The Minnesota State Fair is a gastronomic minefield, comprising gimmicks, classics, overpriced garbage, brilliant local fare, daring mishaps, and once-a-year indulgences that seduce as they kill. In an effort to ferret out the best of the mess, the Heavy Table barnstormed the fair with a group of seven hand-picked food assassins; the following is the sum total of their discoveries over the period of a punishing six-hour gastronomic obstacle course.
And if you’re wondering about the identities of the martyrs who sacrificed their time and stomachs in the name of State Fair comprehension, wonder no longer — we can all thank: Katie Cannon, Becca Dilley, Maja Ingeman, Aaron Landry, Kate NG Sommers, and Alyssa Vance.
And now, the best of the Fair, as determined by the Heavy Table.
The Terrific Ten
10. The Vegie Fries stand sells, surprise, Vegie Fries ($5), a tempura-like accretion of batter-dipped vegetables on a stick floating above a lake of ranch dressing. In short, it’s the Hidden Valley Ranch dressing commercial in a little cardboard boat — in order to make vegetables palatable, all you need is some kind of deep-fried coating and a fatty white sauce. But palatable they are. The cauliflower in particular had a great depth and freshness, and the batter was of a (relatively) high quality.
9. The taste of Lynn’s Potato Lefse in the Food Building passed muster with our resident Swede, who thought that the flavor of potato could be a bit more prominent, but was otherwise satisfied with the taste of these traditional Scandinavian treats. Relatively cheap ($2.50 with butter and sugar, and $3 with lingonberries, whipped cream, and butter) these traditional flatbreads were delicate without being insubstantial.
8. What better to wash down your lefse with than Granny’s Apples Strawberry Lemonade, also in the Food Building? Six dollars bought a giant glass of the stuff, with a high-octane strawberry flavor (featuring floating strawberry seeds to really nail home the authenticity) and a fresh-squeezed citrus brightness.
7. Original Cheese Curds (the one with queues called “Mouse Holes”) are still the best, even at $5.50 — they’re brought in fresh from Ellsworth, WI, and are warm and pleasingly lactic. The “still $5” Mouth Trap cheese curds aren’t quite as good — they tasted less fresh, saltier, and oilier.
6. Check out the International Bazaar when thirst strikes — beyond the still-charming Summit beer-on-a-stick schtick, there are Mango, Hibiscus, and Mediterranean (i.e., mint) Lemonade drinks available at Holy Land for $4 (three photos down, left). The finely ground ice in these things makes them highly refreshing, but brain freeze is an ever-present threat. The Mediterranean mint is the best of the bunch, herbal and profoundly refreshing. Provided, of course, you can avoid freezing your brain.
5. If you go to Moe and Joe’s, make sure you get the amazing, sweet, balanced, powdered sugar-covered marshmallow creme, chocolate, and banana sandwich ($4) and budget some time. This is because the woman making the sandwiches creates them using a time honored method called “being the slowest sandwich maker in the history of creation,” which means spooning on marshmallow fluff one agonizing teaspoon at a time, drizzling on chocolate at roughly 1 cc per minute, and slicing the bananas — slowly — to order, waiting until all sandwiches are ordered before putting them on the grill. Not for the impatient, or anyone from the East Coast.
4. The Blue Moon Diner Roasted Corn and Bacon Pizza ($5 for a big slice) is more like flatbread than a proper pizza per se, but it’s still flavorful, well balanced, surprisingly light, and pleasant. Even better, at the same diner, are the Korean BBQ Tacos ($3 or two for $5), which feature deep char, good flavor, nice (and not oversweet) BBQ sauce, and an aggressive hit of cilantro.
3. The $6 Giant Juicy Turkey Sandwich from Turkey To Go has moist, full flavor, a soft but substantial bun, and all the soothing comfort of Thanksgiving on a bun. One of the best savory treats of the entire fair, for sure.
2. The Peaches and Cream at the Salty Tart ($7, above center) may be a little upscale for the typical Fair experience, but, screw it, this parfait treat is amazing. It features ice cream made with Greek yogurt and coconut water, plus copious fresh peach slices, crumbled ginger snaps, and lemon. It’s refreshing, cool, elegant, and delicious. Worth seeking out.
1. Wine Ice Cream (above, right) could go wrong in so many ways, but this Izzy’s creation for 21-years-or-older Fair patrons in the Agriculture Building is just kickass. Ruby Red had raspberry seeds, a rich but not crushing flavor, smooth taste, and just a gentle touch of wine. Apple Cinnamon was well balanced and had no harsh cinnamon bite — it was fresh and milky. Chocolate Raspberry was deeply chocolate up front with a nice raspberry finish, and well balanced. All three of these flavors ($3 a scoop or two scoops for $5) were gorgeous works of gastronomic art.
