The 2014 Minnesota State Fair Food Tour
This story was underwritten by generous support from the University of Minnesota Press.
Is Minnesota State Fair food getting slightly less insane? A mere 28 new items were announced this year, and many, if not most of them, made a certain amount of sense on the face of it — no liquid nitrogen, no lobster mac and cheese.
But dig beyond the surface, and you’ll find, as we did, some remarkably creative gems and some godforsaken shipwrecks.
Beer lovers have much to rejoice about; there’s no lack of worthwhile desserts, and there’s even a salvageable lobster dish in the mix. Come along with us on our zero-calorie tour (for you readers, at least), and see what’s in store at the 2014 fair.
Headed to the Fair? Snap photos of your food — with special attention to the dairy-based edibles — and you could win a 20-pound wheel of aged Parmesan cheese and some other fantastic cheese-related prizes. Use the hashtag #HTSF2014 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more to win!
Capsule reviews written and compiled by James Norton based on tasting notes from the Wrecking Crew, except where otherwise noted.
THE TRIUMPHANT TEN
10. Pulled Pork Quesadilla | $8 | Quesadilla Junction
Our expectations were set nice and low for this humble quesadilla (or burrito? It was notably burrito shaped…), but we found that the flavors were full and mellow, the tortilla nicely toasted, and the meat tender. You get a fair bit of food for your money, making this a smart way to fuel up so that you can keep, well, eating. We ordered ours with an egg — a wise move.
9. Deep Fried Buckeyes | $6 | Spaghetti Eddie’s
Who knew that deep-frying giant, batter-drenched chunks of peanut butter and chocolate and then sprinkling the mess with powdered sugar could create something intoxicatingly delicious?
Everybody knew that? To be honest, we were expecting a bit of mess. But it turns out that warm peanut butter and chocolate are a quick-and-dirty way to make the heart stop with joy. And stop more literally, over time, for medical reasons.
A single Buckeye is appropriate for six people. As one taster said, “Three bites of that, and then a nap.”
8. Grain Belt Blu | $4.50 | LuLu’s Public House
Schell’s/Grain Belt blueberry beer with a frozen floating head was surprisingly refreshing, with the blueberry adding a complementary tartness, rather than any artificial sweetness, to the beer. The deep-blue color could turn off some drinkers to what is actually a refreshing and enjoyable beverage. No outstanding malt or hop notes, however, as the fruit steals the show. — Paige Latham
7. Xtreme Chocklit Fudge Puppy | $5 | Granny’s Kitchen
This dessert tastes considerably better than it’s spelled, an admittedly low bar. This chocolate-chip studded chocolate waffle is covered in chocolate and whipped cream, and of course, chocolate sprinkles. And while it’s not a bean-to-bar experience, it’s got a decent cocoa kick and will satisfy the chocolate vampire in your life. One of our tasters declared it the best dessert of the fair and wrote, “I am a chocolate purist, and this thing is religion.”
6. Jello Salad Ice Cream | $4.50 | Hamline Dining Hall
The lone critic of this Izzy’s-made ice cream wrote, “A step up for Jello salad and a step down for ice cream.” The rest of us felt that it was a step up for both, with the sweet, creamy taste of ice cream segueing effortlessly into the lime-kissed flavors of fruit salad. This is a surprisingly sophisticated dessert for such an “aw, shucks” concept.
5. Indeed Day Tripper Onion Rings | $8 | Ballpark Cafe
So light and crisp that they might have been fried up by a team of greasy, underpaid angels, these ethereal, Indeed beer-battered onion rings almost float out of the basket they are served in. The onions are both big and tender, and the rings are pleasantly complemented by Excelsior Bitteschlappe spicy mustard.
4. S’More Beer | $4.75 for 12 oz. | Giggles Campfire Grill
Who would’ve thought it: A novelty beer that really works. This collaboration with Flat Earth Brewing is light and refreshing, with just enough chocolate character on the body to keep things sweet and interesting. The coated rim doesn’t really do much, so the “s’mores” effect is limited, but that’s okay. It hits all the right notes, and is great for the heat. – John Garland
3. Pretzel Curds | $6.75 | O’Gara’s
Here, O’Gara’s captures the perfect texture for fried food — crunchy on the outside but stretchily bouncy and delightfully cheesy on the inside. The toothsome and substantial nature of the crushed-pretzel exterior does yeoman’s work on these tasty little nuggets of goodness. Quoth writer Ted Held, “To the winner’s circle of State Fair fried lumps!”
