The 2017 Minnesota State Fair Food Tour
This story was underwritten by generous support from the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
The sheer number of new food items at the Minnesota State Fair seems to have been dropping in recent years as the frenzy for novelty dies down. But what we found on this year’s fair expedition were some bold (and often excellent) new dishes that are powered by creative cultural fusion, some simple classics, and the sad fact that pork belly is not meant to be prepared in large quantities in a festival food-service environment. Read on, take notes, gird your loins, and get out there and eat!
THE DELECTABLE DOZEN
12. Spicy Thai Noodles | $10 | Oodles of Noodles
A dish like this isn’t something we’d typically seek out at the fair — call us old school, but we gravitate toward the classics. Yet we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and complex flavors in these spicy noodles. Even in this center of all things Minnesotan, they were actually spicy, and they carried some real flavor. Rice noodles, veggies, and chicken, all tossed in a tasty red curry sauce (next time, we’d skip the chicken — an add-on — which was mushy and unnecessary). All around, this dish was super tasty, and a rare gluten-free find in the land of breaded and fried everything. — Peter Sieve
11. Garlic Cream Cheese Wontons | $6 | Que Viet
Boom! These wontons were simple and ungimmicky, and unimpeachably delicious. Perfectly fried (not oily to the touch, and shatteringly crisp), and filled with a genuinely garlicky cream cheese. That’s it! No bacon, pork belly, or other BS crammed in there. Just a great wonton. Highly recommended. — P.S.
10. Pecan Marble Sundae | $8 | Bridgeman’s
Ain’t nothing wrong with salty nuts, real maple syrup, and sweet ice cream. Although this is a new item for the 2017 fair, the combination of sweet and salty is an ice cream shop classic, and amid all the other crazy items, it’s refreshingly simple and enjoyable. — James Norton
9. Giant Egg Roll on a Stick | $6 | Que Viet
Vietnamese food seems tailor-made for the fair, and we’re happy to say that the Giant Egg Roll on a Stick at Que Viet did the trick. Hefty, a bit greasy, but nice and crispy, this meaty roll was packed with nicely seasoned pork. Not a home run, but a solid base hit — and a nice flavor alternative to the omnipresent Pronto Pup and its many variations. — P.S.
8. Duck Bacon Wontons | $8.50 | Giggles’ Campfire Grill
Giggles’ is reliable for pushing out something new and tasty every year, and these wontons fit the bill for proper fair food. They had a good fry on ’em — crisp and bubbly — and the duck-bacon/sweet-corn/cream-cheese filling was rich and smoky (although without knowing otherwise, we’d have assumed that the duck bacon was just plain ol’ ham). Pair ’em with a dill-pickle beer, and you’ll be a happy camper. Or fairgoer. Whatever. — P.S.
7. Izzy’s S’more Fun Ice Cream | $5 | Hamline Dining Hall
Every year we seek out the Izzy’s Ice Cream contribution to the fair, and every year we are pleased and delighted. This year is no exception. Izzy’s renders a pleasant chocolate chunk / graham cracker swirl / toasted marshmallow ice cream that happily recalls campfire desserts in a frozen format. — J.N.
6. Vietnamese Iced Cold Press Coffee | $5 | Que Viet
Expectations were low going into this one … we hit this early in the morning, when the desire for good coffee (and not something sickly sweet) was running strong. Thankfully, this iced coffee was perfectly balanced, with a bold coffee kick and a pleasant undercurrent of sweetened condensed milk. In fact, our whole crew vastly preferred it to the far sweeter — and more expensive — Maple Cream Nitro Cold Press at the Farmers Union. — P.S.
5. Swing Dancer Sandwich | $12 | Hideaway Speakeasy
There’s no way around it. The newly launched Hideaway Speakeasy is one of our favorite spots at the fair thanks to a solidly conceived and well-executed menu including dishes like the (initially controversial) Swing Dancer Sandwich. This dish unites smoked salmon, cucumbers, capers, cream cheese, and fresh dill on pumpernickel bread. The softness of the bread and the prevalence of the cream cheese and snappy cukes takes it out of the “deli sandwich” realm and brings it somewhat more into the world of “British finger sandwiches,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. The ingredients tasted fresh and balanced, and the overall lightness of the sandwich was a pleasure. — J.N.
4. Slow-Roasted Pork Mole Tamale | $10 | Tejas (Food Building)
The Slow-Roasted Pork Mole Tamale from Tejas was a standout: great flavors and also gorgeous presentation. Sure, it was in a paper tray, but the soft, sweet, and moist tamale is unwrapped from its corn husk, which rested beneath everything. Succulent pulled pork, thick and rich mole, and black bean/pineapple salsa were placed delicately and deliberately on the top. It even had cilantro garnish. We waited nearly five minutes after ordering to get our tamale, so we figure they’re plating them to order. We’ll see how that lasts as the fair goes on. — Ted Held
3. S’moresas | $6 | Hot Indian Foods
When it comes to fair food, this is what we’re talking about. These chocolate-and-marshmallow-stuffed samosas are fun, they cross cultures, they come with a delicious chai-spice dipping sauce, and they’re straight-up delicious. One of the most exciting things about the fair is the chaotic mashup of ingredients, traditions, techniques, and cultures, and these things do it all quite elegantly. — J.N.
2. Italian Bomba Sandwich | $8.25 | Mancini’s al Fresco
You want the “best value” award of the fair? Here it is, folks: a massive, tender, legitimately delicious sandwich that can feed two hungry people (or three peckish ones) with a mix of braised pork, prosciutto, fontina, and giardiniera on a yielding but flavorful ciabatta roll. You’re really stepping into a mountain of meat with this one (the cheese and giardiniera are both relatively retiring) but the meat is yielding and flavorful, and it can comfortably handle its starring role. — J.N.
1. Sonoran Sausage | $7 | Sausage Sister and Me (Food Building)
Folks, we have a wiener! Or, a winner (sorry). But really! This killer sausage hit all the happy spots among our crew. The Sonoran Sausage is a spicy, chorizolike (but milder) sausage, split and grilled, served in a hearty (yet soft) bun, and topped with a corn/chile relish. The crema sauce was recommended, so we squeezed some on, and this simple yet deeply-spiced dog drew raves from everyone. Great texture, depth of flavor, and an all-around perfect, one-handed fair food. Do it. — P.S.
HONORARY MENTIONS: Sweet and Savory Lefse Options at Rabbit Hole in the International Bazaar ($13 for both wraps)
The second half of the fair features a couple of terrific lefse wraps at the Rabbit Hole – a savory and tasty pineapple fried rice plus cheese plus kalhua pork wrap and a stellar almond brittle / marshamallow / cream cheese / grilled pineapple / mint sweet incarnation that is, hands down, one of the tastiest things at the Fair (above).
The Boundary Waters Wilderness, a 1.1 million acre world-class canoeing and fishing destination, is threatened by proposed sulfide-ore copper mining. Speak up for this quiet Wilderness by signing the petition today.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters are excited to be at the Minnesota State Fair again this year! Come stop by, take Boundary Waters inspired photos, play BWCA trivia, and learn how you can help defend the Boundary Waters. Throughout the fair we will have programs on various topics, including backcountry cooking and fishing, and stories from Dave and Amy Freeman’s Year in the Wilderness. Join us in the Dairy Building to enjoy these Boundary Waters activities and learn more about our efforts to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed in its watershed.
THE TRAGIC TEN
10. Miller’s Flavored Cheese Curds | $15 for a sampler of four flavors | Miller’s Flavored Cheese Curds
We admit it: We’re bitter about the loss of the Original Deep Fried Cheese Curds stand after 42 years of their serving up some of the best curds in the Upper Midwest (and therefore the known universe). So Miller’s has big shoes to fill … and some work to do. Its packaging was delightful. Its flavors (garlic, jalapeño, ranch, and original) were simple but well-chosen. Its curds and batter were tasty. The problem? Its frying game, at least at this stage of the fair, is weak. We noticed our curds’ sheen of grease immediately, and the insufficient fry temp meant that all of them were greasier and soggier than we wanted them to be. We talked to other folks later in the day, and they confirmed our impressions about the fry temp. — J.N.
9. Bacon Up Pup | $7 | Granny’s Kitchen Fudge Puppies
After several rounds of debate, we couldn’t reach consensus on this Granny’s goodie. We could agree on a several things, however. First, the whipped cream was good — never a given at the fair. Second, the bacon was terrible; it had a chemical flavor variously described as “liquid smoke” and “some kind of cleaning product.” Third, the chocolate dip coating (a la Dairy Queen) was lackluster (“How is this chocolate so flavorless? Is it just a brown color?”) but brought back fond childhood memories of gorging on Ho Hos. Fourth, though a tad dry, the waffle wasn’t bad. And, finally, the maple syrup drizzle either didn’t make it onto our Up Pup, or it blended in so well we couldn’t detect it. — Joshua Page
8. Cheesy Nacho Corn on the Cob | $6 | Texas Steak Out
Doritos, nacho cheese, corn: These are a few of our favorite things. So naturally, we were jazzed to try this funky concoction. At first glance, it looked appetizing … but then we spotted a thickish white substance binding the chips to the corn. Flavorless mayo? Perhaps. In any case, it grossed us out. And overcooked corn and bland cheese sauce didn’t help. While the Doritos were reliably tasty, they couldn’t save this sad trombone of a dish. — J.P.
7. Brown Ale and Onion-Gouda Pie | $6 | Sarah’s Tipsy Pies
On paper, it sounded enticing: a savory, rich pastry with some sophistication to stand out from the vast quantities of Pronto Pups. In reality, though, it was a disappointment. The crust was far too sweet and more than a little soggy. The onions lacked the richness of a good caramelization. Worse, when we lifted up the crust to look at the filling, we found a frustratingly scant amount of shredded Gouda, and it had not melted. Even though it was darling in its miniature pie tin, this one’s a pass. — Amy Rea
6. Waffle Cone | $6 | Waffle Cones
Waffle Cones is a trailer on the northeast corner of the Kidway, serving up soft serve and shakes. We tried their chocolate-vanilla twist in a waffle cone, dipped in chocolate a la Dairy Queen. Unfortunately, this version is leagues worse than DQ’s — and they don’t even make their own cones! Waxy, flavorless chocolate, throwaway soft serve, and a high price make this unremarkable confection one to skip. — P.S.
5. Chocolate Popover with Peanut Butter Spread | $6 | LuLu’s Public House
No one on our crew liked this, although the reasons varied. One passionate popover devotee noted that this was not a true popover, as it appeared not to have been baked in a proper popover pan. Others disliked the addition of chocolate to what, by itself, is an indulgent baked good that should sing with a rich egg batter. All agreed that it was over-baked and dry, and it came as some surprise that the accompanying spread was supposed to be peanut butter; there was no identifiable flavor to it, nor was its texture anywhere close. — A.R.
4. Bowl O’ Dough | $8 for a three-flavor sampler bowl | Blue Moon Dine-In Theater
One of the most-hyped dishes of the fair was Blue Moon Dine-In Theater’s Bowl O’ Dough, and unfortunately, it falls short of expectations. Cookie dough is one of the world’s finest forbidden food experiences, but the Bowl O’ Dough’s various flavors all skewed wildly sweet, a pile of additional sugar making them taste less like cookie dough and more like a dare gone wrong. The fact that the bowl came with a handful of potato chips and a pretzel rod was a nice nod to the sugar problem, but ultimately, we would have been far happier with plain, old-fashioned, regular-tasting dough. — J.N.
3. Sweety’s Churros | $5 | Potato Man and Sweety
These churros hit the terrible trifecta. They tasted horrible — a sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg bomb that reminded one of our crew of a “sad Christmas cookie that you don’t want to eat.” The texture was equally bad; “like eating a weapon,” another crewmember astutely noted. And, watered-down, industrial-grade “chocolate” and “maple brown sugar” sauces managed to make the edible nunchucks even worse. But the rainbow sprinkles were pretty. — J.P.
