The 2013 Minnesota State Fair Food Tour
Trends come and go, but the State Fair is forever. Or, at the very least, persistent — operating since 1859, it continues to churn up some surprising, interesting, shocking, and delightful new flavors.
While our 14-person Wrecking Crew tore its 50+ item swath across the event, we paused to notice a few trends:
Bad trend: Horrible, horrible dipping sauces. Dipping sauces that added nothing substantial to their foods, except, possibly, sugar. Brain-confusingly bad chocolate sauces for people who hate themselves. A mysterious strawberry yogurt sauce for a grilled doughnut.
Good trend: Good use of spice. We tasted a number of dishes that were greatly enhanced by warming, cooling, depth-providing, or otherwise thoughtfully enhancing spice treatments. A little goes a long way, and did for a number of our favorite dishes.
Bad trend: Really, really sweet barbecued meat. You can legitimately see this as an extension of the dipping sauce trend above — where depth of flavor and a point of view is called for, sugar is delivered instead. America’s high-fructose corn syrup hasn’t been kind to our arteries or waistlines, and it hasn’t been kind to our cuisine, either.
Enough with the trend watch… let’s get to the food. And don’t forget to submit your photos for a chance to win prizes and glory! Let’s kick it off with the good guys.
Capsule reviews written and compiled by James Norton based on tasting notes from the Wrecking Crew, except where otherwise noted.
THE TERRIFIC TEN
10. Gyros | $8 | G&G Concessions
Who eats a gyro at the State Fair? Dodgy and usually poorly done even under the best of circumstances, gyros are one of those foods that regularly disappoint. G&G gyros, for reasons we’re still struggling to understand, featured a nice, fresh mix of toppings, tender pliable pitas, melt-in-your-mouth meat, and a distinct lack of grease or over-salting.
9. Deep Fried Olives | $6.50 | Fried Fruit
We had a bad run-in with Fried Fruit’s Mixed Fruit on a Stick at last year’s fair (we grouped it among items deemed “mostly stupid”), but cream cheese-stuffed olives take to frying and skewering far better than fruit, as it turns out. The bright acidic flavor of the olives cut nicely through the breading, and the creaminess of the cheese and the accompanying ranch sauce tied the flavor together. Just the right amount of elements in happy proportions.
8. Izzy’s Mini-Donut Crunch Ice Cream, Pomegranate Pizzazz Sorbet, (Church) Elder Berry Ice Cream | $4 | Hamline Dining Hall
The folks at Izzy’s really know how to make tasty ice cream — everything we tried at the Hamline Dining Hall ranged from “good” to “wow!” The Mini Donut Crunch Ice Cream was packed with tiny, cinnamon-sweet, doughnut-like crumbs, which contributed highly tasty flavor and texture alike. The clean, fruity taste of the (Church) Elder Berry Ice Cream was a real grace note, but the Pomegranate Pizzazz Sorbet flavor may have been our favorite. This was not merely for its bright, clean taste profile, but also because it made an A-1, top-dog palate cleanser, scrubbing and buffing our tasters for the next round of food.
7. Bacon Cannoli | $6.50 | Ole’s Cannoli
We really liked Ole’s Cannoli last year, with their crunchy, honest-to-goodness shells and not-too-sweet filling. And we really liked them this year. The product of an epic 14-hour bacon candy-ing session, these cannoli sported an entire strip of sweet-and-salty pork under the filling. The bacon was crispy and not too chewy to easily eat, and the ratios were such that the shell, filling, and bacon were all in harmony. Two of our favorite things: innovative and tasty.
6. Rhu-berry Soda | $4 | Spring Grove Soda Pop
Spring Grove is right up there with Joia in our book: thoughtful, bold, earnestly made soda with a culinary point of view. The Rhu-berry variety we tried was a sharp, refreshing, sweet-tart berry blast in a glass.
