Throw on your best Uff Da tee and prepare to promptly drizzle hot grease down the front of it: As of Thursday morning, 2018's Great Minnesota Get Together has begun.
City Pages was there, eating all the Official New State Fair Foods and sorting them with our highly scientific Skip, Shrug, Scarf! system. Because you can’t—or at least, shouldn’t—eat them all yourself.
There are some real clunkers out there.
Mangonada Shave Ice
Mango-flavored shave ice drizzled with Mexican chamoy sauce, dusted with tajin chili powder, topped with popping mango boba pearls and served with a tamarind candy straw. At Minnesnowii Shave Ice $6
This, folks, is the ultimate fair refreshment on a steamy day. Expertly spiced and popping with color, the mountain of fluffy ice sneaks subtle mango flavor throughout and has a sweetness that deliciously intermingles with the kick of chamoy and chili. Those generously sprinkled boba balls? They pop triumphant, just like sugary caviar. The mad flavor scientists behind this treat, armed with the knowledge that ice melts, even incorporated a tamarind-encrusted straw. Genius! Big enough for two, it’s a thriftily delightful dessert.
Irish Tater Kegs
Jumbo deep-fried tater tots made with a blend of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, sour cream and potatoes drizzled with house-made Thousand Island dressing and nestled on a bed of sauerkraut. At O’Gara’s at the Fair, $8
Irish Tater Kegs sounds like the name of the world’s most redheaded rugby team, but it’s actually the latest letdown from O’Gara’s (which last year brought you the offensively bad deep-fried avocado). They’re coming from the what-if-we-ruined-something-good school of thought again in 2018, taking everything that rules about tots—their crackly crunch, their bite-sized poppability—and getting rid of it. These mushy monsters are more like deep-fried mashed potatoes, with mini meat hunks that only further screw up the texture. The sauce asks, “What if we made Thousand Island, but more mayo-y? And, like the namesake keg, they’re heavy: These bad boys’ll sit in your stomach a full 24 hours.
Moroccan Sausage Bowl
Coarse ground beef and lamb sausage seasoned with herbs, sweet spices and a hint of red pepper, cooked with carrots, turnips and chick peas, and topped with sautéed onions and a green olive. At Sausage by Cynthia, $7
For those in the know, Sausage by Cynthia is a fair favorite, serving up a half-dozen varieties of the best sausages on the Midway. Their experimental offering for 2018 is a greasy bowl of spiced meat that goes heavy on the cumin. The Moroccan sausage bowl is almost a stew, but it’d probably work best as the filling to a pita or hoagie roll. As always with Cynthia, you’re getting high-quality meat—and a hearty blend of beef and lamb, too—but the format just doesn’t feel right. Good if you’re gluten free, but if not, stick to the classics.
Smoked Soft Serve Ice Cream
Cold-smoked cream available in two flavors: Cold Brew Coffee infused with cold-smoked Arabica beans or Muscovado Sugar Vanilla. At Blue Moon Dine-In Theater, $7-8
This. This is what you need for breakfast. Why waste time surviving two lines and finding a snack and a caffeine wake-up, separately, when both desires are met so sweetly in this little cup? A swirl of unremarkable-looking ice cream is wedded with a thin Oreo and just-charred marshmallow on a stick, cute accompaniments there to remind you you’re swooning for this dish at a state fair. Without them, you’d mistake this for your send-off at a diner you dream about. One piled-up serving size is probably big enough to share, but don’t sell your sweet tooth short.
Triple Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake
Dense chocolate cake with chocolate chips and fudge icing smothered with strawberries and whipped cream. At The Strawberry Patch, $6
The strawberries themselves are tasty, but you’ll find them wading in a syrupy pool that threatens to engulf an island of mushy chocolate cake. And that cake is the real letdown here. To strike the right balance of tastes, it needs to assert itself against the overwhelming sweetness of the strawberries with a chocolatey distinction, but it shrinks cravenly from the challenge like a fucking coward. In a year with so many new dessert triumphs at the fair, you don’t have the extra stomach real estate to squander on an inadequate treat like this.
A blend of seasoned ground beef and Italian pork sausage smothered in marinara, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and served on crusty Italian bread. At Mancini’s al Fresco, $7.75
Although it resembles one, the Messy Giuseppe isn’t a cafeteria-grade sloppy joe—it’s much, much worse. Upon first bite, you’re assaulted with sodium, rendering the dish almost inedible. It’s like someone pulled the ol’ loosened salt shaker prank over the meaty crumbles. Surely, Mancini’s can’t mess up the Messy Giuseppe’s bread… right? Wrong! Billed as crusty, the actual product serves as a squishy bed for the sauce-soaked main event. Somehow, even the pepperoncini graded out poorly.
Fresh shrimp, cucumbers, jalapeños, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro tossed with a citrus lime juice and served cold with tortilla chips. At Shrimp Shack, $7
Unless it’s fried, seafood is a gamble at the fair, and it probably isn’t something most revelers seek out. But we were pleasantly surprised with the shrimp ceviche from the aptly named Shrimp Shack. The dish is served well chilled, with chopped shrimp added to a veggie-heavy, salsa-like mixture that includes fresh tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeño, and lime juice. It all comes together for an easy to eat summer snack. Served with tortilla chips, this isn’t a complicated option. It's not all that exciting, but it is fresh. And sometimes simple and well executed can be better.
Sweet Greek Cheese Puffs
Flaky phyllo dough filled with feta and ricotta cheese, deep-fried, drizzled with honey and topped with powdered sugar. At Dino’s Gyros, $5
Based on looks, it would be easy to assume that these golden, honey-drenched pastries take their inspiration from baklava. In actuality, the Sweet Greek Cheese Puffs are closer to a dessert version of a cream cheese wonton... in that the feta and ricotta filling tastes just like cream cheese. But the phyllo dough is exactly how it should be: flaky, buttery, light, and not so delicate that it breaks down in your hands.The drizzle of honey on top is worthless; you’ll want to submerge your phyllo in the sweet nectar pooling at the bottom of the cardboard serving dish. This treat also gets points for not being overwhelmingly sweet, something baklava isn't exactly known for.
Fresh-made waffle wraps in seven sweet and savory varieties. At Nordic Waffles, Prices Vary
You know how Ikea is only sometimes worth the insanity? Even when you score a great deal? Nordic Waffles is the State Fair’s Ikea. In both the savory and sweet varieties we tried, the waffles sported crisp edges with an overall chewy, crepe-like texture befitting their role as contents-wranglers. The “Slammin Salmon on a Stick” ($10) is delicious and shockingly generous in its smoked-salmon-to-cream-cheese ratio, even if the actual waffle-on-a-stick felt more cumbersome than effective. On the sweet side, the “S’more” ($7) was sweet but unexpectedly finishable, owing to a pleasant balance between its Nutella, marshmallow creme, and crunch graham guts. Now, consider that it took a half-hour to navigate their line… at 10 a.m. Only you can decide for yourself if, at the end of that wait, a waffle will end up making you a crabbier or happier person.
Firecracker Shrimp Stuffed Avocado
Gulf white shrimp tossed with lime, onion, black beans, tomato and fire-roasted corn in a garlic aioli, drizzled with cilantro-infused olive oil, stuffed in avocado halves and served open-face with flatbread. At The Hideaway Speakeasy, $14
The ways in which the Hideaway’s stuffed avocado is despicable are legion. First, there’s the sloppy, watery seafood salad they try to pass off as “firecracker shrimp.” It tastes like the filter of an aquarium. Then, there’s the avocado, which cups the salad poorly, mayo runoff pooling in the center where the pit used to be. Next, the crackers. Brittle on the outside and spongy in the middle, they’re closer to cardboard than the “flatbread” the Hideaway sells them as. Most insulting: the price. Fourteen of your hard-earned dollars for what amounts to cafeteria slop served up on the trendy foodstuff du jour.
Pepperoni Chips with Roasted Red Pepper Queso
Thinly sliced fried pepperoni chips served with a warm roasted red pepper cheese sauce. At LuLu’s Public House, $7
Poor queso. It could not have known it was giving its life in service of such an ill-advised item. Take everything you like about mediocre pepperoni—a toothy, greasy bite, giving way to some other reward beneath—and substitute the experience of clicking your chompers through a communion wafer. Somehow, add salt. Multiply by 120, roughly how many of these dry disks arrive in a tray from a vendor that, more often than not, gets its bar snack send-ups right. This one can’t even be rescued by a flavored melty cheese side. After some practice, the chips could perhaps be flicked horizontally to pick off insects.
General Tso Chicken Taco
Battered and deep-fried chicken tossed in a sauce of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and Asian spices, with seasoned cream cheese and topped with wonton crisps and green onion, served on a flour tortilla. At Midtown Global Market’s Taco Cat, $12 (Available Aug. 23-28 only)
Taco Cat is run by magicians. Full stop. They created one of the only foods at the fair that tasted like real food. Moreover, there was almost no wait from the time of ordering to when the tacos were put in-hand. And what they made was so good, everyone had that precious Minnesota Moment™ in which the last bite was politely passive-aggressed over… because we all wanted it, without wanting to rob anyone else of its beauty. The breading on the chicken was super crispy without being heavy, despite the speed with which it was produced (sorcery, we declare!). Their General Tso’s sauce toed the zing-to-tang line just right, and neither taco was weighed down by too much cream cheese or overly pungent scallions. Keep in mind: Like all good magicians, these folks will disappear into thin air as of the 28th (leaving room for Mama D’s to fill some big shoes with its barbecue).
