When the history books are written, 2014 will surely go down as a record-setting year for new foods at the Minnesota State Fair, and a primary reason can be summarized in three words: West End Market. The impressive multimillion-dollar remake of the dilapidated Heritage Square has introduced several dining destinations that have released an avalanche of must-try items.
Start with the Blue Barn, which has instantly become an iconic presence on the fair’s food landscape. Not only for its eye-catching profile, but because owners Dave Burley and Stephanie Shimp — the partnership behind Blue Plate Restaurant Co. — have astutely tapped into the fair-food psyche.
It’s as if fairgoers have been patiently waiting for a first-rate fried chicken and the Blue Barn delivers — and how — but goes a step further, inserting a zesty Cajun twist, then stuffing bite-size pieces into a deluxe waffle cone and slathering it with a peppery pork gravy. Yes, Chicken in the Waffle (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $9.75) has it all — flavor, portability and a sense of whimsy. It’s an instant classic.
Ditto Meatloaf on a Stick (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $9.25), a sweetly glazed all-beef wonder. Chimichurri, brimming with basil, cilantro and garlic, improve the already fabulous sweet corn-Gorgonzola fritters sold as Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $7.25). Even a Blue Plate signature item — pan-fried, Cheddar-filled pierogi (⋆ ⋆ ⋆, $7.25), with a lively horseradish sauce — have a where-have-you-been-all-my-life? vibe.
Anchoring the opposite side of the market is LuLu’s Public House, notable for its one-of-a-kind second-floor patio.
LuLu’s really shines in the morning. Cream cheese is the secret ingredient in the highly shareable Gorilla Bread (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $5), a dialed-up cinnamon pull-apart that boasts a rich, yeasty dough that’s baked until its edges are slightly crusty, then lavishly slathered in a buttery caramel sauce.
Flour tortillas, liberally stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs, onions, yellow and green peppers and a not-shy chorizo — sourced from a West St. Paul butcher — make for memorable Breakfast Tacos (⋆⋆⋆, $4).
The Juicy Lucy, Minnesota’s lasting contribution to the hamburger, is the cheese-stuffed inspiration for the Breakfast Juicy LuLu (⋆⋆ ½, $5). Subtle it’s not, a hockey puck-size breakfast sausage oozing prodigious amounts of American-esque cheese and sandwiched between two slices of English muffin-style toast.
Another talker, Deep-Fried Lobster on a Stick (⋆⋆⋆, $9), is simplicity itself, just skewers of hefty pieces of butter-poached claw meat coated in a light corn-based batter. Still, it’s overshadowed by the Prime Rib Taco (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $5): The beef, lovingly spit-roasted over mesquite and oak, is shaved, dressed with a lively chile con queso and served, Philly cheesesteak-style, with sautéed peppers and onions.
Beyond the West End Market
Two fairgrounds powerhouses continue to impress. For its labor-intensive Rustic Stuffed Scone (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $6), French Meadow Bakery & Cafe dials down the sugar in its addictive buttermilk scones, then adds ham, Swiss and mozzarella cheeses and a béchamel-style sauce, dressing the top with a bit of freshly grated Parmesan and black pepper. Order two.
Giggles’ Campfire Grill combines a State Fair rarity — pasta — with two Minnesota favorites, sweet corn and smoked walleye, for its boffo Walleye Mac-and-Cheese (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $8.50), and like so many items at this must-visit stand, it piles on the flavor components: smoked Gouda, roasted red peppers, parsley-flecked bread crumbs.
Nothing but raves for the smoky, fork-tender pork medallions marketed as Korean BBQ Collar (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $7) at Famous Dave’s, with its ginger-sesame accents and feisty faux-kimchi sweet pickles.
Kudos to the whole mangos — peeled, sliced, dusted in a chile-lime seasoning and skewered — at A Taste of the Global Market. Forget about Mango on a Stick (⋆⋆⋆½, $5); something this restorative deserves to be renamed Palate Cleanser on a Stick.
Buffalo is hardly “Bizarre Foods” territory, but for some there’s a certain amount of bragging rights involved in a Bison Dog (⋆⋆⋆, $6). The good news is that Chicago Dogs uses an excellent Wisconsin-made product, and treats it with the same fiendish attention it lavishes on its more conventional hot dogs.
The folks at Sonny’s Foods spent months developing their Gluten-Free Beer-Battered Brat (⋆⋆ ½, $6.50). They’ve scored a win for the celiac crowd, creating a product that relies on a sorghum beer for the batter and a tasty, nitrate-free, made-in-St. Paul pork brat.
Walleye on a Stick has gone the foot-long route, and the results (⋆⋆ ½, $9) are as simple and delicate as always, only now there’s more.