State Fair food is a perfect model for gastronomy as a whole because you’re pitting “do it as cheap as we can as fast as we can” against “let’s do something that people love.”
That’s the case just about everywhere that money is exchanged for food, but under Fair conditions, the broiler’s really on — large sums of money ride on the outcome of a couple weeks’ worth of business.
And so: Just as with the sinking of a luxury liner, you get to witness both the angels of people’s better natures and the devilish depths to which humans can sink.
We tasted more than 40 items (many of which were new this year – and don’t forget to submit your photos for a chance to win prizes and glory!). Let’s kick it off with the angels.
THE TERRIFIC TEN
10. Black Cherry Soda | $3 | Spring Grove Soda Pop
Rarely on our pilgrimage through the Fair’s hundreds of temptations and punishments did we ever collectively look back with longing, but Spring Grove’s black cherry soda gave us all pause. “I don’t even like cherry soda, but…” began about three separate comments of praise for this stuff, which is both natural tasting in a restrained way and joyfully sweet.
9. Blarney Beans | $5.75 | O’Gara’s
It feels good to salute O’Gara’s for a gastronomic job well done in 2012, because in 2011, we ripped their Reuben something fierce. No matter — the past is the past, and these cornmeal-crusted fried green beans are an admirable balance of hot crispy exterior and assertive, fresh-tasting vegetable interior, plus a creamy ranch-chipotle sauce. A surprising coup for the Irish pub outpost.
8. Lamb Fries | $5 | Holy Land
First things first: Yes, these were fried lamb testicles. Yes, we actually ate them. And, somewhat to our surprise, yes, they were actually pretty tasty. The tartar sauce-like dipping concoction they came with was superfluous — these little bits of shorn sheep-hood had a curried, herbal spiciness that was sophisticated and balanced. Our tasters wished the exterior had a bit more crunch, but the relative tenderness made the overall flavor experience a pleasant one. Order them. Don’t think too hard about them. Enjoy them.
7. Jerk Chicken Legs | $6 | West Indies Soul Food
On paper this is a simple dish that barely merits a second glance amongst all the wacky stuff breaking out left and right as you stroll through the International Bazaar. In fact: It’s fantastic. The chicken is tender and richly flavored with a nice note of smoke and a lovely, crispy exterior char. In short, that lovely moment in food when the ordinary is made magical.
6. Lift Bridge Hop Dish | $4.50 | Ball Park Cafe
Lift Bridge’s newly renamed beer creation tasted just fine when we had it last week at Buster’s on 28th, but it tasted even better out in the wild on a warm August day at the Fair. Its hop kick tasted fresh and balanced, “as real pros would do,” someone commented. If you don’t typically like hop bomb beers, the mellow edges and overall control of this beer may win you over; and if you do, it may become a new go-to drink.
5. Great Balls of Fire | $5.50 | Sausage Sister and Me
These gorgeously charred, richly flavored spicy sausage meatballs were best paired with the accompanying cooling cucumber sauce (the barbecue and curry sauces were a bit less successful, but also pleasant).
4. Cannoli | $4-$5.50 | Ole’s Cannoli
We loved Ole’s Cannoli when we previewed them, and we loved them out in the wild, too, as they were filled to order by machinery originally intended to create sausages. As promised, the shells were crispy and light, and the simple ricotta / powdered sugar / vanilla extract filling was light and creamy like cheesecake, not gritty or over-sweet. We were pleased too by the quality of the chocolate coating on the chocolate-coated cannoli and the dark (to the point of slightly burnt), strong Swedish coffee also served by the stand.
3. Northwoods Original Breakfast Sandwich | $5.75 | Giggles’ Campfire Grill
We didn’t try a lot of breakfast at the Fair, so take this with a grain of salt: This dill havarti, smoked salmon, and scrambled eggs dish may be the best damned breakfast at the Fair. When you first get this sandwich, just follow our lead: throw out the mostly useless generic bun and dig in with a fork. The eggs were soft, creamy, and fluffy, and the salmon delectable: nicely smoked, properly salted, and surprisingly tender.
2. Ragin’ Ankles | $6 | Famous Dave’s
Building on the success of their peach glazed pig cheeks from 2009, Famous Dave’s presents pork shanks that wowed our tasters with their tender texture, perfect balance of sweet and spicy, punchy “pineapple rage” glaze, and rich pork flavor. Eating ankles sounds like a mistake in theory, but in practice, it’s delicious.
1. Classic Walleye Roll | $8.25 | Giggles’ Campfire Grill
This Northwoods twist on a lobster roll won plaudits across the board. The finely chopped smoked walleye salad was a perfect balance of fish, lettuce, and mayo, each element presented with a freshness and sense of proportion that was doubly pleasing when considered with the thick, buttery brioche toast underneath. Flavors of dill, garlic, and caraway added interest and depth to this light, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts blue ribbon winner of a State Fair dish.
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THE EVIL ELEVEN
11. Cranberry Wontons | $5 | Pham’s Deli
It’s imperative to make your State Fair dessert choice (OK, choices) wisely. On that front: Do you want to accumulate precious calories in order to eat an industrial chocolate syrup-drizzled wonton wrapper stuffed with a paste that tastes like strawberry cream cheese? If so, Pham’s is the place to go. These things make a cranberry flavor promise that their innards can’t honor.
10. Ostrich on a Stick | $6.50 | Chinatown Minnesota
If you love Salisbury Steak but you wish it came with a thicker, sweeter sauce, you’ll enjoy ostrich on a stick. These weird meatball things rated a collective moan of indifference from our group. The stray, unfortunate remark “I don’t give a **** about the ostrich on a stick” summed up the mood quite nicely.
9. Porchetta Sandwich | $7 | Blue Moon Diner
Historically speaking, we love porketta, a Minnesota heritage food with deep Iron Range roots. We also love the Blue Moon Diner, one of the most reliable food-forward outposts at the Fair. Therefore it was a little heartbreaking to make the acquaintance of this weird, fatty, underflavored, tomatillo-smeared mistake of a sandwich. We hope we got a bad one; we hope we caught the Blue Moon Diner at an odd, unprepared moment in its otherwise stellar career. This is not a sandwich you can build a dream on.
8. Schell’s Shocked Radler | $4 | O’Gara’s
The Shocked Radler met with unanimous derision from our group — this watery, vaguely grapefruit-like beer was reminiscent of a Leine’s side project, and our self-proclaimed girly girl beer-drinking staffer thought it was actually “Too sweet! It’s like soda.”
7. Paul Bunyan Bar | $5 | Ice Cream Parlor
If you’ve never before understood how an ice cream treat can be accurately described as “stupid,” step right up to this block of unremarkable vanilla ice cream on a stick covered with indifferent chocolate and toppings that include — here’s where it gets very evocative of Minnesota’s lumberjack folk hero — shredded coconut. Just one bite will get you saying: “What? Why? Who’s responsible for this?”
6. Chicken Nachos on a Stick | $7 | Tejas
In retrospect, it’s difficult to explain what was so horrible about the Tejas chicken nachos on a stick since all the components (corn chips, nacho cheese, pico de gallo, chunks of chicken) were in fact present in this dish. It may be the way that the chicken lacked any character or flavor; it may be the way the basket of food felt thrown together with a lazy sense of indifference that bordered on hostility; it may just be that if you can’t make a ravenously good pile of chicken nachos when you have months to plan it, that something has gone seriously wrong.
5. Pulled Pork Sandwich | $6 | Spam Burgers
The signage claims that this is “The Best Pulled Pork.” It is not the best. “It is so far from the best,” said one of our writers. From the generic bun to the dry, flavorless meat to the sweet, ketchup-like Heinz barbecue sauce, this is truly a dish that tastes “like it belongs at the concession stand at a high school football game.” Perversely, one of the most disappointing things about this sandwich is that it’s not even made from pulled Spam, which would have at least been interesting.
4. Duke’s Poutine | $5 | Duke’s Poutine
We like poutine, a dish generally consisting of melted cheese curds and gravy splashed atop French fries. We were excited to eat more poutine. We wanted to like Duke’s Poutine. But our good intentions didn’t stand a chance. Poutine is a ready-made Fair food, but this particular incarnation seemed to be designed by an accountant, not a chef — a few measly curds and a watery, peppery gravy over a small pile of indifferent quality fries does not a poutine make.
3. Bacon Ice Cream | $5 | Rainbow Ice Cream
You’d need to aggressively plumb the depths American history to find an injustice as egregious and outrageous as this crime against dairy desserts. The so-called bacon in this ice cream wasn’t salty. It wasn’t crunchy. It was vaguely chewy and so tiny that it was accurately described by one of our group as “not even bacon bits, actually more like bacon sand.” All that in a tiny scoop of poorly produced ice cream that a) costs $5 and b) looks much, much smaller and less impressive than the Bacon Ice Cream poster hanging on the wall of the kiosk.
