The 2016 Minnesota State Fair Food Tour

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

This story was underwritten by generous support from the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

The ever-evolving nature of Minnesota State Fair food means that while every year we’re sure to see a pile of bacon-covered, -coated, -filled, or -sprinkled whatever, there’s usually another through line or two that you can put your finger on. This time, it’s The Year of Stellar Ice Cream. We kept tasting ice-cream-based dishes that were thoughtfully composed, made with good stuff, and downright delicious. As usual, the burden of being required to taste all this stuff on Day 1 of the fair is one we wear lightly …

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

EVEN MORE FUN: Join Heavy Table editor James Norton at the Save the Boundary Waters booth in the Dairy Building from 9 a.m.-noon today (Friday, Aug. 26) for a Facebook Livestream event featuring a (re)tasting of everything new that the fair has to offer. If you can’t be there in person, follow along online on Facebook! And come back to this story on Sunday for a condensed (under five minute!) video recap of that event.

savebwca-banner-2016

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is leading the effort to ensure permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, America’s most visited wilderness and Minnesota’s crown jewel, from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining. Join us and speak loudly for this quiet place. Sign the petition today.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

THE DELIGHTFUL DOZEN

12.  Beer Brat Buddies | $7 | Sausage Sister & Me

This firm, snappy, legitimate-tasting bratwurst served with sauerkraut, chopped onions, and a choice of mustards isn’t anything particularly fancy — but we’re fine with that. The pretzel bun might have a bit too much chew and fight, for our taste, but it held up well, and the whole package was a sturdy, satisfying entree. — James Norton

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

11. Sheep Dog | $8 | Lamb Shoppe

The Sheep Dog may come with the most overworked, foodie-buzzword-laden description of any item at the fair: “A 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.).”

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

And yet, it’s good! The dog was tender without being pasty, earthy without being aggressively gamy, and it was complemented in both texture and flavor by its toppings. Ultimately a charming lunch, even if the optional mint jelly split our tasters (too sweet? just right? Disturbingly green or charmingly green?) — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

10. Reuben Pickle Dog | $7 | Pickle Dog

Basically a Reuben sandwich with no bread, the Reuben Pickle Dog from Pickle Dog nonetheless won people over with its variety of textures and flavors — tangy sauerkraut and pickle, creamy Thousand Island dressing, all wrapped in a sizable piece of chewy pastrami. Not deep fried or drenched in sugar, it turned out to be both refreshing and a viable meal option. — Amy Rea

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

9. Barbecued Shrimp Taco | $10 | Tejas Express

State fair tacos haven’t done well by us in the past (see, for example, our worst lists from 2015 and 2013), so we were a bit wary of the two pale, limp, chewy tortillas besodden with veg and prawns. Thankfully, the handful of impeccably cooked, cayenne-sauced shrimp carried the dish: They were zippy, juicy, and flavorful enough to enliven the few strips of cabbage that surrounded them. Still not Sonora, but as far as fair tacos go? Game changing in our book. — Maja Ingeman

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

8. La La Palooza Sundae | $25 | Bridgeman’s Ice Cream

Instead of something new, Bridgeman’s went to its storied past, when it had ice cream parlors all over the state, and brought back the glorious-in-its-excess La La Palooza. Eight scoops of ice cream! Fresh fruit (bananas sliced while you wait)! Decadent amounts of caramel, strawberry, and pineapple toppings under a mountain of whipped cream! Salty, roasted nuts to give you some crunch and offset the sweetness!

