The good news about this year's food selection at the State Fair: There are lots of new choices. The bad news: Some aren't so good.
Editor's note: After reading Rick Nelson's annual roundup of new food at the State Fair for 2012 (below), check out his archived roundups from 2011, 2010 and 2009, along with a greatest-hits revisit of 12 years of new fair foods.
There are plenty of impressive entries in this year's freshman class of new foods at the Minnesota State Fair.
Let's start at Giggles' Campfire Grill, where owner Tim Weiss and chef Alex Sadowsky continually redefine the fair food experience. Finding inspiration in a whirlwind tour through Massachusetts lobster roll shacks, Sadowsky blends hickory-smoked Minnesota walleye, crisp celery, nutty hand-harvested wild rice and mayonnaise, then liberally spoons the combo into a thick slice of buttered brioche. Add a little shredded lettuce, a dash of pepper and a sprinkling of celery seed, and the Classic Walleye Roll ($8.25, ★★★★) is surely destined to become a fairgrounds hall of famer.
The year's top breakfast is clearly owned by French Meadow Bakery and Cafe, where a tender, not-too-sweet scone is split and smothered in an eat-every-drop gravy loaded with hot Italian sausage and plenty of bite (★★★★, $7). Order one, today.
The fair is slowly but surely placing Minnesota-made products in the spotlight where they belong, hurrah. The most impressive effort: Minnesota Wine Country, pouring wines from 13 Gopher State wineries (★★★★, $7 to $12 glasses, with $10 and $19 flights) paired with a flurry of wine-friendly foods (★★, $7 to $9). The real standout -- besides the wines, and the welcoming setting and staff -- are the don't-miss ice creams (★★★★, $5). St. Paul's Izzy's Ice Cream cleverly incorporated raspberry wine from WineHaven Winery in Chisago City and port from Stillwater's St. Croix Vineyards, and they're terrific.
Three cheers to Ball Park Cafe for diving headlong into the craft brew scene, offering a range of local names (★★★★, $4.50 and $7.50) that would be the envy of any south Minneapolis gastropub. The one to order? The Pubstitute, a smooth, mahogany-tinted and wildly refreshing Scottish light ale debuting at the fair by Roseville upstart Pour Decisions.
Sausage Sister & Me, another fair-food innovator, has a doozy this year: Great Balls of Fire (★★★ 1/2, $5.50), a trio of North African-inspired pork and beef meatballs brimming with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, allspice and warm red chile accents. Pair them with the stand's cool cucumber-yogurt sauce. A few stalls down at the Lamb Shoppe, farmer Connie Karstens of Hutchinson, Minn. is showcasing Lamb Chop on a Stick (★★★ 1/2, $8), a pair of small T-bone cut loin chops, simply seasoned and seared to perfection. It's deceptively simple and delicious.
And despite invoking an unflattering name on its new-for-2012 product, Famous Dave's has devised a winner: Ragin' Ankles ($6, ★★★ 1/2), which are smoked and fried pork shanks glazed in a tangy-hot sauce that emanates a dueling pineapple sweetness and habanero/cayenne heat.
Since everything tastes better with bacon, Rainbow Ice Cream tapped Timm's Dairy in Eau Claire, Wis., to craft, yes, bacon ice cream (★★★, $5 and $6). Think maple-nut, with smoky notes of thin-cut candied bacon standing in for the walnuts. Could we ask for a more generous portion?
More to love: The Paul Bunyon Bar (★★★, $5). The Ice Cream Parlour gleefully dips Dixie Cup-size vanilla bars (from St. Paul's Grand Ole Creamery) into a rich chocolate and then rolls them, to order, in goodies that include coconut and toasted almonds. What a great idea.
Ole's Cannoli is taking its namesake product seriously (★★★, $4 and $5), filling delicate fried pastry shells -- some dipped in a luxurious chocolate -- with ricotta. Adding pistachios (50 cents) turns decadence into near-overkill.