2. Farm Handwich | $9.75 | The Blue Barn
This Texas-style beef-brisket and pimiento-cheese-sauce sandwich is a fair entree for the ages. Flavorful and hearty without being heavy or overwhelming, this sandwich possesses depth of flavor and a creamy texture, without turning into a slimy mess or a salt lick.
1. Summit Oatmeal Stout Gelato | $5 | Mancini’s
When multiple members of our team say, “this is the best beer ice cream I’ve ever had,” you know something wonderful is going on — we’ve had more than our share of beer floats, beer shakes, and beer ice cream over the years. Most of it has been good, but almost all has been flawed: too bitter, or too sweet, and / or lacking in beer flavor. This beer-kissed, 21-and-up ice-cream beverage is smooth and creamy, satisfyingly sweet, and beautifully laced with real beer flavor. It’s rich and balanced and worth sharing with the ones you love, if you’ve got enough moral character to do so. You may just want to consider buying two.
Do you know the identity of the earliest crop-art pioneer? Meet Henry Worrall, and read about some of the Midwest’s earliest state fairs — in the form of corn carnivals that celebrated the harvest — in the late 1890s.
If you want to save the “Terrific Ten” list to your phone, save it on Foursquare here.
THE UNFORTUNATE EIGHT
8. Wine-Fried Brie | $9 | Minnesota Wine Country
Nine dollars for approximately two ounces of hot, generic brie. You’re better off microwaving a wheel of President purchased from Target and eating it with three crackers, all the while washing it down with a swig of wine. This at-home DIY method would certainly save you a few bucks with the added benefit of incorporating wine flavoring, which our sad, fried cheese was lacking. Save your money, and try the pretzel curds from O’Gara’s for your fair-fueled fried-cheese indulgence. Your waistline might not thank you, but your taste buds will. — Kate NG Sommers
7. Shrimp Dog | $6.50 | Shrimp Shack
When you hear the phrase “shrimp dog,” what comes to mind? A very small dog? A shrimp that gamely does its best to act like a dog? Or a soft, mushy column of ground-up shrimp and cream cheese crammed into a column of batter? At Shrimp Shack, the last of these options is all that’s available.
6. Meatloaf on a Stick | $8.25 | The Blue Barn
Say what you will about meatloaf, a solid rendition can do the body good. This version was no such thing — gelatinous in texture, with any flavor drowned out by the viscous, too-sweet ketchup / corn syrup / cayenne glaze that coats the exterior. — Maja Ingeman
5. Gluten-Free Beer-Battered Brat | $6.50 | Sonny’s
The sad, deflated (but gluten-free) corn-dog coating on this sausage can’t cover the fact that the sausage itself in no way resembles a traditional brat in flavor or texture. It’s far more of a chewy frank experience, one not enhanced by the superfluous coating.
4. Mango Tangsicle SnoRibbons | $5 | Blue Moon
Advancements in frozen-dessert technology should always be approached with reduced expectations. Remember that disappointing first taste of astronaut ice cream? The Mango Tangscicle SnoRibbon is billed as, “like eating snow and tasting ice cream,” but in reality is like eating granules of ice and tasting granules of ice with mango powder. There are hints of creamsicle, and the chopped mango in the corner was a nice touch. It looked impressive, but it didn’t give us hope for the future of ice cream. — Ted Held
3. Pizza Tots | $4 | Green Mill
“To the garbage heap of State Fair fried lumps!” wrote one of our teammates about these “offensively” textured tots and their “bad-bad-bad” flavor. Many tasters offered up some variation of the opinion that these “tasted like Green Mill,” which was not intended as a compliment.
2. “Chilaquiles” (quotes are ours) | $7.50 | El Sol Mexican
Here, the soulful Mexican breakfast favorite of nacho chips soaked in a deeply flavored sauce and served with eggs is boldly re-imagined as iceberg lettuce dumped atop unseasoned chicken nachos.