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Seriously, this is not only eye catching, it’s a delight to eat. At $25, it ranks right up there in price, but given that you could feed several ice-cream-craving teenagers with just one of these, it’s not actually that bad. Bonus: You get to keep the souvenir goblet. — A.R.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

7. Blueberry Basil Lemonade | $4 for 12 ounces or $6 for 20 ounces | The Blue Barn

Drop your nose into the glass and grab a deep whiff. That’s the essential smell of summer garden freshness. It’s also a smell you rarely get to experience in the State Fair’s mandatory plastic cup. But good lord, it’s wonderful. And the taste lives up to the smell. Herby, earthy, refreshing, and sweet without being overly sugary. It’s our pick for (non-alcoholic) drink of the fair. — M.C. Cronin

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

6. Purple Pancake Dippers | $9 for 3 | Order of the Eastern Star Robbinsdale Dining Hall

There was a wait. But unlike the lines for other new foods, this wait was somehow more charming. Because there was actually a person squeezing purple batter from a squeeze bottle around bacon on a flat top griddle. And that takes time. And you get to watch. And while you watch, you get to talk to that person. And you get to realize these are real people trying to do real good with the money they make.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Accountants will tell you it doesn’t make sense for the fair. It’s too much work. Too much fuss. And all for some pancake batter squirted around a bacon strip. If you’re making choices about where to spend your money, consider spending a little here — the dippers’ mix of sweet, savory, and salty is as sophisticated as anything you’ll find on the food lists. And make a statement that you won’t let the new foods overshadow the old-school fare. — M.C.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

5. Strawberry Donut Delight | $6 | The Strawberry Patch

Strawberries and whipped cream jammed between two halves of a glazed doughnut? What can go wrong? Well, in theory, plenty — but in practice, nothing did. The doughnut was Krispy Kreme-esque — simple, delicate, quite sweet. The strawberries were macerated and sweetened as well, but retained enough of their natural fruitiness and tartness that they played well with the doughnut. This is as diverting and charming a dessert as they offer at the fair, and that’s saying quite a lot. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

4. Cheesy French Onion Monkey Bread | $7 | Blue Moon Dine-In Theater

This savory treat scores points on just about every front. It’s creative. It’s comforting. It’s clever. And it’s illustrative of the point that careful execution is everything. This pull-apart bread loaf filled with caramelized onions, cheese, and beef broth could easily have become a soggy, greasy mess, but the quality of the bread and the correct proportioning made it into something like a classic French dip sandwich. — J.N.

3. Minnesota Blueberry Aronia Coffee Cake Ice Cream Bar | $5.75 | MN Farmers Union

The name is a mouthful, and $5.75 is a bit steep for an ice cream bar … but somehow this thing combines fresh-from-the-garden blueberry flavor with the down-home, church basement charm of Cool Whip. One note: The wholesome flavor seems to be bolstered by a high fat content, as evidenced by the bar’s rich, creamy, semi-solid texture — which only gets drippier as the day heats up. Beware the mess! — M.I.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

2. Bang Bang Fresh Chicken Tenders | $6 | LuLu’s Public House

These humble, fried chicken tenders are truly one of the wonders of the world: fried chicken — served at a massive public event — that is moist, tender, and indisputably delicious.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

The item’s public description makes a lot of noise about how the chicken is fresh and never frozen, and that comes through 100 percent in the tasting — our crew raved about how tender and flavorful the bird was, and how delicate and nicely balanced the crisp coating turned out to be. We dug the accompanying chili sauce, but the tenders stood up on their own. This dish could have been a forgettable nothing, parked in the middle of the pack, but it turned out to be a superstar. — J.N.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

1. Carpe Diem | $6 | The Rabbit Hole at Midtown Global Market

The description is as follows: “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.” That’s a daunting, 27-word, foodiecentric description you might be inclined to hate when it comes to the fair. Because let’s face it, one of the most popular items at the fair can be summed up as follows: “A hot dog dipped in corn batter and fried.” But we can sum this thing up two words: Holy Carpe! This thing hits every key trait you look for in a state fair food. It’s unique, portable, tasty, and exclusive to the fair. It’s also impactful. Try walking around carrying this thing and not getting asked about it. (Available Aug. 25-30 only.) — M.C.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

On the flavor front, Carpe Diem was a screaming success, its strawberry compote bright, tangy, and fresh tasting, its ice cream full and richly flavored, and its waffle cone as delicious as it was attractive. Sure, the thing has a habit of blowing up when you bite into it (grab a cardboard boat to contain the sundae-from-Heaven’s detritus) but the fact remains — this is one of the best things we’ve eaten at the fair since we started doing our annual review in 2009. — J.N.

