The most underrated food category at the Minnesota State Fair? Breakfast.
Think about it. The crowds? Thin. The parking? Easy. The heat? Coming later. The prices? Reasonable. Even better, so little of what’s served is stuck on a stick and pulled out of a deep fryer.
Instead, think waffles. Crisp, golden, malt-kissed, Belgian-style waffles ($6 and $7), topped with fresh blueberries or strawberries and whipped cream and/or maple syrup, are the morning headliner at the fun and funky Blue Moon Dine-In Theater. There’s even a gluten-free option.
Also answering the wake-up call are the scrambled egg/cheese panini ($7), made with a chewy ciabatta and filled with all kinds of fortifying basics that range from zesty andouille sausage from Kramarczuk’s in northeast Minneapolis to an artery-clogging version piled high with cheese-blanketed hash browns, bacon, sausage and onions. Fear not, there’s a heart-healthy egg white/mushrooms version, too.
Co-owners Stephanie and Mike Olson open at 6 a.m. and keep the waffle irons running until 11 a.m. “We feed a lot of fair people,” said Stephanie Olson. “The pork chop guys are here, super-early, to get their grills going, and they’re hungry.”
At Lulu’s Public House, where breakfast is served from 7 to 10:30 a.m., the magic words are “Gorilla Bread” ($5), a wildly addictive cream cheese-enriched cinnamon pull-apart that’s glazed in a gooey, butter-drenched caramel sauce. For those not ruled by their sweet tooth, there are breakfast tacos ($4) stuffed with soft scrambled eggs, onions, yellow and green peppers and a feisty chorizo.
The stand’s morning talker is probably the Breakfast Juicy LuLu ($6) — a nod to Minnesota’s iconic entry into the burger pantheon — which slips oozy American cheese between a pair of breakfast sausage patties that are sandwiched between a pair of slices of English muffin-style toast.
Still, it might be upstaged by a newcomer dubbed the Minnesota Wild Rice Benedict Muffin ($6), an English muffin flecked with wild rice (from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery in Bloomington) and baked in a muffin tin with ham, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce.
“In theory, you can walk around and eat it,” said co-owner Charlie Burrows. “But in reality, it’s probably more of a sit-down-with-a-fork-and-knife kind of thing.” Luckily, LuLu’s boasts the fairground’s only rooftop patio.
When it comes to breakfast at the Blue Barn, think “three.” One, a burrito that pretty much covers all the basic food groups (scrambled eggs, hash browns, grilled vegetables, cheese) and is served in two sizes: semi-huge ($4.50) and gigantic ($8.75). Two, a morning hash ($8.25) that places the kitchen’s bestselling beef meatloaf on-a-stick in the spotlight, along with scrambled eggs, peppers, onions and roasted root vegetables and a bearnaise sauce crown (“I think this might be the debut for béarnaise at the fair,” said co-owner Stephanie Shimp with a laugh). And three, a straight-up French toast ($7.25), served with a berry sauce and honest-to-goodness whipped cream. All are served 7 to 10 a.m., and there’s a handful of handy picnic tables.
Eggs, eggs, eggs
Leave it to fair vendors’ imaginations to slip scrambled eggs into nontraditional breakfast items. The Pizza Shoppe tops mondo-size slices with bacon-scrambled egg, sausage-scrambed egg and other combinations, at $4.50 a shot.
It’s breakfast-all-day (starting at 7 a.m.) at Quesadilla Junction, where owner Oliver Regal slips scrambled eggs and Colby-Jack cheese inside the stand’s namesake product ($8), adding bacon, sausage or a handful of other meats and serving it with sour cream and a house-made salsa.
There are plenty of egg sandwiches to be had on the fairgrounds, but only one celebrates a world-famous made-in-Minnesota product. That’s the hamburger bun filled with a cooked egg, a slice of American cheese and a sizzling, hot-off-the-grill slice of Spam ($6) at Spam Burgers. When in Rome, right? Standard-issue Spam is always available, but the delicacy is supplemented by a changes-daily selection of one or two specialty flavors: jalapeño, black pepper, hickory, bacon and hot-and-spicy.
I’m forever extolling the virtues of the 17-year-old breakfast burrito tradition at Tejas Express, and 2015 is no different. A recent spike in egg prices has pushed the price up for the first time in nearly a decade, but at $4 it remains one of the fair’s great food values.
Picture this: a generous-size flour tortilla filled with fluffy, well-seasoned scrambled eggs, a sprinkling of grated Cheddar and Jack cheeses and grilled onions and peppers. Dress it up with the fairground’s top-performing salsa, brimming with roasted garlic and wood-grilled tomatoes and jalapeños. Co-owners Wayne Kostroski and Mark Haugen don’t stop there, tossing in a free cup of coffee. There’s one hitch: It’s available only from 8 to 11 a.m.