2. Sweet Corn Blueberry Eclair | $6.50 | Farmers Union
Before making your eclair from Kernza flour (or, really, from anything other than traditional pâte à choux ingredients), you should ask yourself: What are we gaining here? And what are we losing? In this case, nothing is gained other than an aggressively grainy, whole-wheat-bread flavor, and much is lost: the classic texture of pâte à choux, the balance between pastry, filling, and topping, and (in summary) any of the reasons people like to eat eclairs. This insufficiently sweet and downright grouchy doughnut is bad on its merits, and an especially big no-go once you factor in the price. — J.N.
1. Swine and Spuds | $8 | Swine and Spuds (Coliseum)
Swine and Spuds in the Coliseum is a new vendor this year. Its primary offering, bacon-wrapped pork belly on a stick with potato croquettes, appeared ugly to the point of being downright vulgar. It also managed the mighty feat of tasting worse than it looked. Our first bite into a piece of the meat was a mouthful of unrendered pork fat (or congealed — unappetizing either way) concealed under the bacon. A sad puddle of chili sauce and instantly forgettable croquettes were equally unable to salvage this disaster. — T.H.
THE 2017 MINNESOTA STATE FAIR BEER REPORT
Though there were no strong themes among this year’s many new beers, more beer is available in more places than it was a few years ago, when the majority of craft beer was at the Ball Park Cafe and Giggles’ Campfire Grill.
At the north end of the grounds, we found one of the best beers of the day: The Dill Pickle beer made by Barley John’s Brew Pub and available at Giggles’. The aroma is full of pickle, but somehow an entire glass ($5 for 12 ounces) never becomes overwhelming. It would be ideal for a hot day and will appeal to Bloody Mary fans.
Skip the Raspberry Cider from the same booth, which was bland and weak with little berry or apple flavor.
The widest array of beer options can be found at the east side of the fair. At O’Gara’s, the Grapefruit Ode IPA by Castle Danger Brewery hit only high notes among the crew. Though it’s finish is quite bitter, the citrus flavor is sustained in a refreshing way, and the generous carbonation cuts through heavier foods.
The Ball Park Cafe boasts at least five new beers, and there were many successes. For a fruit-forward option, Bent Brewstillery’s Hungarian Cherry Wheat ($5.25 for 12 ounces) has a creamy character, almost like a cherry creamsicle. Also on the fruity spectrum is Bauhaus Brew Labs, with a shandy-style ale called The Shandlot ($5.25 for 12 ounces). Preserved lemon aroma meets a pithy, pleasantly bitter lemon flavor that is less like lemonade than we feared.
Two IPAs went very quickly — Mosaic Kanu by Bent Paddle Brewing Company ($5.25 for 12 ounces) was the lighter, with strong resin and tangerine notes. It paired well with an adjacent tamale. The War Pigs Lazurite IPA ($5.25 for 12 ounces) was more substantial, with earthy undertones and less lingering bitterness than its hefty body would suggest.
The perennial stop at Summit Brewing, within the International Bazaar, typically reveals a solid new beer to be filed under “ordinary” rather than “novelty.” This year’s Lazy Slipper is no exception. For an ale made with strawberries, it is very subtle. Too subtle for some tasters, though the pleasant bread-crust finish was unusual.
Beer options near the Midway are underwhelming. The Lingonberry Lager from Coaster’s smelled like fragrant berries but tasted only vaguely tart with little malt or hop presence. The Beer Malt from the same location induced several shrugs, but wasn’t a total flop.
Beverages in the West End Market aren’t particularly noteworthy, though the Red, Light, and Blu at the Schell’s booth combines a floater of frozen blueberry beer and sangria beer with light lager ($5.25 for 12 ounces). For a frozen treat, it went over better than the malt. The Duke of Cuke, a cucumber-infused lager by Insight Brewing, was an unfortunate finale to the beverage foray. The vegetable character was more akin to a cucumber-melon-like beauty product than anything out of a garden. — Paige Latham Didora
THE BEST (AND THE REST) OF THE REST …
Bacon Fluffernutter | $9 | The Sandwich Shop
If any element — the grilled cinnamon bun “bread,” the bacon, the peanut butter, the marshmallow fluff — had gotten out of line on this sandwich, it could have tanked. But instead it’s a simple-but-lovely, balanced whole, each element chipping some sweet, mellow, affable flavor into the communal pot. Thin, crispy bacon was the way to go on this one, and it plays its part well. — J.N.
Solar Honey Swirl Ice Cream | $4 | Minnesota Honey Producers Association (Ag Hort Building)
The solar honey swirl ice cream at the Ag Building snapped us out of our ice cream fatigue with a high-quality base (tasted like a rich and creamy vanilla?) and a tiny amount of equally good honey drizzled over it. With no cookies, crackers, bacon, or any other gimmick, it won’t win any Instagram awards, but it’s as good as any ice cream at the fair. — T.H.
Fall Guy Breakfast Panini | $8 | Hideaway Speakeasy
Simple beyond belief — thin, crispy ciabatta containing capicola, scrambled eggs, and white cheddar. But good execution makes simple concepts shine, and we found this sandwich to be most comforting, tasty, and a fine value. Whatever it might lack in razzle-dazzle it makes up for with an earnest willingness (and ability) to please. — J.N.
Wild Bill’s Breakfast Bake | $8.75 | The Blue Barn
Roast chicken, plus scrambled eggs, chorizo, salsa, pickled onions, and cilantro make this something of an “everything but the kitchen sink” dish, but, somehow, it works. Proper cooking crisped up the elements and created a lovely texture throughout, and every element worked with all the others. An unexpected winner. — J.N.
Mobster Caviar | $11 | Hideaway Speakeasy
This dish is less exciting than its name suggests. But that’s a good thing. Served with slices of baguette (rather than flatbread crackers, as advertised), the mound of crab salad is a refreshingly simple treat. Chopped water chestnuts, red bell pepper, and green onion add character and texture, and cream cheese does a fine job of holding everything together. Thankfully, the mobsters include a lemon wedge to give the “caviar” a needed burst of acidity. — J.P.
Double Dose of Pork Belly | $7 | RC’s BBQ
We’ve had some really bad pork belly at the fair. Really, really bad. So, we were skeptical about a sandwich with two doses of it. One of the doses, a thin overcooked slab of shoe leather, confirmed our skepticism. But the second, a thick, juicy, and flavorful patty, defied expectations. The rest of the sandwich — a tart combo of slaw and pickled onions, a slather of sweet (but not overly so) barbecue sauce, and an appropriately plain hamburger bun — also hit their mark. Ask RC to hold the first dose of pork belly, and you’ve got yourself a winner. — J.P.
Hefeweizen Gelato | $4 | Mancini’s al Fresco
Lighter than ice cream, this gelato, made with Schell’s Hefeweizen, has a gentle sweetness, a pronounced banana flavor, and no discernible aftertaste. The taste of hefeweizen was not apparent, nor was the taste of alcohol. — T.H.
Deviation Stout Steak Taco Naan | $10 | San Felipe Tacos
Quibble all you want about a taco served on naan. This one won over most of our tasters, although a couple found it unexciting. The tender beef, marinated in a dark chocolate stout, was served with a judicious amount of pico de gallo and surprisingly spicy cilantro-lime and jalapeño-ranch sauces. The naan served as a sturdy soft shell, pillowy and buttery. Some who didn’t like it compared it to Taco Bell; among those who did like it, some felt the comparison was apt, while others felt that the naan taco rose far above the chain’s products. Your take may depend on your fealty to the Bell. — A.R.
Honey Puffs (Loukamades) | $6 | Dino’s Gyros
These Greek-inspired delicacies were a group splitter. Some felt that these sugar-syrup-sweetened balls of fried dough were dull and heavy, while others appreciated them as uncomplicated sweet treats with a cinnamon punch. — J.N.
Mini Sconuts | $5 | French Meadow Bakery and Cafe
Speaking of a group splitter, the Mini Sconuts (buttermilk scone holes filled with marshmallow, Nutella, and chocolate) were (depending upon your view) either decadent and delightful little dessert bombs, or simply too much sugar in a spherical format. Sugar fiends and dessert hounds are advised to seek them out. — J.N.