1. Deep-Fried Breakfast On-a-Stick | $8 | The Sandwich Stop
Every year we pray that the fair will hand us at least one certifiable disaster to keep things interesting, and every year our prayers are answered. This year’s train wreck is the deep-fried Canadian bacon / egg / pancake / cheese monstrosity called Breakfast On-a-Stick. The dish could have been the sleeper hit of the fair, but ours was so greasy that any attempt to manually adjust it resulted in the diner suddenly wearing a thick mitten of grease substantial enough to fry an omelet or escape from a poorly-maintained jail cell. Although the Deep-Fried Breakfast On-a-Stick contains many things, you can approximate the dish at home by simply pouring warm vegetable oil over a piece of bread and eating it. It’s possible that on future days of the fair this dish will be properly fried and emerge from the oil as a gastronomic god among men. Let us know if you have a different experience. But for now, it’s off our menu.
THE MINNESOTA STATE FAIR BEER REPORT
Novelty rules when it comes to State Fair beer. And while “novelty” is often a dirty word, there’s a happy flip side to that coin — beers that are witty, beers that are playful, beers that are downright joyous to be around even in the hottest weather and most crowded of surroundings.
The S’more beer at Giggles Campfire Grill — you’ll be stumped if you try to find a more novel and joyous sounding quaff than that — is mediocre at first sip, but improves significantly on warming. Notes of chocolate and coffee on the aroma, while not indicative of an actual s’more, are quite pleasant and cause this beer to stand out from the typical, light American lagers flowing though the fairgrounds. A chocolate graham-cracker rim is a novelty that doesn’t distract from or overpower the liquid. Moderate roasted notes predominate, but any fear of a too-sweet mess is totally averted.
Drawbacks include a disappointing lack of body (but on a hot day, this becomes a highlight). And it likely would not pair well with many of the foods, especially the fish, offered at the same stand.
Schell’s/Grainbelt blueberry beer (Schell’s pavilion), with a frozen floating head, was surprisingly refreshing. The blueberry added a complementary tartness rather than an artificial sweetness. The deep-blue color could turn off some drinkers to what is actually quite refreshing and enjoyable. No outstanding malt or hop notes, however, as the fruit steals the show.
Indeed’s Sweet Yamma Jamma (Ballpark Cafe) features clean body and a pumpkin spice flavor. It’s understated and easygoing. The beer feels so familiar that it becomes clear that Indeed has done a great job of building a “history” in the short time it’s been open.
The final beer success is Summit’s Villain (International Bazaar), which lies between a mild Schwarzbier and a deep Dunkel. At the same ABV as the Pilsner, the dark color belies what is really a thirst-quenching, moderately dry treat. The lager body and crisp German malt deliver a clean and refreshing beer that is essentially unmatched in style anywhere in the State Fair. — Paige Latham with John Garland
Now that we’ve covered the highs and lows and drinkables, it’s time for everything else! This includes:
THE BEST OF THE REST…
Korean BBQ Pork Collar | $7 | Famous Dave’s
Famous Dave’s always pushes the envelope with their fair offerings, and 2014 provides yet another happy example. This year’s entry, the Korean BBQ pork collar, was lightly salted (too lightly for some, perfectly for others), and had a pleasant texture — nothing gummy or rubbery here. Its tangy sauce wasn’t the usual sugary abomination that passes for Asian fare at large events. Photographer Isabel Subtil describes the exterior of the collar as having the “aftertaste of a rustic roast,” which we think is spot on.
Rustic Stuffed Scone | $6 | French Meadow Bakery
Ham and carbs live happily under one roof in this flaky, buttery scone. Substantial without being weighty, this is a scone that you can pair with a cup coffee to create a perfectly plausible breakfast.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pop | $4 | JohnnyPop
This popsicle boasts the flavor of perfect fresh strawberries. Refreshing, and possibly healthy, relatively speaking. — Ted Held
Chicken in the Waffle | $9.75 | The Blue Barn
While sticking gravy-dressed Buffalo popcorn chicken into a waffle cone is something of a counterintuitive move, we’re glad the folks at Blue Barn gave it a shot. The spicy heat of the chicken cuts through all the carbs and makes this gimmicky, Frankenstein’s monster of a dish come to life and sing “Putting on the Ritz.” A malted-milk-ball surprise at the bottom of the cone saved us some gravy stains on our shirts, the sort of thoughtful touch that scores points.
