The annual communal pig-out known as the Minnesota State Fair is back in business. Along with crowning a new Princess Kay of the Milky Way and pinning a ribbon on the fattest pig in the barn, adding new foods to the mix of 450-plus offerings is a grand tradition of the Great Minnesota Get-Together. The 2013 fair takes that custom to Skyride-level heights, with the addition of more than 40 cholesterol-clogged, stuck-on-a-stick options that weren’t around last year.
A croissant, slumming as a doughnut (and loving every minute of it)? Of course. A restaurant family name that is practically synonymous with St. Paul? They’re here. A deep-fried tribute to the craft beer sensation that’s sweeping the state? Brilliant.
Those are some of the highs. There are lows — oh boy, there are lows — and plenty of in-betweens, too. Here’s a rundown of what not to miss — and what to definitely avoid — among the freshman class fare at the fair.
French Meadow Bakery & Cafe has flawless timing. The first-rate operation has cleverly tapped into the nation’s craziest, most excessive food darling of the moment, the croissant doughnut. Their version is called the Dough-Sant ($4, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆), and it’s buttery layer over buttery layer of laminated dough (one of the few products not made on the premises) that’s cut into the familiar round shape, carefully fried and dusted with powdered sugar. It’s not too sweet, and each bite collapses in your mouth like the world’s most sophisticated raised doughnut. Naturally, it’s selling like deep-fried hot cakes. “Oh, we will run out,” said co-owner Chris Gleize. “There is no question.”
At Ball Park Cafe, owners and brothers Dan and David Theisen have taken their passion for local craft beers one delicious step further. They start by soaking thick-cut onions in Indeed Brewery Company’s pale ale before dipping them in a batter that uses the same brew. A toss in the deep fryer and, voilà, step right up to a gigantic basket of onion ring perfection ($8, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆). They’re light, crispy, teasingly sweet and mildly spicy (thanks to lots of black pepper and Tabasco) and piping hot. They’re even better, if that’s possible, with a dunk in a whole-grain mustard blended with Excelsior Brewing Company’s brown ale.
Two newcomers at Minnesota Farmers Union demonstrate simplicity’s enduring appeal. A slab of rich, creamy mango ice cream, popping with the fruit’s tangy essence ($5.75, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆), is a premium on-a-stick idea. It hails from St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery, as does the vanilla that’s the centerpiece to a fine affogato ($5, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆), which only improves as the ice cream lazily melts — and totally mellows — the bitter espresso.
Speaking of simple pleasures, there’s not a more refreshing palate cleanser — particularly after a go-round in Deep-Friedville — than the gloriously refreshing sliced watermelon, so ripe and juicy — at the Produce Exchange ($5, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆). It’s the equivalent of having your fair food-addled taste buds sigh and say “ahhhhh.”
Saintly City additions
St. Paul’s iconic Mancini’s has a handsome new fair outpost, with a half-dozen entries on its menu. The one to order is what they’ve dubbed Porketta Pork Wings ($8, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ½), lovingly seasoned pork shanks that are slow-roasted until the outside of the meat is nicely caramelized and the meat practically falls off the bone.
Another enduring Capital City name, O’Gara’s, has the fair’s No. 1 slider: Slabs of crispy-chewy pork belly brushed with a robust, slightly sweet barbecue sauce and topped with a crunchy cabbage-carrot slaw, served two to an order ($8, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ½). Oh, and the kitchen’s deep-fried bread pudding ($6, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆) is a total guilty pleasure; it’s sweet (hello, caramel sauce), it’s fried, it melts in your mouth. What else does a carb-seeker need?
Those with a sweet tooth — and an affection for treats on a stick — should also consider the warm, tender waffles baked with toffee, dipped in chocolate and, in a moment of delirious toffee overload, rolled in toffee bits at Granny’s Kitchen ($5, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆). Oh, and be sure to ask the staff to perform one of their amusing cheers.
The friendly folks at Fried Fruit are connecting the words “deep fried” with “green olives.” While the combination ($6.50, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆) doesn’t sound particularly promising, it works, with a crunchy outer coating revealing salty olives stuffed with oozy cream cheese. Similarly, blending peanut butter and jelly into shakes and malts ($6.50 and $7, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆) is one of those might-work-on-paper ideas, but at Goertze’s Dairy Kone the rich results are actually pretty swell, especially for peanut butter lovers, who will be happy to learn that their favorite flavor overshadows the jelly.
Meanwhile, the talk of the Food Building is the Three Pig Torta ($5, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆) at Manny’s Tortas, where owner Manny Gonzalez stacks an Oink Trifecta — crisply fried pork tenderloin, tender ham and maple-glazed bacon — inside a toasted roll, then makes it wonderfully messy by adding tomatoes, avocado, lettuce and a teasingly spicy chipotle mayo.
Neighboring San Felipe Tacos also has a newbie, and it’s a doozy: a golden corn pancake topped with a marvelous, bourbon-enhanced pulled pork and ultra-creamy coleslaw ($7.50, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆). So far, so great, although the surrounding flour tortilla feels like it’s venturing into bready overkill territory.
Only in Minnesota
Many fair favorites are getting the repackage treatment. Every morning until 11 a.m., Hansen’s Foods dips sausage links into crunchy cornmeal batter, a snazzy spin on the classic corn dog. They’re sold three to a serving ($5, ⋆ ⋆ ⋆), a great value.
Bacon is clearly the ingredient du jour. Witness the harmonious blend of bacon tucked inside a dark chocolate-covered, ricotta-stuffed cannoli ($7, ⋆ ⋆ ½) at Ole’s Cannoli. Meanwhile, Double Bacon Corn Dogs is true to its name, wrapping bacon around a hot dog prior to its cornmeal batter dip, then rolling it, post-fryer, in bacon bits ($5, ⋆ ⋆ ½). The stand’s other attempts at corn dog gentrification — adding roasted corn or jalapeño garnishes ($5, ⋆ ) — are pretty lame.
The beloved mini doughnut is placed on the pedestal — where it belongs, frankly — not once, but twice. Hamline United Methodist Church Dining Hall has teamed up with St. Paul’s Izzy’s Ice Cream to introduce Mini-Donut Batter Crunch Ice Cream ($4 and $6, ⋆ ⋆), an adorable idea that unfortunately doesn’t really taste much like mini doughnuts (stick with the divine Church ‘Elder’ Berry instead).
Ball Park Cafe has a talker in its Mini Donut Beer ($4.75, ⋆), a limited run by Lift Bridge Brewing Co. that’s served in a cinnamon- and sugar-rimmed glass, a hilarious touch. But it’s more flash-in-the-pan novelty than anything else.
The flops get bigger. There’s a pumpkin alternative ($6, ⋆ ½) at the Original Minneapple Pie, but stick with the original — and far superior — apple. Kudos to Blue Moon Dine-In Theater for offering some true dramatics with its Comet Corn ($5, ⋆). The process — which involves liquid nitrogen — is a Midway-worthy sideshow, but the freeze-dried snack-food medley quickly loses its appeal.
Better to stick with the stand’s other newbie, two thick slices of butter-drenched toast filled with chopped wieners ($5, ⋆ ⋆ ½); they’re from Kramarczuk’s, which means they can’t be beat. On the sausage front, there are perfectly presentable newcomers at Pitchfork Sausages ($5, ⋆ ⋆) and Sausage by Cynthia ($6, ⋆ ⋆).
Room for improvement
A number of newcomers were either so similar to existing fairground staples, or so mundane — or both — that it makes me wonder if the powers that be are almost willfully unaware of the tsunami of street-food creativity that the food truck community routinely unleashes across the sidewalks of downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. Shouldn’t the State Fair be a showcase for innovation and excellence?
Instead, fairgoers get soft-serve vanilla ice cream and a host of canned toppings over a funnel cake ($8, ⋆) at Funnel Cakes, or deep-fried Cheddar cheese rolled in crushed Cocoa Puffs ($5, ⋆) at Axel’s. Absolutely no good comes from dipping the fabulously crunchy and vinegary deep-fried dill pickle chips at the Perfect Pickle in a chintzy chocolate sauce ($7, ⋆), and R&R Ice Cream cranks out chile-infused chocolate ice cream ($5, ⋆ ½), but makes it disappointingly Minnesota Spicy, which is to say not at all.
When beautifully made arepas, foie gras-topped bison burgers and rice bowls crowned with feisty Korean-style barbecued beef short ribs and soft-cooked eggs are routinely available out of local food trucks, it isn’t terribly energizing to turn to Tracy’s Idaho Taqueria for a gigantic plate of prepared-to-order waffle fries doused with standard-issue taco fixings ($9, ⋆ ⋆), a rote gyro sandwich from Gyros ($8, ⋆ ⋆), Hot Pockets-esque rolls of pizza dough wrapped around hamburger, pico de gallo and cheese ($5, ⋆ ⋆) at Green Mill and overpriced bacon-wrapped shrimp ($8, ⋆ ⋆) at the Shrimp Shack.
Come on, Minnesota State Fair, you can do better than this.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib
Poll: With "Furious 7" opening, which of these is your favorite car movie?