Some jot it down on a slip of paper, while others rely upon Google Docs. Or memory. But many fairgoers find themselves enveloped in the same activity: composing a checklist of the foods at the Great Minnesota Pig-Out.
Critics included. This one, anyway. When I visit the fair as a civilian, my list evolves from year to year, reflecting my own changing tastes and whims (I can’t believe I was so gung-ho on that whole hash-browns-on-a-stick craze), responding to my personal budget (really, that deep-fried monstrosity is how much?) and usually incorporating an impressive new food item and retiring an old one.
There are more than 500 different food items for sale on the fairgrounds, so no one visit is going to put even the slightest dent into that figure. I visited the fair this past Sunday morning armed with an empty stomach, a fistful of fresh-from-the-ATM cash and a hastily scrawled list composed on the 10-minute journey from the park-and-ride lot. Here’s what I ate, in no particular order. And no, I’m not a member of the Clean Plate Club.
Oven Fresh Brownies
Because, chocolate ($4). Intense chocolate, baked on the premises, a pan at a time, and then frosted with more chocolate. When asked “with or without nuts,” go with the former, because walnuts were born for brownies. Oh, and because it’s the State Fair, there’s a “turtle” option — you know, more chocolate, in the form of hot fudge, plus caramel sauce and whipped cream — for a buck. Go ahead: It’s the fair. Calories don’t count.
Dan Patch Avenue/Cooper Street
Fried Green Tomatoes
When a battered-and-deep-fried mood strikes, I’m more than capable of leaping off the deep end, starting with a corn dog. This time, I found myself craving a basket of sliced, breaded (with a salty, peppery kick) and deep-fried green tomato slices ($6) sold at the stand bearing the same name. They’re piping hot — and teasingly crispy — outside, soft and slightly cool inside, and fabulous all over. A close second? The vinegary dill pickle slices from Preferred Pickle, the always busy stand near the western Skyride pavilion.
Dan Patch Avenue/Underwood Street
Danielson’s & Daughters
That I don’t file onion rings under “battered-and-deep-fried” is indicative of my general head-in-the-sand dietary views during the fair’s 12-day run. The house specialty ($6) from this 61-year-old fair fixture is nothing more than juicy, fresh-cut yellow onions that are dipped in a light, pancake-like batter and expertly fried in simmering vegetable oil. There’s a delicate crunch to the coating and a soft, quietly sweet bite to the onions. Shareable, not that any sane person would feel so compelled.
South of the Food Building
Mornings, when the sidewalks are relatively empty and the temperatures low, are my favorite time at the fair. It’s also a wonderful time to eat. I’ve said this so many times that I can recite it from memory, but this cheapskate’s favorite way to greet the day at the fair is the breakfast taco at this well-managed stand, a flour tortilla filled with tender scrambled eggs, red and green peppers, crunchy onions and Jack and Cheddar cheeses. Doll it up with chef Mark Haugen’s lively wood-grilled tomato/jalapeño salsa. Sure, the price ($5) has doubled over the past 10 years, yet it remains a total bargain, especially when factoring in the free ($2 value) cup of coffee. There’s one caveat: This deal has a short shelf life, available from 8 to 10:30 a.m. only.
So far it has been, temperature-wise, a relatively cool fair. But that could change at any moment — this is Minnesota, after all, Land of 10,000 Weather Conditions — and when the mercury starts its inevitable climb northward, a primo way to chill out is with a festive, made-for-two piña colada at this busy stand. A hollowed-out pineapple is filled with a blend of coconut milk, fresh pineapple juice and ice (plus a pinch of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla extract), and it’s such an ultra-refreshing combination ($8) that you won’t miss the rum. Well, almost.
The fair’s iciest cool-down also happens to be one of its great cheap eats. A buck and a half buys the Cider Freeze, an icy cylinder of sweet-tart apple cider pressed from apples at White Bear Lake’s Pine Tree Orchard. Just picked early season apples are another draw, with a selection that varies with the harvest. Who knows? It might be Zestars or SweeTangos ($2), or Paula Reds ($1), their skins streaked with green, their bite slightly reminiscent of strawberries.
