Restaurant critic Rick Nelson hails the best -- and disses the worst -- of the new foods at the Minnesota State Fair.
Count 2011 as the year when deep-fried novelties finally took a back seat among new foods at the Minnesota State Fair. Instead, seasonal and local flavors -- and fresh, on-the-spot cooking, minus the grease -- are finally grabbing the spotlight.
Food-loving fairgoers know to visit the five-year-old Blue Moon Dine-In Theater for fabulous wood-fired pizzas and jazzy Korean tacos. Now they'll also be lining up for the sweet corn ice cream (★★★★out of four stars, $5 and $6). Co-owners Stephanie and Mike Olson make it fresh on the premises -- the effort definitely shows -- and douse three scoops of the gently flavored frozen stuff with a trio of tasty toppings. It's tough to pick a favorite, they're all that good: a warm cinnamon-scented blueberry compote, a bacon-flecked butter sauce and crunchy spiced candied peanuts.
The fair fare innovators at Giggles' Campfire Grill -- owner Tim "Giggles" Weiss and chef Alex Sadowsky -- have conjured up yet another reason to trek up to the fairgrounds' northern quadrant. This time, it's a Caprese salad -- on a stick, naturally -- that's drizzled with a rich balsamic and laid out in a banana boat filled with field greens (yes, field greens at the fair) and a wild rice-cranberry-citrus salad. They call it Northwoods Salad on a Stick (★★★★, $5.50), and this tasty exercise in fresh flavors is not just for vegetarians.
Just when it appeared as if San Felipe Tacos couldn't get any better, co-owners Sarah and Michael Wentzien come out with an Asian-accented pulled pork burrito (★★★★, $8), wrapped in a spinach tortilla and stuffed with cabbage, a cucumber-red pepper-jalapeño salsa and sesame and wasabi dressings. It has crunch, color and a flurry of complementary flavors -- terrific.
Hand the State Fair a blue ribbon for showcasing quality Minnesota-made products. Two exceptional newcomers: the eight varieties of brightly flavored sodas (★★★★, $3) made by century-old Spring Grove Soda Pop in the state's southeastern corner. Goodbye, Coca-Cola, hello, lemon sour! And the Ball Park Cafe is wisely featuring a handful of fabulous Gopher State craft beers on tap (★★★★, $4.50 and $7.50), including three by Surly, two by Lift Bridge and one by Schell's; check them out in a handy three-pour sampler.
Headlining the Simple Pleasures department, a 75-cent investment in a tart Viking apple (★★★★) yields a million-dollar taste. They're raised by the Jacobson family at Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake and available at the ever-popular Minnesota Grown Apples. The supply probably won't last through Labor Day, so hurry in.
Several sandwiches make positive impressions. Best is the superb turkey Reuben (★★★★, $7) at the French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, which boasts a tangy sauerkraut, a house-made Thousand Island dressing and excellent rye bread. Vegetarians will enjoy what Meadow co-owners Debbie and Chris Gleize have rightly billed as an "Incredible" grilled cheese (★★★, $5), a lightly browned mouthful of white Cheddar, Swiss and tomato on sourdough white.
Der Pretzel Haus reinvents the hot dog by wrapping an all-beef-er with spirals of -- what else? -- salt-flecked pretzel dough. Because Pretzel Dogs (★★★ 1/2, $5) are baked rather than fried, it's a much lighter alternative to the Pronto Pup. Love the three mustards, too.
At Turkey to Go, the addictive pulled turkey sandwiches -- mildly seasoned, wonderfully juicy and made using Minnesota-raised birds -- just got better with a half-pound version (★★★, $8.50). Across the street, T-Bonz Grill specializes in a pair of these-could-easily-feed-two sandwiches: a pita stuffed with grilled chicken, tomatoes and shredded lettuce (★★, $8), and a jumbo Italian sausage, smothered in grilled onions (★★, $7).
Jerk seasoning, used sparingly, adds a welcome dash of spice to a generous basket of crispy, skin-on French fries (★★★, $4) at Harry Singh's Original Caribbean Restaurant; a vinegar-mustard sauce -- served on the side for heat-cautious Minnesotans -- adds plenty of extra kick.
The hefty portion sizes are major selling points for the headliner at Chan's Chicken on a Stick (★★ 1/2, $6), notable for its mix of dark and white meat and a sweet -- maybe too sweet -- teriyaki glaze. Also neat but too sweet: the Breakfast Lollypop (★★ 1/2, $3) at Axel's Bull Bites, a kind of breakfast sausage-meets-corn dog -- a savvy idea -- soaking in a gusher of fake maple syrup. The Green Mill is making pizza on the go easier with its Pizza Ka Bob (★★, $5), a trio of semi-puffy mini-calzones (in cheese, sausage and pepperoni versions) skewered on chopsticks.
Minne's Diner in Rogers, Minn., has a new fair outpost, hawking its Original Minneapple Pie (★★★, $5). The crescent-shaped deep-fried apple pies, served a la mode, are head-and-shoulders above the ones once sold at McDonald's, with a surprisingly tender crust, plenty of firm apples and tons of cinnamon.
For something cool, check out the frozen cup of chai on a stick (★★★, $3.25) at Farmers Union, with its mellow pumpkin undertones, a nice riff on the stand's can't-miss Mocha on a Stick; both are made by St. Paul's Grand Ole Creamery. Another sweet worth sampling is the light and portable fresh fruit wrap (★★ 1/2, $4.50) at Fried Fruit on a Stick, which is exactly as advertised: a flour tortilla rolled with a freshly chopped fruit cocktail, a swipe of cream cheese and a cinnamon-sugar dusting. Nice. Ditto the cute Dirt Dessert (★★, $3) at Spaghetti Eddie's, a parfait-esque blend of crushed Oreos and luscious cannoli cream with a Gummi Worms garnish.
Sadly, even a fancy-schmancy name -- Grilled Yankee Apple Pie and Chocolate Sandwich (★ 1/2, $4.50) at Moe & Joe's -- can't make up for the fact that the results are a too-sugary, too-sloppy mess. The same can be said for the enough-already blur of white chocolate, chocolate, whipping cream and raspberry sauce that Granny's Kitchen dubs the White Razzie Puppies on a Stick (★, $5). Holy Land is putting out kushari (★ $6), a sort of Middle Eastern-goes-Midwestern hot dish, but it's more of a dull carb-fest than a passport to culinary adventure.
Two made-from-concentrate beverages disappointed: a thin, Wyler's-like lemonade smoothie (★, $4 and $4.50) at Moe & Joe's, and a coolly refreshing but aftertaste-plagued horchata (★, $2) -- a cinnamon- and vanilla-laced rice milk -- from El Sol Mexican Foods.
There's a barely any discernible crab flavor lurking inside the doughy, overfried marquee goodie at Ollie's Crab Fritters (★ 1/2, $5.50). Andres Watermelon has a fairgrounds talker in the form of milk chocolate-covered jalapeño peppers on a stick (no stars, $6.50) and it's a cool idea, but raw-- and incendiary -- jalapeños are not exactly noshing fare.
The year's other hyper-Twitter-ed entry, Ooey-Gooey Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough on a Stick (no stars, $4.50) at Sonny's Spiral Chips, is one of those deep-fried disasters that get fairgoers talking, but the greasy, gloppy and toothache-inducing results don't match the hype. Instead, opt for the stand's four-star stack of fresh-fried potato chips. Trust me.