The Terrific Ten Map
A Bunch of Other Stuff
Many of the other things we tried were flawed but ambitious, or good but pedestrian, or just plain flawed, or just plain awful. Here’s our account of the rest of the rest.
The Tejas Express Beergarita ($6.75) was neither cheap nor particular beery — you’d need a microscope to find the Leine’s Honey Weiss reputedly used to spice up this beer cocktail. But the lime / citrus flavor was strong, and the refreshment quotient high — this wouldn’t be a bad choice on a hot day.
Spaghetti Eddie’s Cannoli Cream-Filled Zeppoles ($3 for 2) divided the group — these ricotta-ish stuffed pieces of fried dough were either too tart, perfectly balanced, or too sweet, depending upon whom you asked. Everyone seemed to agree that they made a nice sweet hit of dessert.
Deep Fried Spam Curds ($5) are better than you’d think — a little smoky, tender, and good with BBQ sauce. But they’re not fantastic — think breaded hot dog sections.
Luigi’s Hot Dago on a Stick ($5.75) is not the finest example of its kind (for that, leave the Fair and visit DeGidio’s, or Brianno’s, or the Dari-ette) but it’s not bad, either. It’s a skewer of mini-breadsticks and adequate meatballs, served with decent marinara and a generous pile of real hot peppers on the side.
The Chocolate Tornado ($5) at Tornado Potato is an odd duck — somewhat soggy, not very salty potato chips with a chocolate dipping sauce that somehow manage to taste pretty decent. The chips are floppy but delicate, and quality of chocolate sauce is relatively high.
Famous Dave’s always does something interesting, and this year they’ve got Pig Ear French Fries ($5), which are chewy, over seasoned, chicken wing-esque bits of fried pig ears with a barbecue dipping sauce. One to two were plenty for everyone who tried them. Interesting, though, so points for being interesting.
Smokin’ Joe’s Smoke House makes pretty decent Beef Jerky ($4) — no gristle, deep meaty flavor, not too salty.
The Oven Fresh Brownies place does a decent job with its Brownies ($3, above center). You won’t get addicted, but they’re competent and have a nice cocoa hit to them.
The $3 Big Fat Bacon Piece of Bacon (above right) on a stick was more like a little pork chop on a stick — nothing to write home about, but not horrific, either. Can’t somebody at the fair just do plain old bacon bacon? Bacon’s good. Stop monkeying around with… Oh, wait, what’s this?
Some seriously monkeyed with bacon, in the form of the much-touted Giggles $5.50 Chicken Fried Bacon. The bacon was chewy, and the fried aspect swamped the bacon flavor. The dipping sauce? Basically irrelevant — neither awful nor much of a gain. Stick to the Boatload of Sunnies fried sunfish option at Giggles.
For $4.50, you’d expect more from the Kiwanis Malt (above left), which tastes suspiciously like a Wendy’s Frosty. Next time we’ll try the pointedly “real ice cream”-based Gass Station malt.
Green Mill made kind of a hash of its Chipotle Chicken Footlong Pizza on a Stick ($4), which, as pizza expert Aaron Landry put it, was basically a breadstick on a stick. When you finally get through to the cheese and meat, a fake aftertaste really makes the experience less-than-charming.
The Beignets ($4) at the Ragin’ Cajun are more like dough-based turd simulations. Heavy, oily, and unpleasant, these things utterly miss the point of the beignet, which is to be a light, pillowy, transcendent delight. It’s easy enough to make real beignets at home if you care to try — they really aren’t that difficult to execute.
The $8.75 Minnekabobs Buffalo on a Stick may be the Fair’s worst value — the buffalo is both chewy and hopelessly adulterated with an overly sweet terikyaki marinade. And, seriously — one tiny kabob for almost $9?
Less malicious but even sadder is the Leg of Lamb Sandwich ($7) from the Lamb Shop. It’s dry and funky, gamey, and unpleasant. It looks so sad and dour that you’d hope for some kind of saving grace, flavorwise, but no such luck.
But for the worst possible food experience at the Fair — and don’t say you weren’t warned, because you were, in detail, by both the vendor and us — check out the Girvan Grille’s Ghost Pepper Wings ($5.50 for six). The slightly fatty and somewhat unpalatable wings are beside the point here — all you’ll feel is the awful, terrifying assault of the hell-hot bhut jolokia pepper, which strips away the interior of your mouth as you howl in protest. These things provoked a fit of swearing from one of our normally mild-mannered photographers, Kate, while another, Katie, noted that “everything’s immediately burning” after making the mistake of ingesting one. Still, some people dig this sort of thing — if that’s you, you’ll really like this.
Hungry to know still more about the Fair Fare? Check out our story from last year: It’s got details on still-relevant goodies including the $1 Cider Freeze, Sunnies in a Boat, and Summit on a Stick. And also see our story from last year on State Fair breakfast options.