresh and crisp jicama slaw provided a crunchy and cooling counterpoint. It would have been a nice touch to warm the corn tortillas on the griddle, but that’s a quibble.
Candied Bacon BLT
Crispy, thick candied bacon, rancher’s slaw, and green tomato spread on a sweet egg bun. At The Blue Barn. $8
Because the phrase “candied bacon” sells like wine at a “Mommy and Me” club, you absolutely have to have it at the fair, and here it is. But don’t rush right over. This is more candy than bacon, all lacquered down sugar and very little smoke. And the bigger crime is that in place of real tomato, during tomato season(!), there is but a dim swipe of tomato jam and another of smoked tomato mayo. The brioche-like bun is nice, but this doesn’t come close to your own BLT with garden-fresh produce and straight-up Miracle Whip.
Saucy Shrimp & Slaw
Breaded shrimp tossed in your choice of parmesan garlic, sweet chili, or buffalo sauce on a bed of fresh coleslaw. At Fish & Chips Seafood Shoppe. $10.95
For kind of a jazzed-up turn on popcorn shrimp, Saucy Shrimp & Slaw takes crispy breaded shrimp bits and slathers them in a choice of Parmesan garlic, sweet chili, or buffalo sauce.The seasoned batter is really the standout here. You could roll anything in the nicely peppered meal and drop it into boiling grease and you’d have a dish worth serving. Having that breadiness balanced by sauce and well-creamed slaw makes this a satisfying bite.
Spicy Pork Bowl
A mix of adobo pulled pork, rice, black beans, spinach, charred salsa, and fried onion strings. At the Blue Barn.$9
The ubiquity of the rice bowl being what it is, we’re not sure why we should encourage you to get one at the fair, except that this is a damn good bowl. The pork is at once smoky yet lightly sweet, performing an impressive balancing act that many porks cannot. The rice is tinged with herbaceous goodness, and hard cooked greens and tender black beans provide a solid base. A dollop of also excellently balanced “charred” salsa plus a finishing shower of fried onion makes this one of the most balanced things we’ve ever had at the fair, though you’re not at the fair for balance, we know.
Cajun Peel-N-Eat Shrimp
A half-pound of shrimp seasoned in a blend of Caribbean spices and served cold with a side of cocktail sauce. At Café Caribe. $10
Grease, batter, and sodium. This is the pedigree of fair foods. But that’s where Club Med-themed margarita house Café Caribe changes things up. Their cajun peel-n-eat shrimp are a fresh reprieve from the slog of deep-fried whatever on a stick. Tender and firm tails in split shells are lightly dusted with a zesty off-the-shelf cajun spice. The only real criticism is that you lose a lot of the seasoning when removing the shell, but overall, this is a welcome addition to the fairgrounds.
Reuben Pickle Dog
A dill pickle spear with sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing wrapped in a slice of corned beef. At Pickle Dog. $7
Roast beef and cream cheese were never part of the Reuben recipe, but the State Fair is all about culinary iconoclasm. Pickle Dog swaddles its famous dill spears in a half inch of cream cheese and wraps it all in a slice of deli roast beef (which they claim is pastrami?). Voila, Reuben Pickle Dog. Despite the liberal interpretation of the New York City classic, there are strands of sauerkraut, and this new addition to the outside-the-bun hot dog cart is a strange and refreshing delight.
Burnt Butt Ends
Premium cuts of pork, seasoned with a BBQ rub, then smoked over oak and served with onions and jalapeños. At RC’s BBQ. $8
Happy to see the name Famous Dave’s removed from the experience of BBQ at the fair, we still found the burnt butt ends lacking where it comes to the knee-buckling experience of good ‘que. There’s a bad old joke that goes something like: “the food wasn’t very good and there wasn’t enough of it!” And so it is at RC’s. The burnt butt ends are a minuscule portion for the $8 price tag, and the accompanying jalapeños and raw onions feel like space filler. All that said, the reasonably tender and smoky nuggets beat last year’s Famous Dave’s “buffalo’d bones” debacle, so there’s that.
Deep Fried Grilled Cheese Bites
White cheddar cheese blended with beer batter, cubed, and deep-fried for a taste reminiscent of a grilled cheese sandwich. Served with a bloody Mary mix marinara. At O’Gara’s at the Fair. $8
We know it’s the fair and we know we’re dousing everyone’s fun in gasoline and tossing a match on it, but hear us now: There is only so much a coat of batter and grease can do to augment a food. Did grilled cheese need to be deep-fried? Wouldn’t adding another layer of breading to the mix only upset the balance of bread to cheese? We found these too greasy to enjoy, the cheese too mild to sing through the overpowering breading, and the marinara with nary a hint of Bloody Mary mix.
Beer Brat Buddies
Oktoberfest beer brat in a German pretzel bun with sauerkraut, chopped onions, and a choice of mustards — a serving for two! At Sausage Sister & Me. $7
The Oktoberfest beer brat buddies from Sausage Sister & Me are mini-brats in German pretzel buns, served two to an order. They’re tasty, but at the end of the day, they’re just diminutive brats. They come unadorned, so take advantage of the variety of condiments and toppings to jazz things up to your liking. There are the usual suspects: ketchup, mustard, ranch dressing, onions, and sauerkraut. But try some of the more unique offerings. The sriracha sauce has some zip to it, but the hands-down favorite was the Thai-inflected peanut sauce. Somehow it just works with the brats.