5. Mango with Chili and Lime on a Stick | $5 | El Burrito Mercado
Since it’s not deep fried or breaded and doesn’t come with bacon or chocolate dipping sauce, El Burrito Mercado’s whole, fresh mango-on-a-stick may seem out of place at the fair. Hey, at least it’s on a stick. Sprinkled with fresh lime and chili powder, the sweet, impeccably ripe mango was both rich and refreshing — the ultimate fair fruit. If you want to spice up the mango even more (and we recommend you do), ask for a few shakes of the optional ground habañero, in addition to the chili powder. — Joshua Page
4. Deep-Fried Bread Pudding | $6 | O’Gara’s
This dessert-for-adults arrived very hot, the inside lovely and custardy, the outside caramelized and crisp. In essence: It was everything a bread pudding should be. Not too sweet, this dish evoked a really good French toast. It would be (and was for us) a great way to start a day of eating at the fair. — Susan Pagani
3. Cheesecake on a Stick | $5 | Wonder Bar
We ordered the hand-dipped cheesecake on a stick on a whim — it’s not a new food item, but it’s new to us, and we were intrigued. Intuition became infatuation. The crunchy texture of the optional-but-should-be-mandatory sprinkles played off the light and fluffy piece of chocolate-covered vanilla- and chocolate-swirled cheesecake perfectly. If this was presented at the end of a meal at a high-end restaurant, we would laugh, bite, and then appreciate its genius, lightly stunned by the power.
From the notebook of John Garland: “I don’t even like cheesecake that much, and I want to eat this again immediately. Crunchy, creamy, such an interesting texture, not overly sweet, and somehow, not too rich. Wonder Bar, indeed.”
2. Porketta Pig Wings | $8 | Mancini’s
The newly established and lovely-looking Mancini’s stand was all over the map for us — good, bad, and ugly (that would be the weird meatball cone). But the good was really good. The restaurant’s stab at porketta pig “wings” was a universal crowd-pleaser for our group. Tender and seasoned with a deep but gently balanced sense of spice, the meat of these wings could be easily tugged from the bone. These would be a winner under any circumstances and were truly one of the stars of the fair.
1. Minnepumpkin Pie | $6 | Minneapple Pie
In theory it’s not yet pumpkin pie season, but it could never be too early in the year for this atomic bomb of sweet, gourdly pleasure. Its pumpkin filling was creamy and sweet without being insipid, and its pumpkin identity was worn both lightly but proudly. A scoop of cinnamon ice cream finished this dish off perfectly, complementing the sugared, flaky crust and pumpkin filling alike. Sweet dreams are, in fact, made of these.
If you want to save the “Terrific Ten” list to your phone, save it on Foursquare here.
And now a brief word from Louie the Loon:
THE TRAGIC TWELVE
12. Slider Trio | $6.50 | Cafe Caribe
The trio of tacos lived up to every negative stereotype of Mexican food in our great state. We’re talking white sauce; thick, dry flour tortillas; and blandness kicked down to negative 11. The “jerk chicken” taco was stuffed with dried-out, flavorless breast meat that would leave even the most timid Midwesterner pining for a bottle of hot sauce. The sickly sweet barbecue pork taco brought to mind canned baked beans, while the fried shrimp taco (essentially popcorn shrimp in a tortilla) was just plain old boring. The tacos supposedly came with citrus slaw, but we had trouble locating (much less tasting) it. In short, if you want to taste what Californians, Arizonans, and Texans suspect about Minnesotan Mexican food, go for these tacos. And we have no idea why these sad things are called “sliders.” — Joshua Page
11. Flavored Corn Dogs | $5 | Campbell’s Flavored Corn Dogs
The word “flavored” in “Flavored Corn Dogs” is a bit of a misnomer… well, less of a misnomer than “dogs,” and only slightly more than “corn.” We found all three flavors that we tried — double bacon, jalapeño cheese, and sweet corn — to be terrifically underpowered. The sweet corn had little of its namesake; the jalapeño dog seemed to be named for the three sad jalapeño slices that arrived in its basket rather than any kind of delicious jalapeño cornbread-style batter that could have coated the dog; and the double bacon split our tasters who thought it either tasted “like bacon grease that has been sitting around” or a marginal improvement on the usual bland corn dog fare.
Like most of our loser list, much of the problem was a big promise and little follow-through.
10. Funnel Cake Sundae | $8 | Funnel Cakes
Ah, funnel cake: “The cake so chintzy that you would never consider eating it outside of a fair-like setting.” Building a sundae around this gastronomic dead-end didn’t really help, particularly when there were only a few meager tablespoons of ice cream and the whipped topping tasted like an oil slick.
