When it comes to the 2016 crop of new foods at the Minnesota State Fair, the highs are stratospheric, and the lows, well, they’re as greasily subterranean as ever.

This year’s key words? Bacon. Shrimp. Ice cream. Thankfully, there wasn’t an item that simultaneously embraced all three.

What I noticed — besides taking 18,242 steps, a figure my feet are feeling today — is that prices continue to inch (and sometimes rather brazenly leap) forward. A shocker, right? In happier news, the fair is also boldly stepping into the 21st century and embracing convenience. In past years, fairgrounds grazing was a strictly cash-only proposition. This year, my plastic saw the light of day on a number of occasions.

Here are my rankings, starting with the best of the best (four stars).

★★★★

Barbecued Shrimp Taco
A role model for fair food. So many textures — the crunch of jicama-cabbage slaw, the snap of hefty, juicy shrimp — and flavors, whether it’s garden-fresh cilantro or a teasingly spicy chipotle-fueled cream sauce. Two to an order. $10, and worth it.
Location: Tejas Express. Map it

Candied Bacon BLT
Step right up and enjoy the State Fair’s best bacon dish, bar none. It’s a savvy, gussied-up twist on the BLT formula: the slab-cut bacon (and plenty of it) sports a maple sugar glaze, slaw stands in for lettuce and “tomato” translates into a cool salsa verde. Even the roll — a sweet, eggy thing — is first-rate. Get it. $8.
Location: The Blue Barn. Map it

Chocolate Agate Crunch
Another home run from the hitmakers at Izzy’s Ice Cream. This time they’re marrying Minnesota geological lore with chocolate, more chocolate, even more chocolate, before sneaking in a salted caramel finish. A must. $5 and $7.
Location:  Hamline Church Dining Hall. Map it

Sheep Dog
This beauty would be the pride of any top Twin Cities gastropub. The feisty sausages hail from Doug Rathke’s Hutchinson, Minn., farm, a true taste of Minnesota, and they’re brilliantly garnished (quinoa! kale!) and served in an excellent bun, a fair rarity. Wash ’em down with a glass of effervescent orange-ginger kombucha ($5) from Deane’s Kombucha. $8, and worth it.
Location: Lamb Shoppe. Map it

Spicy Pork Bowl
Leave it to this ultra-creative outpost to bring the trendy rice bowl to the Great Minnesota Get-Together, and also know what to do with it. Kudos to the (not too) spiced-up pulled pork, the garlic-sautéed spinach and the crispy fried onion topper. $9.
Location: The Blue Barn. Map it

Watermelon-Kombucha
Late August coincides with peak watermelon season, a situation improved by the addition of fizzy, gently lemony fermented tea (from Prohibition Kombucha in Minneapolis). Start with a straw, then dig into that beyond-juicy melon. $7.
Location: Produce Exchange. Map it

 

★★★½

Banana Cinnamon & Cream Dipped in Dark Chocolate
A harmonious arrangement of flavors that’s decadence on a stick. $5.
Location: JonnyPops. Map it

Beer Sangria
Shamelessly refreshing, and topped with a smile-inducing foamy crown. $4.50, $7.50.
Location: LuLu’s Public House/Schell’s. Map it

Carpe Diem
Thank you, chef Thomas Kim, for demonstrating that fair food can be visually striking. A crunchy, fish-shaped cone is filled with vanilla ice cream, its sweetness mildly tempered by the cone’s miso and the strawberry compote’s balsamic vinegar. Only downfall? Eating it is a wildly messy exercise. $6.
Location: The Rabbit Hole, through Aug. 30. Map it

Ghost Pepper Cheeseburger Quesadilla
The notoriously blistering pepper doesn’t incite four-alarm warnings (it’s maybe closer to 2½), but heat-seeking fairgoers will be all over this talker. Quesadilla fans will appreciate the crisp texture and well-chosen garnishes. $10.
Location: Tejas Express. Map it

Rustic Beef Pastry
Bliss. Flaky, buttery croissant dough nudged into the form of a hand pie, then filled with garlic- and cumin-seasoned ground beef, spinach and creamy goat’s cheese. An all-day delicacy, from the fair’s best bakers. $6.
Location: French Meadow Bakery & Cafe. Map it

 

