The Tap: On the Authenticity of Minnesota State Fair Food

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This week in the Tap: Some thoughts on what makes great fair food, and whether it matters where it comes from.

shepherd-song-tap-logo-final-keylineThe Tap is a biweekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm. “We raise 100 percent grass-fed lambs & goats traditionally, humanely, and sustainably.”


The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor James Norton at

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

On the Authenticity of Minnesota State Fair Food

We’ve been doing the first day, full-court press on Minnesota State Fair food longer than anyone — it’s integral to the DNA of the Heavy Table to dig deep and work with as much data as we can manage. It’s all well and good to taste four things, but by tasting 10 or 15 or 40, we can make deeper and more meaningful comparisons. And we can better understand the trade-offs of consumer value, product cost, marketing, and appearance that define the commercial food that we eat.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

One thing that has never really entered into our calculations — and indeed seems to be largely ignored by all who write about fair food — is the authenticity of what we’re eating. As visitors, much of the public seems to take for granted that much (or all) of what is served at the fair is decanted from plastic bags and cardboard boxes, spat at one point or another from an industrial hose or stamped out of a mold.

I have complicated feelings about that. It’s difficult not to.

On one hand: 1.8 million people visited the fair last year, and that sheer volume requires that much of the food be dead simple to prepare and serve. I would never demand locally produced, hand-dipped corn dogs or that every scoop of ice cream served at the fair be made at Izzy’s or Sweet Science.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table
Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

On the other hand: There’s a great deal of food at the fair that is actually made locally, with some or even a great deal of care. We loved the JonnyPop Chocolate-Dipped Cherry on a Spoon and the (see above) Izzy’s Butter Queen Coffee Ice Cream at the Hamline Church Dining Hall. And fans of local craft beer have a lot to choose from, including a bewildering (and uneven, but that’s OK) slate of novelty beers created solely for the fair. Clearly, we can do local, thoughtful food on a big scale when it’s called for.

As I was compiling our massive State Fair food tour this year, a friend of mine emailed me with a PDF that suggested, quite directly, that O’Gara’s Limerick Stix were a pre-made U.S. Foods product called Grit Stix, a grits-meets-pimento cheese-meets-Cheetos form factor food that is “a cost effective appetizer and garnish with a subtle cayenne-fueled heat.”

We like Limerick Stix. They have a nice lingering heat and while industrial pimento cheese is distinctly trashy, it’s also really fun, and that’s at least some of the fair in a nutshell. But after learning that these things were merely mass-made stuff meant to serve as a “cost-effective appetizer” that “covers all dayparts,” I hesitated to put them on our top 12 list. But then: hell. They’re sold at the fair, they’re delicious, and people will enjoy them.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Heavy Table believes sincerely that using skillfully made local food will, generally speaking, also yield the most delicious food. But the “generally speaking” is critical. Every year, we find plenty of local food that falls flat — too greasy, too spicy, too bland, way too pricey, you name it — and covering over those defects in order to punish Big Food would be dishonest and a disservice to our readers, as would badmouthing corporate fare that was reasonably priced and tasty. Ultimately, our job is not to tell you whether you should eat something, but instead what you’re likely to taste when you do so. If we’re going to make the local food movement stronger, honesty is key — selling people locally made hot dogs, for example, that taste like sawdust will turn everyone back in the opposite direction.

It would be nice to have more transparency on the part of the fair in terms about where and how things are prepared, but it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see that. Transparency is not the fair’s style, and an effort to award labels for local food would surely turn into a hornet’s nest of definitional squabbling as various vendors attempt to claim the mantle. We’re familiar with this. If you read the Heavy Table’s Minneapolis Atlas of Ethical Eating and Drinking you’ll notice that some places exhaustively document the struggle — and it’s really a struggle — to buy local, treat employees well, and minimize their impact on the environment. And others, when asked about what they do on those fronts just write, not terribly convincingly: “Yep, local, yep yep, green, yep, 100 percent, that’s us, yep.”