9. Chocolate Chili Ice Cream | $5 | R&R Ice Cream
One of our least favorite fair food types is The Tease: It talks a big game and doesn’t deliver. While there was a smidge of lingering heat at the end of each bite of this ice cream, it was forgettable, as was the mediocre ice cream itself.
8. Chop Dog | $5 | Blue Moon Dine-In Theater
Ever wonder how it’s possible to screw up such a fine product as a Kramarczuk’s all-beef wiener? Do the following:
Step one: Chop it up into tiny bites the way parents slice a hot dog for their toddlers.
Step two: Find the two thickest slices of bread known to mankind, and butter and toast them, but only enough so the butter melts slightly and the bread doesn’t actually get very toasted.
Step three: Put a tiny amount of chopped dog between the bread slices, but don’t add any slaw, or veggies, or sauce, or anything. Call it a day.
The Chop Dog was somehow both dry and greasy. We got a mouthful of bread while the wiener bits tumbled out the sides and back. It looked like something you’d make after coming home drunk after bar close to a nearly empty refrigerator. Blue Moon has a deserved reputation for good eats at the Fair, but this one needs a conceptual overhaul immediately. I’m just going to throw out a crazy idea and they can feel free to steal it. Take the wiener, grill it, top it with sauerkraut, and serve it on a bun. — John Garland
7. Idaho Taco | $8 | Tracy’s Idaho Taqueria
This taco was perfectly named, so long as you read “taco” as “loaded potato” and “Idaho” as “stupid.”
6. Portabella Mushroom Bites | $9 | Minnesota Wine Country
These small, sad, rubbery mushroom parts riding atop crostini win our Minnesota State Fair Golden Fleece Award for Worst Value.
5. Deep-Fried Wine-Glazed Meatloaf | $8 | Minnesota Wine Country
Minnesota Wine Country strikes out again with this widely hyped item that was on my own personal “top five most intriguing” list. I was expecting something luscious, rich, heavy, almost creamy, with a thick, sweet-but-tannic glaze. Instead what we got was something that looked and tasted like a small veggie burger suffering from depression, run through by a skewer with industrial-grade tater tots on either side of it.
4. Hawaiian Dog | $5 | Pretzel Haus
“The only Fair bite I actually had to spit out,” writes John Garland. If you’re a fan of eating nasty, raw-tasting dough wrapped around terrible hot dogs and pineapple, but you don’t want your pineapple to taste too bright or fruit-like, you’ll love the Hawaiian Dog, a Hindenburg-like mistake of a dish that made everybody who tried it a little bit sadder.
3. Garlic Toast | $5 | Mancini’s
Mancini’s garlic toast is a wonderful treat, and we were delighted to see it at the State Fair. At the restaurant, we have been known to spoil our meal eating slab after slab of the warm white and rye toast. Each piece is light and yet so thick that while the grill chars the outside to a crisp, the inside stays soft. And each bite is full of butter and a fair but not overwhelming amount of garlic — and absolutely delicious.
The State Fair version had char flavor, but the grill had not been generous with the butter and garlic — and had perhaps cooked the toast too long — so that it was like a plate of oversized and rather sad croutons, cold and crunchy and overpriced as a pick axe during a gold rush. — Susan Pagani
2. Chipotle Chicken Salad Fajita | $6.75 | Juanita’s Fajitas
If you could turn the abstract concept of “contempt” into a food, it would taste like this over-sweet, bizarrely nut-laden chicken salad-in-a-tortilla monstrosity. Most bites were a mouthful of lettuce, but if you really blow it, you can get stuck with a mouth full of cheap, dry, stale flour tortilla. This is one of those dishes that we wanted to dump, with extreme prejudice; a skeet shoot would have been an appropriate and emotionally gratifying end to this culinary monster.
1. Lobster Mac and Cheese | $9.50 | Oodles of Noodles
There’s bad, and then there’s really bad, and then there’s Minnesota State Fair bad. Fair food can be wonderful, but it can also be the gastronomic equivalent of “The Phantom Menace”: bad concept, bad execution, big price tag. This dish is nefarious, too — it runs the classic State Fair con game of taking a small amount of a premium ingredient (in this case, lobster) and then gleefully ruining it, cackling and rubbing its hands together before stroking its long, thin mustache, tossing its cape over its face and vanishing into a mysterious fog.