2016 STATE FAIR FOOD IN REVIEW: THE VIDEO

2016 Minnesota State Fair New Food Review from Save The BWCA on Vimeo.

savebwca-swag-2016

Find the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in the Dairy Building at the Minnesota State Fair. Spin our prize wheel; sign the pledge; take your picture and share on social; find your favorite campsite on our map; and more. Help protect this Minnesota treasure from proposed sulfide-­ore copper mining.

MOST IMPROVED ITEM OF THE FAIR

The Farmers Union introduced nitro cold press to the fair last year. While we appreciated their chutzpah, we didn’t enjoy the brew. Well, that changed this year: Infused with nitrogen, the chilled Joe ($6.50) was creamy, well balanced, and flavorful. We’re pleased to present The Farmers Union with the inaugural “Most Improved Item of the Fair” award. Well done! — Joshua Page

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

ALSO REFRESHING:

We were lured by a sign advertising kombucha, and were pleasantly surprised to find Prohibition Kombucha at the Produce Exchange. It exists in the land of grease vats and on-a-stick-isms! It’s delicious! If you, like us, find yourself thirsting for a non-boozy refreshment, the Sicilian (lemon-rosemary, brightly tart, light on the palate, easy going down on a hot day) is just the thing. — M.I.

Check out an interactive map of our Delightful Dozen on Foursquare:

Compiled by Maja Ingeman

Compiled by Maja Ingeman

THE TERRIBLE TEN

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

10. Candied Bacon BLT | $8 | The Blue Barn

Let’s get one thing straight: Tomato jam is not a substitute for fresh tomatoes, especially during tomato season, and especially on a BLT. And boy-oh-boy could this sweet, rich sandwich use the acid and freshness of a few tomato slices. That said, if you like HoneyBaked ham, you’ll probably dig this concoction. Although we’re over candied bacon, this version is pleasantly thick and porky, and the egg bun is firm and tasty. — J.P.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

9. Call it Breakfast | $5 | Dairy Goodness Bar

Powdered-sugar-drenched, flavorless doughnut holes, cloying sugary syrups, and creamy — but depthless — custard do not a fabulous sundae (or “breakfast”) make. This is a perfect example of when more does not mean better. — M.I.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

8. Poutine Tots | $6 | Tot Boss

Every year, there are a few items that sound fun and exciting but end up being sad and boring. Poutine Tots exemplify this unfortunate but predictable reality. While the tots were flavorful and crisp, the gravy was watery and flavorless, and the cheese was clumpy and bland. So order the tots without poutine toppings and with a side of ketchup, and you’ll be good to go. — J.P.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

7. Cajun Peel-N-Eat Shrimp | $10 | Cafe Caribe

Cafe Caribe’s Cajun Peel-N-Eat Shrimp were visually inviting, with the shrimp tucked into red netting, as if they had just come off the shrimp boat. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. The shrimp weren’t deveined, which was off-putting, and they had the texture of the recently thawed. Any Cajun flavoring was barely noticeable; one eater said it was as if the seasoning had been set next to the shrimp with the idea that it would float into the seafood on its own. But the biggest complaint we had was with the idea of peel ’n’ eat at the fair. It’s messy, it’s unwieldy, and cheap paper napkins can’t handle the job of cleaning up after the peeling. Wet wipes would have helped, but rethinking the whole concept would have been a better alternative. — A.R.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

6. The Elvis | $5 | R&R Ice Cream

Consider the name and the setting: The Elvis sundae should be the embodiment of rock ’n’ roll excess. Instead, what we got was a standard banana-flavored ice cream adulterated with a stale-tasting and (mercifully) mild peanut butter aftertaste. Its spirit-sucking banality was almost certainly part of the vagenda of manocide that we’ve been warned against. — J. N.