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

There isn’t an easy answer as to how to engage with this stuff, but next year we’d like to do something — a showcase of the top five local flavors, for example — to highlight the best of the Upper Midwest at the fair. There is no shame in sucking down a handful of Limerick Stix. But it’s also worth seeking out, for example, lemonade sorbet made in St. Paul with Minnesota honey. With luck and more thought, we hope to help you accomplish the goal of weighing flavor, value, and provenance at the fair next year, and, in fact, wherever you dine. — James Norton

Screenshot from
Screenshot from

Bifrost Farms Hopes to Make Cheese in Northwestern Wisconsin

More cheese news from the great lactic state to our east, via the always excellent Cheese Underground:

“Meg and Joel Wittenmyer, land stewards for a diverse 20 acres in northwestern Wisconsin that they call Bifrost Farms, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on Their goal? To raise $4,000 before the ground freezes to install critical infrastructure needs at their farmstead goat dairy so they can work on the interior of a new micro-creamery this winter.”

Check it out, and share some financial love if the thought of local goat cheese excites you. — James Norton


Screenshot from
Screenshot from
  • Seward Co-op Creamery Neighborhood Cafe, 2601 E Franklin Ave, Minneapolis | See our preview here. We have high hopes for this place between the chef (Lucas Almendinger, formerly of Third Bird) and Seward’s connections to the local food scene.
  • Loon Liquors cocktail room, 1325 Armstrong Rd #165, Northfield | There’s a nice profile of this new cocktail space over on the Growler.
  • Cien Tacos, 803 Bielenberg Drive, Woodbury | Apparently they will not, in fact, offer 100 different kinds of tacos, which is a minor bummer.
  • Bar Luchador, 825 Washington Ave SE, Minneapolis | A new Mexican / L.A. street food place in the old Campus Pizza location.
  • I (Heart) Pho, 850 Maryland Ave E, St. Paul | A short item in the PiPress indicates that this place is owned by the same folks who run iPho by Saigon.
  • The Green and Grain, LaSalle Plaza Skyway, 800 LaSalle Avenue | The food truck is now a skyway dining spot.
  • Parella, Calhoun Square | Along with Monello and Il Foro, this is part of the intoxicating fog of upscale Italian restaurants that has descended upon us. Michael Larson (formerly of Parasole, currently of Digby’s) is behind this venture.
  • IN Spirits, 983 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis | The crazy flavor crew of Verdant Tea is back after the shuttering of their Franklin Avenue spot, presenting a collaboration in Northeast Minneapolis that pairs them up with Intelligent Nutrients. Jess Fleming praised the aromatherapeutic cocktails as “stunners.” The name is essentially impossible to Google.
  • Hiko Sushi, 1466 Yankee Doodle Road, Eagan | Don’t judge a sushi place by its location; we really enjoyed Haiku in Mendota Heights when it opened.
Peter Sieve / Heavy Table
Peter Sieve / Heavy Table
  • Tattersall Distilling, 1620 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | Currently the place-of-the-moment, and why shouldn’t it be? Cocktail rooms are white hot right now, and proprietor Dan Oskey has a solid rep. Here’s our review.
  • Wander North, 771 Harding St NE Suite 150, Minneapolis | With the opening of this space, Wander North becomes the third cocktail room in the Twin Cities.
Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table
Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table
  • Giordano’s, 2700 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis | This Chicago deep dish pizza chain has plenty of fanatic followers, based on the 2- to 3-hour waits that have been clogging this place since its opening. Here’s our review.
  • The King and I Thai (reopened), 760 Highway 110, Mendota Heights | There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when this Thai-food institution closed in 2012; it’ll be revealing to see how much of its original clientele make the trek to the new incarnation.


  • Paleos | Designed to harness excitement surrounding the Paleo eating trend, this spot survived for less than a year.
  • Cow Bella Gelato | Farewell frozen treats, hello Erbert and Gerbert’s. At least the excellent IndoChin is still next door.
  • Fuji-Ya (St. Paul location) | Like so many closings, this happened on the quiet — we heard about it from a reader and confirmed it by checking their website (which now only lists a Minneapolis location.) Seemingly bad news for this reliable sushi institution.
  • Digby’s (both locations) | An unexpected end for the suburban, burger-driven eatery concept by Michael Larson (formerly of Parasole).
  • Blue Point Restaurant & Oyster Bar (Wayzata and Bloomington) | Seafood can be a struggle around here, but these guys lasted 30 years — no small feat.
  • BlueStone Steak and Seafood (Eagan) | Brief item in the PiPress.
  • Nye’s Polonaise Room (closing 2015) | This trolltastic City Pages column nonetheless does a good job of expressing some of the ambiguity about the passing of the nationally known and locally legendary Nye’s.



