The Minnesota State Fair 2011 Food Tour
Roughly speaking, Fair-going eaters fall into two camps: the Traditionalists and the Novelty Seekers. The former revel in the familiar: the Pronto Pup, the fried cheese curd, the bucket of cookies, and all-you-can-drink milk. The latter … well, by choice and by profession, that’s us.
Each year, we run the exhausting gamut of new and exotic food so that you don’t have to — or so that you can do it with eyes wide open.
This year’s Heavy Table State Fair wrecking crew bravely mowed down more than 35 different items in the name of gastronomy. Our team included: Becca Dilley, Natalie Champa Jennings (and her husband Paul), Jill Lewis, Sarah McGee, Maja Ingeman, and Kate NG Sommers.
And now, the best (and worst) of the Fair, as determined by the staff of The Heavy Table.
An * indicates a new item at the Fair.
THE TERRIFIC TEN
(You can automatically add all of our Terrific Ten to your phone by following this Foursquare list.)
10. Breakfast Lollipop* ($3) | Axel’s
Axel’s “breakfast lollipop” split our crew, but enough of us liked it — or loved it, or at least respected the concept — that it merited inclusion on our best-of list. It consists of a relatively large sausage patty on a stick dipped in corn muffin batter and then drizzled, post frying, in maple syrup.
The sausage is so tender as to be almost liquid, and the batter is tender and not overcooked, so the overall effect is for the maple syrup-rolled lollipop to melt in your mouth. If a sausage McGriddle is your idea of a good way to start the day, then you’ll probably enjoy this mini-monster. If not, well, use your discretion.
9. Spicy Beef Stick ($4) | Smokin’ Joe’s
Not just a beef stick. We were universally impressed with the subtlety, tastiness, and persistence of the spice flavor in this easy-to-tote meat treat.
8. Deep-Fried Cookie Dough* ($4.50) | Sonny’s Spiral Spuds
What’s a Fair trip without at least one gut-busting sinful indulgence? A failure, that’s what. Salvage your trip by putting down at least one lumpy, gooey, chocolatey sack-of-fun that is the Sonny’s deep-fried cookie dough on a stick. The “fried” portion of the treat is little more than a containment vessel for the warm, nearly liquid cookie filling, but that’s OK — the filling holds up its end of the bargain. If you understandably want to detox afterwards, why not try a…
7. Washington State Sweet Dream Peach ($3) | Midtown Global Market Produce Exchange
No mere fruit, this ripe, juicy, richly flavored peach is a flavor bomb with a wholesome background. The antidote to all that is fried and meaty, the peach sounds dull, but, as its name suggests, eats like a dream.
6. Sour Lemon Soda* ($3) | Spring Grove
No mere beverage, the Spring Grove Sour Lemon Soda is bitter, it’s sweet, it’s balanced, and it’s astoundingly refreshing and clean-tasting. This calls to mind classic summer-taming power of Schweppes Bitter Lemon (albeit with a sweeter finish).
5. Mocha on a Stick ($5.25) | Minnesota Farmers Union Coffee Shop
In a hot weather, not much equals the creamy, well-balanced, chocolate-meets-coffee-meets-popsicle that is mocha on a stick. Adult popsicles are all the rage these days, and that means that this Fair treat is squarely on trend.
4. Minneapple Pie with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream* ($5) | Minneapple Pie
We loved Minneapple Pie when we profiled them, and we love them as Fair fare. With a cinnamon-sugared crust and tender, spiced, not-over-sweet apple filling, this pie is the good twin to the sinister sibling that is a McDonald’s apple pie. For $5, you’ll be surprised at how big this dessert is (three could share it happily, particularly with the scoop of ice cream that accompanies it).
3. Honey Lemonade ($2) | Minnesota Honey Producers Association
Of the dozens of beverages we chugged throughout the day, king (or queen?) by far was the honey lemonade sold at the the Minnesota Honey Producers Association near the agriculture building. With the floral depth and mild, pure warmth of real honey, this lemonade was a perfect blend of tart and sweet, and a thirst annihilator.
2. Asian Fusion Carnitas Taco* ($6) | San Felipe Tacos
Good carnitas are one of the world’s great comfort foods: typically simmered and then roasted bits of pork that pick up both deep flavor and slightly crispy exteriors from their cooking process. The carnitas in this State Fair Asian fusion taco taste legit, and that’s a wonderful thing amid so much ersatz this and phoned in that.
The “Asian” side of this taco, a mild wasabi kick and sesame oil finish, is softly spoken but a fine accent to the carnitas that dominate. Doubled-up corn tortillas would have been a nice touch, but even on the flour tortilla provided, this was a standout bit of world fusion street food.