5. Saucy Shrimp & Slaw | $11 |  Fish & Chips Seafood Shoppe

In essence: KFC coleslaw (think creamy, bland, mildly sweet) accompanied by heavily breaded and fried popcorn shrimp with a spicy-sweet glaze doused over the top. We tried to think of redeeming qualities, but between the poor flavor balance, the double-digit price tag, and the textural failure, we came up empty. — M.I.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

4. Candied Bacon Donut Sliders | $9 | Minnesota Wine Country

Making a candied bacon doughnut slider is not the time to show restraint. If you’re doing a doughnut slider, you gotta go all in on the doughnut. Give me a doughy fried ball dripping with sugary glaze that forces me to be licking the stickiness off my fingers for the next hour. This was little more than a mini hamburger bun drizzled with nearly flavorless chocolate-and-red-wine sauce with a nice piece of bacon in the middle. Which immediately puts this item in the category of “Really wanted to love it. Didn’t.” — M.C.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

3. Italian Taco | $5 | Green Mill

This was Green Mill’s “throw everything into a tortilla and see if it works” entry, and starting with the bombastic amount of oregano, the answer to “does it work?” is a resounding no. When you have Italian sausage and pesto and mozzarella and Parmesan and Caesar dressing and pizza sauce, you have too much. But to make it worse, it was drizzled with balsamic vinegar and topped with bruschetta. Sometimes the “kitchen sink” approach works, but not here. — A.R.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

2. Macaroni & Cheese Curds | $9 |  Oodles of Noodles

Macaroni and cheese starts out as a bit of a problem. It’s a carb covered in creamy dairy. It has the potential to be charmingly (if smotheringly) comforting, but it also has the potential to just be a gross, heavy, gloppy mess. What does it need? Quality ingredients, and a deft touch to balance the wall of white heaviness with textures or flavors that equalize the scales.

What does this dish do? It throws a (scant amount) of ostensibly fresh but notably non-squeaky cheese curds at the dish, which accomplishes absolutely nothing — it’s cheese on carbs on cheese, plus a  breadstick. And God forbid the temperature at the fair goes over 80: These things will take you down faster than a monkey blasted with a tranq dart. — J.N.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

1. Deep Fried Grilled Cheese Bites | $8 | O’Gara’s at the Fair

We love grilled cheese and tomato soup. Who doesn’t, really? So if you’re going to “fair up” this classic combo, you’d better come correct. And correct O’Gara’s does not come. Its deep-fried cubes of battered white cheddar cheese and side of “bloody Mary mix marinara” are all wrong. The innards of the salty, oily blocks reminded us of bland Alfredo sauce, and the marinara tasted like old Tabasco sauce. O’Gara’s gets a double whammy for creating a truly terrible dish and staining the name of one of our favorite sandwiches. — J.P.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

M.C. CRONIN’S GUIDE TO FAIR SUBSTITUTIONS

10. Candied Bacon BLT
Comparable but better State Fair item: Big Fat Bacon. It’s unadulterated bacon.

9. Call it Breakfast
Comparable but better State Fair item: A malt from the same place plus a bag of mini donuts will do the trick.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

8. Poutine Tots
Comparable but better State Fair item: Fresh French Fries. Consistently fills the need for fried potatoes.

7. Peel and Eat Shrimp
Comparable but better State Fair item: Walleye-on-a-stick from — not coincidentally — Walleye-on-a-Stick.

6. The Elvis
Comparable but way better State Fair item: The Elvis sandwich from Moe and Joe’s Coffee.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

5. Shrimp and Slaw
Comparable but way better State Fair item: Cajun Deep Fried Pickles with ranch dipping sauce from The Preferred Pickle. Louisiana Southernesque, but better.

4. Candied Bacon Donut Sliders
Comparable but better State Fair item: Sweet corn ice cream with honey butter bacon glaze topping from Blue Moon. Fills the urge for sweet and bacony flavor better than anything we’ve tried.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

3. Italian Taco
Comparable but better State Fair item: Vescio’s pizza. Sweet sauce done right.

2. Macaroni & Cheese Curds
Comparable but better State Fair item: Mac and cheese bites from Lulu’s. Don’t forget the Sriracha.