★★★

Bang Bang Fresh Chicken Tenders
A shocker, given its proximity to the word “McNugget.” The chicken, juicy and abundant, actually tastes like chicken, and the coating is crispy and seasoned enough to leave a welcome trace of heat on the lips. Kudos for the Sriracha-sweet-chile-mayo dipping sauce. $6.
Location: LuLu’s Public House. Map it

Beer Brat Buddies
Siblings Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry have certainly tapped into the fair’s craft beer craze by offering this hearty, brew-friendly brat, stuffed into a sturdy pretzel bun. The coarse, grainy mustard, and plenty of it, is a must. $7.
Location: My Sausage Sister & Me. Map it

Blueberry Bar
Another winner on-a-stick from St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery, this one features tons of blueberries (and a hint of tart chokeberry juice) from a Winona, Minn., farm. Lovely. $5.75.
Location: Minnesota Farmers Union. Map it

Cajun Peel-N-Eat Shrimp
Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? A dozen plump, snappy shrimp, coated in a Louisiana-esque seasoning blend and paired with a not-bad cocktail sauce. Nice. $10.
Location: Cafe Caribe. Map it

Cucumber Lemonade
Mouth-puckeringly tart lemonade — from Meyer lemons — is mellowed (in a macerated-overnight process) by cool English cucumbers. Then a few more cuke slices go in for a garnish. A total beat-the-heat treat. $5, and worth it.
Location: French Meadow Bakery & Cafe. Map it

Honey-Sunflower Ice Cream
Yes, this treasure has been a fairgrounds classic for forever. But 2016 has brought a change: This delightfully offbeat flavor is now being produced by the ice-cream making crew at the University of Minnesota, using honey from Minnesota producers. So good. $6 to $9.
Location:  Minnesota Honey Producers. Map it

Hopmosa
Three cheers to an already citrusy golden IPA, further infused with Mimosa-like orange notes. Spectacularly thirst-quenching. From Bent Paddle Brewing Co. in Duluth. $5, $8.
Location: Ball Park Cafe. Map it

Iron Range Meat and Potatoes
A stick-to-your-ribs (in a good way) slab of shepherd’s pie that doesn’t feel like leftovers, served in he-man portions. The sweet corn is an inspired touch. $8.
Location: Giggles’ Campfire Grill. Map it

Macho Taco
A pair of flour tortillas filled with chipotle-glazed grilled steak — so tender, so juicy — dressed with black beans, peppers and the kitchen’s lively jicama slaw. Dress it up with the fair’s best salsa. $10.
Location: Tejas Express. Map it

Minnesota Mule Cider
The clarity of Minnesota-grown apples shines through clean lime and ginger notes. Highly quaffable. From Sweetland Orchard in Webster, Minn. $8.50.
Location: Ball Park Cafe. Map it

Steak Chislic
When a South Dakota culinary tradition takes a Southwestern detour, a new fair walk-around dish is born. Think “sirloin nachos,” minus the molten cheese glop, and jazzed with horseradish accents. $10.
Location: Tejas Express. Map it

Sweet Corn Summer Ale
Brewer Ethan Applen teamed up with Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm in Monticello, Minn., to create this sun-dappled brew, with its sweet corn whisper. From Lakes & Legends Brewing Co. in Minneapolis. $5, $8.
Location: O’Gara’s. Map it

 

★★½

Burnt Butt Ends
It’s about time that this barbecue staple landed at the fair, and this fatty, finger-licking-good version sports most of the right porky attributes. Still, there could be a greater emphasis on the “burnt” end of the equation. $8.
Location: RC’s BBQ. Map it

Caramel Apple Cider
Sweet, fizzy and sweet. From Sociable Cider Werks in Minneapolis. $4.75, $8.
Location: Giggles’ Campfire Grill. Map it

Chocolate Chip Cookie Beer
Fun to say you’ve sipped it, but don’t go looking for traces of Sweet Martha’s, unless it’s the glasses’ semisweet chocolate-dusted rim. From Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake. $8.
Location: Andy’s Grille. Map it

Deep Fried Grilled Cheese Bites
Want to relive those cozy grilled cheese-tomato soup winter lunches? Step right up, and add the deep fryer. $8, a bit steep.
Location: O’Gara’s at the Fair. Map it

Funnel Cloud
Another amusing novelty, and an ale that doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance, flavor-wise, to that of a funnel cake. From Bad Weather Brewing Co. in St. Paul. $4.75, $8.
Location: Mancini’s. Map it

