If there’s one thing that can be taken from even an exhaustive, four-person, semi-professional mission to mine the State Fair for edibles, it’s that you can’t possibly taste everything, nor should you attempt it.
As it turns out, even tasting a whisker’s worth of the State Fair cat can easily become a 6-hour, 4,000-calorie odyssey, but such is the price we pay for being gastronomic pioneers.
What follows is a brief food-driven narrative of the fair, and a few suggested gastro-tours of different durations. Update: add these tips by following this list on Foursquare
Meat and / or Fried
Fried green tomatoes ($5.50) by the Food Building (tipped by Mayor Rybak as one of his favorites) are really worth tasting. Tart, yielding, and crunchy, they come out hot as the dickens — best to let ’em cool a bit if they’re right from the frier. Our tip: Squirt ranch dressing on your plate, and then mix a bit of the Tabasco sauce on hand into it. An instant FGT topper that will blow your mind.
In the Food Building, the Tornado Potato spiral chips ($5) come as a giant, tangled mass of extremely thin, crispy, addictive little potato chips in a basket.
Share with a group of four, at least, and hit ’em with the Lawry’s Seasoning Salt that’s on hand at the stand. Don’t get the thick chips on the stick; they’re soggy. And don’t be lured into ordering the fritter doubles from Harry Singh’s, either — unlike the doubles at Marla’s, these bread-and-chickpea sandwiches were steamed to death and underseasoned.
There could be a bit more sauce on the Peach Glazed Pig Cheeks (left) at Famous Dave’s, but these things have fantastic texture and are a steal as for $5 for a plate of three. The peach sauce balances sweet and heat, and the texture is almost like that of pulled pork — it’s mouth-meltingly tender.
This compares favorably to the Famous Dave’s chocolate-covered bacon, which made quite a sensation when it burst upon the scene last year. The difference: the pig cheeks are pretty well balanced; the bacon was often far too sweet (if you hit a chocolate blob) or too salty (if you didn’t).
Our favorite sweet treat: the krumkake at Ole and Lena’s ($5) kicks major butt. It’s a sweet, rolled-up wafer wrapped around whipped cream and topped with a macerated strawberry / blueberry sauce and it manages to be both lighter than a lot of the other dessert standbys and far, far tastier.
The John Deere ice cream stand uses insanely loud and air-polluting vintage machinery to churn out some tasty, almost soft-serve-consistency ice cream. We tried strawberry ($4), and it had a fresh, clean taste to it. Refreshing.
Always great to see the Salty Tart crop up just about anywhere — no exception here. Coconut macaroons (three for $5) are small, super chewy yet tender on the inside, and sweet without being insistent, and there’s fresh fruit, too — just in case you need a palate cleanser or something a bit healthier. Which you probably do.
Cinnamon roasted pecans at European Roasted Nuts near the Education Building are much more like a pecan pie than you’d possibly guess, minus the gloppy stuff. A delightful and reasonably sized treat for $3.50. Enter the Education Building and try the free samples of balsamic vinegar and olive oil from Pastamoré. Try the strawberry and fig balsamic. Well, try them all, really.
Best value of the fair: At the Agriculture Horticulture Building, pick up a Cider Freeze for a mere dollar, and suck down cold, refreshing, sweet natural cider goodness for the next 15 minutes or more. Brilliant. These were selling like crazy when we were at the Fair, and for good reason.
A local alternative to soda can be found at the Renewing the Countryside booth near the Eco Experience — and it is good. The Stanly’s Sugarbush Maple soda ($4) is not just “as good as a Coke” good, but “far, far better than a Coke” good. It’s got an almost creamy flavor, a maple kick, and a refreshing hit of carbonation. The chokecherry variety is also tasty, but a bit more underpowered. Still, a nice sweet / tart balance.
The salmon on a stick ($5.25) at Giggles’ Campfire Grill is one of the food finds of the fair, hands down. It’s a generous portion, and the sweet / hot tang of the raspberry chipotle and Walla Walla onions is spot on. Also comes with a couple cream cheese-smeared crackers, as if you needed more of an excuse to eat Atlantic salmon with a great topper.
