So much of the fair is stand-up dining territory, but vendors are slowly but surely making inroads in the table-and-chair (or table-and-bench) department.
Newcomer LuLu’s Public House (West End Market) owns the fair’s hottest real estate, in the form of a second-floor, open-air patio. Yes, the rooftop patio phenomenon has come to the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Enjoy the excellent prime rib tacos ($5), the tender beef teased with mesquite and oak smoke and treated like a Philly cheesesteak with sautéed peppers and onions; wash it down with one of the bar’s four Schell’s tap brews, or the refreshing shandy that mixes blueberry juice with good-old Grain Belt Premium.
The sheltered patio at Giggles’ Campfire Grill (Cooper St. and Lee Av.) is, hands down, the fair’s top performer. Its heavily timbered roof exudes the requisite Up North vibe, and it’s roomy enough to accommodate the crowds that inundate Tim “Giggles” Weiss’ place, which has, over the years, amassed a truly impressive menu (don’t miss the walleye cakes). The outdoor bar taps a long list of craft beers — including Iowa’s Millstream Brewing Co., New York’s Evil Twin and locals Lift Bridge, Flat Earth and Fulton — along with a pair of Minnesota-made wines, from Cannon River Winery. Free live music, too, starting at 7:45 p.m.
Another beer-loving destination: the ever-packed courtyard Ball Park Cafe, where the people-watching is almost as appealing as the two main draws behind the counter. First is the outstanding (and highly shareable) onion rings ($8), thick-cut and dipped in a batter made using Indeed ale and served with a zesty mustard infused with a brisk Excelsior brown ale. Second is the lengthy list of Minnesota-brewed beers, including gotta-drinks from Bauhaus, Lucid, Badger Hill, Third Street, Steel Toe, Burning Brothers, Bent Paddle and more.
Eat well, very well
Join Yelp Nation and share a meal — and the attending bragging rights — at the fair’s top-performing new food vendor, the Blue Barn (West End Market). It’s a rare State Fair full-meal deal, and hopefully a harbinger of future foodie-conscious expansion. The menu crisscrosses farm-inspired comfort food with fairgrounds traditions, including spicy bite-size fried chicken spooned into a waffle, slabs of sweetly glazed all-beef meatloaf speared on a stick, corn fritters with an herb-packed chimichurri sauce. Architects from Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group deftly exploit the restaurant’s key site by creating an instant landmark (and cleverly tinting its dairy barn outline as a shoutout to its ownership, the Blue Plate Restaurant Co., the company behind the Highland Grill, the Lowry, Freehouse and other Twin Cities eateries). Another swell touch? The pair of Freehouse-brewed beers.
Hydrate in style
Nothing says “togetherness” — romantic, platonic, familial — more eloquently than a blender drink and two straws. At the fair, no one does this with greater panache than Manny’s Tortas (Food Building), where whole pineapples are converted into gigantic cocktail glasses and filled with a nonalcoholic mix of pineapple juice, coconut milk and ice, with a dash of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla extract. It’s a piña colada ($7) minus the hooch, and it’s divine.
“But wait … there’s more”
There’s plenty of free food-related entertainment inside the Creative Activities Annex (Cosgrove St. and Dan Patch Av.), a vaudeville where pitchmen and women hawk the heck out of kitchen gadgets. It’s part stand-up, part song-and-dance, part auctioneering and part faith healing, all in the name of vegetable peelers, kitchen graters and “Miracle” whisks, and it’s a hoot. The curtain drops at 9 p.m.
Don’t spend a fortune
Yes, it’s possible to enjoy the fair on a budget. Tiny Pizza Wagon (Liggett St. and Dan Patch Av.) traffics in by-the-slice bargains, just $2 for cheese or pepperoni on thin, chewy crusts.
Midway Men’s Club (Underwood St. and Dan Patch Av.) is nothing but deals: a basic burger for $2.25 (add a quarter for cheese), a no-frills hot dog for $2.25 and 12-ounce mainstream tap beers (Bud, Michelob Golden Lite) for $3.50. To add to the appeal, the profits benefit St. Paul youth programs.
Before taking a turn through the corny and utterly romantic Ye Old Mill, pick up a 16-oz. Coke product for $1 or 20-oz. bottles of water for $1.75 at Rice Kristie Bars (Carnes Av. and Nelson St.).
It’s the Food Network meets WWE, State Fair-style. Well, not really. But this year’s fair features two very different versions of coconut macaroons, and why not spend part of date night taste-testing the two? Salty Tart owner (and four-time James Beard award nominee) Michelle Gayer is hawking her elegant coconut macaroons (three for $5) at a spiffy new cart in the West End Market. Meanwhile, at its peach- and nectarine-centric stand, the Produce Exchange (Judson Av., outside the Agriculture Horticulture Building) has wisely tapped St. Paul’s Bars Bakery for their more rustic, plus size coconut concoction ($3). Let the debating begin.
The bucket list
Why not go whole hog and share bucket-size portions of three top-selling, ahem, delicacies? Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar (Carnes Av. and Nelson St., Dan Patch Av. and Chambers St.) will layer roughly four dozen warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies into a plastic keepsake for $15. Over at Mouth Trap Cheese Curds (Food Building, and home to the fair’s fastest-moving long line, by the way), the crew will fill what’s more of a shallow plastic bowl than a bucket — although it does have a handle — with a massive pile of the epitome of salty-crunchy-hot-melty fair goodness for $15. And over at Fresh French Fries (Liggett St. and Carnes Av., Judson Av. and Underwood St.), a massive (as in 88-oz.) paper pail of seriously fine French fries goes for $9.50. Let’s see: Where does grease fall on the MyPlate chart?
The fairgrounds is lined with ice cream purveyors, all of whom are more than happy to hand out spoons in pairs.
For those chasing quality, start at the Hamline Church Dining Hall (Dan Patch Av. and Underwood St.), where friendly Methodists scoop eight flavors ($4.50 to $6.50) from Izzy’s, including this year’s Jell-O Salad, a potluck-ready blend of lime, cranberry and marshmallow cream in a sweet cream base.
Nitro Ice Cream (Food Building) uses a showy science fiction-esque process to craft unbelievably luscious vanilla ice cream ($4 to $7), serving it straight up or topping it with hot fudge, caramel sauce or chocolate sauce.
There’s plenty of soft-serve on the premises, but nothing beats the over-the-top frozen custard at Custard’s Last Stand (in front of the grandstand), a premium product sold in four flavors ($3 to $6), including a don’t-miss chocolate-coffee twist. Speaking of deals, here’s one: a not-so-small-ish cone is just $3.
The modest Lingonberry Ice Cream stand (Underwood St. and Carnes Av.) boasts some serious frozen treasure: a distinctive, made-exclusively-for-the-fair treat. The lilac-tinted ice cream beautifully showcases this northern cousin to the cranberry and serves it in cones, sundaes and floats ($5.50 and $6). And yes, those are lingonberry Sno Cones, and you should definitely share one.
Finally, two newish attractions are pointing the State Fair in the direction it should have taken years ago, namely as a platform for spotlighting the very best that Minnesota has to offer, food- and drink-wise. At Minnesota Wine Country (Underwood St. and Judson Av.), couples can sip their way through four three-pour flights ($10) from eight Gopher State wineries.
Across the street at the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild (Agriculture Horticulture), beer lovers can sample six four-pour flights ($8) from 18-plus brewers, along with a cream soda ($4) from Brau Brothers in Marshall, Minn., that has to be tasted to be believed. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up a bag or two of the liberally spiced beer nuts ($4). Cheers.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib