When Minnesota State Fair historians look back on 2017, the year will surely be remembered for its bounty of memorable new foods. From beautiful baked goods and stunning ice creams to imaginative breakfast, lunch and dinner items, a handful of savvy operators set out to impress, and succeeded; the highs tower as tall as the new selfie-bait Ferris wheel.
Of course, the Great Minnesota Pig-Out wouldn’t be the same without flaunting some amusing but ill-advised attempts at social media fame — and fortune. There are plenty of ho-hum additions to the deep-fried pantheon that probably won’t generate even a flicker of buzz. (Memo to fair officials: Why not focus on new foods’ quality rather than quantity?) Prices continue to creep up — no surprise there — but it’s refreshing to witness the emergence of a few genuine bargains.
As for Thursday’s by-the-numbers data, it took this critic 11 hours, 19,000 steps and $463 (almost entirely in cash, although credit card acceptance is on the rise) to assess 56 new food items at 44 stands on the fair’s opening day. Here they are ranked, starting with the four star winners.
★★★★ out of four (Exceptional)
Slow-Roasted Pork Mole Tamale
A must. Chef Mark Haugen smothers a fresh corn tamale in a complex mole, succulent pork that’s braised in its own fat and a lively roasted-corn/black-bean salsa with cool pops of pineapple. One word: Wow. $10.
Location: Tejas Express Map it
S’more Fun Ice Cream
An inspired (and obviously labor-intensive) riff on the marshmallow/graham-cracker/chocolate campfire ritual, one that subtly captures that sigh-inducing roasted marshmallow flavor. Way to go, Izzy’s. $5-$7.
Location: Hamline Church Dining Hall Map it
Wild Bill’s Breakfast Bake
Chef Bill Kauffman’s filling and shareable way to say “good morning” is a small-town egg bake meets chilaquiles, with tortillas layered with roasted pulled chicken, scrambled eggs, a lively charred tomato salsa, pickled onions and cotija cheese. So smart. Served all day. $8.75.
Location: The Blue Barn Map it
Sweet Corn Blueberry Éclair
A fair food role model, this delicate, ultra-seasonal beauty hails from the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis and taps Minnesota farmers and mills for its Kernza grain, its luscious sweet corn pastry cream filling and its jaunty blueberry glaze. $6.50, and worth every messy crumb.
Location: Farmers Union Coffee Shop Map it
Hill Country Beef Pocket
This well-seasoned homage to the pasty (and the Hot Pocket) suggests beef stroganoff in a major way, enveloped in a perfectly fried puff pastry-like shell. A winner. $8.75.
Location: The Blue Barn Map it
Duck Bacon Wontons
Crisp, golden, moon-shaped wontons, filled with applewood-smoked duck bacon (a Boundary Waters version of turkey bacon), cream cheese and grilled sweet corn, with a just right apricot/red wine sauce. $8.50.
Location: Giggles’ Campfire Grill Map it
Brown Ale and Onion-Gouda Tipsy Pie
With their light, flaky crusts and well-balanced fillings, Sara Hayden’s handmade pies are a welcome addition to the fair, including this spot-on blend of sweetly caramelized onions and a sturdy smoked Gouda. The glaze makes the most of a toasty brown ale from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewing Co. $5, a deal.
Location: Sara’s Tipsy Pies Map it
Deviation Stout Steak Taco Naan