It’s become as integral to the Minnesota State Fair as the seed art displays, the baking competitions and the grandstand concerts.
Yes, it’s the annual jockeying among fairgrounds food vendors to create the next Pork Chop on a Stick, All-You-Can-Drink Milk or other instantly recognizable — and highly lucrative — blue-ribbon food item.
For the past 16 years, I’ve hauled my cast-iron stomach across the fairgrounds on opening day, burning through a pile of cash as I track down, taste and rate this annual new-foods frenzy. Over the years that’s added up to almost 500 different dishes.
That’s a heartburn-inducing thought, given the deep-fried Cheddar rolled in crushed Cocoa Puffs, frozen pickle juice push-ups and Coca-Cola-flavored funnel cakes (yes, all honest-to-goodness fair fare) I’ve encountered.
Such efforts deserve their eventual fade into obscurity. Even the occasional talker, amusingly notorious for its on-a-stick excess (deep-fried candy bars, anyone?), is a relatively rare occurrence.
Happily, each year also delivers a few bona fide hits, delicious and ingenious ideas that radiate staying power from their first bite. They’re the next generation of classic fair foods. Here’s a rundown of those top-rated standouts, by year.
Here’s a measure of the fickleness of fairgrounds fare: My first four-star fair food item, an ode to the Iron Range in the form of porchetta bratwurst on a steamed bun, is no longer available. It’s also the year that Giggles’ Campfire Grill, that annual innovator, materialized.
The inexplicable charms of the Deep Fried Candy Bar were overshadowed by Colonial Nut Roll Co. (Dan Patch Av./Underwood St.), which dipped fresh-roasted peanuts, pecans or cashews and a white nougat filling in dark chocolate.
Three dozen foods — a record at the time — were introduced, part of a much-needed overhaul of the Food Building. A major draw was Nitro Ice Cream (Food Building), where chemical engineers Will Schroeder and T.J. Paskach perfected their wacky, mad scientist-like flash-freeze process to create ultra-luscious vanilla ice cream.
Lingonberry Ice Cream (Carnes Av./Underwood St.) started scooping up tangy, lilac-tinted goodness from a made-specifically-for-the-fair formula. Ball Park Cafe (Underwood St., outside the Garden) went deep into garlic fries mode, liberally coating salty, piping-hot skin-on cuts with tons of the stinky stuff.
Food Building freshman West Indies Soul introduced a handful of noteworthy items, but the blue ribbon went to the crispy-skinned, four-alarm jerk chicken wings. To cool off, fairgoers took to the Custard Cyclones at Custard’s Last Stand (south of the grandstand), a calorie-laden knockoff of the DQ Blizzard phenomenon.
Frozen Mocha on a Stick, an espresso-infused Fudgsicle-for-grownups, made by St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery and sold at the Minnesota Farmers Union (Dan Patch Av./Cosgrove St.), was the decadent bestseller (“Truly, heaven on a stick,” I wrote). Also coolly notable were the hollowed-out, frozen fruit shells, filled with palate-cleansing sorbet, at the Key Lime Pie Bar (Cooper St., outside the Food Building). All-day breakfast ruled at Cinnie Smiths (Murphy Av./Cooper St.), where warm, yeasty mini-cinnamon rolls were lavished with gooey cream cheese icing. Oh, and Sonny’s Spiral Chips & Sandwiches (Food Building) kept their deep fryer busy by cutting Minnesota-grown spuds into parchment-thin, spiral-cut strands and zapping them to crispy, salt-dappled perfection.
Newcomer Blue Moon Drive-In Theater (Carnes Av./Chambers St.) embraced breakfast in a major way, with made-to-order malt waffles and cinnamon-laced pull-aparts drizzled with caramel. And the state’s official grain became the centerpiece of a corn dog-style hot dog at Minnesota Wild Rice (Food Building).
A banner year. Spam (south of the grandstand), Minnesota’s canned culinary gift to the world, showed up at the fairgrounds as a Spam burger, pretty much defining the phrase “guilty pleasure.” The Lamb Shoppe (Food Building) speared merlot-marinated grilled lamb on a stick, with winning results. Deep-fried smelt was the Minnesota novelty du jour at Walleye on a Stick (Food Building). The Produce Exchange (Carnes Av./Underwood St., West End Market) launched its happy tradition of selling peak-experience fruit in the land of deep-fried everything. On the subject of ice cream, Bridgeman’s (Judson Av./Liggett St.) went nostalgic with strawberry and chocolate ice cream sodas, and Lingonberry Ice Cream (Carnes Av./Underwood St.) slipped its cold stuff into flaky pastries topped with tangy lingonberry preserves.