1. O’Gara’s Cheese Bites
Comparable but better State Fair item: Mouth Trap cheese curds. Or really, any other curds.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

THE MINNESOTA STATE FAIR BEER REPORT

State Fair beers often fall into one of two categories — gimmicky beers that have an ability to draw a crowd based on name alone, or simple, special releases that would fit in a taproom apart from the 12 days of the Great Minnesota Get Together. This year we tasted more new beverages than in years past, and found successes in both groups.

The middle of the pack was thin. Only two beers were satisfying without demanding attention. Bent Brewstillery’s Sweat Together IPA ($5, 12 ounces) was the most bitter selection of the day. The aftertaste was pleasant to most, but overpowering to some; since it lacked balance, that was to be expected. Even after it warmed significantly, though, there were no noticeable flaws. More unusual was the Funnel Cloud by Bad Weather Brewing ($4.75, 12 ounces). Elements of the funnel cake were not obvious. In fact, this dark ale struck the palate as a classic brown ale with excellent attenuation and robust malt notes. It lost some tasters for its lack of flavors associated with the deep fried dough, but was a very pleasant beer.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

As one might expect, some of the risk-taking beers didn’t deliver. An unexpected flop, however, was the Hopmosa by Bent Paddle ($5, 12 ounces). Rather than having a typical mimosa or citrus aroma, the nose was a dead ringer for McDonald’s orange drink, and at first sip, it tasted like orange flavored Jell-o with a bitter aftertaste. The aggressive, bitter hop character was shocking in comparison to the aroma.

Lakes & Legends created a Sweet Corn Summer Ale ($5, 12 ounces) made with fresh corn from Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm. When the beer was very cold, the phenolic aroma and moderate sweetness made for a fair sip. It was crisp, but lacking in flavor somewhat. Unfortunately, rather than presenting as fresh corn, several unpleasant flavors — including canned corn — multiplied in the glass on warming, causing expressions of disgust on the faces of most tasters.

Finally, The Chocolate Chip Cookie Beer ($6, 12 ounces) made by Big Wood was disappointing. The chocolate chips on the rim attempted to make up for a weak Hershey’s Syrup effect in the glass, and the body was so thin that not much remained on the tongue for long. On the plus side, it didn’t stray too sweet.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

The highlights of the day included the Giggles’ Caramel Apple ($4.75, 12 ounces, above), a caramel apple cider made by Sociable Cider Werks. It tasted much like a Granny Smith apple, and despite the name, the caramel sweetness was present in the finish only to a small degree. Two hop-forward beers were also enjoyable. Fulton’s Frontier Amarillo ($5, 12 ounces) could be pegged as too predictable to be called a notable fair beer, however, it was a welcome addition and worked well with a few of the spicier and heavier foods of the day. In a similar fashion, we found the Summit Hop Merger White IPA ($7.50, 20 ounces) to be an excellent use of the new Hull Melon variety of hop, which when paired with wheat, adds both spice and melonlike fruitiness to an otherwise moderately bitter beer. It worked with sweeter and heavier foods, cutting through doughnuts impressively well for a hoppy beer. — Paige Latham

THE BEST OF THE REST …

Banana Cinnamon & Cream Dipped in Dark Chocolate | $5 | JonnyPops

This treat is surprisingly complex — the mellow, earthy warmth of the banana in this creamy pop is amplified by cinnamon. Dark chocolate adds still more depth and a nice, crunchy textural contrast. This is (yet another) winner of a frozen dessert at a fair teeming with them. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Chocolate Agate Crunch | $5 | Hamline Church Dining Hall

It’s sort of cheating to stack Izzy’s ice cream against everything else at the fair. One, they don’t have to make the stuff on site. Two, it doesn’t suffer from transportion and being served by … well, anyone. And three, it’s Izzy’s and they’re always good. But, you know, this smooth chocolate ice cream with chocolate cookie crumbles and “edible chocolate rocks” inspired by the Minnesota state gemstone was (in fact) quite good, if a little sweet. — J.N.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

CRACKER JACK Caramel Sundae | $7 | Goertze’s Dairy Kone

Exhibit F? Or G? … that makes the case for this being The Year of Stellar Ice Cream is this — possibly excessively — charming sundae served in an empty box of CRACKER JACK (prize still, happily, inside).

