The roosters in the poultry barn were cock-a-doodle-dooing.
That’s how early I arrived at the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday.
Turns out it’s a pitch-perfect time to enjoy the Great Minnesota Get-Together. For starters, the fairgrounds is quiet, cool, clean and uncrowded, four adjectives that rapidly evaporate as the day progresses.
It’s also an optimal time to eat — for all kinds of delicious reasons — and there are plenty of vendors open in the early hours. Here’s my nothing-on-a-stick rundown, prefaced by the all-important subject of caffeine.
French Meadow Bakery & Cafe (Nelson St. and Carnes Av.), Farmers Union Coffee Shop (Cosgrove St. and Dan Patch Av.), Anchor Coffee House (Underwood St. and Judson Av.) and Cloud Forest Coffee (Underwood St. and Carnes Av.) are all smart coffee choices. Even better, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. inside the Eco Experience (Cosgrove St. and Randall Av.), Peace Coffee offers one of the fair’s great freebies: samples of freshly brewed coffees from its organic, fair-trade, roasted- in-Minneapolis beans.
French Meadow Bakery & Cafe
You’ve heard of the Miracle of Birth Center? This is the Miracle of Butter Center. Owners Debbie and Chris Gleize run what is easily the fair’s best bake shop (their enormous, watch-them-work operation is as entertaining as any grandstand show), and in the a.m. it’s all about expertly prepared scones: golden, crumbly, tender and buttery beyond all reason. They’re served with an indulgent swipe of creamy butter and a dollop of not-too-sweet strawberry preserves ($4.50) — an old-school combination that never goes out of style — but they’re even better when paired with slices of melt-in-your-mouth, peak-season peaches (or garden-fresh strawberries) and a hefty drizzle of a cream cheese topping ($7). It’s true: Simple pleasures truly are the best. Bakery counter opens at 6:30 a.m. and the building follows a half-hour later.
Nelson St. and Carnes Av.
Given its proximity to the fair’s transit entrance, this stand does a bang-up breakfast business. But location isn’t the only reason, because its two morning items are imaginative and well-executed. There’s a French toast ($7.95) made with two-bite hunks of ciabatta coated in a rich, cinnamon-swirled custard and served with a thick raspberry-strawberry compote and whipped cream, with a playful finish in the form of Blue Razz Pop Rocks. The other is a lively, stick-to-your-ribs mashup, a kind of church-basement egg bake crossed with chilaquiles ($8.95). It’s tortillas layered with roasted pulled chicken, scrambled eggs, a lively charred tomato salsa, pickled onions and cotija cheese, and it’s terrific. Next year? “We’re going to try and get a wine license, so we can do something mimosa-y,” said co-owner Stephanie Shimp. Works for me. Until then, there’s the Barn’s excellent (and color-appropriate) blueberry-laced lemonade. Opens at 7 a.m.; breakfast is served all day.
West End Market
This instantly popular newcomer is delivering Norwegian street food to the fair, treating soft, folded waffles as sandwiches and filling the heck out of them. There’s a substantial breakfast-all-day option (thick-cut bacon, egg and Cheddar, $8), but consider the unassuming cinnamon-sugar-butter combo ($8), a slow-motion way to greet what is often a day of culinary thrill rides.
West End Market
Oklahoma Cinnamon Rolls
Fairgoers have been happily standing in line — and watching owner Fred Willis and his nimble crew rolling dough — since 1981. Headliners, of course, are those gigantic, still warm, super-sweet rolls ($5). But don’t overlook the breakfast stromboli, another made-from-scratch item that really hits the spot, and then some ($5.50 and $9, and the “half” size could easily feed two). The fillings are fairly boilerplate (egg, cheese, ham, sausage, in various combinations), but it’s the sturdy, herb- and olive oil-boosted crust that makes these top-performing breakfast “sandwiches” really stand out. Doors open at 8 a.m.
Salem Lutheran Church
A fairgrounds fixture celebrating its 70th year, this screen-windowed refuge — it looks as if it was plucked out of a lakeside Bible camp — is a blast to the fair’s past, when fairgoers were fed by hardworking local congregations. It’s the place for no-nonsense morning kick-starters — eggs-toast-bacon combos, pancakes and the stand’s famous Swedish egg coffee. For those not interested in waiting in line for an inside seat, there’s a small outdoor counter. The menu is more limited, but it doesn’t matter, because it includes the kitchen’s breakfast sandwich ($6.50). Built on a slightly sweet, croissant-esque bun, it features most of the major a.m. food groups, including smoky bacon (or nicely caramelized fried ham), a crisped-up fried egg and a slice of American cheese, and it’s just what the pastor ordered. The decorative garnish — a paper Swedish flag — is a nice touch. Doors open at 7 a.m.
Cosgrove St. and Randall Av.
Healthy fare, at the fair? Yes. What better way to greet the day than with a palm-sized, lasciviously juicy peach ($3), cultivated on a family-owned orchard in Washington’s fertile Wenatchee Valley? Get ’em grilled ($5 to $9), served straight-up or topped with Greek vanilla yogurt or chèvre with herbs; they’re fantastic in any permutation. Or try First Kiss apples ($3), the University of Minnesota’s supremely appealing newcomer, from beautiful Fairhaven Farm in South Haven, Minn. Opens at 9 a.m.