With the Itty Bitty Kristie Krunch (★★ 1/2, $1.75), Rice Kristie Bars is shrinking its gooey big-as-your-head treats, skewering them on a fork, swiping them with a thick coat of Day-Glo buttercream icing and adding sprinkles. It's super-sweet, but kids (and dentists) will love it. Blue Moon Dine-In Theater's Cereal Killer (★★, $5), a foray into breakfast cereal-fortified ice creams, are amusing in a Saturday-morning-cartoons kind of way, but don't match the stand's stellar sweet-corn ice cream. And there's a whole lot going on with the Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup (★★, $5) at Granny's Kitchen Fudge Puppies, but peanut butter fans might appreciate the gooey peanut butter cups baked into warm, chocolate-coated waffle sticks.
After all those desserts, the ultimate palate cleanser is definitely the crunchy, sweet-tart, reddish-gold chestnut crab apples (★★★, three/$1), cultivated at a Jordan, Minn., orchard and hawked at the Produce Exchange.Stars, from three to two
There's no bigger talker than the lamb fries (★★ 1/2, $5) at Holy Land Deli: Grilled or deep-fried lamb testicles. Go ahead, try them; they vaguely resemble super-silky tofu. But ask for the grilled version, because the fragrant curry-paprika-garlic flavors in the pillowy bites aren't zapped by the deep-fryer. "That's how they do it in the Middle East," said owner Majdi Wadi.
Duke's Poutine adds fresh cheese curds and a peppery gravy to golden fries (★★★, $5), happily upping the cholesterol count. Inside the Garden, the Ragin' Cajun starts the day with sliders (★★ 1/2, $2.25, trio for $5) stuffed with scrambled eggs and bacon, sausage or grilled steak. Tejas Express is turning out Chicken Nachos on a Stick ($7, ★★), a pair of juicy lime-marinated satays laid over a standard nachos formula. Chicago Dogs, which knows how to dress a grilled all-beef dog, right down to the celery salt, is adding a gluten-free option (★★, $6.25). More gluten-free choices are available at the French Meadow Bakery and Cafe. Along with a flurry of gluten-free cupcakes, brownies and muffins, there's a croquette-style snack of cumin- and cayenne-laced black bean-rice-cornmeal balls that are deep-fried to crunchy goodness; they've been dubbed Risotto Poppers (★★★, $6).
Green Mill is stuffing a quartet of mini-calzones two ways: with a too-starchy spaghetti and a sort-of cheeseburger, with plenty of pickles ($5, ★★). A not-dissimilar delicacy -- think "fried pizza" -- is the Super Stick (★★, $6) at Spaghetti Eddie's, a battered-and-deep-fried skewer of pepperoni and all-purpose cheese. Sonny's Spiral Spuds is twisting a fairgrounds standard with the French Dog, a skinny sausage inserted into a chewy baguette (★★, $4,). Nice, but it could use some oomph. Similarly, the grilled salmon sandwich (★★, $6.50) at Smokey's Charbroiler is crying out for some -- heck, any -- lively garnishes.At the bottom
Korean BBQ beef wraps (★ 1/2, $7.50) at Chinatown Minnesota have plenty of flavor potential, but the drab results more closely resemble a Lutheran church basement dinner. Tops in the skip-this department are the doughy, bland Belgian waffles (★, $5) at Blue Moon Dine-In Theater and the grease-meets-sugar cranberry-cream cheese wontons (★, $5) at Pham's Deli. Smoothies and Jurassic Corn Dogs cleverly slips into red velvet mode with funnel cakes (★, $8), but a little dye doesn't really alter the basic blah-ness of this fair food fixture.
Shanghaied Henri's is selling California and shrimp rolls (★, $7) -- sushi at the Fair, yeah! -- but the dry, flavorless pre-packaged products disappoint. Veggie Pie makes an earnest attempt at three fresh salads (★, $4 to $5.50), but they're straight out of a middle-school cafeteria.
Finally, Deep Fried Candy Bars is doing its thing to the legendary Nut Goodie, in honor of the treat's centennial (★, $4,), but turning chocolate, peanuts, nougat and maple flavoring into molten schlock is a tragic, albeit semi-hilarious, way to treat a Minnesota icon.
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