2. and 1. (Tie) Cheeseburger Sticks | Spaghetti Sticks | $5 | Green Mill
Choose your poison — you’ll be challenged to explain exactly which of these foul eggroll-parodying abominations is more of an insult to thousands of years of collective human culinary endeavors. Is it the squishy, tasteless horror of carbs-packed-within-more-carbs of the spaghetti sticks? Or is it the punk rock middle finger to the classic American hamburger that is a bunch of gray, flavorless beef jammed inside of a wonton wrapper? To think that people were waiting in line — in line, mind you — to eat these things is a testament to the power of branding. These cynically conceived novelty items left our group confused and emotionally adrift.
(PRETTY MUCH) EVERYTHING ELSE, INCLUDING THE PRETTY GOOD…
Schell’s Emerald Rye | $4 | O’Gara’s
This is a beer you can build a home in. Well balanced, mellow, strong shouldered, and pleasantly powerful, it’s an approachable brew with depth to it and a testament to the talent that resides in the Schell’s brew team.
Deep Fried Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough on a Stick | $4.50 | Sonny’s Spiral Spuds
We didn’t include the deep-fried chocolate chip cookie dough on a stick in the top ten for the simple reason that we’ve written about it before and it’s almost absurdly obviously good. It’s really, really sickeningly good. If you want to feel bad about yourself for feeling good, this is a solid way to go.
Aamodt’s Apple Brat | $5 | Ball Park Cafe
Aamodt’s Apple Brat should just be called “Aamodt’s Brat,” because the apple is invisible. A few of our tasters psyched themselves into believing that an apple had somehow been involved in the brat’s creation (Perhaps the brats were stored near apple barrels? Was apple sauce open in a jar near the bun?) but there were no large pieces or profound apple flavors that indicated that these totally tasty, serviceable bratwurst had any real apple influence. Still: bratwurst! Delicious!
Sparkling Apple Cider Float with Cinnamon Ice Cream | $4 | Caramel Apple Sundae
The cinnamon attack of the Apple Cider Float’s cinnamon ice cream was so harsh that several of our tasters were initially put off. But by the time the ice cream had melted and blended with the sparkling apple cider, we were actually fighting one another to finish the dregs. Order this, and let it melt for 10 minutes before you start eating it.
Stuffed Olives on a Stick | $2.50 | St. Martin’s Olives
St. Martin’s Olives in the International Bazaar slings surprisingly good and extremely affordable skewers of stuffed olives on a stick — they pack a profound vinegar / acid kick that cuts through the grease of just about whatever else you’ve been eating and wake your palate up so that it can sustain another round of abuse.
Fresh Cream Puffs | $3 | Cream Puffs
Smaller than what you’d find in Wisconsin, and daintier, too, we liked these rich, sweet, relatively delicate pastries just fine. The chocolate flavor on the “chocolate” variety was mild to the point of irrelevance, so you may as well order vanilla, but you won’t go wrong either way. And other than Ole’s Cannoli there may be nothing finer at the Fair for pairing with a cup of hot coffee.
Badger Hill Minnesota Special Bitter | $4.50 | Ball Park Cafe
This crisp, dry, balanced beer pulled off what seems to increasingly be the Upper Midwestern beer’s stock in trade: being effortlessly easy to drink and clean-tasting without being boring or characterless.
Mocha Frappe | $5 | Farmer’s Union
It’s not totally clear what a mocha frappe has to do with being a local farmer, but to hell with it — this was a tasty, refreshing iced beverage that was properly balanced from the perspective of sweetness and carried a pleasant charge of natural coffee flavor.
Red Velvet Funnel Cake | $8 | Becker’s
This funnel cake is no joke — it’s a whole plate full of unapologetic red velvet / cream cheese icing / powdered sugar sweetness all up in your grill. Some of our tasters liked the crunchy, crispy edges; others liked the thick, cakey interior; all agreed that one plate was probably enough to feed 20-25 people comfortably. Order with caution.
Mocha Bar | $5 | Custard’s Last Stand
Creamy, coffee-flavored frozen custard on a stick. Dead simple. Very tasty. If you’re in the mood for this sort of a concoction, this incarnation will totally satisfy.
Hot Apple Dumplings | $6 | Rutana’s
We weren’t expecting much from this ice cream meets apples meets pastry confection, but the apples banged out a surprisingly strong note of flavor that dominated this dish in a pleasant way.
Jamaican Pattie | $6 | West Indies Soul Food
This brightly spiced, orange-colored, palate-kicking beef- or chicken-stuffed dish is like a pasty on vacation in the Caribbean — it’s a rich, meaty meal in a jacket of pastry crust, and it’s a joy to eat.
Gluten-free Risotto Poppers ($6) | French Meadow
We were deeply suspicious of these fried rice balls (as we would be of anything sold more on their dietary qualities than their flavor) but they weren’t at all bad. An herbed black bean flavor predominated to the point where calling them Mexican food balls or jambalaya balls would have been more fair marketing, and the underseasoned corn meal exteriors were hard to love, but the tenderness of the rice and ultimately pleasantly creamy flavor of the interior made them likeable. Not a home run, but easily a single.
THE SOMEWHAT MEDIOCRE…
Pour Decisions Pubstitute | $4.50 | Ball Park Cafe
Most of our tasters were thoroughly thrown by the dark color of the newly debuted Pubstitute, which fully concealed its less than 3 percent ABV and clean-to-the-point-of-empty finish. While I found it sessionable and pleasant after a hard day of hiking and noshing, other tasters dissented and declared it “chocolatey, watery, and flat.”
Excelsior Pale Ale | $4.50 | Ball Park Cafe
The “blunt-force hops” of this pale ale mark a beer that was deemed “solid but not a standout” by our crew. A little more body and / or subtlety would have been appreciated, but it went down pleasantly enough on a mostly sunny day at the Fair.
Doubles | $4 | Harry Singh’s
Chewy, soggy fried flat bread wasn’t enough to stop these traditional Trinidadian street food treats from tasting good — the admirably spiced curried chickpea filling carried the day and made this vegetarian snack a fine purchase.
Deep Fried Slider | $3.50 | Axel’s
This fried mini-burger divided opinion. On the con side: The fried batter exterior was heavy, the hamburger inside seemed to lack cheese, seasoning, or any acid (a pickle would’ve been great). On the “pro” side: It’s a deep fried hamburger, man! And at $3.50, it’s one of the cheapest “fill me up fast!” options at the Fair.
Sauteed Alligator and Fries | $8.50 | Bayou Bob’s
One of our tasters had recently returned from New Orleans with a palate honed to appreciate fine alligator, so it’s with some authority that we can declare Bayou Bob’s Alligator “basically OK.” A little funkier in flavor and more chicken-like in texture than might be ideal, these little bits of sauteed gator were exotic enough to spark discussion and savory enough for most of our group to go back for second and even third bits. The accompanying French fries had a pro (they were cut to look like alligators) and a con (they did not taste good).
AND THE MOSTLY STUPID.
Mixed Fried Fruit on a Stick | $5 | Fried Fruit
A very simple request: Don’t fry the fruit again, please. We could not taste the fruit because of the fried batter, and that largely defeated the purpose of eating it. Not bad, but not really sensible either.
Liege Waffle | $5 | Blue Moon Diner
The Blue Moon Diner gets little love from our team this year, and the Belgian-style Liege waffle isn’t much of an exception — although the mixed-in pearl sugar was correct and admirable, the waffles lacked the gorgeous, profound caramelization that makes the real execution of the dish such a treat. To boot, our particular waffle was thoroughly dried out. (Here’s where a tactical topping choice could’ve saved the day.) It’s generally not a good sign when the name of the dish is misspelled on the sign for the dish, and this unfortunately was no exception to that rule.
Honey Nut O’s Cereal Killer Ice Cream | $5 | Blue Moon Diner
The weak-sauce vanilla-meets-cereal bowl-leftover-milk soft serve ice cream that is the basis for this special new “Cereal Killer” flavor of dairy dessert was a bit of a downer, and the sprinkled on Honey Nut Cheerios didn’t exactly redeem it. Compared to the stand’s sweet corn ice cream, a letdown, but not “bacon” ice cream bad. Then again: Not much else was “bacon” ice cream bad.
California Roll | $7 | Shanghaied Henri’s
The fact that this nearly chewing gum-chewy panko-crusted pseudo-sushi isn’t in the Evil Eleven is a tribute both to how many other unpleasant discoveries we made this year, and how much worse than this grocery store sushi can get — at least none of the flavors tasted rank or rancid, and while the texture problem was a serious challenge, the sushi itself was palatable. Still: worth considering whether we need sushi at the State Fair. (PS: The answer is “no, we do not need sushi at the State Fair.”)
Jalapeno Pepper Jack French Dog | $4.50 | Sonny’s Spiral Spuds
In short: This was what seemed like 4 oz. of hot dog in a 24 oz. bun. Even with the accompanying mustard, pepper jack, and jalapenos, it was a struggle to taste the tiny little hot dog drowning in this massive bread bathrobe. If you get it and strip off two-thirds of the bun, the snappy wiener may delight.
ABOUT OUR TEAM
This year’s Heavy Table State Fair wrecking crew bravely mowed down 40 different items in the name of gastronomy. Our team included: Katie Cannon, Becca Dilley, Maja Ingeman, Jill Lewis, Sarah McGee, James Norton, Kate NG Sommers, Jason Walker, and David Witt.