Underwood St. and Carnes Av.
Hamline Church Dining Hall
The omnipresent line moves relatively quickly at this 121-year-old tradition. Go for the church-basement camaraderie (and the long, get-to-know-your-neighbor communal tables), stay for the earnest classics — pancakes ($6.50), French toast ($7.50), scrambled eggs and toast ($6), cereal and milk ($5.50) — plus one of the fair’s sexier new food items, a bananas Foster-inspired French toast ($9.25), popping with playful hints of orange and cinnamon. Breakfast served from 7 to 10:30 a.m.
Underwood St. and Dan Patch Av.
I’ve written this so many times that I should keep it on a copy/paste function, but the fair’s great morning bargain continues to be chef Mark Haugen’s well-crafted breakfast burrito ($5), a flour tortilla stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs, grated Jack and Cheddar cheeses, and grilled onions and sweet peppers. Doll it up with Haugen’s robust salsa, carefully fashioned from roasted tomatoes, jalapeños and garlic; there’s nothing like it at the fair, anywhere. Oh, yeah: The price includes a cup of coffee. Served from 8 to 10:30 a.m.
LuLu’s Public House
Enjoy the morning from the vantage point of the stand’s rooftop patio. There’s the requisite State Fair novelty act — an edible bowl filled with a kitchen-sink list of a.m. items, including hash browns, scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy and, inexplicably, pancake syrup, all for $8 — but the standout is a marvelous monkey bread that’s billed as Gorilla Bread ($6). The sweet, cinnamon-heavy pull-apart dough is nicely crusted and browned on the edges, but tender inside, and it’s slathered in a thick cream cheese icing; truly, what’s not to like? Breakfast served 7 to 10:30 a.m.
West End Market
Blue Moon Dine-In Theater
Breakfast begins at 6 a.m. (“We serve a lot of vendors and 4-H-ers,” said co-owner Stephanie Olson), and there’s a long list of worthy items. At the top is easily one of the fair’s best breakfast sandwiches ($8), where a zesty andouille sausage (from landmark Kramarczuk’s in Minneapolis) is split and grilled to sizzling perfection, stacked on a sturdy ciabatta roll (from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery in Bloomington) and finished with a fried egg and gooey American cheese. Another treat: crisp, malty waffles ($6 and $7), topped with tons of berries. The ultimate pig-out is a platter ($12) weighed down with cheese-packed hash browns, sticky-sweet monkey bread and a retro sausage-egg bake. At this friendly, comfortable stand, portions are always in the meal-and-a-half range, but this dish really goes overboard.
Chamber St. and Carnes Av.
There are a number of cinnamon roll options on the fairgrounds, but owner Dennis Smith’s stand — located on the fairgrounds’ northern fringes — turns out a terrific product ($6 and $10), laying on the cinnamon, and sticking with a just-right level of sticky-sweet caramel coating. Another virtue is size: Each two-bite roll is small enough so there’s no room for an annoyingly vacuous, cotton candy-like center. And yes, invest an extra dollar for that thick cream-cheese icing. It’s the fair, so caloric overindulgences don’t count. Smith turns on the cash register at 7 a.m. “And most mornings, customers are waiting,” he said.
Cooper St. and Murphy Av.
Tom Thumb Mini Donuts
It’s the Not-Diet Plate, in a wax paper bag. Personally, I prefer them ($5) to their near-lookalike (and near-taste-alike) counterparts at the Tiny Tim Donuts stand, although, in the end, a mini doughnut is a mini doughnut is a mini doughnut: hot, greasy, sugary, essential. Both vendors open at 7:30 a.m.
Cooper St. and Wright Av., and Underwood St. and Carnes Av.
This 35-year-old charmer is something of a fairgrounds relic. “We’re one of the last-standing full-service diners,” said co-owner Tim Carlson. “We don’t chase the one-hit-wonder food items. We’re old-fashioned.” They’re also early risers, opening at 6 a.m. “Although by 5:30, 5:45, the vendors start rolling in,” Carlson said. The cooking pretty much defines short order. “We try not to make it too complicated,” he said. That means a short stack of fluffy flapjacks ($7), or a French toast trio ($8), or a monster plate of hash browns smothered with peppers, onions, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and biscuits with a peppery gravy ($12). My favorite? The breakfast sandwich, which stuffs a fried egg, a sausage patty, a slice of American cheese and — most important — a juicy tomato slice — into an English muffin. At $5.50, it’s a great value. “I don’t want to criticize others,” Carlson said, “but when they’re charging $7, $8 for a breakfast sandwich, they make us look good.” The service staff — a multigenerational mix of family and friends — couldn’t be nicer. “It’s a privilege to be a part of the fair,” Carlson said. “It gets into your blood, and you forget about how tired you are. You’re glad to see it come, and you’re glad to see it go. I don’t know that we could do it for more than 12 days.”
Southeast exterior of Agriculture Horticulture