When the folks behind the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. (Highland Grill, 3 Squares, the Freehouse) landed at the fair in 2014, they struck gold with their Gorgonzola-teased, salt-dusted sweet corn fritters ($7.85). Co-owners Stephanie Shimp and Dave Burley earn bonus points for introducing “chimichurri” — the basil-, cilantro- and garlic-packed sauce — to the fair’s culinary vocabulary. Wash ’em down with the stand’s bright blueberry-and-basil lemonade ($4.50, $6.25).
West End Market
Minnesota-made root beer
One of the happiest food-and-drink trends is the way the fairgrounds have become an epicenter for Minnesota-brewed craft beers. But it’s also the place to indulge in some serious Gopher State small-batch root beer love. I encountered four, and surely there are more, all darkly rich, shimmering with vanilla and lusciously foamy. The goodness from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewing Co. ($4, $6) is on tap at the Snack House (Warner Coliseum). The Spring Grove Soda Pop (Nelson Street/Carnes Avenue) stand — a refreshing taste of tiny Spring Grove, Minn., in the far southeast corner of the state — cracks open its tall-neck bottles for three bucks, or two for $5. The good folks from New Ulm’s 1919 Root Beer (Dan Patch Avenue/Underwood Street) have a busy stand all to their own, where straight-up root beer from the tap runs $2 to $7 — and floats range from $5 to $8. And the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild (Agriculture Horticulture) showcases the dreamy, creamy stuff ($5) from St. Paul’s Vine Park Brewery.
The fair’s ultimate palate cleanser? It’s the Sweet Dream peaches ($3) that this greengrocer out of the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis imports from Washington state. So lasciviously ripe that they could have their own burlesque act, these beauties are positively heavy with juices, and their pure, natural sweetness is a startling contrast to the fake sugary fare that’s rampant across the fair. A close second: the stand’s swoon-worthy Honey Royale Nectarines, also $3 and worth every penny.
Carnes Avenue/Underwood Street, West End Market
I like to view the fairgrounds as one giant outdoor ice cream parlor. The variety is enormous. Nitro Ice Cream (Food Building) sticks to one product, and then perfects it, churning out the richest, smoothest vanilla ice cream imaginable ($4 to $6) while simultaneously staging an entertaining mad-scientist show. I’m drawn to the tangy namesake product ($5.75 to $6.75) at Lingonberry Ice Cream (Carnes Avenue/Underwood Street) and the wonderfully addictive sweet corn ice cream ($6) at Blue Moon Dine-In Theater (Carnes Avenue/Chambers Street) for the same reason: Both are exclusive-to-the-fair flavors. And I can’t hit the fairgrounds and not visit the scoop stand outside the Hamline Church Dining Hall (Dan Patch Avenue/Underwood Street) for the inventive, made-for-the-fair flavors ($5 to $7) created by Izzy’s Ice Cream, everything from a brown-butter-infused coffee ice cream peppered with chocolate-espresso chips to a strawberry ice cream blended with raspberries, blackberries and blueberries and a splash of elderberry syrup. This year’s entry, a combination of roasted marshmallows and graham-cracker-enrobed chocolate, pays homage to that eternal campfire treat, S’mores, and it’s spectacular.
At this ode to simple pleasures, owner George Tom and his crew immerse themselves in a never-ending round of blue ribbon-worthy baking. Watching them split delicate pâté a choux and then fill them with a cloud of thick whipped cream ($4, $4.50) is better than any midway show. No wonder there’s always a line. And yes, it’s worth the wait.
Dan Patch Avenue/Liggett Street
Maybe it’s because my mother made them a lake cabin delicacy when I was a kid, or maybe it’s because they’re an ideal showcase for the pride of Austin, Minn., but the Great Minnesota Get-Together is unthinkable without a Spam burger ($7). Picture a thick, fatty slab of original recipe Spam, browned on the grill until it sizzles, dressed with a melty slice of American cheese and slipped into a bun. So good.
Chambers Street, south of the Grandstand