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 …
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.
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.
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
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.).”
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
Powered by generous support from the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and by sheer force of will, the Heavy Table is barnstorming the fair’s new food offerings in a brutally thorough manner this year. Here’s your guide to our guides to the fair:
THURSDAY MORNING, AUG. 25 (THIS MORNING!) — SOCIAL MEDIA
Our team goes in early today, and from 9 a.m. until noonish, we’ll be posting live reactions to what we’re eating and drinking …
THURSDAY AFTERNOON, AUG. 25 — PUBLIC RADIO
Heavy Table editor James Norton will tape a roundtable segment for All Things Considered on Minnesota Public Radio about his team’s fair finds.
FRIDAY, AUG. 26, 5 A.M. — FULL-LENGTH ONLINE PRINT RECAP
The massive Heavy Table Fair Food Guide goes live with 30-40 miniature food reviews including best- and worst-ofs, plus luscious photography and gratuitous commentary.
FRIDAY, AUG. 26, 9 A.M.-NOON — LIVESTREAM
Heavy Table editor James Norton will be at the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters booth in the Dairy Building doing a Facebook livestream review of all the fair’s new foods.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON, AUG. 28 — ONLINE VIDEO
A condensed (3-4 minute) video version of Norton’s livestream will post on the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters’ Vimeo account and be embedded in the original Heavy Table fair post as well as in its own post on the Heavy Table.
MONDAY, AUG. 29, 11 A.M. — NEWS RADIO
Heavy Table editor James Norton will do a live segment with John Hines on WCCO News Radio at the fair.
The University of Minnesota’s influence is readily apparent on this stretch. You’ve got a couple of places to party: Bar Luchador and Stub and Herbs. You’ve got a couple of places to grab late-night eats after the party: Hong Kong Noodles (open until midnight or 2 a.m. in the spring) and Mesa Pizza (open until 3 a.m.). And you’ve got a place to discuss Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle with your study group the next morning while pretending not to be hung over from the party: Sencha Tea.
And the circle of college life continues. — M.C. Cronin
GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS THUS FAR: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge.
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
1323 4th St SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station
It’s not much more than a big open space designed for ordering slices and chowing them down on site. But that’s OK. There’s no pretense here. Mesa knows their primary reason for existence, and they’re delivering on it.
You get in line, wind your way to the counter, order, pay, sit, fold your slice, tilt your head, take a bite, and instantly scorch off the first layer of skin on the roof of your mouth. It’s Darwin’s First Law of Pizza.
There’s what looks like a huge, illuminated spiraling flame design on the ceiling. We’re not exactly sure of the artist’s intention, but we like to imagine it’s an homage to that roof of the mouth burn. After all, when you’re a mecca for drunken college students who want little more than to stuff their faces and stumble home with sauce smeared on their cheeks, you kind of have to have a sense of humor.
And all credit to Mesa. They know how to have fun. From the tip jar soliciting donations to “help fund alcohol research” to the irreverent pizza stylings like the Mac-and-Cheese Pizza and the Cheesy Potato Pizza, Mesa knows a slice joint shouldn’t take itself too seriously. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Everything about this place — the decor, the location, the pricing — leads you to underestimate the experience. This isn’t to claim that Mesa is making great pizza in an underwhelming space, but it’s definitely good pizza in an underwhelming space, and that’s something worth celebrating.
The specialty slices we bought were $4 each. The Macaroni and Cheese slice (a quirky take on pizza that Mesa is locally known for) was remarkably tasty, considering it was carbs on carbs. The rich, creamy nature of the mac and cheese’s sauce complemented the crispy, foldable crust and delicate (but not overcooked) noodles. Breading the macaroni or baking it to the point of crisping or burning would have been bad moves — Mesa makes neither of these mistakes.
The Gyro slice we tried was even better. The tzatziki sauce was creamy and full-flavored, and while the shaved meat was a bit dry, the sauce made it work. Tomatoes brought some brightness and moisture to the party, and everything tasted in balance when combined with the restaurant’s pleasant, NYC street-slice-style pizza crust.
The value prospect is solid, too — $8 buys two slices, and two slices would be a good-sized meal for most averagely hungry people. — James Norton
The small coffee shop Uncommon Grounds lives up to its name by being the antithesis of the run-of-the-mill coffeehouse. The building itself is a house. Customers enter through a screen door off a white wooden porch and step into a 139-year-old home. The brass espresso machine along with mirrored and gold accents provide a retro feel.
Uncommon Grounds has a reputation for its chai latte that warranted testing. Many coffee shops make overly sweet and syrupy chai lattes, and good ones are in short supply. The Uncommon Grounds version ($4) did not disappoint. Its subtly sweet combination of cloves, anise, and honey, finished with a touch of cinnamon, made for a rounded sweetness that didn’t overpower the drink’s delicate tea flavor.
Due to the chai’s popularity, Uncommon Grounds’ menu has expanded to include a number of variations. These include Pumpkin Chai, Coconut Chai, and the customer-named Orgasmic Chai (the base flavor mixed with pumps of marshmallow syrup).
The secret of the store’s chai is well-guarded. “I went and tasted a whole bunch of different recipes and had a company make the chai for us, and they’ve made it for us for years now,” says store owner Dale Lee. After mentioning that he never gives away his secrets — and noting with exasperation that many have tried to pry the recipe from him — Lee said that the mixture features honey crystals, nutmeg, and cinnamon as its main components.
Uncommon Grounds Coffeehouse, 2809 Hennepin Ave S, Minneapolis; 612.872.4811
Patisserie 46 has branched out and has opened the first of what may be many locations under a new name: Rose Street Patisserie. Staff at Rose Street said the name change was made because the 46 was too confusing to move to different locations. (Given that the new location isn’t on a street called Rose, we’re not quite sure this is much of an improvement.)
If you’re a fan of Patisserie 46 — most people are — you’ll likely be delighted with Rose Street. Here you can find all the same artisanal breads (miche, baguette, multigrain) as well as the eye-catching sweets and confections that are almost too stunning to eat — but when you do eat them, they’re beyond decadent.
Where Rose Street (and any future iterations) will differ is primarily in the approach to the nonsweet part of the menu. While Patisserie 46 has meal specials that change daily or weekly, Rose Street will rotate only seasonally. And you’ll be able to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer with your meal.
At a recent visit, the Panna Cotta Parfait ($7.50) was treated as a breakfast item rather than a dessert. The panna cotta was light as a whisper, and the fruit that topped it fresh and tangy. An accompanying granola contained dried apricots and almonds, adding some nice crunch to the delicate panna cotta.
The Avocado Toast ($10) was as visually attractive as any of the pastries. It made a perfect light lunch, with a crunchy, toasted multigrain slice bearing up under an avocado mixture with cherry tomatoes and radishes topped with watercress. The radish and watercress were mildly peppery, not enough to overwhelm the mild avocado, and it made for a satisyfing-without-causing-a-food-coma meal.
The star of the day was the Tarte Flambée ($12), an Alsatian flatbread comprised of a thin layer of creme fraiche topped with crispy, smoky bacon and onions. The crust was thin and snappy-crisp, and the creme fraiche was a surprisingly good change of pace from the sauce or cheese of a pizza.
The staff thought these items would be on Rose Street’s menu into the fall, so go now and get your fill before the menu changes.
Rose Street Patisserie
Pastries, breads, breakfast, and lunch in Linden Hills
2811 W 43rd St, Minneapolis
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Sometimes
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$14
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
Tues-Sat 7 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sun 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
PARKING: Lot and street