With an avalanche of new foods awaiting fairgoers at this year’s Great Minnesota Get-Together, there isn’t a moment to waste.
I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that nothing bests the Butter Queen Coffee Ice Cream ($4.50 and $6.50, ⋆⋆⋆⋆) at Hamline Church Dining Hall. For the past few summers, Izzy’s Ice Cream has gone all-out for the St. Paul congregation (which is marking its 118th year at the fair!), and 2015 is no different. This time, Izzyites have ingeniously incorporated a brown butter finish into a smooth coffee ice cream, punching it with luxurious chocolate espresso flakes. It’s called Butter Queen Coffee Ice Cream — a mash-up on the trendy Bulletproof coffee, a stir-butter-in-your-coffee trend, and the sculpted-in-butter busts of Princess Kay of the Milky Way and her retinue — and it’s truly a classic.
Kudos also to the Chocolate-Dipped Cherry-on-a-Spoon treat from JonnyPops ($5, ⋆⋆⋆⋆), an edible homage to the Walker Art Center’s iconic “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture. It’s simplicity itself, just creamy tart cherries and rich dark chocolate — an eternal combination — and it might be the cream of the year’s ever-important on-a-stick crop.
By comparison, the supermarket-esque Chunks O’ Fruti Frozen Strawberry Bar at Key Lime Pie Bar ($4, ⋆⋆½) doesn’t measure up.
In the palate-cleansing department, look to Minneapolis-based Sweet Science Ice Cream for incorporating a distinctive alfafa-clover honey (from Ottertail, Minn.) into a puckery lemon sorbet ($6, ⋆⋆⋆½). It’s available at Minnesota Honey.
Think of MinneSnowii Shave Ice ($6, ⋆⋆⋆) as a portable air conditioner, the feather-light ice light years from coarse Sno-Cones and coated in 22 fun-loving (and cough syrup-intense) flavors, from mango to guava to lychee.
St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery is supplying scoops of its trademark Sweet Cream flavor for the Espresso Ice Cream Floats at Java Jive’s ($7 to $8.50, ⋆⋆⋆), and affogato fans will lap it up.
The Doo-Wop Dip at West End Creamery ($7, ⋆⋆⋆) just might be the fairgrounds’ fanciest ice cream sandwich, splitting a well-made croissant (from A Baker’s Wife’s Pastry Shop in Minneapolis), filling it with strawberry ice cream and sealing it in a hard chocolate coating. Dippin’ Dots calls them “shakes” ($6, ⋆⋆½) but they more closely resemble parfaits, with layers of a perfectly competent chocolate or vanilla soft-serve and a selection of nine varieties of the Space Age ice cream pellets. Kids will love it. And Prince fans will line up for the Purple Reign at West End Creamery ($6, ⋆⋆½), which gets its namesake color from raspberry-chocolate chunk Kemps and a splash of Sprite. Aaaah.
Even though it’s scooped like ice cream and garnished sundae-style, it’s hard to get past the heavy, this-isn’t-a-summer-dish aspect of the Chilled Bread Pudding at Blue Moon Dine-In Theater ($6, ⋆⋆).
Meh? BBQ Pickle Ice Cream ($5, ⋆) at R&R Ice Cream, an amusing idea made with too little (and too timid) sweet pickle relish and the barest whisper of barbecue seasoning. Why not go all in? Another (and tastier) novelty is the Chocolate Jalapeno Ice Cream at Rainbow Ice Cream ($5.75 to $6.75, ⋆⋆); perhaps there’s a better way of incorporating the pepper’s bite than simply folding unappetizing chunks of it into the ice cream?
(Really) good morning
It’s a banner year for breakfasts. This year’s morning must-have is, without question, the French toast at the Blue Barn ($7.25, ⋆⋆⋆⋆). It’s big hunks of ciabatta, coated in a cinnamon-kissed custard (with faint, teasing traces of ancho pepper chile powder) and grilled to tender perfection, then drizzled with a bright raspberry-strawberry purée and a heaping dollop of honest-to-goodness whipped cream. There’s a playful finish in the form of a handful of Blue Razz Pop Rocks.