10,000 Beers Flights | $8 | Agriculture Building
Four big beer samples for $8 is probably the best value you’ll receive at the entire fair. The Tin Whiskers stuff was great — the Wheatstone Bridge is delightful and floral. Bent Paddle cold-press stout is a can’t miss. — John Garland
North Woods Pasta | $8.50 | Giggles Campfire Grill
A combination of creamy Gouda mac and cheese, fried walleye, and Parmesan-parsley breadcrumbs, this dish says comfort. While some tasters wanted more walleye than the conspicuous walleye fry atop the mound of cheesy cavatappi, the sum of this dish is a great deal of tasty food for an economical price.
Horchata Churro SnoRibbons | $5 | Blue Moon
If the concept of SnoRibbons revolves around the novelty of a decent-tasting ice cream / sno-cone hybrid, the horchata flavor succeeds where its mango sibling fails miserably. Thanks to rice and almonds, the horchata has a beautiful creamy-yet light-texture, and the flavor’s not bad, either, with cinnamon and vanilla shining front and center. Where it veers (unfortunately far) off course: a cloying, overpowering caramel that permeates the otherwise-balanced ribbons, plus a stack of banana slices that add to the funk. About these we say: skip the garnish; don’t mess with a (reasonably) good thing! — Maja Ingeman
Salted Caramel Ice Cream | $6 | Rainbow Ice Cream
AKA “unsalted caramel ice cream.” In absolute terms, not a bad cone, but don’t get your hopes up for an avant garde, David-Chang-inspired twist on dairy desserts that will leave you in awe.
Prohibition Ginger Kombucha | $5 | Produce Exchange
Crisp, clean, cool, and refreshing, with just a touch of ginger bite, this fermented elixir is just the thing that a fairgoer needs on a sweltering day.
Caribbean-Style Lobster Roll | $9 | Cafe Caribe
We’ve made some dire predictions about lobster at the State Fair this year based on experiences with sad, rubbery, sorely abused lobsters from days of yore. So we were more than a little pleased by Cafe Caribe’s hot and deeply spiced lobster-salad spin on this Maine classic. The sandwich’s only off note is the garlic toast that it’s served on. Between the lobster and the spice, there’s enough going on without another strong flavor muscling into the mix.
Pizza Cone | $5 | Green Mill
Twist a piece of pizza into a cone, stuff it with extra cheese, and dress it up with pepperoni, and you’ve got Green Mill’s surprisingly passable Pizza Cone. The crispy, heavily spiced exterior crust is tasty in its own right, and while there is nothing particularly inspired about its gloppy food service filling, the package works as a whole.
…THE MIDDLE OF THE PACK…
Sweet Cream Ice Cream Sandwich | $5 | Farmers Union
We tried our hardest to order the “sweet cream ice cream sandwich,” but we got what we are almost certain was a mocha ice cream sandwich. For sweet cream ice cream, it was very mocha flavored, but otherwise nicely balanced between chocolate and coffee. The chocolate chip cookies that made up the business part of the sandwich had sufficient structural integrity to keep the thing together, and it made a fine fair dessert.
Bison Dog | $6 | Chicago Dogs
Served Chicago style, this is a hot dog with a snap as profound as any around. Whether that’s something you’re into is a personal decision. Comes with a surprisingly credible pickle.
Chocolate Dessert Salami | $6 | Sausage Sisters
Without question, the strangest concept of the 2014 Minnesota State Fair is this: reconstructing salami by way of chocolate and nuts, a salute to a tradition still practiced in Italy and Russia (among other places). The visual illusion was excellent enough to fool and profoundly unnerve one of our tasters. Rather than tasting of salt and meat, this stuff is almost a dead ringer for one of those chocolate whack-an-orange things from Christmastime. The most puzzling aspect of the salami is its presentation with savory crackers.
Prime Rib Taco | $6 | LuLu’s Public House
Salty, beefy, and “kind of fajita like,” this collect of thin-shaved meat and some unfortunately soggy yellow bell peppers doesn’t knock our socks off, but it at least gets them to sag considerably. A fine savory entree choice.