The sundae itself is garden variety, but the inclusion of mini M&M’s and CRACKER JACK is a really smart move. It adds a ton of flavor and interest, and makes this a delightful dessert choice. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Rustic Beef Pastry | $9 | French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

This pastry is so pretty it looks like it belongs in an Instagram photo instead of in a sweaty, smelly space surrounded by people wearing shirts that say things like “Bacon is a vegetable.” But no matter, it tastes nearly as good as it looks — flaky, thick pastry with bits of spinach and ground beef loaded with warm spices. Skip the Dough-sant [doughnut-croissant], and grab this heartier, savory treat instead. Our only knock would be the beef, which was desert dry. — M.I.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Bacon-Wrapped Tots | $5 | Tot Boss

The key driver of these cute little tater tot + bacon skewers is the tots, which are crispy, perfectly seasoned and downright delightful. The bacon is super crisp and light — a good example of when thick-cut, premium-grade stuff is actually the wrong answer. — J.N.

THE MIDDLE OF THE PACK…

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

OOF-da Taco | $7.75 | OOF-da Tacos

Although there seems to be just a wee touch of Nordic-American vs. American Indian culinary appropriation going on with this fairly classic rendition of a ground-beef fry bread taco, the dish works. It’s nothing spectacular, but definitely a triumph of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” over the fetishizing of the so-called weird (i.e., adding bacon) that one sees in new fair food. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

SPAM Sushi | $8 | Sushi Rolls

We’re not sushi snobs … no, hang on, the opposite of that. We’re totally sushi snobs, and we’re well aware that well-seasoned, properly served rice is the heart of really great sushi (See: Kyatchi and PinKU). The rice filling in these rolls was dry, somewhat gummy, and past its prime. That said, these rolls weren’t at all bad, considering the challenge it must have been to serve them at the fair — the SPAM + egg + rice combination is a good one, and the nori wrappers were reasonably delicate and pliable. — J.N.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Burnt Butt Ends | $7 | RC’s BBQ  

We’ve tried enough barbecue to know that these smoked cuts of pork weren’t at the apex of the art form — the texture was a bit soft, the rub a little one-note — but they definitely weren’t too bad either, and the accompanying raw onions and jalapeños made for some pleasing complete bites. Barbecue in a fair setting can easily degenerate into mushy slop covered in brown corn syrup, so these get high marks for avoiding that path. — J.N.

Iron Range Meat & Potatoes | $8 | Giggles’ Campfire Grill

Here’s the critics’ backstory: This was one of the most divisive dishes we tried at the fair. Those who enjoyed it appreciated the rich-but-bland comfort offered by the seasoned beef, and the way the tender, nearly gelatinous meat melded seamlessly into the mashed potatoes. Those who did not enjoy it were, speaking broadly, meatloaf-loathing killjoys. Still, not enough controversy that we can’t unabashedly sing its praises. — J.N.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Gumbo Frites | $7 | Ragin Cajun

I have a hard time approaching poutine — or, in this case, a poutinelike concoction — without crunching some numbers in my head: Will the joy of consuming this dish exceed the havoc it will inevitably wreak on my health? In the case of the Gumbo Frites, I thought … maybe. The pros: While the gravy is one-note, it has enough kick (which, we’d be willing to bet, originates in a premade spice blend with “New Orleans” in the name) to mildly amuse your taste buds; fresh scallions and real shreds of cheese add texture; a handful of andouille chunks offer brilliant spice and good, snappy texture; and the $7 price tag can easily feed 4-6. The cons: That giant mound of fries had a short life cycle from the frozen food company to the fryer and straight into your mouth. You decide. — M.I.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

SPAM Curds | $7 | SPAM

Not bad, not great — the fat and salt content of SPAM work well for fair food, but it requires delicate handling. In this case, the breading was crisp but could have used something drier and more substantial — a la O’Gara’s pretzel curds — to add textural contrast to the yielding, processed meat inside. We missed out on the Ranch dressing that’s served on the side, but we definitely advocate a dipping sauce to cut the salt. — M.I.

