Cheap fair eats

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2012 - 6:42 PM

Or maybe we should say inexpensive.; But yes, it's possible to eat well, while spending less, at the Minnesota State Fair. Here are a dozen ideas.

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Onion rings from Danielson & Daughters

Photo: Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

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At first glance it appeared to be a typo. I mean, $2 for a hamburger, at the cash vacuum otherwise known as the Minnesota State Fair?

Believe it. Step right up to the Midway Mens Club, a fairgrounds fixture since 1963 and home to some genuine food and drink deals, including $1 sodas and $3 beers. But the real standouts are those two-buck burgers (toss in a quarter and they'll add a gooey slice of American cheese). As burgers go, they're nothing fancy, just a thin, freshly grilled patty inside a basic bun, with plenty of pickles and onions; close your eyes, and it's almost comparable, right down to the paper wrapper, to eating at McDonald's, circa 1974, except that the club's all-volunteer staff is nicer, and the proceeds generously benefit St. Paul youth activity programs.

That isn't the only $5-and-under fare that's worth noshing at the fair. Fifty cents -- yes, it is possible to eat at the fair for pocket change -- is all a person needs to indulge in what Ultimate Confections dubs its Chocolate Covered S'More on a Stick. Sure, it isn't much of a portion, but for two quarters you were expecting a snack the size of your hand? Besides, size isn't everything, especially when it comes to a puffy marshmallow, dipped in milk or dark chocolate (the latter is particularly appealing), rolled in crushed graham crackers and speared on a toothpick in the grand foods-on-a-stick tradition. Still hungry? They're three for $1.25.

On a hot, humid day, nothing coaxes the heat index down quite as effectively -- and affordably -- as a Cider Freeze from Minnesota Apples. It's as simple as it is satisfying, just a frozen stick of sweet apple cider (pressed at Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake) that's served in a plastic push-up sleeve. Its cooling effects cannot be overstated; just holding it is nearly the equivalent of standing in front of an air conditioner on full blast, and the sweet-icy taste has been proven to lower body temperatures. Ok, that last part might be fiction, but hey, it could be true. Best of all is the price: $1.

The Mediterranean lemonade at Holy Land Deli has a similar effect, a libation so indecently refreshing that owner Majdi Wadi ought to just cut to the chase and call it "Ahhhh." It's an icy, sweet-tart citrus concoction that straddles the middle of the lemonade-slushie continuum. Copious amounts of fresh mint only up the coolant ante. As beverages go, it isn't inexpensive, but the $4 price tag is worth every sip. The only possible improvement would be adding a splash or three of vodka, preferably organic, Minnesota-made Prairie vodka.

There are plenty of worthwhile ice creams on the fairgrounds, but for a more decadent profile, check out the soft serve-style frozen custard at Custard's Last Stand. Not just because it's all about ultra-rich chilly goodness (do not miss the coffee flavor), but also because owner Dan Pederson doesn't ask for a major investment: $3 buys a perfectly respectable serving.

For straight-up ice cream, it's easy to fall for Nitro Ice Cream, which relies upon a showy flash-freeze process -- think Science Fair project, dialed up to the max -- to create a constant inventory (100-plus gallons per day) of intensely rich, deeply vanilla-infused ice cream. Two supersized scoops of unadulterated dairy goodness runs $4, and a three-scoop serving is $5. Freebie alert: The friendly folks behind the counter are quick with a sample, and it's easy to understand why: One taste, and you're hooked. Yeah, it's that good.

The name says it all at Cream Puffs, where, for nearly 30 years in their watch-them-work kitchen, owner George Tom and his crew have been cranking out one of the fair's most irresistible treats: Golden, delicate, fresh-baked pâte à choux that are split like a hamburger bun, filled with a crazy amount of luscious whipped cream and dusted with powdered sugar. They're a very reasonable $3, but bring the whole family and buy in volume, because Tom offers four for $10.

With so many deep-fried delicacies from which to choose, narrowing it down to a single selection is a daunting task. But here's a strategy: Forget the cheese curds (although I admire the "Still $5" banner at the Mouth Trap in the Food Building) and get in line at Danielson & Daughters to indulge in their superb onion rings. Battered and fried to perfection, they're a bargain at $5.

The grease-averse might want to consider the natural appeal of the Corn Roast, where a small battalion of workers roast locally grown sweet corn until the golden, slightly charred kernels pop with the kind of juicy, pronounced snap that practically screams "late summer in Minnesota." Sure, the melted-butter dunk might knock a hole in the health-conscious argument, but the proletariat price -- $3 -- tends to overshadow those concerns. Another guilt alleviator? The handy corn cob composting program; no landfills for this waste.

Time-travel comes cheap at Lynn's Potato Lefse. It's where $2.75 propels my sense memory back to childhood Christmas parties, where a plate of buttered and sugared lefse would have a pride of place on the holiday buffet. The folks at the stand spend their hours quickly spreading butter and sprinkling sugar (granulated, brown and a cinnamon blend) across each pizza-size lefse. It's produced in what has to be one of the nation's only lefse factories, in Blair, Wis., about 150 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, and to say that their product is almost as good as my Aunt Sue's is a supreme compliment.

A complaint that frequently rises from the Great Minnesota Get-Together is that "there is nothing healthy to eat." My response is that you're not looking hard enough. For starters, the Produce Exchange, an outpost of the greengrocer at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, that features tantalizingly colorful nectarines, plums, pluots and apples (all $2), although they're overshadowed by deeply fragrant, ridiculously juicy Sweet Dream peaches. At $3 a pop, a rational reaction might be that they are overpriced. But once again, the effective marketing strategy that is the free sample takes hold, and after a single, voluptuously ripe bite, you'll be pulling cash out of your pockets. Fast.

Finally, for the lactose-intolerant, the Midwest Dairy Association's All-You-Can-Drink Milk stand is probably something of a house of horrors. But at $1, the bottomless glass remains one of the Fair's enduring deals, at least for milk lovers. Only in Minnesota would the lure of 2 percent white and 1 percent chocolate draw standing-room-only crowds, not that anyone is drinking the association out of house and barn; the average visitor knocks back between two and three glasses. Just remember: Last call is 9 p.m., and that's about as wholesome as it gets.

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib

  • related content

  • A treat from Custard's Last Stand

  • Mediterranean lemonade from Holy Land Deli

  • ADDRESS BOOK

    All-You-Can-Drink Milk, Judson Av. and Clough St.

    Corn Roast, Dan Patch Av. and Nelson St.

    Cream Puffs, Dan Patch Av. and Liggett St.

    Custard's Last Stand, Carousel Park

    Danielson & Daughters, Food Building (exterior, south wall)

    Holy Land Deli, International Bazaar

    Lynn's Potato Lefse, Food Building

    Midway Mens Club, Underwood St. and Dan Patch Av.

    Minnesota Apples, Agriculture/Horticulture

    Nitro Ice Cream, Food Building

    Produce Exchange, Judson Av. and Underwood St.

    Ultimate Confections, Grandstand (first floor, east entrance)

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