1. Sweet Corn Ice Cream* ($5 + $1 per topping) | Blue Moon Diner
Last year, we loved the roasted corn pizza and Korean BBQ tacos at the Blue Moon Diner. This year the diner’s dishing up sweet corn ice cream with a variety of different toppings; we tried ours with wild blueberry sauce on half the scoop and butter bacon sauce on the other half.
Huge hit. The whole sundae tastes balanced. The sweet corn ice cream is gentle and subtle, a pleasing blank canvass for the toppings offered. The butter bacon sauce could have used a bit more of a salt bite, but understatement works well when all your ingredients are as laid back as these. And the wild blueberry sauce had both real blueberry funk and whole wild blueberries. Beautiful, softly spoken flavors, for sure, but in this context, everything worked.
Honorable Mention: Pancakes with Sausages ($7.75) | Gass Station
We weren’t expecting much when we ordered this hearty sit-down breakfast — pancakes are done poorly more often than not, and sausages are notoriously easy to cut corners on. And when these modest-sized flapjacks and two teeny, tiny, itty, bitty mini-pickle sized sausages came out, we were ready to pounce and declare the worst. But no. The pancakes were fluffy and relatively light, but still had some nice browning and buttery flavor. And while the sausages were a portion size fit for an anemic guinea pig, they were tender, well-spiced, and flavorful. Downright tasty, really.
THE FOUL FIVE
5. Caribbean Punch ($3) | Harry Singh’s
Wasted opportunity, thy name is Harry Singh’s Caribbean Punch. With the inclusion of a bit of ginger, or a sachet of spices, or the right sort of herbal tea and honey, or damn near any effort whatsoever, this dull-as-Disney Hawaiian Punch clone could have been a standout beverage. Instead: Hawaiian Punch! Ah well.
4. Dirt Dessert* ($3) | Spaghetti Eddie’s
Over-sweet, pudding-like cannoli cream with cookie crumbs and two gummy worms. That’s what your $3 gets you when you buy the Dirt Dessert. After a few bites of this gluey, mind-meltingly sugar-y “dessert,” we were reaching for the gummy worms just to cut the sweetness. For better or worse, the Dirt Dessert is also a marketing tour de force, with some beautifully done custom signs and a striking appearance that will ensure a steady stream of suckers are drawn into its gelatinous trap.
3. Falafel Pita Pocket ($6) | Middle East Bakery
“This tastes like someone who understands Italian food tried to make falafel,” said one of our tasters when confronted with this sorry mess. A soggy Italian salad plunked down onto greasy, dense, de-frosted “falafel” balls does not a fine day at the Fair make. Steer well clear of this dud.
2. Reuben Sandwich ($7.50) | O’Gara’s
You would think that a building with a dedicated “Reuben Shanty” would throw down a passable, if not excellent, Reuben sandwich, and maybe O’Gara’s does. Maybe we got the beta team, the dropouts, the gang that couldn’t toast bread straight. Because our Reuben was a sorry, washed-up failure of a sandwich.
Where to begin? The somewhat dry corned beef and flavorless kraut were the least of this sandwich’s problems. Much more troubling: The cheap, untoasted “rye” “bread” was so flimsy and crumbly that it disintegrated to the touch, meaning that eating this sandwich meant trying to lift a pile of greasy meat scraps out of a cardboard boat and then putting that pile into your mouth.
That the Thousand Island Dressing came as a sealed packet on the side is a vote of no confidence that needs no explanation.
1. Chocolate Covered Jalapenos* ($6.50) | Andre’s Watermelon
Few new Fair foods launched with as much hype and hoopla as the Andre’s Watermelon Chocolate Covered Jalapenos on a Stick. And few Fair foods should be buried with as much public shame. (Thank you, Jason DeRusha, for leading the charge.)
These things look like skewered raccoon turds, and then go downhill from there. They are literally raw jalapenos dipped in low-grade chocolate. Not roasted, not lightly battered, but raw green jalapenos full of seeds. So after biting into your tumorous mass and getting a mild, messy chocolate flavor, you then get the experience of biting into a very spicy raw pepper. And that’s it. For the next 5 to 10 minutes, you walk around with your mouth burning, wondering why this sort of suffering had to cost $6.50.