Flight of White Wines | $10 | Minnesota Wine Country
Several wine flights are available — The Frontenac Gris flight (shown above), offers flavors ranging from California chardonnay-like to that of a delicate Riesling. Good for the heat, and in an adorable carrying container. But three thimblefuls for $10 seems awfully dear when you can get four huge beer samples for $8 across the street.
PB&J French Toast | $7 | Robbinsdale Dining Hall
Imagine, if you will, a future where people spread peanut butter and jelly between two pieces of French toast. If you were able to accomplish this feat of visualization, you have mentally traveled to a future that the Robbinsdale Dining Hall has made possible… today.
Oink Oink Brownie | $6.25 | The Blue Barn
Your verdict on this brownie will vary almost entirely depending on your stance on the fudgey vs. cakey debate. It is so fudgey as to be plausible as fudge. Some of us enjoyed that, some of us didn’t. The bacon sprinkles atop the brownie seemed a bit superfluous, but they didn’t do any real damage.
Deep-Fried Baklava | $5.50 | Dino’s Gyros
Soft, warm, pillowy baklava unnecessarily deep fried and served with substandard chocolate sauce doesn’t sound like a clear winner, but the stuff tastes legitimately good. With a bit of editing — say, not deep frying the stuff and serving it without chocolate — it could be great.
Reuben and Southwest Hot Dogs | $5 | Peters Hot Dogs
The Southwest Hot Dog is generously topped with savory pulled pork, salsa, sour cream, and a handful of other tacoesque ingredients. The toppings mix well together, rendering the hot dog itself an afterthought. The result is flavorful, meaty, and spicy: a hot dog moonlighting as a taco.
Less happily, the Reuben Hot Dog is topped with rubbery corned beef, unmelted Swiss cheese, and gobs of sub-par Thousand Island dressing. Allegedly there is sauerkraut, but it is indiscernible. The result is a hot dog dressed as a leftover Reuben.
…AND THE ‘TRY HARDER NEXT TIME.’
Schnitzel Strips | $8 | Smoothies and Jurassic Corn Dogs
Boring. Beige. Inoffensive. Hard to tell where the breading on these
chicken pork strips ends and the meat begins. (Editor’s note: corrected to reflect actual protein used, which it’s worth noting tastes like chicken in this context.) Like many fried things at the fair, the sauce is competent, but sort of irrelevant. Brasserie Zentral should not amend its menu or business plan. — Ted Held
Deep-Fried Lobster on a Stick | $9 | Lulu’s Public House
A far cry from the lobster mac and cheese travesty of last year’s fair round-up, this lobster definitely exceeds our (admittedly low) bar for lobster at the fair. We like the light, non-greasy cornmeal batter encasing the tender chunks of lobster, but we want an extra dash of salt and find that the horseradish-spiked dipping sauce overpowers the already-weak lobster flavor. Our advice? Stave off your lobster cravings until you can make it to Smack Shack, and save your stomach for something else. — Maja Ingeman
S’more Latte | $5 | Farmers Union
If you like syrup — a LOT, more than you like your significant other — you’ll enjoy this profoundly syrupy mix of, well, syrup and a bit of what may or may not have been coffee. Otherwise, give it a miss.
Iron Range Pierogies | $7.25 | The Blue Barn
“Gummy” is the word for these sad little birds. An accompaniment of horseradish dipping sauce helps, but doesn’t totally salvage the dish, which seems to hinge mysteriously on a uniform filling of gooey cheese and potatoes.
Blue Cheese and Corn Fritz | $7.25 | The Blue Barn
Ted Held, the Heavy Table’s newly appointed Fried Lumps Editor, declared these corn fritters to be “boring lumps” and ordered them “to the garbage heap.” The accompanying chimichurri sauce is absolutely great, but even a sauce by Thomas Keller of the French Laundry couldn’t save these sorry chunks of fried dough.
ABOUT OUR TEAM
This year’s Heavy Table State Fair Wrecking Crew courageously demolished more than 42 different items in the name of gastronomy. Our team included: John Garland, Ted Held, Maja Ingeman, Brenda Johnson, Paige Latham, Jill Lewis, Sarah McGee, James Norton, Susan Pagani, Amy Rea, Kate NG Sommers, and Isabel Subtil.