The Minnesota State Fair 2010 Food Tour

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The Minnesota State Fair is a gastronomic minefield, comprising gimmicks, classics, overpriced garbage, brilliant local fare, daring mishaps, and once-a-year indulgences that seduce as they kill. In an effort to ferret out the best of the mess, the Heavy Table barnstormed the fair with a group of seven hand-picked food assassins; the following is the sum total of their discoveries over the period of a punishing six-hour gastronomic obstacle course.

And if you’re wondering about the identities of the martyrs who sacrificed their time and stomachs in the name of State Fair comprehension, wonder no longer — we can all thank: Katie Cannon, Becca Dilley, Maja Ingeman, Aaron Landry, Kate NG Sommers, and Alyssa Vance.

And now, the best of the Fair, as determined by the Heavy Table.

The Terrific Ten

10. The Vegie Fries stand sells, surprise, Vegie Fries ($5), a tempura-like accretion of batter-dipped vegetables on a stick floating above a lake of ranch dressing. In short, it’s the Hidden Valley Ranch dressing commercial in a little cardboard boat — in order to make vegetables palatable, all you need is some kind of deep-fried coating and a fatty white sauce. But palatable they are. The cauliflower in particular had a great depth and freshness, and the batter was of a (relatively) high quality.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

9. The taste of Lynn’s Potato Lefse in the Food Building passed muster with our resident Swede, who thought that the flavor of potato could be a bit more prominent, but was otherwise satisfied with the taste of these traditional Scandinavian treats. Relatively cheap ($2.50 with butter and sugar, and $3 with lingonberries, whipped cream, and butter) these traditional flatbreads were delicate without being insubstantial.

8. What better to wash down your lefse with than Granny’s Apples Strawberry Lemonade, also in the Food Building? Six dollars bought a giant glass of the stuff, with a high-octane strawberry flavor (featuring floating strawberry seeds to really nail home the authenticity) and a fresh-squeezed citrus brightness.

7. Original Cheese Curds (the one with queues called “Mouse Holes”) are still the best, even at $5.50 — they’re brought in fresh from Ellsworth, WI, and are warm and pleasingly lactic. The “still $5″ Mouth Trap cheese curds aren’t quite as good — they tasted less fresh, saltier, and oilier.

6. Check out the International Bazaar when thirst strikes — beyond the still-charming Summit beer-on-a-stick schtick, there are Mango, Hibiscus, and Mediterranean (i.e., mint) Lemonade drinks available at Holy Land for $4 (three photos down, left). The finely ground ice in these things makes them highly refreshing, but brain freeze is an ever-present threat. The Mediterranean mint is the best of the bunch, herbal and profoundly refreshing. Provided, of course, you can avoid freezing your brain.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

5. If you go to Moe and Joe’s, make sure you get the amazing, sweet, balanced, powdered sugar-covered marshmallow creme, chocolate, and banana sandwich ($4) and budget some time. This is because the woman making the sandwiches creates them using a time honored method called “being the slowest sandwich maker in the history of creation,” which means spooning on marshmallow fluff one agonizing teaspoon at a time, drizzling on chocolate at roughly 1 cc per minute, and slicing the bananas — slowly — to order, waiting until all sandwiches are ordered before putting them on the grill. Not for the impatient, or anyone from the East Coast.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

4. The Blue Moon Diner Roasted Corn and Bacon Pizza ($5 for a big slice) is more like flatbread than a proper pizza per se, but it’s still flavorful, well balanced, surprisingly light, and pleasant. Even better, at the same diner, are the Korean BBQ Tacos ($3 or two for $5), which feature deep char, good flavor, nice (and not oversweet) BBQ sauce, and an aggressive hit of cilantro.

Giant Juicy Turkey sandwich at Turkey to Go at the MN State Fair

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

3. The $6 Giant Juicy Turkey Sandwich from Turkey To Go has moist, full flavor, a soft but substantial bun, and all the soothing comfort of Thanksgiving on a bun. One of the best savory treats of the entire fair, for sure.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

2. The Peaches and Cream at the Salty Tart ($7, above center) may be a little upscale for the typical Fair experience, but, screw it, this parfait treat is amazing. It features ice cream made with Greek yogurt and coconut water, plus copious fresh peach slices, crumbled ginger snaps, and lemon. It’s refreshing, cool, elegant, and delicious. Worth seeking out.

1. Wine Ice Cream (above, right) could go wrong in so many ways, but this Izzy’s creation for 21-years-or-older Fair patrons in the Agriculture Building is just kickass. Ruby Red had raspberry seeds, a rich but not crushing flavor, smooth taste, and just a gentle touch of wine. Apple Cinnamon was well balanced and had no harsh cinnamon bite — it was fresh and milky. Chocolate Raspberry was deeply chocolate up front with a nice raspberry finish, and well balanced. All three of these flavors ($3 a scoop or two scoops for $5) were gorgeous works of gastronomic art.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

The Terrific Ten Map

Follow our 2010 Terrific Ten on Foursquare

A Bunch of Other Stuff

Many of the other things we tried were flawed but ambitious, or good but pedestrian, or just plain flawed, or just plain awful. Here’s our account of the rest of the rest.