The thing you taste in this dish is its horrible nacho cheese sauce. That’s it. You can see helpless little car-tire chewy bits of lobster swimming among the day-glo tragedy of this dish, but they don’t stand a chance.
Consider the lobsters who gave their lives to make this dirty skid mark of a dish and pour out a bit of Spring Grove Lemon Sour soda in their honor.
Now that we’ve covered the high and low points, everything else: the glorious, often-edible middle of the pack! This includes:
THE ALSO AWESOME…
Comet Corn | $5 | Blue Moon Dine-In Theater
Comet Corn itself was not terribly remarkable: Think caramel corn dusted with a fine cloud of Goldfish-like cheese. But chilled by liquid nitrogen, it was oddly refreshing, less prone to sticking together (or to your hands), and a novelty when emerging from its white, foggy storage chamber on the first step of its journey toward your mouth.
“Baffling and addicting,” wrote John Garland. “I want to put caramel corn in my freezer from now on.” The cheese dust added some salt; the sweet, frosty crunch was wonderful.
Huge novelty factor, pretty decent product, and a nod to molecular gastronomy — the always-innovative Blue Moon Diner still has it.
Idaho Nachos | $9 | Tracy’s Idaho Taqueria
Idaho Nachos hit the spot like greasy pizza at 3am after a night at the bars. Though the nachos featured the same toppings as the taco — ground beef, nacho cheese, olives, lettuce jalapenos, salsa, and sour cream — the “chips” were hot, crispy, and tender waffle fries. The key to this dish’s success was the ratio of toppings to fries: There were enough large fries to scoop up the sloppy-good toppings. Inexplicably, the cafeteria-grade ground beef we hated on the Idaho taco tasted better on the nachos; perhaps it’s due to the significantly smaller amount of meat grease swirling among the cheese and other toppings. — Jill Lewis
Northwoods BBQ Taco | $7.50 | San Felipe Taco
Bourbon maple syrup made this slow-roasted pulled pork taco a bit sweeter than it needs to be (see our complaint about BBQ, above), but the overall package was reasonably balanced between coleslaw, tortilla, and meat, making for a hearty and flavorful entree.
Breakfast Slider Trio | $5 | Ragin Cajun
Three little sandwiches with scrambled egg, grated cheese, and meat (a mild “Cajun” sausage, spicier chopped steak, and floppy fried ham), all on soft, sweet buns. These were good. Something slightly special, but not gimmicky. Shareable. — Tricia Cornell
English Toffee Fudge Puppy | $5 | Granny’s Kitchen Fudge Puppies
Ah, yes: the chocolate-waffle-on-a-stick fudge puppy — just like Grandma used to make, along with funnel cakes, cotton candy, and deep-fried Mars bars. Subtle they ain’t, but they’re a serious hit of sweet, which some of us crave like fiends.
Three Little Pigs Torta | $5 | Manny’s Tortas
One of the most flavorful sandwiches of the Fair brought together “pork loin, Black Forest ham and applewood-smoked bacon served on a toasted french bread roll with beans, tomatoes, onions, jalapeño peppers, chipotle mayo, lettuce, Swiss cheese, and avocado.” There’s a lot going on, but this sandwich tasted balanced, and each pork contributed a different piece of the flavor puzzle.
Lemon Sour Soda | $4 | Spring Grove
This soda ends up on our fair list just about every year, because it’s such a lightning bolt of citric salvation for the Fair food-weary palate. Try it, you won’t regret it.
Grilled Glazed Donut | $2 | Moe and Joe’s
You wouldn’t thinking that grilling a glazed doughnut would have a transformative effect, but oh, it really does — the sugar gets all crackly and crunchy and the doughnut picks up savory-flavored char marks that remind the diner of ham and egg breakfasts from days of yore. This dish split our tasters almost 50 / 50, but we all agreed that the strawberry yogurt dipping sauce was a culinary non sequitur, equivalent to serving a steak with a side of Sunkist Fruit Gems.