Sarah and Michael Wentzien’s San Felipe Tacos (Food Building) was an attention-grabber, particularly for its colorful, flavor-packed tilapia taco. Holy Land Deli (International Bazaar) quickly became the place for minty, slushy, spectacularly thirst-quenching lemonade.
Salty Tart (West End Market) baker Michelle Gayer brought her many James Beard award nominations and her highly addictive coconut macaroons (they earned their “Crackaroons” nickname for a reason) to the fairgrounds. Another locally made sweet, Thomasina’s Cashew Brittle (Merchandise Mart), nabbed countless sugar seekers.
Manny’s Tortas (Food Building) channeled “Gilligan’s Island” with an ultra-refreshing (and, sadly, rum-free) piña colada, showily served in a hollowed-out pineapple. Pistachio-topped baklava was all the rage at Holy Land Deli (International Bazaar). Blue Moon Dine-In Theater (Carnes Av./Chambers St.) tapped Kramarczuk’s, the northeast Minneapolis legend, for its brats, Polish and andouille sausages.
Blue Moon Dine-In Theater (Carnes Av./Chambers St.) had fairgoers lining up for sublime, made-on-the premises sweet corn ice cream. San Felipe Tacos (Food Building) stepped up with an Asian-accented pulled pork burrito. Spring Grove Soda Pop (Nelson St./Carnes Av.) a 100-plus-year-old Minnesota tradition, began hawking its lemon sour, black cherry and other fizzy, brightly flavored refreshments. Ball Park Cafe (Underwood St., outside the Garden) started its tradition of tapping an impressive assortment of Minnesota craft beers.
Minnesota Wine Country (Underwood St./Carnes Av.) poured wines from 13 Gopher State wineries, and scooped wine- and port-flavored ice creams.
Ball Park Cafe (Underwood St., outside the Garden) owners and brothers Dan and David Theisen took their passion for local craft beers one delicious step further with superb beer-battered onion rings, paired with brown ale-infused mustard. Creamy mango ice cream (from Grand Ole Creamery) was the hit at Minnesota Farmers Union (Dan Patch Av./Cosgrove St.).
Crowds flooded into the new West End Market — a sparkling, multimillion-dollar remake of the dilapidated Heritage Square — and ate very well. Blue Barn immediately earned its people-magnet stripes with Cajun-accented fried chicken stuffed into a waffle cone, meatloaf on a stick and sweet corn fritters. Neighboring LuLu’s Public House made mornings shine with a shareable cinnamon pull-apart slathered in a buttery caramel sauce, and drew folks back for tacos stuffed with mesquite-roasted prime rib. Izzy’s Ice Cream partnered with the venerable Hamline Church Dining Hall (Dan Patch Av./Cooper St.) for a Jell-O-salad-inspired frozen treat that was as delicious as it was witty, and RC’s BBQ (formerly Famous Dave’s, Dan Patch Av./Liggett St.) impressed with its Korean-accented pork medallions. Finally, Minnesota Apples (Agriculture/Horticulture) layered cinnamon-tossed apples inside flaky pastry, with an apple cider glaze finish.
With its coffee-brown butter-chocolate notes, Butter Queen Ice Cream, yet another fruitful Izzy’s Ice Cream-Hamline Church Dining Hall (Dan Patch Av./Cooper St.) collaboration, nabbed instant-classic status. Ditto the tasty, chocolate-dipped homage to the Walker Art Center’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture at JonnyPops (West End Market). Blue Barn (West End Market) cranked out a heck of a French toast, the Birchwood Cafe was baking bacon-topped caramel rolls at the Minnesota Farmers Union (Dan Patch Av./Cosgrove St.) and the Produce Exchange (Carnes Av./Underwood St., West End Market) layered Greek yogurt, granola and indecently ripe peaches and nectarines into a don’t-miss parfait. Hot Indian Foods introduced its lively street food — delicate samosas, charbroiled chicken Tikka on-a-Stikka — at the International Bazaar. Finally, Sara’s Tipsy Pies (Food Building) owner Sara Hayden wowed fairgoers with her palm-size delicacies, filled with seasonal fruits (and bacon!) and a splash of locally produced wines, beers or spirits.
Eat vicariously: I’ll be live-tweeting my reactions to 2016’s class of 40-plus new fairgrounds foods on Thursday, starting around 8 a.m. and continuing throughout the day. Follow along on Twitter, @RickNelsonStrib.