The Tejas Express Beergarita ($6.75) was neither cheap nor particular beery — you’d need a microscope to find the Leine’s Honey Weiss reputedly used to spice up this beer cocktail. But the lime / citrus flavor was strong, and the refreshment quotient high — this wouldn’t be a bad choice on a hot day.

Spaghetti Eddie’s Cannoli Cream-Filled Zeppoles ($3 for 2) divided the group — these ricotta-ish stuffed pieces of fried dough were either too tart, perfectly balanced, or too sweet, depending upon whom you asked. Everyone seemed to agree that they made a nice sweet hit of dessert.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Deep Fried Spam Curds ($5) are better than you’d think — a little smoky, tender, and good with BBQ sauce. But they’re not fantastic — think breaded hot dog sections.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Luigi’s Hot Dago on a Stick ($5.75) is not the finest example of its kind (for that, leave the Fair and visit DeGidio’s, or Brianno’s, or the Dari-ette) but it’s not bad, either. It’s a skewer of mini-breadsticks and adequate meatballs, served with decent marinara and a generous pile of real hot peppers on the side.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

The Chocolate Tornado ($5) at Tornado Potato is an odd duck — somewhat soggy, not very salty potato chips with a chocolate dipping sauce that somehow manage to taste pretty decent. The chips are floppy but delicate, and quality of chocolate sauce is relatively high.

Famous Dave’s always does something interesting, and this year they’ve got Pig Ear French Fries ($5), which are chewy, over seasoned, chicken wing-esque bits of fried pig ears with a barbecue dipping sauce. One to two were plenty for everyone who tried them. Interesting, though, so points for being interesting.

Kiwani's malt, chocolate brownie and big fat bacon on a stick at the MN State Fair.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Smokin’ Joe’s Smoke House makes pretty decent Beef Jerky ($4) — no gristle, deep meaty flavor, not too salty.

The Oven Fresh Brownies place does a decent job with its Brownies ($3, above center). You won’t get addicted, but they’re competent and have a nice cocoa hit to them.

The $3 Big Fat Bacon Piece of Bacon (above right) on a stick was more like a little pork chop on a stick — nothing to write home about, but not horrific, either. Can’t somebody at the fair just do plain old bacon bacon? Bacon’s good. Stop monkeying around with… Oh, wait, what’s this?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Some seriously monkeyed with bacon, in the form of  the much-touted Giggles $5.50 Chicken Fried Bacon. The bacon was chewy, and the fried aspect swamped the bacon flavor. The dipping sauce? Basically irrelevant — neither awful nor much of a gain. Stick to the Boatload of Sunnies fried sunfish option at Giggles.

For $4.50, you’d expect more from the Kiwanis Malt (above left), which tastes suspiciously like a Wendy’s Frosty. Next time we’ll try the pointedly “real ice cream”-based Gass Station malt.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Green Mill made kind of a hash of its Chipotle Chicken Footlong Pizza on a Stick ($4), which, as pizza expert Aaron Landry put it, was basically a breadstick on a stick. When you finally get through to the cheese and meat, a fake aftertaste really makes the experience less-than-charming.

The Beignets ($4) at the Ragin’ Cajun are more like dough-based turd simulations. Heavy, oily, and unpleasant, these things utterly miss the point of the beignet, which is to be a light, pillowy, transcendent delight. It’s easy enough to make real beignets at home if you care to try — they really aren’t that difficult to execute.

The $8.75 Minnekabobs Buffalo on a Stick may be the Fair’s worst value — the buffalo is both chewy and hopelessly adulterated with an overly sweet terikyaki marinade. And, seriously — one tiny kabob for almost $9?

Less malicious but even sadder is the Leg of Lamb Sandwich ($7) from the Lamb Shop. It’s dry and funky, gamey, and unpleasant. It looks so sad and dour that you’d hope for some kind of saving grace, flavorwise, but no such luck.

But for the worst possible food experience at the Fair — and don’t say you weren’t warned, because you were, in detail, by both the vendor and us — check out the Girvan Grille’s Ghost Pepper Wings ($5.50 for six). The slightly fatty and somewhat unpalatable wings are beside the point here — all you’ll feel is the awful, terrifying assault of the hell-hot bhut jolokia pepper, which strips away the interior of your mouth as you howl in protest. These things provoked a fit of swearing from one of our normally mild-mannered photographers, Kate, while another, Katie, noted that “everything’s immediately burning” after making the mistake of ingesting one. Still, some people dig this sort of thing — if that’s you, you’ll really like this.

Hungry to know still more about the Fair Fare? Check out our story from last year: It’s got details on still-relevant goodies including the $1 Cider Freeze, Sunnies in a Boat, and Summit on a Stick. And also see our story from last year on State Fair breakfast options.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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32 Comments

  1. Great work team! I may just have to add the wine ice cream and Salty Tart’s peaches and cream to my list.

    Love the write up!