Lightly fried sunfish (Sunnies in a Boat, $7) at Giggles’ are new this year, and a great reminder that if you go to the trouble of cleaning and frying up little bluegill (etc.), they come out tender and fresh. Just a squeeze of lemon is enough to make these delicious.
At the International Bazaar, visit the Summit stand and get the Summit on a stick — a collectible miniature S&M paddle with three 7-oz beers stuck into the three holes in the paddle. You get big tastes of EPA, Horizon Red, and Oktoberfest for $7.50 — it’s refreshing as hell, and a lot of fun.
Update: The map has been replaced by Heavy Table’s 2009 Minnesota State Fair Tips on Foursquare
Oh, man. You’re going to have to hustle, but you’re going to have a good time, nonetheless.
Enter through the north gate of the fair. Head to Giggles’ Campfire Grill. Depending on your level of hunger, get the smoked salmon on a stick, the sunnies in a boat, or both.
If you can keep yourself from scarfing your fish, take the short walk over to the Progress Center and grab a maple soda or two.
Keep walking south, grab some cinnamon-roasted nuts (we recommend the pecans) from in front of the Education Building, duck into the Creative Activities Building, marvel at the canned goods and bread displays, duck back out, and head for the exit. Dinner, a drink, dessert, and culture — victory!
Do the 30-minute tour. Then walk back up and supplement your first dessert (the nuts) with some John Deere ice cream. (Waitaminute… Could you sprinkle those nuts on the ice cream… holy moly, a star is born!)
Now, get onto the Sky Glider that takes you south. Boom, you’re in food central.
Grab some fried green tomatoes and cider freezes and commune with the various farm animals (sheep, horses, pigs, cows, chickens, etc.) in their appropriate buildings. The cider freeze should be a perfect antidote to the intense heat and carby-nature of the tomatoes.
Stroll over to the International Bazaar and hit the Summit beer garden. Load up on a Beer on a Stick… or, hell, just a bunch of regular old beers, sit down, and enjoy some live music.
Still hungry? Walk west and grab some krumkake from Ole and Lena’s. Then take one — or even two — Sky Gliders back to wherever it was you came from, head home, and nap.
The Whole Day
See above — meat, sweet, healthy…ish, and beer. Take some rides, see a concert, impulse browse, and you’re all set.
(Big thanks to Aaron Landry, Katie Cannon, and Becca Dilley for their assistance with this story. Without their observations, photographs, tasting notes, tech support, and tireless eating, this piece would be a faded shadow of itself.)
UPDATE, Aug 30, 3pm: Our own Maja Ingeman notes “smoked turkey legs by Famous Dave’s are hot off the grill, juicy and lightly seasoned. $8 and plenty to share or take home,” and “Lefse delight in the food building has a nice twist: tart lingonberries & crunchy almonds, topped w/ whipped cream — Tasty!” She pans the Scotch eggs across from the sheep building (“They’re flavorless and dry; I threw half away”).
Eric Faust notes that “Peace Coffee is giving away free Guatemalan coffee in the Eco building. You can pedal a bike to grind the beans,” and “SPAM across from Education building has SPAM only sold internationally, such as Black Pepper Spam normally only available in Australia.”
Emily Nystrom tries the Renewing the Countryside market: “Caprese on a Stick is well done and refreshing — one of the healthier options you’ll find,” and then reports of the Fair’s chocolate-covered watermelon: “Unbelievably messy. Tons of sweet chocolate but it overpowers the fruit.” Katie Cannon concurs concisely: “Fresh watermelon plus sweet chocolate equals an unfortunate mess.”
We also noted the “most fun booth” via Twitter: “Arctic Island. They give you the cup (three sizes) and you help yourself to a mix of as many as 12 flavors,” “Ragin Cajun’s beignets & chicory coffee: lot of powdered sugar but otherwise well executed — all are cooked to order too,” and “At Underwood and Carnes, the lingonberry snow cones are adult-appropriate: thankfully less sweet than your average flavor!”
(Also read our Minnesota State Fair Breakfast Roundup.)