Dishonorable Mention: The Best Pork Tenderloin Sandwich ($6.50) | Spamburger Hamburger
Speaking of things that shouldn’t cost $6.50: Come on, SPAM. The Best Pork Tenderloin Sandwich Sold at the SPAM Stand, sure. The Best Pork Tenderloin Sandwich Sold Within 30 Feet of the SPAM Stand, probably. But this dry, hard-crusted, flavorless piece of corporate pork on a soft bun was a sad excuse for a sandwich in general, and was only redeemed by the heavy application of mustard, mayo, and lowered personal standards.
And the Rest, Including…
We started our morning with an elk cheeseburger ($5.50) at Giggles’ Campfire Grill, and damned if it wasn’t a good way to kick things off. The burger was tender, juicy, and had just a hint of funkiness — enough that one of our tasters compared it to gourmet wet cat food, “but in a good way.” Fried bologna on a stick ($5) from Netterfield Food Court had way too much crunchy corn-laden batter, and the jerk chicken roti from Harry Singh’s ($6), while fiery and flavorful with the accompanying hot sauce, also could’ve used less bread and more meat.
Moe and Joe’s Grilled Yankee Apple Pie and Chocolate Sandwich* ($4.50) just didn’t live up to the glory of the stand’s marshmallow and banana cream chocolate sandwich — the apples were far too dominant, although we did appreciate their freshness and their Minnesota pedigree. The thing tasted like a campfire pie, which isn’t a huge strike against it, but neither is it a compliment. A lingonberry float ($6) from the Lingonberry Ice Cream stand was not overly sweet and packed a lot of berry flavor. Thumbs up. But a brownie ($4) from Oven Fresh Brownies was oddly salty and saved only by its rich, fudgy frosting. Still: More Duncan Hines than Salty Tart, and not in a good way. The White Razzy Puppy of Granny’s Kitchen Fudge Puppies ($5, above left) split our crew — some of us loved the creamy white chocolate chips inside this fudge-coated waffle, but others thought the raspberry sauce was artificial tasting and ruined the overall treat. The honey sunflower sundae ($6, above left) was well liked all around, by contrast; this Minnesota Honey Producers Association dessert had a nice nutty, crunchy texture thanks to the seeds, and a pleasant but not crushing sweetness thanks to its honey topping. Cherry port wine ice cream ($4, below left) was the one flavor of Minnesota Wine Country / Izzy’s ice cream we missed last year when we raved it up, and we’re glad we went back for it — it’s fruity and indulgent. And Salty Tart is still making fine, nationally respected coconut macaroons ($5 for three, below right).
The Jerk Fries* ($4) at Harry Singh’s tasted pretty much like normal fries with a bit of garlic salt until they were dipped in the accompanying hot mustard, at which point they exploded with spicy flavor. The Original Deep Fried Cheese Curds ($5.50) were as excellent as ever, and we loved The Preferred Pickle’s Pickle Chips ($5, above) — they were the perfect blend of crunch, sour, and ranch sauce — no grease allowed. They went down hot and finished with a cool swipe of sauce. The Giggles’ Campfire Grill Caprese with Wild Rice Salad* ($5.50) was a bit of a puzzler — while the tomatoes and mozz balls were impaled on sticks, the rest of the salad required the use of a fork to eat. Doesn’t a fork-only basket of greenery totally defeat the convenience of the “on a stick” concept?
Of the beverages we randomly slugged down during this marathon, a few stuck with us, including the competent and refreshing cold press coffee from the Minnesota Farmers Union Coffee Shop ($3.25), the frozen Red Bull in a plastic bag at Axel’s ($3.50), and the under-cinnamoned, over-sweetened, under-iced horchata* of El Sol Mexican Foods ($3) which was still, nonetheless, reasonably tasty.
…and Kushari, Whatever the Hell It Is
Holy Land’s Kushari* ($6) was some sort of… well, it’s not clear. Rice? With lentils and pasta? And a spicy red sauce? And fried onions? Perfect for a frigid January afternoon, this warm, hearty, spicy food seemed wildly out of place at the Fair until we started eating it. And then: Its wholesome ingredients and mellow flavors acted as a degreasing agent against all the garbage we’d been consuming over the previous two and a half hours. Blue ribbon for both Weirdest Thing We Ate and Most Earnest Thing We Ate. Overall, thumbs up, but good luck selling it to the masses. Seriously, good luck — the Fair could use more well-intentioned shots in the dark like this.
And Don’t Miss Our Generally Still-Valid Recommendations From Previous Years!
(Highlights include krumkake; fried green tomatoes; Summit on a stick; original cheese curds; the Moe and Joe’s marshmallow creme, chocolate, and banana sandwich; and the Giant Juicy Turkey Sandwich from Turkey To Go. Lowlights include brick-like beignets and palate-melting ghost pepper wings. But let’s concentrate on the highlights!)