There are roughly 500 food items available at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Let’s set aside the Pronto Pups, pork chops on-a-stick, mini doughnuts, French fries, Sweet Martha’s cookies, sweet corn, smoked turkey legs and other standards, and take a look at 13 delicacies recommended by critic Rick Nelson.
1. Smelt in a Boat
A talker when it was introduced in 2007, and required fair eating for those in search of a shore lunch experience at the fair. The finger-sized fish (they’re gutted, and the heads are removed), sourced from the Great Lakes, are lightly breaded and expertly fried, and their straightforward appeal isn’t blurred by the usual (and, let’s face it, garish) State Fair garnishes.
Walleye On-A-Stick, $7, Food Building
2. Cream Puffs
A top-performing baked-on-the-fairgrounds treat, prepared before your eyes in a watch-them-work trailer so showy it would fit right in on the midway. This time it’s tender, eggy pâte à choux (made in plus-size state fair portions, naturally), sliced like a hamburger bun and lavished with a cumulus cloud of whipped cream. There are strawberry and chocolate options, but vanilla is the best.
Fresh Cream Puffs, $5, Dan Patch Av. and Liggett St.
3. Lemonade Apple
“We needed a good apple at the fair,” said co-owner Kevin Hannigan. Absolutely, since nothing cuts through the fair’s deep-fried overkill like Mother Nature’s ultimate late-summer gift to humankind. After discovering that his source of First Kiss apples couldn’t reliably supply the stand in time for the fair, Hannigan turned to New Zealand and this talker in the apple world, a beauty boasting a golden skin and firm, juiced-up flesh and an outsized sweet-tart bite. For those hankering for a First Kiss — a group that basically includes every American apple lover — drop into Minnesota Apples in the Ag-Hort building, where they’re going for $3 a pop.
Produce Exchange, $3 or two for $5, Carnes Av. and Underwood St.
4. Onion rings
Say “hello” to greasy fair food perfection. Deep fryers stay busy all over the fairgrounds, but few match the prowess of this 63-year-old family-owned fixture. Thinly sliced strips of slightly sweet yellow onions are dipped in a light batter and fried in vegetable oil until they’re a deep golden brown, lightly crispy and shamelessly irresistible.
Danielson’s & Daughters, $6.50, outside the Food Building, south side
5. Cider Freeze
Required fairgrounds eating on a hot summer’s day, and one of the fair’s great values. It couldn’t be any more uncomplicated, just a plastic tube that’s filled with sweet apple cider (pressed at scenic Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake) that’s frozen, Popsicle-style, minus the stick. Expect to encounter a line, but it’s so worth the wait.
Minnesota Apples, $1.50, Agriculture-Horticulture
6. Fancy Fresh Peach-Filled Scone
Here’s one way to celebrate the height of peach season. A tender, flaky scone (one with traces of biscuit DNA in its system), baked on the premises and a pinnacle of fairgrounds craftsmanship, is split, stuffed with slices of juice-laden, ultra-ripe peaches and drizzled with a sweetened but not sugary cream cheese topping. Simple pleasures truly are the best.
French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, $8, Carnes Av. and Nelson St.
This Iowa import, a play on the Hawkeye State’s famous loose meat sandwich (a sort-of “Sloppy Joe” in Minnesota-speak), has a lot going on, and it’s all good. Great, even. The foundation is a soft, toasted hoagie-like Italian roll, generously filled with a ground beef/Italian sausage blend that’s tossed in a fennel- and garlic-laden tomato sauce. A layer of melted mozzarella follows, creating a blank slate for self-serve add-ons, including raw onion, jalapeño and tangy pickled banana peppers.
Carl’s Gizmo Sandwich, $9, Cooper St. and Murphy Av.
Once upon a time the fairgrounds was covered with church-sponsored dining halls. Only two remain, including this cheery 122-year-old cafeteria-style throwback, which has been preparing this stick-to-your-ribs recipe for seemingly forever. It’s a meatloaf-esque mix of ground beef, ground ham, onions, breadcrumbs and eggs, and a Sunday best dish if there ever was one. Each sturdy, farmhand-scaled slab could feed a small (and hungry) family, and yes, the honey-mustard sauce is essential.
Hamline Church Dining Hall, $13, Dan Patch Av. and Underwood St.
9. Mediterranean Lemonade
Part slushy, part virgin mojito and 100% refreshing, this portable air conditioner is swimming in cool mint and has a vivid citrus kick. It might be a skosh too sweet, a minor flaw on a sweltering fairgrounds day.
Holy Land, $5, International Bazaar
10. Puff Daddy On-A-Stick
Sort through all of the fairgrounds’ on-a-stick craziness and you’ll find some real keepers, including this easy-to-share gem. It’s a ruddy pork sausage (produced by Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minn.) sharply seasoned with ginger, soy sauce and a five-spice blend), wrapped in flaky, golden puff pastry. The sweet-hot Thai-style peanut dipping sauce is a tailor-made finishing touch.
Sausage Sister & Me, $7, Food Building
11. Chicken In-the-Waffle
This portable riff on the chicken-and-waffles craze manages to be both ingenious and delicious, a rare state fair combination. A rugged waffle cone is filled with crunchy-coated popcorn chicken that’s smothered in a thick (and wonderfully peppery) sausage gravy. A surprise at the bottom of the cone — spoiler alert, it’s a malted milk ball — is the playful icing on the cake. All-day breakfast has never tasted so good.
The Blue Barn, $9.95, West End Market
At first bite, thoughts drift toward easily made fixes: a better bun, aged Cheddar rather than vacuous American, any lettuce other than shredded iceberg, tomato that actually represents a peak-season specimen rather than a cottony and flavorless imitator. Then again, the centerpiece is a fried slice of Spam, Minnesota’s canned culinary ambassador to the world, in all its fatty, super-salty, porky, nostalgia-inducing glory, and what’s not to like about that? The breakfast sandwich version ($8) is similarly appealing.
Spam, $8, just south of the grandstand
13. Walleye Cakes
When owner Tim “Giggles” Weiss debuted this meticulously prepared dish nearly 20 years ago, did he realize he was creating an instant fairgrounds bestseller? It’s hand-formed patties of salmon, house-smoked Canadian walleye, Minnesota-harvested wild rice and bits of red bell pepper, coated in panko and fried to lightly-crunchy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside perfection. A last-minute jolt of lemon juice only improves the situation. Save $3 by using the coupon in the fair’s widely available Bargain Book.
Giggles’ Campfire Grill, $9.25, Lee Av. and Cooper St.
OK, a few more. Wood-grilled elote at Tejas Express ($6, the Garden), mocha ice cream bars (from Grand Ole Creamery) at Farmers Union Coffee Shop ($6, Dan Patch Av. and Cosgrove St.), deep-fried pickles at the Preferred Pickle ($7, Dan Patch Av. and Liggett St.), mini cinnamon rolls at Cinni Smiths ($6 and $10, Murphy Av. and Cooper St.), any of the waffles (especially the version with smoked salmon and cream cheese) at Nordic Waffles ($8 to $10, West End Market) and the Giant Juicy Turkey Sandwich at Turkey to Go ($8, Clough St. and Carnes Av.).