Despite my Variety colleagues handing over a prodigious amount of their section’s real estate in the Saturday paper, I wasn’t able to squeeze all of my day-of-gorging observations into my annual survey of new Minnesota State Fair foods. So here goes.
A fairly recent fair food phenomenon has vendors investing enormous amounts of capital and manpower into mega-attractions: O’Gara’s, the Minnesota Wine Experience, Famous Dave's and French Meadow Bakery & Cafe are just a few examples. This year’s entry into the bigger-is-better sweepstakes is Mancini’s al Fresco (Carnes Av. at Nelson St.), an outpost of the iconic St. Paul supper club. It’s a great-looking space, filled with the requisite historic photos and vintage fixtures, and it features a fairly lengthy (for the fair, anyway) menu.
In my new-foods rundown, I turned the spotlight on what I thought hit the highest marks on the Delicious-O-Meter, the Porketta Pork Wings ($8). I was less impressed with the stand’s signature dish, a steak sandwich ($9, pictured above). The thick-cut beef was nicely grilled, with a flavorful char and a pink-ish, fairly juicy center, and it exuded a big, beefy bite. But it was a bit on the chewy side (although let's get real, you were expecting butter knife-quality prime at $9?) and the flimsy foccacia bun was soaked in grease. It’s improved with the addition of onions and red peppers, which should be included in the price but aren’t, requiring an additional $1.
More successful is the Cicchetti, a seasoned bread cone filled with tender meatballs doused in a lively marinara sauce (or shrimp). It’s a clever Italian-American take on portable fair food, and it’s priced right: $6.
A sausage stuffed with onions and red peppers and speared on a stick ($6) left absolutely no impression, and a heaping, overpriced carb-bomb of basket of grilled garlic toast ($5, pictured above), greasy, near-flavorless and inundated in marinara, is best avoided.
Ending on a positive note, dessert is first-rate: Twelve rotating flavors of gelato ($5 and $7) from Ring Mountain Creamery Cafe in Eagan; three cheers for including this south-of-the-river gem at the fair.
One of my perennial fair favorites is the all-things-honey section of the Agriculture Horticulture Building, starting with the swell honey-nut ice cream. This year, the area’s Bee Hive shop, which features a wealth of Minnesota-made bee products, has a lovely addition: Honey-Bee Sticks (50 cents) from Mademoiselle Miel, skinny plastic straws filled with a burst of bright, sunshine-ey honey culled from a number of rooftop hives in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They’re packaged in two flavors: one is straight-up golden nectar, the other is smoked and blended with trace notes of Scotch. Another nice touch: Each purchase benefits the University of Minnesota Bee Lab.
“Where can I eat healthy at the fair?” is a question I’m often asked in late August, and my first thought always races to the Produce Exchange, the fresh-fruit outlet located on southeast side of the fairgrounds, just outside Ag-Hort. This year, for the first time, they’re slicing up ripe watermelon ($5), and it really hits the spot as ttemperatures and humidity levels climb and a person’s tolerance for fatty, deep-fried foods evaporates.
But the stand also features a selection of gorgeous, sinfully ripe peaches – warning: the juice will run down your chin, there's no stopping it – and in the next few days, co-owner Shannon Hannigan is hoping to feature those tasty, modestly-scaled Summercrisp pears (a cold weather-resistant breed developed at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s), harvested from Fairhaven Farm in South Haven, Minn.
Inside the building – you can’t miss it, it’s that gorgeous art deco-ish pavilion with the distinctive hexagonal concrete tower – is another eating-healthy destination: Minnesota Apples. The stand features crisp, just-picked fruit (right now, Paula Reds) from Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, and this year they’re also hawking a fantastic applesauce: cool, barely sweet, marvelously thick and with a just-barely pink cast. It’s one of the most satisfying ways to spend $1 anywhere on the fairgrounds.
Minnesota Farmers Union (Dan Patch Av. at Cosgrove St.) has a bevy of food newbies, and I raved about two of them: the mango ice cream bar, and the affogato. Space restrictions – and, I have to admit, a lack of interest on my part -- didn’t allow me to mention two others: a vanilla version of that ice cream bar ($5.75) and a trio of fresh-baked cookies – chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and white chocolate-macadamia nut (pictured, above) – sold separately ($1) or as a trio ($2.50). I yawned off the both. The former isn’t all that different from any other vanilla ice cream at the fair (the best remains at Nitro Ice Cream, inside the Food Building), and the latter are boring, you're-not-missing-anything factory-made cut-and-bakes.
Up on what used to be called Machinery Hill, Tracy’s Idaho Taqueria (Randall Av. at Underwood St.) is serving up taco-inspired waffle fries, but it’s also preparing a deep-fried-free version by enliisting a baked potato ($8). It’s fine – the portions are notably generous -- but it’s nothing that couldn’t be had at any shopping mall food court in the 1980s.
One welcome trend that makes total sense is the rush of Minnesota-brewed craft beers flooding onto the fairgrounds; after all, shouldn't the Minnesota State Fair be a showplace for Minnesota-made products?
Instead of focusing on a new food item – which owner Tim Weiss and chef Alex Sadowsky routinely do very, very well – the team at Giggles’ Campfire Grill (Cooper St. at Lee Av.) as focused their 2013 energies on an impressive new beer garden (pictured, above), one that would not look out of place in a ritzy northern Minnesota lakeside resort. Under the heavy-timbered roof, the good-natured Gigglesians are pouring a bevy of Minnesota beers, including Brau Brothers, Finnegan’s, Flat Earth, Big Wood, Lucid and Fulton, as well as Iowa’s Millstream, Wisconsin’s Leinenkugel, Michigan’s Keeweenah and Clown Shoes from Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, over at the Ball Park Cafe (Underwood Av., between the Food Building and the Garden), co-owners and brothers Dan and David Theisen are have boosted their already impressive list of brewed-in-Minnesota craft labels, with a roster that includes Lucid, Mankato Original, Badger Hill, Lift Bridge, Excelsior, Surly, Steel Toe, Third Street, Bent Paddle and the aforementioned Indeed. It's an extremely well-edited list, one that many Twin Cities restaurants and bars would do well to emulate.
If only the fair embraced Minnesota-distilled spirits. I know I'd line up for craft cocktail shaken with Prairie Organic Vodka or Panther Distillery bourbon.
Finally, an observation. How great would it be if more fair food vendors took their design cues from Big Pepper (Liggett St. at Judson Av.) and made their stands resemble the products they serve? Think about it: A towering cookie jar for Sweet Martha’s, a gigantic bucket of fries for the Fresh French Fries stands. Calling Claes Oldenburg!