  2. Chef's Wife08/27/2010Reply

    “Mouth Trap”? F’real or typo?

  3. Crystal- Thanks! I think Jim is still passed out (at 10:40 am), he hasn’t logged in yet this morning. Exhausting work.

    Chef’s Wife- Whoops, I just fixed that typo. Thanks for the heads-up.

  4. Chef’s Wife- I take that back! I’ve been informed it’s actually Mouth Trap. I should stick to producing the site and let the editors edit.

  5. Where are the “Original Cheese Curds” at the Fair? I always got the $5 ones in the food building, and this article is right. They really aren’t very good.

    I love the Vegie Fries! That is always my first stop.

  6. I. Need. That. Parfait.

  7. Lizzy – The Original Cheese Curds are found directly across from the south ticket booth to the Sky Glider (open air one). If that doesn’t help – it’s to the right of the Grand Stand on Dan Patch Ave (near the food building).

  8. That parfait sounds great, wish Salty Tart would have it at their midtown global market spot….maybe no freezer there? that parfait appeals to me more than their often heavy- sugar pastries do..

  9. Anyone try the deepfried strawberry shortcake on a stick? Worth it?

  10. I don’t agree with the Lefse review. I had the Lingonberry special last year, and found it alternately sour (berries) cloying (oversweet whipped cream). I much prefer the Lingonberry snow cone from the stand outside.

    I second the peach parfait, though. My kids devoured it and my husband and I had to fight for bites of it.

  11. Our resident Scandinavian, Maja Ingemann considers a tart berry a good thing. Perhaps the tradition doesn’t meet standard MN tastes? I did enjoy the sugar and butter one more though.

  12. I’m excited to go to The Fair today with these foods and drinks in mind. The only thing that could have improved this posting? A Google Map with pins dropped at each location for easy finding! :) Maybe next year?

  13. Anita- I personally dropped the ball on that one. Adding that today.

  14. Brilliant intro to this article (food assassins! hehe) – made me want to see the punishing food miles logged at the fair.

    I agree with the other commenters, the peach parfait sounds the most intriguing. Hopefully they’ll still have it by the time we head to the fair. Otherwise, I guess the pig ears will be a good substitute…

  15. Awesome addition with the map, Aaron! I didn’t get to use it, but I hope others will. The food items we tried from this list were all fantastic and well worth seeking out!

  16. Mackenzie08/30/2010Reply

    Thank you to all of the “food assassins” for taking one for the team and producing The Terrific Ten. It turned into an amazingly fun food scavenger hunt for my family! Really nice to know going into it which items are actually worth eating. We tried the cheese curds, strawberry lemonade, lefse, vegie fries, and my favorite, the Giant Juicy Turkey Sandwich. YUM!

  17. For nearly 10 years, I have been exclusively going to the Mouth Trap for my fried curds, never the wiser that there was another option to be considered, but after reading this roundup, I decided to venture over to the ORIGINAL curd stand. What have I been doing eating those soggy food building curds all my life?

    Thanks, Heavy Table crew. You made my Great Minnesota Get Together just a little more pleasant this year. Keep up the good work!

  18. Author

    Mackenzie and Claudia, people like you make this job — such as it is — totally worth it. Also, Claudia, kudos for taking your cheese curds seriously.

  19. I’d just like to say that you guys were spot on with the…

    -Marshmallow creme, chocolate, and banana sandwich
    -Strawberry lemonade
    -Roasted Corn and Bacon Pizza

    All three were damn good.

  20. The peach parfait sounded so good. But we were disappointed. Maybe our expectations were just too high. Then again, we went on the hottest day, when only the coldest of foods tasted good. (The simple ice cream twist at the Dairy Barn, on sale for $2.50, was money well spent.)

  21. Was reading the H.T. post from last year…Question:Is the maple soda booth gone already?

  22. Author

    I can’t confirm that the maple soda booth is gone — but I can report that it wasn’t there on day one of the Fair this year. Probably not a good sign.

  23. Ok, did the cheese curd comparison. I love Ellsworth curds straight up (no deep frying), but I have to disagree with the assessment here. For me the Mouth Trap ones are better. The curds are bigger, so you don’t end up with so much breading.

    That said, we did take your recommendation to get real ice cream malts at the Gass Station, excellent recommendation, way better than any soft serve crap.

    Also got lefse, the Norwegian in me loved it!

    Wanted to do the parfait, but didn’t make it to Salty Tart.

    Did the wine ice cream last year and loved it. This year we did the wine flight (served in a card board cutout of MN, lots of fun!)

    Thanks for the great guide, definitely will watch for it next year!

  24. State fair…footlongs and cheese curds and french fries oh my!
    Can’t wait for next year.

  25. Cheese curds, hands down the best fair food regardless of year.

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