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.
At Minnesota Wine Country, the clever Pork Belly Sliders (⋆⋆½, $9) are served three to an order, ideal for sharing over flights of Gopher State reds.
Green Mill is forming hash browns, mozzarella and diced sausage and pepperoni into bite-size corks, which explains why they’re dubbed Pizza Tots (⋆⋆⋆, $4). Think of the booth’s Pizza Cone (⋆⋆ ½, $3) as a sculptural three-cheese calzone.
Although Pretzel Curds (⋆⋆ $6.75) aren’t a deep-fried revelation, they ably demonstrate the wisdom of a pretzel crumb-fortified beer batter, which makes for a crisper cheese-curd experience.
So many new ice creams, so little time. The pick of the litter, the Jell-O Salad Ice Cream (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $4.50 and $6.50) at Hamline Church Dining Hall, will have fairgoers humming “Kumbaya,” thanks to lime-cranberry-marshmallow cream components that nostalgically hearken back to every church ladies’ auxiliary cookbook. Nice job, Izzy’s.
Ethereal Snoribbons (⋆⋆⋆ ½ $5) at Blue Moon Dine-In Theatre take “frozen treat” to a previously uncharted level, smushing the textures of ice cream, shaved ice and cotton candy into an appealing new form, then dressing the heck out of each one of the 14 semi-exotic (mango, horchata-churro) variations.
The pair of crisp, golden, hot-off-the-iron waffles that constitute the Hot Toasted Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich (⋆⋆⋆, $5) at the West End Creamery are grabbing all kinds of social-media love (tip: Jazz that dull vanilla ice cream with Nutella), but the stand — a Heritage Square stalwart previously known as the Ice Cream Parlour — is well-schooled in the art of milk shakes (⋆⋆⋆, $7), and has thoughtfully added a dozen new flavors, including a pale and lovely lavender and a kids-will-love-this Cap’n Crunch.
When President Obama dropped in unannounced at St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery in late June, he flipped for the shop’s No. 1 seller, a sweet cream-Oreo-pecan praline-caramel concoction called Black Hills Gold. Fairgoers can experience it — on a stick, naturally — filed under the Presidential Bar name (⋆⋆⋆, $5.75) at the Minnesota Farmers Union.
For its inaugural State Fair gig, JonnyPops, a local maker of all-natural, gently creamy, ultra-fruity frozen bars, made a special flavor dubbed Snelling Strawberry Rhubarb (⋆⋆⋆, $4). Buy it.
Three cheers for novelty at Mancini’s al Fresco, which produces its supple Beer Gelato (⋆⋆ ½, $5 and $7) on site, teasing rather than hammering taste buds with Summit Brewing Company’s robust oatmeal stout.
R & R Ice Cream’s tractor-churned product has a lovely just-cranked-on-the-front-porch quality, but its Caramel Apple Ice Cream (⋆⋆, $5) could go heavier on the caramel and lighter on the Granny Smiths. Kids will enjoy the bubble gum version, dotted with colorful Chiclets.
Two specialty beers are worth checking out. A deep porter, with chocolate and coffee grace notes, is the backbone for the amusing S’more Beer (⋆⋆⋆, $4.75 and $8) at Giggles’ Campfire Grill. Not that anyone needed it, but owner Tim “Giggles” Weiss reaffirms his sense of humor by serving it in a glass rimmed in chocolate and crushed graham crackers. And yes, it’s garnished with mini-marshmallows.
Meanwhile, a few of the guys at LuLu’s Public House were sitting around last fall — over beers, of course — when they brainstormed up the idea for Grain Belt Blu (⋆⋆⋆, $4.25 and $7), a shandy-style thirst quencher that infuses Grain Belt Premium with blueberry juice and ingeniously capped by an icy slushy of the same beer-berry formulation.
The “while supplies last” signs at Minnesota Apples should compel anyone to nervously stock up on the wonderfully old-fashioned and utterly divine Apple Rollovers (⋆⋆⋆⋆, $3), layers of flaky pastry filled with cinnamon-tossed apples (from White Bear Lake’s Pine Tree Orchard) and finished in an apple cider glaze.
Siblings Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry have turned to dessert at their My Sausage Sister & Me, and their surprisingly elegant Chocolate Salami (⋆⋆⋆, $6) — a semisweet chocolate-butter-almonds-walnuts combo, infused with like-minded hints of orange and coffee — is a well-crafted treat.
Not every item at the Blue Barn is a hall-of-famer. Bacon Brownies (⋆⋆ ½, $6.25) are too much of two good things, namely bacon and chocolate, and a superfluous layer of french fries pushes a Shredded Beef Sandwich (⋆⋆ ½, $9.75) overboard, even by State Fair standards.
For its Caribbean-Style Lobster Roll (⋆⋆, $9), Cafe Caribe mostly adheres to the classic formula but messes up the seasonings, big time, blatantly scorching taste buds left and right. This doesn’t work so well at the Great Minnesota Bland-Together.
Conversely, there’s the Chilaquiles (⋆⋆, $7.50) at El Sol Mexican Foods. It easily qualifies as breakfast for two, but the heaping plate of tortilla chips, fried-to-order eggs, chicken and basic-as-basic-can-be taco fixings would benefit from a less cautious approach, chile verde-wise.
The Deep-Fried Baklava on a Stick (⋆ ½, $5.50) at Dino’s Gyros follows the get-people-talking formula that is the backbone of plenty of blue ribbon-worthy fair fare. But no amount of chocolate sauce and honey is going to mask the simple truth that baklava is better when left untouched by bubbling grease.
The served-all-day carbfest that is Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall’s PB & J French Toast (⋆ ½, $7) proves that, when it comes to peanut butter and grape jelly, there really is a point when less is more.
Pass the Alka-Seltzer
At the Shrimp Shack, the takeaway from the Shrimp Dog (⋆, $6.50) is corn meal batter, not shrimp; shouldn’t it be vice-versa?
God bless the nice people at Spaghetti Eddie’s for trying with Deep-Fried Buckeyes (⋆, $6), but everyone’s favorite chocolate-peanut butter no-bake cookie deserves better. Way better.
On paper, the Bacon-Wrapped Turkey Legs (⋆, $14) and Bacon-Wrapped Corn on the Cob (⋆, $6) at Texas Steak Out sound mouth-wateringly fantastic. Alas, both were cooked into near-oblivion.
Deep-Fried Breakfast on a Stick (⋆, $8) at the Sandwich Shop wraps a pancake around a kitchen-sink combo of eggs, sausage, sliced ham and American and Swiss cheeses. Next comes the batter-and-deep-fry thing, with ponderous results.
Rock bottom? The artless Schnitzel Strips (⋆, $8) at Smoothies and Jurassic Dogs. Truly, the less said, the better.
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