  • Ramen Kazama, 3400 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis | Looking like late September 2015
  • Polpo | Late 2015 | In the former La Mac Cleaners Space, run by David Hahne, the former chef of the excellent Cave Vin.
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
  • Cafe Alma, 528 University Ave SE, Minneapolis | Late 2015 or Early 2016 | Hailed by the Star Tribune as this year’s Best Upcoming Project and a “casual breakfast-to-late night cafe, coffee bar, wine bar and bakery.”
  • Inbound Brewco, 701 5th St N | End of 2015 | Appears to be a spin-off of Lucid.
  • Savory Bake House, 3008 36th Ave. Minneapolis | 2015 | Located across the street from Merlin’s Rest, “Savory is a new twist on the old school rustic bakery everyone knows and loves,” or so says their Facebook page. Baker is Sandra Sherva from Merlin’s Rest and formerly of Birchwood.
  • Bogart’s Doughnut Company, downtown location, IDS Center, Minneapolis | September 2015 | Bogart’s is up there with Mojo Monkey and YoYo Donuts for quality and creativity, so it’s encouraging to see them grow. We expected this place to be open a couple months ago; Facebook suggests that the kiosk construction is at least underway.
  • Saint Genevieve, 5003 Bryant Ave, Minneapolis | Early 2016 | Expectations are high for this Steve Brown-helmed restaurant, which will dish up approachable French fare.
  • Brut | 2016 | With all the culinary firepower of Erik Anderson and Jamie Malone, Brut promises exciting things.
  • Lawless Distilling, 2619 28th Ave S, Minneapolis | Fall 2015
  • Scena Tavern, 2943 Girard Ave S, Minneapolis | Fall 2015
  • Bonicelli Kitchen, 1901 NE Fillmore St, Minneapolis | Fall 2015 | A catering business making the jump to bricks-and-mortar.
  • Twin Spirits Distillery, 2931 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | Fall 2015
  • Able Seedhouse and Brewery, 1121 Quincy St NE, Minneapolis | Winter 2015
  • Lakes and Legends Brewing Company, 1368 Lasalle Ave, Minneapolis | Fall 2015
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
  • Q Fanatic, 6009 Nicollet Ave S, Minneapolis | Fall 2015 (second location) | Although the local BBQ scene is mighty weak, we do think Q Fanatic does a good job at serving up serious Q. This new location, along with upcoming truck Bark and the Bite, suggests that there’s hope for us yet.
  • DiNoko’s Pizzeria, 4457 42nd Ave S, Minneapolis | September 7, 2015 — Seems ambitious based on our most recent drive-by, but you seriously never know | Apropos of Giordano’s (see above), DiNoko’s is a local place that can do deep dish pizza seriously well. Their move from Nokomis to downtown Minneapolis didn’t work out; here’s hoping that their return foray to South Minneapolis does.
  • Eggy’s Diner, LPM Apartments, 120 14th St W, Minneapolis | Summer 2015 | If this name doesn’t set expectations comfortably low for you, I’m not sure what would.
  • Bryn Mawr Brewing, 225 Thomas Ave N, Minneapolis | Winter 2015
  • Eastside at Latitude 45, 301 Washington Ave S, Minneapolis | September 29, 2015 | Eastside will feature Seattle-based chef Nick Dugan as its Chef de Cuisine, working alongside Executive Chef Remy Pettus.
  • Restaurant TBA replacing the Modern in Northeast Minneapolis | Fall 2015
James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table
  • Hi-Lo Diner (working name), 4020 E Lake St, Minneapolis | Fall 2015 | Seward and Longfellow are really jumping onto the breakfast train after years of struggling to get by with nothing more than the overpriced Longfellow Grill and the inedible Denny’s; Mon Petit Cheri seems to be doing well, and the new Seward Co-op Creamery Cafe will be a serious breakfast presence as well. Hi-Lo is getting in as the neighborhoods heat up. Here’s the press release and a photo of a crane lifting the diner into place.
  • Seward Co-op Friendship Store, 317 38th St E, Minneapolis | Summer 2015
  • Upton43, 4312 Upton Ave, Minneapolis | September 2015 | This spot, by Victory 44’s Erick Harcey, is a chance for the much lauded chef to bounce back from the bust-up of Stock and Badge and rollup of the ambitious but shaky Parka.
  • Urban Forage Winery and Cider House, 3016 E Lake St, Minneapolis | Fall 2015 | We profiled these guys when they were mounting their (successful) Kickstarter campaign, and they have a fascinating take on how to do earthy, grassroots local wine and cider.
  • Lost Falls Distillery, 1915 E 22nd St, Minneapolis | Summer 2015
  • The Herbivorous Butcher, Minneapolis | Summer 2015 | These guys have gotten serious national press and look poised to become a force in the food scene once their bricks-and-mortar spot is up and running.
  • Pizzeria Lola concept TBD, 165 13th Ave NE, Minneapolis | 2015
  • The Bachelor Farmer Cafe project to be named, 200 N 1st St, Minneapolis | 2015