Italian Taco
Fold over a single-serving sausage pizza — but not before sprinkling it with Taco John’s-like garnishes — and there’s nothing to prevent it from being called a “taco.” Secretly? It’s kind of tasty. $5.
Location: Green Mill. Map it

Reuben Pickle Dog
A “Mad Men”-like riff on the cream cheese-pickle hors d’oeuvre, except this time it’s pumped up in stature. If only the sauerkraut had some oomph. $7.
Location: Pickle Dog. Map it

Spam Sushi
A hoot. And yes, it’s cooked egg, Spam and rice, rolled in seaweed. A bit of a snooze, flavor-wise, until wasabi, pickled ginger and chipotle-laced mayonnaise do their thing. $6.
Location: Sushi Rolls. Map it

Strawberry Donut Delight
Split a raised, glazed doughnut (from Grandma’s Bakery in White Bear Lake), fill it with (canned) whipped cream and juiced-up strawberries. Sweet, yes, but what’s not to like? $6
Location: Strawberry Patch. Map it

 

★★

Bacon-Wrapped Tots
The name says it all: Thin-sheared bacon slices, looped around crispy Tater Tots, and speared on a stick. The Cheddar cheese dipping sauce? Meh. Six tots, $5.
Location: Tot Boss. Map it

Call It Breakfast
An inspired idea: A coffee-and-doughnuts sundae (or malt). The latte-flavored syrup is addictive — and is a bespoke fit with vanilla soft-serve ice cream — the chunks of drab cake doughnuts are not. $5, $6.
Location: Dairy Goodness Bar. Map it

Cheesy French Onion Monkey Bread
Disappointingly, it’s a ponderous carb bomb. Still, there are smart instincts (deep onion flavor, crusty bread) on display. $7.
Location: Blue Moon Dine-In Theater. Map it

Cracker Jack Caramel Sundae
Snaps for the Instagram-able good looks, but in the end it’s a thinly garnished blob of white soft-serve over bland caramel corn. $7.
Location: Goertze’s Dairy Kone. Map it

The Elvis
Big, bold banana flavor for this soft, airy, super-fresh ice cream. But there’s little to no promised peanut butter. The King would be singing the blues. $5.
Location: R&R Ice Cream. Map it

Gumbo Frites
What poutine might resemble in a suburban New Orleans food court. Wonderfully crisp, golden fries. $7.
Location: Ragin Cajun. Map it

La La Palooza Sundae
The fairgrounds are a fitting spot for the revival of this Minnesota classic, a brazenly overblown banana split that mirrors the fair’s junk food excesses. Two questions: Does anyone want to schlep around a keepsake plus-size sundae glass? And is the La La Palooza experience worth a hefty $25? No, on both counts.
Location: Bridgeman’s Ice Cream. Map it

Minnesota Corn Dog
The maple comes through — loud, and clear — in this on-a-stick homage to Gopher State ingredients, but the deep fryer zaps out the apple and blueberry flavors. $5.
Location: Gass Station Grill. Map it

Spam Curds
Most of the fair’s basic food groups — fried, fatty, salty — are covered in each bite-size pop of cheese-flavored Spam. The downside? Minnesota’s gift to canned culinary greatness deserves a better accompaniment than a rote ranch dressing. $7.
Location: Spam. Map it

 

Candied Bacon Donut Sliders
Duds like this one raise the question: If this impressed the powers that be on the fair’s selection committee, what was rejected? $9.
Location:  Minnesota Wine Country. Map it

Deep Fried Nachos Supreme
A myocardial infarction waiting to happen. Don’t do it. $9, overpriced.
Location: Texas Steak Out. Map it

Macaroni & Cheese Curds
A dairy, carb and sodium overload. As for the Wonder Bread-like breadstick, I can’t even. $9, overpriced.
Location: Oodles of Noodles. Map it

Maple Bacon Shave Ice
File the Log Cabin-like flavoring under “F” for “Fake.” $6.
Location:  Minnesnowii Shave Ice. Map it

Oof-da Tacos
It’s a shocker that it’s taken this long for fry bread to appear in the state’s fried-food epicenter. Too bad it’s topped with a school cafeteria’s grasp of what a taco can be. $7.75.
Location: Oof-da Tacos. Map it

Saucy Shrimp & Slaw
Really, Minnesota State Fair, this is the best you can do? $10.95.
Location: Fish & Chips Seafood Shoppe. Map it

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757