Swedish Meatball Smörgås
Meatball sandwich with three traditional Swedish pork and beef meatballs topped with white gravy, lingonberry sauce, and dill pickles. At The Blue Barn, $8.95
More like sweet-ish meatballs. The chopped pickle trying to pass itself off as relish, the seasoned Elmer’s glue calling itself gravy, the balls of meat which technically do meet the minimum requirements to qualify as “meatballs,” the unremarkable hot dog bun that dares the foolhardy to expect it to support the goopy contents—everything about this concoction is weirdly candied and sugary. The lingonberry, which should be there to cut against the savory, adds yet another unnecessary layer of sweetness.
Honey Cream Soda Float
Honey cream soda (made without sugar) poured over Minnesota Grown honey ice cream. At Minnesota Honey Producers Association, $9
Here's the thing: This is a delight of a dessert. The effervescent, honey-essenced soda is a damn dream. Would buy bottled. The ice cream? So creamy and just-right sweet, Ben and Jerry should be nervous. It's refreshing on a hot day; the velvety texture is liquid luxury. But for nine bucks? Sure, bees have to fly more than 55,000 miles to make a single pound of honey, but it's still sort of tough to justify trekking to the nearest ATM and shelling out that much for a float.
Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl
Ahi tuna, avocado, mango, and pico de gallo tossed in a Hawaiian ginger-soy sauce served cold over rice with a fried wonton. At Café Caribe, $9.50
Visually, you’re looking at bougie dog food. The mini-blocks of ahi tuna—some bits mush, some bits rough—are a vaguely fishy letdown. When they’re combined with pico de gallo, avocado, and mango, a slimy, mostly flavorless glop is your reward. Up top, the fried wonton crumbles uselessly; down low, the piping-hot rice warms everything into a room-temp mélange of regret. Trust your instincts: Avoid raw fish at the fair.
Waffles blended with pepperoni and mozzarella, topped with a parmesan herb blend and served with pepperoni-infused maple syrup or marinara sauce. At Green Mill, $5
We actually wished these pizza-waffle hybrids had a bit more pizza going on—you get notes of oregano rather than 'roni or mozz flavor in the kinda bready, kinda cakey sticks. They're on the dry side, but there, the pepperoni-infused syrup (which you should absolutely go for over basic-ass marinara—this is the fair!) offers a surprise assist. It's just lightly kissed by cured meat, making for a savory-sweet sauce we'd consider dipping our crusts in any day.
Rainbow Cloud Roll
Three scoops of ice cream (Superman, vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate) sprinkled with fruity cereal and wrapped in a pillow of cotton candy. Hand-rolled on-site. At Rainbow Ice Cream, $8
When we ordered the rainbow cloud roll, the cashier encouraged us to photograph the process and post it to Instagram. It was good advice—the rainbow roll is an utterly fascinating creation. Two people stopped us on the walk from the stand to the table where we ate it, marveling at the kaleidoscopic Lisa Frank burrito. The flavor did not disappoint, either: As you bite through the pillowy layer of cotton candy, the sugar crystallizes, crunching right along with the Fruity Pebbles surrounding the filling. Do yourself a favor and get it with the Superman rainbow sherbert. Absolutely delightful and tons of fun.
Fresh cauliflower pieces dipped in a seasoned batter, deep-fried and smothered in organic sesame BBQ sauce. Vegan and gluten-free. At French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, $7
Vegetarians, let’s just admit it: Despite what food bloggers are trying to tell you these days, cauliflower does not resemble a chicken wing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but to imply in name that these hold up to many meat substitutes is a lie. With Earth Wings, French Meadow deep fries the veggie, but the end result is more along the lines of what you'd expect if it had been roasted. The sesame barbecue sauce is tasty enough, but this offering’s biggest flaw is the serving portion. We received a mere four pieces of cauliflower, plus a crunchy chunk we’re pretty sure was missing batter. If you're a vegetarian or vegan looking for an excuse to down some decent sauce, then by all means order up, but the price tag seems steep for what you get.
Black forest cake, birthday cake, or chocolate peanut butter cake, baked in a cup packed with Sassy Pecan toffee bits and served warm, topped with real whipping cream and more toffee bits. At Sweetie Cakes, $7
Cakey nirvana. Served hot from the oven, the Sweetie Cake is an avalanche of deliciousness. We tried the chocolate peanut butter variety, a cup full of pillowy cake swirling with molten chocolate and PB. Flavor-wise, it’s a Butterfinger bar. Texturally, it’s a heavenly romp through all things crumbly, gooey, and whipped. There was no line when we arrived, but expect that to change in a major way.
UpNorth Puff Pasty
Porketta sausage, cheese curds, coarse grain mustard, and chopped dill pickle baked in a puffy crust sprinkled with pepper and sea salt. At Sausage Sister & Me, $8
Everything’s perfect outside, a flaky hot crust asking to be pulled apart and dragged through spicy, creamy, or peanut-y sauces. The “porketta” inside doesn’t live up to Iron Range bragging about that lauded meatstuff, and some short-order thief must have absconded with our promised “cheese curds.” Still, there’s a bit of magic here: A crunchy pickle two layers down inside a crunchy crust? An English drunkard’s walk-around meal repackaged as a dainty French-ified dough carriage? We, too, have layers, puffy pasty, and we’ll fall for this one when it, and its eater, are appropriately sauced.
Zesty PB&J Sausage
Peanut butter, cherry jelly, and a hint of cayenne pepper and cilantro blended into a quarter-pound sausage. At Gass Station Grill, $6
We thought melding sausage and a childrens’ lunch sandwich could only go two ways: Either dazzle us by pulling a perfect culinary rabbit out of a hat, or provide (the expected) gross schadenfreude by way of ground meat pulsating with peanut butter, cherries, and spices. Unfortunately, Gass Station Grill made a lovely, kinda-spicy sausage that, were we none the wiser, we’d never know sounded like a nightmare on paper. Would we eat it again? Absolutely. Is it being docked a bunch of points for breaking the most basic rule of all (“be what you say you are”)? You betcha. Weird sausage not as billed.
Corn on-the-cob grilled over an oak wood fire, brushed with chile-spiced mayo and sprinkled with queso Cotija and fresh lime juice. At Tejas Express, $5
For all you basic corn gobblers out there not looking for saucy kernel action, the vanilla (read: butter only) corn stand is located on Nelson Street. For everyone else favoring bonus flavor, your new ticket to happiness is the wood-grilled elote. Thanks to a blanket of a chile mayo (smokier than it is spicy), a healthy dose of lime, plus just enough salty cotija cheese and minced cilantro, this sexy little beast ensures you’ll forget that, beneath all that piquant goodness, you’re actually annihilating a vegetable.
Blueberry Rhubarb Cobbler
A blend of organic blueberries and rhubarb topped with a cornmeal biscuit and whipped cream. At Farmers Union Coffee Shop, $8
Don’t go looking for bits of fruit in this dish, as all of the ingredients have been boiled down to a rich, smoothie-like compote. And dang, that compote is tasty. Blueberry is the dominant flavor, but the rhubarb plays an important role here, adding a pleasant tartness that keeps everything from being cloyingly sweet. The cornmeal biscuit is inconsequential, but it does what it needs to do: get that sweet sauce from the bowl to your mouth, ASAP.
Flights of three slider sandwiches (brisket, burgers, or pulled pork), each with a variety of toppings. At The Hangar, $10
A promising new vendor located on the north end of the fairgrounds, the Hangar is a breezy, corrugated space with the open-plan layout of a modern brewery. The “slider flight” is the centerpiece of its heavily meat-laden menu, with brisket, beef, or pulled pork as your options. We tried the pork, and though the differences between the flight’s three iterations are minimal—one has serviceable slaw, another crispy fried onion, the third gargantuan pickle slices—the tangy barbecue sauce and tender pork are what really matters here. Nothing fancy, but at ten bucks, a solid, hearty meal.
Turducken Sausage Sandwich
A blend of turkey, duck, and chicken served on a fennel bun and accompanied by a side of Giggles’ sweet and saucy relish. Gluten-free; no nitrates added. At Giggles’ Campfire Grill, $7
Take your “sandwich” fights elsewhere. This is a fucking hot dog, and it comes tightly wrapped in a sad little tinfoil tube that makes you picture a 13-year-old boy trying to find the strike zone. It just surpasses its presentation: The dog is satisfactory (duck meat percentage: debatable) but the relish is truly sweet, tart, and crunchy. Steal extras of that and take them somewhere someone’s selling an actual sandwich.
Bananas Foster French Toast
Cinnamon swirl French toast topped with slices of fresh bananas in an orange-rum-flavored caramel sauce and finished with a dollop of whipped cream. At Hamline Church Dining Hall, $9.25
Hamline Church Dining Hall stops serving breakfast at 10:30 a.m., so the City Pages crew missed the boat on what was one of the most buzzed-about additions to the State Fair grub lineup. The Strib’s Rick Nelson loved it, especially the orange and rum flavors. Fairly Unbalanced praised the portion, but knocked the syrup sauce, ultimately scoring their experience an 8/20. Don’t snooze that alarm clock if you’re hoping to sample this possibly delectable new offering from the State Fair’s longest-tenured vendor.