Pork Belly Sliders | $8 | O’Gara’s
Those who lined up against these sliders found them a bit too chewy or a bit too sweet. But there were some good bites in there, and those looking for lunch could do worse. Susan Pagani sums up the “pro” side as follows: “The pork was the fantastic side of unctuous, tender, and delicious. The barbecue sauce tangy and flavorful, a nice change after a sea of taco-like things offering the same cheese, tomato, sour cream topping.”
Persian Kabob Koobideh | $5 | Holy Land Deli
This fairly sad-looking brown slab of meat was actually rich in spiced depth and flavor, and reasonably tender to boot. If you can get past the appearance, you’ll enjoy a cosmopolitan snack worthy of a Shah.
Mint Lemonade | $4 | Holy Land
A perennial thirst-quenching favorite of ours, dominated by a seaweed-like raft of mint. Too sweet… in theory. In practice, the lemon plus sugar refueled our overfed, overheated bodies like nobody’s business.
Bourbon Wurst | $6 | Sausage by Cynthia
While a slightly overwrought description from the new Fair foods list elicited more than one guffaw from our team (we’re still placing bets and kicking ourselves for forgetting to ask what the “distinctive and prestigious” bourbon was), this brat wasn’t kidding around. The deftly seasoned, hearty sausage featured a spot-on balance of strong flavors (caraway, nutmeg, sage) rounded out by a hint of oak and caramel. It tasted like something you’d eat during hunting season — but mildly pickled onions, fried green peppers, and a white bun helped lighten the mix for the Fair. — Maja Ingeman
Wine Smoothie | $9 | Minnesota Wine Booth
The first sip said, “No. This was not a good idea.” The second said, “Not so bad after all.” While the first impression of this “smoothie” (it’s not creamy at all) was of stale merlot stirred into a gas station slushie, eventually it mellowed and the muskiness and the sweetness made sense together. (Alcohol has that effect, right?) In the end, this was a nice refresher. Whatever compelled us to take that second sip, we’re grateful for it. — Tricia Cornell
…THE SOMEWHAT DUBIOUS…
Cocoa Cheese Bites | $5 | Axel’s
OK, let’s say you enjoy cheese curds. What if we dipped them in some kind of mysterious cocoa-like substance? They’d start kind of chocolatey and then finish salty. And — BAM — then we could dip them in the world’s worst chocolate sauce, the kind that pours forth from 60-gallon industrial drums.
An actual taster’s quote: “The sauce was a travesty.”
Breakfast Sandwich | $3.75 | Al’s Subs
This was a straight-up English muffin with an over-easy fried egg, a thin slice of Canadian bacon, and gooey, orange American cheese. Exactly like you might make at home. In fact, it took as long as it might take you at home, because they make each one fresh. Not greasy, but not special. — Tricia Cornell
Mini-Donut Beer | $4.75 for a small | Lift Bridge Brewery
We found this much-hyped State Fair brew to be divisive. The sugar rim was distracting. And while the beer’s spicy, sweet yeastiness seemed to be on point, the beer wanted for more body — more malt to anchor it and give you the “drinking a doughnut” gravitas that the name seemed to promise. Some of us hated it (“like drinking a scratch-n-sniff sticker”) and some of us found it amusing in context, a sweet summery salute to the Fair.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Malt | $6.50 | Goertze’s Dairy Kone
A solid idea for a malt marred by poor execution, the version we sampled had little peanut butter kick and no visible streaks of jelly. The latter was almost completely missing in action from a flavor perspective. Sonic Drive-In — which, it should be noted, makes a good milkshake for a fast-food place — makes a much, much better peanut butter shake. After tasting this, we later noticed that a good percentage of the peanut butter and jelly (aka “the flavor of the malt”) was sticking to the side of the cup.
Mint Latte | $5.50 | Farmers Union
Our team bought two of these coffee beverages and they varied wildly in taste — one was a ho-hum but eminently drinkable mint coffee, and the other had an aftertaste so bitter and unpleasant that we shoved the drink at other people with an almost zealot-like desire to inflict upon them what had been inflicted upon us. “Try this!” we’d say. “It’s terrible!” we’d say.
Cajun Pork Rinds | $5 | Famous Dave’s
Pretty much exactly like every other pork rind you’ve ever had. — John Garland
Dough-Sant | $4 | French Meadow Bakery
For all the cro-nut / dough-sant hype, we have little to say about this fried croissant dough dessert. Buttery and flaky, kind of doughy in both good and bad senses of the word. We regarded it with both wary respect and a disinterest in getting to know it better.
“Butter,” notes John Garland. “Butter upon butter, upon dough, upon sugar, upon butter. Did I mention the butter? I did? Oh. Well, it tasted like butter.”
Cicchetti with Meatballs and Mariniara | $6 | Mancini’s
Cicchetti, plural noun; originally an Italian word meaning “ice cream cones full of meatballs and marinara sold to the easily confused at fairs and festivals.”
Duke’s Poutine | $5 |
Last year we ranked Duke’s Poutine #4 on our “Evil Eleven” list, condemning it for offering “a few measly curds and a watery, peppery gravy.” This year, we’re upgrading it to the bottom of the middle of the pack. The peppery gravy still tastes straight from the can, and the fries were kind of soggy, but there were noticeably more (not quite melted) cheese curds. Keep chopping away at it, guys!
Deep-Fried Monte Cristo | $8 | The Sandwich Stop
A Monte Cristo, a sweet-meets-savory deep-fried powerbomb of a dish, played crispy coating against sweet jam and powdered sugar against salty ham (and, in this case, turkey). The tasty but overabundant fried coating really won out here, crushing the other elements under its iron heel.
…AND THE SERIOUSLY FLAWED.
Fried Pickles ‘n’ Chocolate | $7 | Preferred Pickles
We always look forward to a handful of deep-fried pickles from The Preferred Pickle. The warm pickle enrobed in a crispy, non-greasy, panko-like coating pairs perfectly with cool, tangy ranch dressing. But this year the folks at PP decided to latch onto the unfortunate “let’s add chocolate” trend (see Axel’s cocoa-dusted cheese bites) and offer the pickles ($7) with a side of chocolate sauce and a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Why? These pickles need a savory, not sweet, sauce, and certainly not the low-grade, Hershey’s Syrup knock-off we encountered all over the fairgrounds. Trust us — stick with the ranch. — Jill Lewis
Lemon Soda | $4 | Spring Grove
This rare misstep from the makers of the amazing Heavy Table standby Lemon Sour soda and the new smash hit Rhu-berry soda tasted a bit like “watered down Mountain Dew,” according to more than one of our tasters. If you like Mountain Dew, you’re probably not looking to spend $4 on a local version of it at the Fair, so the logic behind the flavor profile is unclear.
Breakfast Sausage Dog | $5 | Hansen’s Foods
We couldn’t even get excited enough about this miserable excuse for edible matter to rank it among our worst 12 items, but it’s there in spirit. Two words: school cafeteria.
Breakfast Burrito Boat | $3 | Tejas
A sad pile of scrambled eggs with bagged grated cheese (God, I hate that stuff) and “vegetables,” i.e., a thin slice of pepper and a sliver of tomato. You could have had the same thing wrapped up in a burrito. Boring. Not even worth talking about. The roasted tomato salsa was pretty good, though. — Tricia Cornell
Big Andy | $5 | Andy’s Grille
Sometimes less is more, and sometimes more is less. This is one of the latter cases. The Big Andy is a school lunch-grade quarter-pound hamburger topped with a reasonably tasty pile of finely chopped Philly cheesesteak-style steak and melted American-Swiss cheese, whatever that is. Anyhow, the burger dragged this down from “potentially great” to “eeeeenngh.”
Jalapeño Cheddar Sausage and Polish Sausage | $5 and $4 | Pitchfork Sausage
Never underestimate the power of texture. These sausages were so-so on flavor — nothing to write home about, but not weak or under-spiced. But texture-wise, they tasted like Liquid Hotdog, the Hotdog You Spray From A Bag Into Your Mouth. Greasy, almost runny in texture, these were a surprising downer. They did arrive impaled on cool-looking pitchfork-shaped wiener spears, so there’s that.
ABOUT OUR TEAM
This year’s Heavy Table State Fair Wrecking Crew courageously demolished more than 50 different items in the name of gastronomy. Our team included: Katie Cannon, Becca Dilley, John Garland, Maja Ingeman, Natalie Champa Jennings, Brenda Johnson, Jill Lewis, Sarah McGee, James Norton, Susan Pagani, Joshua and Letta Page, Kate NG Sommers, and David Witt.