Forget the corn dogs, Sweet Martha’s cookies, and various items on a stick — fried pickles from the Preferred Pickle always have been my favorite Minnesota State Fair indulgence. The crispy, salty coating combined with the briny pickle and a dunk in ranch dressing is nirvana. And until recently, I only reached this level of pickle enlightenment once a year because I hadn’t been able to find a true contender outside the fairgrounds. The now-departed Town Talk Diner featured “frickles” on its appetizer menu, but the skimpy layer of batter draped over the too-sweet pickles failed to excite me. But recently I’ve discovered some local versions that, while not quite achieving Fair fried-pickle perfection, come awfully close. At least they keep my craving in check until the next Great Minnesota Get-Together rolls around.
Blue Door Pub — The Adequate Substitute
Though you’re probably thinking about a Jucy Lucy when you head to the Blue Door, the St. Paul pub offers deep-fried pickles ($6.50, right) as an app, too. Because, you know, you need more grease before scarfing down a cheese-stuffed burger and a pile of fries. While it’s hard to resist the hot, thinly battered chips when they arrive straight from the fryer, their appeal fades away along with the heat. The coating turns soggy as the chips cool, and even the garlic aioli can’t pep up limp pickles. We didn’t even finish the basket, which says a lot. (I don’t like wasting food, especially pickles.) Adequate if you’re desperate, but there are better choices in town.
Town Hall Tap — The Crunch Maker
My friend Deanna, who shares my fried-pickle fanaticism, introduced me to Town Hall Tap’s version ($6.50) one recent Saturday afternoon. Though I was skeptical of her claim that they were as good as the Fair’s pickles, I arrived with an open mind and ravenous appetite. While the cream cheese nestled next to the pickle slice initially threw me for a loop, the thick, panko-like crust on each chip made me an instant admirer. How come so few pickle-pushers can get that coating right? Bravo, Town Hall Tap, bravo. After a couple of pickles, I began to appreciate the cooling quality of the cream cheese since there seemed to be a dash of hot sauce thrown in the batter, and the accompanying sweet and tangy blackberry chutney contains jalapeños. But truth be told, that coating was so good that I preferred it sans dipper. These are fried pickles are reason enough to return to Town Hall Tap, but still, they’re the runner-up to…
Hazel’s Northeast — The Ragin’ Cajun
If it were possible to combine the crispy crust of Town Hall Tap’s pickles with Hazel’s Northeast’s Cajun friend pickles ($6, pictured at top), one could say he or she has successfully cloned the Preferred Pickle’s chips. Alas, this cross-town pickle mating doesn’t seem likely in the near future, but in the meantime, Hazel’s variety edges out Town Hall’s by a small margin. Though the batter is bit thin for my taste, it retains its crunch for as long as pickles remain in your basket, and the Cajun-inspired spice is hard to dislike. The pickle itself lacks any sweetness (seriously, why do bread-and-butter pickles even exist?), and the Cajun flavor carries over to the ranch dressing for a one-two punch that’s flavorful but not overwhelming. If my 1-year-old was able to keep pace with me on pickle consumption, you know the spice level wasn’t too extreme. Crave-worthy indeed, Hazel’s can wear the local fried-pickle crown proudly — until the second-to-last Thursday in August, when the Fair opens again.