Restaurant critic Rick Nelson suggests 10 don't-miss food and drink items at this year's Great Minnesota Get-Together.
Siblings Sheryl McGuire, Leanne Mear and Tracey Donnelly all grew up at the Minnesota State Fair, working in the stand their late father, Bill Danielson, started in 1956. Fifty five years later, Danielson & Daughters still cranks out the most addicting basket of onion rings ($5) imaginable. Here's the secret: both rings and slices of sweet, oversized yellow onions (6,000 pounds of them over the fair's 12-day run) are dunked in a freshly prepared pancake-like batter just seconds before they hit the bubbling oil and are transformed into a sublime deep-fried delicacy.
Few experiences are more steeped in fairgrounds nostalgia than taking a seat at one of the red picnic tables inside the adorable, bible camp-esque Salem Lutheran Church dining hall, a 62-year-old State Fair tradition. A pack of polite, industrious teenagers work the room -- in my day, we were called Luther League-ers -- and while the menu doesn't veer from Betty Crocker-meets-church basement comfort food, it's also the kind of reliable, stick-to-your-ribs fare that has been all but replaced by the novelty act that has become the Minnesota State Fair. I indulged in hearty Swedish meatballs drizzled in gravy ($8), a side of boiled potatoes, a spoonful of overcooked canned green beans and a slice of white bread with butter, and I adored every bland but fortifying Scandihoovian bite.
Those in need of a serious chocolate fix need look no further than Oven Fresh Brownies. The stand more than lives up to its name, with staffers constantly pulling pan after pan of fudgy brownies ($4) out of the oven, slathering them with a rich chocolate icing, cutting them into gigantic squares and serving them warm, with or without walnuts. Talk about aromatherapy: The stand's scent alone is a chocoholic's dream. I only have one question: Why isn't it located next door to the all-you-can-drink milk stand?
Speaking of following one's nose, let's hope that the folks at Big Fat Bacon use the porky perfume emanating from their stand as a force for good. It's a powerful weapon, created with thick, foot-long slices of slab bacon ($3) fried in a shallow pool of bacon fat until it attains a wonderfully chewy bite. As if this pork-fest wasn't enough, each slice is glazed in maple syrup and dusted in a seven-spice blend before being skewered -- naturally -- on a stick, a taste treat that surely encompasses at least three or four of the major food groups.
"Get your ice-cold root beer here," barked the guy behind the stand. Hey, you don't have to ask me twice, especially when the invitation involves a thirst-quenching glass of 1919 Draft Root Beer ($1.25 to $3.50). One swig of the creamy, lightly carbonated, vanilla-drenched drink, which is made in small batches in New Ulm, Minn., immediately shaves a few degrees off the heat index. There are floats, naturally ($4.25 to $5), and they also are highly recommended.
My other can't-get-enough-of-this beverage? The nonalcoholic piña coladas ($9) at Manny's Tortas. They're as flamboyant as a Midway side show, a hollowed-out pineapple filled with a va-va-va-voom combination of pineapple juice, coconut juice and ice. Co-owner Manny Gonzalez even throws in a deal: Buy a piña colada and a bowl of freshly cut pineapple chunks for $10, a $4 savings. If that isn't worth coping with the elbow-to-elbow crowds inside the overheated Food Building, nothing is.
It's weird, but tracking down a decent fairgrounds pancake isn't easy. Fortunately, after four dreary misfires, I lucked into a marvelous short stack at the Peg, which bills itself as the fair's only sit-down restaurant (another rarity: it accepts plastic for orders over $10). Like all breakfast items, pancakes are served all day, and they're terrific: three DVD-sized flapjacks ($4.50), browned and nicely crispy outside, tender and cakey inside, served in a flash and piping hot.
The fairgrounds are riddled with clever but semi-useless handouts -- ketchup-flavored lip balm, anyone? -- which is why it's a relief to learn that the aptly named Culligan Hydration Station offers a genuinely practical souvenir: free, bottomless pours of refreshing filtered water. Not only does each sip act as a palate cleanser against the culinary crassness of the Great Minnesota Deep-Fried Get-Together -- but it's also the best deal going, considering a 20-oz. bottle of water can run $2.50 or more. (Runner up: the aromatic free samples of Peace Coffee's Twin Cities Blend, a medium dark roast that's available inside the Progress Center/Eco Experience from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. One warning: It's regular, not decaf.)
Not many fairs boast a two-time James Beard-nominated pastry chef on the premises, but ours does. She's Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart in Minneapolis, and her seasonally attuned imagination is responsible for one of the fair's great showstoppers. It's a parfait ($7) of roasted Colorado peaches, layered with a flavor-enhanced vanilla soft-serve ice cream (Gayer bumps it up with Greek yogurt, coconut water, lemon zest and salt) and a molasses-kissed oatmeal-ginger streusel. The results are alternately tangy, cool and crunchy, and those prime-time peaches are out of this world. The moral of this success story? Let's get more chefs working on the fairgrounds, pronto.
It's an oldie but definitely a goodie: the honey-flavored ice cream at the Minnesota Honey Producers Association. The nonprofit organization, a group of commercial and hobby beekeepers, taps Kemps to make the sunflower seed-studded ice cream (which also comes in a chocolate fudge variation) as a special fair-only flavor, and for those who love the taste of honey -- especially Minnesota-made honey -- the busy stand is totally worth a stop for a cone ($4), a bowl ($5) or a honey-drizzled sundae ($6). Just how popular is it? I asked the friendly teenager working the scoop case. "Some people get mad that they can't get it anywhere else," she said.