The Produce Exchange is marking nine fruitful years at the fair with a new home for one of its two stands — look for it at the former Deli Express, at Carnes Avenue and Underwood Street — and co-owners Sharon and Kevin Hannigan are celebrating by offering a parfait ($5) of tangy Greek yogurt and crunchy (and gluten-free) granola over freshly sliced, refreshingly sweet and prodigiously juicy Sweet Dream peaches or Honey Royale nectarines, shipped direct from orchards in Washington state. Thirsty? There’s honest-to-goodness fresh-squeezed orange juice ($4).
Blue ribbon baking
No one on the fairgrounds finesses flour and butter with greater flair than French Meadow Bakery & Cafe. Work up an appetite by watching the professionals labor in the building’s showy open kitchen, then make your way to the counter, where the real work — as in, decisionmaking — begins. There isn’t a better croissant at the fairgrounds (particularly the chocolate) and the deep-fried croissant-doughnut mash-up is an intriguing over-the-top novelty worthy of the midway.
Still, it’s really all about scones, made with tender loving care and sold in a dizzying number of iterations. Some are split and topped with peaches or strawberries and a blanket of sweetened cream cheese, others go savory with ham and a trio of cheeses. My favorite? Simple, with butter and strawberry jam.
At Minnesota Apples, the Jacobson family is hawking a gloriously old-fashioned favorite from their White Bear Lake orchard, a puff pastry filled with apples, butter, cinnamon and brown sugar and topped with an apple cider glaze they call Apple Rollover ($3). Buy one. Or two.
Biscuits and gravy are something of a dime-a-dozen fair breakfast, so listen up: The peak experience is at My Sausage Sister & Me, where siblings Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry pull tender, flaky buttermilk biscuits out of the oven all day (starting at 8 a.m.), then bury them in a creamy white gravy that’s peppered with plenty of lively pork sausage (made by Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minn.) that’s seasoned with cumin, cayenne and green chiles ($6). A meat-free alternative wallows in tons of butter and house-made strawberry-rhubarb jam ($3). “Good morning,” indeed.
There are a handful of baked-fresh cinnamon roll purveyors that I’d recommend, including Buni’s Cinnamon Rolls, Cinnamon Rolls and Cinni Smiths. But this year, consider opting for a breakfast roll gussied up by the over-the-top craziness found in, say, Big Fat Bacon, the follow-your-nose vendor that spears ridiculously large slabs of bacon on-a-stick.
I’m talking about the maple-bacon caramel roll that’s produced by the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Farmers Union, a barely sweet spiral of yeasted dough dotted with an excess amount of crisp, smoky, Minnesota-made bacon bits (“We figured it’s the State Fair, so why not?” said chef Marshall Paulsen with a laugh) and glazed with a bacon fat-infused caramel sauce ($5).
Someone’s cooking, Lord
The volunteer-driven church dining hall remains a fair tradition. In the case of Hamline United Methodist Church, it’s a remarkable 118-year tradition. Go for the affordable, church basement-style fare (two eggs, two pancakes and bacon or sausage is $7.75, and it’s from 7 to 10:30 a.m.). Then stay for the camaraderie among the friendly volunteer staff. Talk about dedication. This year, six Hamliners will be recognized for 50 years — yes, a half-century, per person — of donating their time (not to mention their aching feet) to the church’s dining hall.
By comparison, Salem Lutheran Church is a relative newcomer, with 67 summers on the fairgrounds. Along with a menu that’s full of morning basics — buttermilk pancakes, French toast — the north Minneapolis congregation offers its share of fair rarities, including a breezy screened porch of a dining room that feels plucked right out of a lakeside Bible camp, right down to the picnic tables. Oh, and its one-of-a-kind Swedish egg coffee, which is basically percolator-style java made using grounds moistened with an egg-water paste; a bottomless cup is $1.50. “We’ll go through up to 50 pots of it per day,” said manager Mario Carrillo. “It’s our claim to fame.”
Meanwhile, Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall is marking its 78th year on the fairgrounds in 2015, and the fraternal organization really shines when it comes to pancakes: nutty-brown buttermilks, or flapjacks fashioned from a Minnesota-made wild rice flour. Both can be served with fresh blueberries, and there’s a chocolate chip version for kids. Pancakes are available from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., as is the other house specialty, French toast, including versions made with peanut butter and jelly (grape or strawberry) or one made with a split cinnamon roll. Top price: $8.50.
Finally, three cheers to the Peg, another card-carrying member of a different kind of fairgrounds’ dying breed, the all-American diner.
“We’re one of the last left standing,” said co-owner Tim Carlson, who is celebrating his 28th summer at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
And thriving, thankfully. On a busy day, between 6 and 11 a.m., the full-service restaurant will serve 400 stick-to-your-ribs breakfasts. Along with the fair’s best buttermilk pancakes, expect to find steak and eggs, thick-sliced cinnamon French toast and hash browns. Nothing fancy, just no-nonsense short-order cooking, at family-friendly prices.
“Today, everyone is looking for that one-hit wonder,” said Carlson. “But here, we’re basically all about good-old home cooking — I call it comfort food — that people can sit down and enjoy before they start their day at the fair.”
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