Cheese-flavored SPAM® that has been cubed, battered, and deep-fried, served with a side of ranch dressing. At SPAM®. $7
Every year, the fair has to have a true dog, and this one is it. We almost hate that it’s so bad because it’s such an easy target, but there it is. This thing is as much cheese curd as Spam is meat. Which is to say, not very. Breaded and deep-fried spam cubes hide an insignificant trickle of processed cheese sauce within. The top note is salt, the bottom note is salt, the middle note is salt. If you want any of these, just inspect nearby trash receptacles. Intact containers full are sure to be found.
Bang Bang Fresh Chicken Tenders
Lightly breaded, fresh, never-frozen fried chicken tenderloins served with Bang Bang sweet and tangy chili sauce. At LuLu’s Public House. $6
Chicken tenders. Is there any more snooze-worthy phrase in the food universe? But here on Dan Patch Avenue at one of those generic-seeming beer vending stalls, we dare say we just ate the chicken tender of our lives. Which is kind of like drinking the bottled water of your life. Subtly exciting, yet exciting! For once not an oxymoron, these tenders are in fact tender, with sophisticated breading and frying and a handmade buffalo sauce (also available with BBQ) riding sidecar that’s at once fiery, creamy, and cracking fresh. One of our favorite bites. Wonders do not cease at the Minnesota State Fair.
New frozen treats:
La La Palooza Sundae
At Bridgeman's Ice Cream. $25
For their 80th birthday, Bridgeman’s brought their behemoth La La Palooza sundae to the State Fair. It’s a hulking, eight-scoop monstrosity that defies any and all rationale. Pineapple chunks sit atop butter brittle ice cream. Strawberry topping covers pecans and mounds of chocolate. Everything melts into a Neapolitan nightmare that will draw gasps from fairgoers and Bridgeman’s employees alike. It’s such a spectacle that each buy comes with an “I ate a La La Palooza” button that’s the size of a softball. Pure, beautiful spectacle.
Verdict: Scarf! Slowly... and with help.
CRACKER JACK® Caramel Sundae
At Goertze's Dairy Kone. $7
The folks at Goertze’s Dairy Kone get bonus points for presentation and personality. The jocular mien of our server put a smile on our face – as did the Cracker Jack caramel sundae he handed us. The monster concoction features Goertze’s famous vanilla soft serve “Ice Kreme,” topped with caramel sauce, mini M&Ms, and a drizzle of hot fudge all swathed in whipped cream. It’s piled into an actual Cracker Jack box, so you find a surprise layer of caramel corn on the bottom. It’s big enough to share, which is good, because everyone will want some.
Call It Breakfast
At Dairy Goodness Bar, Midwest Dairy Association. $5
You can get the Call It Breakfast as a malt or a sundae, but to be honest, there isn’t much difference between the two. They’re both extremely creamy iced treats topped with doughnut sprinkles and chunks of what taste like A Baker’s Wife doughnuts. Would you actually eat this dessert for breakfast? Maybe if you’re a hedonist with no sense of self-preservation, to wit a fairgoer. Whatever the hour, the Dairy Building should be proud to host this democratically elected sweet treat.
Chocolate Agate Crunch
At Hamline Church Dining Hall. $5 for a single, $7 for a double.
Ice cream fans, and especially Izzy’s fanatics, should get over to the Hamline Church Dining Hall for some chocolate agate crunch, a new flavor inspired by the Minnesota state gemstone, the Lake Superior agate. There is a lot going on with this frozen treat. It starts with Izzy’s chocolate caramella ice cream, streaked through with a salted caramel swirl, then adds Oreo cookie crumbles and edible chocolate “rocks.” And of course, you get an Izzy’s scoop on top. May we suggest the mini-donut batter crunch?
At R&R Ice Cream. $5
Real-deal homestyle ice cream is churned with the help of John Deere engines at this ice cream stand. As the machines pump away noisily, you’ll enjoy a soft cool vanilla treat, laced with peanut butter and the flavor of real fresh bananas. It comes in (gasp!) a reasonable portion and feels slightly healthier for the addition of bananas. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But it’s tasty and pure and feels right at home at the State Fair.
Minnesnowii Shave Ice Maple Bacon
At Minnesnowii Shave Ice. $6
Bacon is a trope at the fair as tired as a mom dragging three kids through the midway, but we give this credit for actually working. Working, that is, if you ever thought of icing down your pancake breakfast. Maple flavored ice sends “breakfast” straight to your dome. The bacon is just bacon bits from a Kirkland bag, but whatever. Add a squeeze of “snow cream” (sweetened condensed milk) for that extra dash of crazy.
Banana Cinnamon & Cream Dipped in Dark Chocolate
At JonnyPops. $5
So pure, they almost don’t belong at the fair, Minnesota’s own JonnyPops taste of what they are. In this case, real ripe banana, excellent dark chocolate, and spice-cabinet levels of cinnamon. It's perhaps a little heavy on the latter; you gotta be a true lover of that potent spice to go for this particular flavor. If you’re not, try one of their many others including strawberries and cream, mangoes and cream, and pineapple coconut, all made with real fruit and real cream. A portion of their proceeds always goes to Hazelden and the Betty Ford Foundation.
All photos by Jerard Fagerberg, Mary Jo Rasmussen, and Mecca Bos.