The stand also jazzes up its meatloaf by hashing it with scrambled eggs, skin-on-fingerlings and carrots and a State Fair barrier-breaking splash of béarnaise. It’s a rib-sticking day starter, and like so much Big Barn fare, it’s big enough for two to share ($8.25, ⋆⋆⋆½).
Another definite gotta-have in the a.m. is the good and good-for-you fruit parfait ($5, ⋆⋆⋆⋆) at the Produce Exchange, which layers tangy Greek yogurt, crunchy (but thankfully not sugary) gluten-free granola and indecently ripe Sweet Dreams peaches and Honey Royale nectarines. Forget about breakfast, it’s delicious all day.
For those who can’t begin their fair day without a breakfast sandwich, here are two. One boasts a heaping pile of well-seasoned shredded turkey — and a crisscross of crispy turkey bacon — at Turkey to Go ($8, ⋆⋆½), and the other is a clever portable Benedict at LuLu’s Public House ($6, ⋆⋆½) that incorporates Minnesota-appropriate wild rice (seen, but not really tasted); both were brought down by the off-putting aftertaste of the grill’s cooking spray.
Achin’ for bacon
Sure, Sriracha (more on that in a moment) is getting all kinds of play all over the fairgrounds, but the real Ingredient of the Moment is bacon.
The starring attraction is the spectacular maple-bacon caramel roll ($5, ⋆⋆⋆⋆) that the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis is baking for Minnesota Farmers Union, a spiral of gently yeasty bread topped with bacon fat-infused caramel and shards of some of the most skillfully smoked bacon to ever come off a Gopher State farm (that would be Fischer Family Farms Pork in Waseca). What’s not to love, right?
That’s just for starters. Bacon finds its way inside a feisty, brat-like hot dog at the Burger Dog at the Gass Station ($6, ⋆⋆½), and at Funnel Cakes, where it becomes a key component in a breakfast-like funnel cake ($7, ⋆⋆½) that unfortunately can’t shake a Mrs. Butterworth’s-like flavor aura.
Thick-cut slices are front and center in a two-fisted breakfast sandwich — Smokey’s Breakfast Burger ($7.50, ⋆⋆) at Smokey’s Char-Broiler. Heck, candied bacon is even enlisted as a visual joke, becoming a garnish that’s laid across the top of a glass of a maple-infused brown ale (from Excelsior Brewing Co.) at Giggles’ Campfire Grill ($8, ⋆⋆). But it’s just another case of State Fair-induced excessiveness; the appealing beer would be so much better without the cured pork.
Then there’s this: a slab of vanilla ice cream, dipped (impressively, to order) in chocolate, rolled in bacon bits and — because that’s not enough — drizzled in a caramel sauce. It’s a hoot, and a spectacle, it’s an indictment on the American diet, and the folks at Pat’s Place call it, yes, Caramel Chocolate-Dipped Bacon Ice Cream Bar ($7, ⋆⋆½). But it really should be dubbed Overkill on-a-Stick.
Let’s talk about Sriracha for a second, because it’s also insinuated itself all over the fairgrounds, right down to my favorite 2015 fair trinket, a 5-foot-tall plastic blowup Sriracha bottle. It’s yours for just $40.
When it comes to the Thai-style hot chile sauce, no one finesses it better than the siblings behind My Sausage Sister & Me. Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry have dubbed their latest creation Sriracha Sliders ($7, ⋆⋆⋆⋆), featuring North African-seasoned meatballs that take a nuanced approach to spice-driven heat.
Sriracha is an entirely compatible condiment for hot dogs. Witness the Sriracha Dog ($6.50, ⋆⋆⋆) at Snack House, which spices up a snappy all-beef frankfurter with Sriracha-laced cream cheese, a squirt of Sriracha and, wait for it: bacon.