St. Paul

  • Dark Horse Bar and Eatery, 250 E 7th St | 2015 | From the same folks who brought us Muddy Waters, as per this  story.
  • Lake Monster Brewing, 550 Vandalia St, St. Paul | Fall or Winter 2015
Courtesy of Lucas Gluesenkamp /
Courtesy of Lucas Gluesenkamp /
  • Bad Weather Brewing, 414 7th St W, St. Paul | Fall 2015 | The space looks just about ready to go, as per the brewery’s Facebook page.
  • Heirloom, 2186 Marshall Ave, St. Paul | Fall 2015 | W.A. Frost chef Wyatt Evans hopes to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors (such as Russell Klein and Lenny Russo) and found a new St. Paul gastronomic institution. “Modern but … approachable … slow food” sounds pretty good to us (quotes from the Pioneer Press preview).
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
  • 11 Wells Millwright Cocktail Room, Historic Hamm Building, St. Paul | Fall 2015
  • Lexington (new ownership), 1096 Grand Ave, St. Paul | Mid-November 2015 or later | It’ll be interesting to see how the ambitious team behind this revamp and relaunch tackles the task. Between its facade, its location, and its glorious but stuffy, old-school feel, we’ll find it tough to sort the baby from the bathwater on this one. Jess Fleming sums up the progress or lack thereof here.

Greater Twin Cities Area and Beyond

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
  • The Alchemist, 2222 4th St, White Bear Lake | September 2015 | A craft cocktail haven run by legendary mixologist Johnny Michaels (above).
  • Ruscello, Nordstrom Ridgedale, Minnetonka | October 2015
  • ZZQ Smokehouse3390 Coachman Road, Eagan | October 2015
  • 10K Brewing, Bank Block on Second and Main, Anoka | 2015 | A reader writes: “According to their Kickstarter, they are looking to have a backer party August 21 / 22 and then a full opening after that. It’s currently all dependent on a liquor license from Anoka though. But since they drove the city council to allow tap rooms inside city limits, this is likely to approved.”
  • Gogi Bros. House, Shady Oak Retail Center, Eden Prairie | ??? | These guys haven’t updated their Facebook presence since April — the project is looking less likely.
  • Wicked Wort Brewing Co., 4165-4175 W Broadway, Robbinsdale | Fall 2015

The Tap is the Heavy Table’s guide to area restaurant openings, closings, and other major events. The Tap is compiled and published biweekly by the Heavy Table. If you have tips for The Tap, please email James Norton at

One Comment

  1. Steve D

    James, I appreciate your article on food authenticity at the Fair (and elsewhere).

    I agree that handcrafted local food should not be an expectation at the Fair. In fact, I believe determining local origins would be difficult and (likely) disappointing. And I believe some of the food tastes even better because the turnover required by Fair attendance means the food doesn’t sit after prep.

    But I wonder how many Fairgoers really care about authenticity. It’s unlikely that, say, the french-fry booths are using heirloom Minnesota-grown potatoes in their products. They’re using everyday tubers; bonus points if they come from Minnesota. Using Minnesota-grown potatoes should be a point of agricultural pride and a selling point but I can understand when vendors don’t.

    I would argue that most Fairgoers eating french fries — and deep-fried candy bars and corn dogs and shaved ice — don’t really care if the ingredients are local or made from scratch. In some cases (Key Lime cheesecake, anyone?) they can’t be. And I would guess that most people wouldn’t want to pay what Fair food would cost if all the (major) ingredients established a Minnesota provenance.

    Unless O’Gara’s is passing off Limerick Stix as their own creation, I don’t believe they should be dinged for authenticity anymore than the booth selling Rice Krispies knockoffs mixed into marshmallow fluff. How much of that is Minnesotan? How much does that “not invented here” bother customers? Fair food is a bit “caveat emptor” anyway; unless claims made are not met, well, it’s the Fair.

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