…AND THE ‘AT LEAST THEY WEREN’T THE WORST THINGS WE ATE’ CONTENDERS

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Deep Fried Nachos Supreme | $9 | Texas Steak Out

Here’s the official description: “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.” Here’s what you need to know: if you’re nostalgic for the 1980s hockey-rink phenomenon of eating things covered in clown-car-yellow nacho “cheese” sauce, this dish is totally drenched in the stuff, and it tastes like history. Get yourself an order, find a quiet nook at the fair, and watch some episodes of Stranger Things on your phone. — J.N.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Minnesota Corn Dog | $5 | Gass Station Grill

Heavy, hard-cooked batter detracts from this sausage on a stick that is made with the addition of blueberries, apples, wild rice, and maple syrup. We wanted to taste the fruit and wild rice more prominently, and while decent, this felt like a lost opportunity to do an unusual, high-end take on the fair’s most iconic food. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Maple Bacon Shave Ice | $6 |  MinneSnowii Shave Ice

Half the fun of shave(d?) ice is in the process: watching the workers shape the “snow” into a ball then make a ceremonious show of drizzling it with colored flavoring. And so it was with the Maple Bacon rendition we ordered, which tasted essentially like vanilla-tinged, mapley water. But hey, we did come to the conclusion (once again) that we are ready for the candied bacon craze to be over. So ready. — M.I.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Spicy Pork Bowl | $9 | The Blue Barn

We love bowls (World Street Kitchen and Dark Horse are at the top of our list) but this is a fairly listless example of the species. The adobo pulled pork was comforting and tender, but it was also candy-sweet and in need of far more flavor and textural contrasts — serious heat, acid, and crunch, for starters. The few fried onion strings sprinkled amid the rice and beans were the right idea, but insufficient overall. — J.N.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski’s camera wielded by WACSO / Heavy Table

ABOUT OUR TEAM

The 2016 Heavy Table State Fair Wrecking Crew destroyed more than 47 different items in the name of gastronomy. Our team included: M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, Maja Ingeman, Brenda Johnson, Paige Latham, James Norton, Joshua Page, Amy Rea, Brianna Stachowski, and WACSO. Dave and Evan from The Well Fed Guide to Life joined us for our crawl, which will no doubt result in some manner of podcast down the road.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Facebook Comments

comments

Staff

The Heavy Table team of writers, editors, and photographers has been documenting food and drink in the Upper Midwest since 2009.

Visit Website

6 Comments

  1. While I enjoyed this article, dare I say the annual “best new fair foods” articles are getting old. Each year we are shown endless variations of par to sub par food, many of which are simply gimmicks to get attention in articles like this.

    Here is my humble request: Can we get a run down of the 8-10 all-out best foods at the fair? As a fair goer, I have a limited around of room in my stomach, and it is a challenge to veer from my standards (mouth trap cheese curds, then a corn cob, [insert impulse purchase], and Sweet Martha’s to leave. A really helpful article would say THIS needs to be a new addition to your line up.

  2. Jennie 08/26/2016 Reply

    I always love state fair food reports. And appreciate the work it takes to conquer such a task. After seeing the picture of the food eating team, I can’t help but wonder why no diversity? I wonder how POC or minorities’ palate would add to the conversation? No matter how worldly or refined your palate is, it’s still very Minnesotan white.

  3. Love reading your reviews each year. I was excited for the candied bacon donut sliders and the deep fried grilled cheese bites. I will cross those off my list! Thanks!!

  4. Bridget 08/28/2016 Reply

    Thanks for the recommendations!

Trackbacks for this post

  1. […] Heavy Table’s epic State Fair Food Tour […]

  2. […] Oh, and part of her writing work involves going with a crew from the food site Heavy Table to the first day of the Fair to try all the new foods, then report on them. Tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. And, as any […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*