One of the few places where Sriracha can possibly pass as a soft-serve ice cream garnish is on the surreal environment of a food-crazy fairgrounds. Goertze’s Dairy Kone adds crushed Fritos for requisite crunch. The moral of the Fire and Ice Kreme ($6, ⋆⋆) story is, if you like Sriracha you might like it; if not, forget it.
I’ll save the clunkiest (both in flavor, and in nomenclature) for last: Sriracha Balls at Alton’s BBQ ($4 and $8, ⋆½), one-note, cheese-centric croquettes in two varieties: vegetable, and shredded chicken. I couldn’t discern much of a difference.
Be on the lookout
Three cheers for the State Fair debut of Hot Indian Foods, a food truck-turned-restaurant with a six-day berth at the fair (it’ll be replaced by Rabbit Hole, a fellow top-performing Midtown Global Market tenant, on Sept. 2), which is taking the opportunity to introduce the fair’s wider audience to its lively street food: delicate, utterly delicious samosas ($6, ⋆⋆⋆⋆), served in both vegetarian and chicken iterations; fabulously juicy, yogurt-coated (and wittily named) charbroiled chicken Tikka on-a-Stikka ($6, ⋆⋆⋆⋆) and addictive batter-coated sweet potato and russet fries ($5, ⋆⋆⋆½).
More where this came from, please. Not that a number of recent fair newcomers haven’t had an outsized impact on quality. In its sophomore year at the fair, the Blue Barn continues to impress, not only with the aforementioned breakfast but at lunch and dinner.
Two big newcomers are shareable meals that cram a lot of cooking (for the fair, anyway) into a bowl. Cowboy Dave’s Cluck & Moo ($9.50, ⋆⋆⋆½) pairs tender roast beef and shredded chicken thighs with cabbage-laced mashed potatoes and crispy French-fried onions into a kind of souped-up Minnesota casserole, and Up Nort Shoreman’s Lunch ($9.75, ⋆⋆⋆) tarts up flaky, familiar fried northern pike with some of the bedrock principles behind cioppino. The ones I tasted would have probably shined had they been served hot.
For dessert, there’s a nostalgia-loaded “salad” of vanilla pudding, Snickers bars, Granny Smith apples and salted caramel sauce ($6.50, ⋆⋆½). It sounds like a lifetime employment plan for dentists everywhere, yet it’s sneakily appealing, in a 1950s church cookbook kind of way.
A doozy of a sandwich can be found at another fairgrounds top performer, the French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, where a sturdy-yet-buttery pretzel croissant is sloppily stuffed with a juicy chicken breast, a slice of flavorful ham, a handful of garden-fresh spinach and a peppy honey mustard and a rich chive aoili. It’s 10 bucks (⋆⋆⋆⋆) and worth every penny.
Raise your glass
More and more Minnesota-brewed beers are finding a berth at the fair, where they belong. At Ball Park Cafe, it’s also great to encounter the effervescent crispness bubbling forth from a pair of hard ciders ($8, ⋆⋆⋆) from Sweetland Orchards in Webster, Minn.
Another lovely beverage? The cucumber-cooled lemonade ($5, ⋆⋆⋆) at the Peoples Organic counter inside the French Meadow Bakery Cafe.
Coming to a man cave near you: the playful Frozen Bloody at LuLu’s Public House ($3.75 to $7, ⋆⋆⋆), which caps an icy cold Grain Belt with a Worcestershire- and Tabasco-splashed tomato juice slush. The only missing element is a pickle.
The Blue Barn is proudly serving an apple cider- and caramel-infused beer ($4.75, ⋆⋆⋆) crafted at Freehouse, its sibling Minneapolis brewpub, pouring it into a glass rimmed with a nose-tickling cinnamon; although the crisp flavors hint at autumn, it’ll be delicious on a sweltering summer’s day.
The Birchwood Cafe is also baking up a gotta-have muffin ($5, ⋆⋆⋆½) for Minnesota Farmers Union. Here’s hoping that other fair vendors take note, because this moist, berry-packed goodie couldn’t happen without the hard work and expertise of Minnesota farmers (honey from Watertown, cornmeal from Welcome, plump blueberries from Winona), and shouldn’t the State Fair be a reflection of the skill, and know-how, and bounty of all that this state has to offer, right down to the muffins? Especially when they somehow manage to escape the stigma associated with most gluten-free baking.
