The 10 best new State Fair foods (and a few clunkers to avoid)

Who knew chicken fingers could be so exciting?

Who knew chicken fingers could be so exciting? Lucy Hawthorne

Don't waste a precious moment of this year's State Fair on mediocre food. Here are the best new bites of the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

Minnesota State Fair

Minnesota State Fairgrounds

Check out our ultimate guide to all the new foods of the 2016 Minnesota State Fair here.

10. 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 faces — 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.

9. Gumbo Frites
At Ragin Cajun. $7
We were thoroughly surprised by this one. 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.

8. Reuben Pickle Dog
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.

7. Cajun Peel-N-Eat Shrimp
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.

The spicy pork bowl at Blue Barn ups the ante on State Fair fare.

The spicy pork bowl at Blue Barn ups the ante on State Fair fare. Lucy Hawthorne

6. Cheesy French Onion Monkey Bread
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 are 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.

5. 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, but whatever the hour, the Dairy Building should be proud to host this democratically elected sweet treat.

4. Bang Bang Fresh Chicken Tenders
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.

3. Barbecued Shrimp Taco
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.

2. Spicy Pork Bowl
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.

1. Carpe Diem
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.

Honorable Mention:

Iron Range Meat & Potatoes, 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.

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?

La La Palooza Sundae, at Bridgeman’s Ice Cream. $25
For the 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.

Biggest clunkers:

Deep Fried Nachos Supreme, at Texas Steak Out. $9
The entire dish looks like something that has already been eaten. Crushed nacho tortilla chips feel already chewed, 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.

SPAM® Curds, at SPAM®. $7
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 are sure to be found.

Candied Bacon Donut Sliders, Minnesota Wine Country. $9
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.

The Minnesota State Fair runs from August 25-September 4. Visit for more info.


Carpe Diem! Snag one of these before they run out.

Carpe Diem! Snag one of these before they run out.