Cranberry Wild Rice Meatballs | $11 with a side and a roll or cornbread | Hamline Church Dining Hall
You know a good Swedish meatball by its silky texture and soft spring. These meatballs get high marks in both departments. Wild rice should add a little… nutty flavor? Crunch? Texture? Something? And cranberries are hard to miss, right? Well, on both counts the wild rice and cranberries fell down on the job. These are excellent examples of Swedish meatballs, and the lingonberry sauce on the side is an appropriate companion; it’s just hard to tell them apart from the classic. If sit-down food at the Fair is your thing, these are a good choice. — Tricia Cornell
(Editor’s note; this was added to the original writeup on Sunday, Aug. 27)
Triple Truffle Trotters | $7.50 | The Blue Barn
This dish, with waffle fries coated with truffle oil and topped with chopped peppers, bacon, and a healthy dollop of sour cream, was divisive for our crew. The biggest division turned out to be the amount of truffle oil used — which was a lot. Some felt it was overdone and made the dish one note. But the others felt that, even though the truffle oil was aggressive, the fries were still eminently edible, and concluded, “I’d eat that again.” — A.R.
Deep-Fried Avocado | $8 | O’Gara’s
The deep-fried avocado from O’Gara’s divided our group. Heating avocado is usually considered abuse of the beautiful, nutty fruit, but somehow this worked — at least with the smaller pieces, where the ratio of crunchy, brown breading to avocado was in ideal balance. When several pieces were clumped together, it turned into a mushy mess, and the avocado abuse was more apparent. A no-frills food service packet of chipotle ranch is the perfect accompaniment for this bizarre item, bringing some heat and creaminess to the party. — T.H.
Pizzarito | $5 | Green Mill
In the same way the Giggles’ is a reliable good start to our fair food tour every year, Green Mill has, year after year, always let us down. But — hold the phone! — things have turned around in 2017 with this sausage, risotto, mozzarella, and pepperoni-stuffed fried tortilla concoction that actually manages to be relatively balanced and enjoyable with the accompanying marinara. The only thing that kept this off our outright winners’ list is the risotto, which seemed extraneous and distracting to several tasters. — J.N.
Maple Cream Nitro Cold Press Coffee | $6.50 | Farmers Union
While not as outrageously priced as the Farmers Union doughnuts, this pricey beverage delivers a blast of sugar without much in the way of coffee flavor to balance the experience. The somewhat similar Vietnamese Iced Coffee from Que Viet is considerably less expensive and considerably better. — J.N.
Cherry Bombs | $5 | Vegie Fries
Let’s start with the obvious question: Why is a stand called Vegie Fries selling deep-fried red licorice? We don’t know the answer to that, nor do we know why deep-fried licorice seemed like a good idea in the first place. Yes, they’re rather adorable to look at. And at first bite, the batter is light and delicate, not drowning in grease. But the licorice is — well — licorice. Even those of us who like red licorice thought the mixture of candy and batter made for an unappealing combination with a medicinal flavor and aftertaste. — A.R.
Memphis Totchos | $9 | Snack House (in the Coliseum)
The dish: sliced bananas, bacon, and Tater Tots, with peanut sauce. The question: Why? None of the elements were particularly bad, but it tastes like a dish assembled at random. — J.N.
Pie’n the Sky Malt | $6 | Dairy Goodness Bar in the Dairy Building
Good chefs edit, and that eye for restraint was needed here. It’s not that lemon curd, chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream, and Biscoff-style cookies are bad ingredients, but they just don’t need to all share a malt. The lemon curd (which was excellent!) would have been lovely on its own with the ice cream and malt powder; likewise, you can make a good malt with crushed cookies and chocolate. Less, at times, is more. — J.N.
ABOUT OUR TEAM
The 2017 Heavy Table State Fair Wrecking Crew took down more than 50 different items in the name of gastronomy. Our team included: Becca Dilley, Ted Held, Brenda Johnson, Paige Latham Didora, Sarah McGee, James Norton, Joshua Page, Amy Rea, Peter Sieve, Brianna Stachowski, and comedian Brandi Brown.