Speaking of locally sourced ingredients, not only do the tender, flaky crusts in the palm-size pies ($5 and $6, ⋆⋆⋆⋆) at Sara’s Tipsy Pies have “a mother’s love” written all over them, but baker Sara Hayden fills them with just-right combinations of seasonal fruits and berries (and bacon!) peppered with a splash of locally produced wine, beer and spirits.
The cannoli at Mancini’s Al Fresco are likable enough ($2.25 to $6, ⋆⋆), but it’s the grilled pizzas ($7.50, ⋆⋆⋆) that impress, not only for their shareability and speed out of the kitchen, but also for the chewy, slightly crispy crusts and emphasis on fresh, compatible ingredients. It’s also easy to get a kick out of the clever Mac & Cheese Cupcake at Lulu’s Public House ($6, ⋆⋆⋆), a comfort-food exercise in elbow macaroni, Cheez Whiz and breadcrumbs.
The vast number of newcomers means that plenty of semi-intriguing entries get lost in the shuffle. Green Mill forms the well-seasoned pork sausage from its pizza into a mozzarella-filled meatloaf and serves it on-a-stick-style, and it’s not bad ($5, ⋆⋆½). Tejas Express goes wonderfully lowbrow by mixing a chipotle-fired ground beef with pico de gallo, shredded lettuce and sour cream in a portable bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos ($7, ⋆⋆½). Frontier Bar is turning out cheesy, crispy croquettes it calls Cowboy Bites ($6, ⋆⋆½), which pretty much cover a beer drinker’s hot-and-salty requisites without a lot of flash.
The downside to fair fun
Welcome to the dullards. It’s tough to muster enthusiasm for the overpriced, overly sweet cannoli chips being reclaimed as Italian Dessert Nachos ($9, ⋆½) at the Pizza Shoppe. Walleye Stuffed Mushrooms ($8.50, ⋆½) at the usually innovative Giggles’ Campfire Grill seemed more suitable for a rubber-chicken fundraiser. O’Gara’s at the Fair is lightly breading and then deep-frying sticks of pimento cheese ($8, ⋆½); denizens of Deepfriedlandia can do better elsewhere. Forget about the lifeless Steak Apizzaiola ($8, ⋆) at Spaghetti Eddie’s and the been-there, done-that Prime Rib to Go bread cone ($9, ⋆⋆) at Coaster’s.
Fairgrounds bars all seem to have simultaneously discovered a low-alcohol root beer, but only Cafe Caribe thinks to pour it into a float ($8, ⋆½), and it would be a success with better-quality ice cream. (Props to the restaurant/bar for its free smartphone charging station.)
The sweet potato tacos at the Potato Man & Sweeties ($5 and $7, ⋆½) are fairly tepid knockoffs of the much more memorable version at the Chef Shack food truck.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the trio of meaty, crispy-skinned baby back ribs at craft beer-centric Ball Park Cafe ($9, ⋆⋆) would be better without the near-obligatory trip to the deep fryer. Instead, consider the Buffalo’d Bones at Famous Dave’s ($8, ⋆⋆⋆), pork ribs glazed in a not-subtle but intriguing Buffalo sauce.
Other skips? Utterly forgettable and overpriced Island Slaw ($9, ⋆) at Island Noodles, the good-looking-but-utterly-forgettable tacos at Shanghaied Henri’s ($8, ⋆) and the fishy, overpriced shrimp-lobster-crab-cake sliders at Minnesota Wine Country ($9, ⋆).
A few stats: Over the course of 11 hours on the fair’s opening day, I taste-tested more than 60 food and drink items (no Clean Plate Club for me) that were making their State Fair debuts, and spent just under $500 from the Star Tribune’s petty cash drawer.
Can I expense that Pepto-Bismol?
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib