One constant at the Minnesota State Fair is knowing that the fairgrounds will be overrun with a bumper crop of new-to-the-fair foods, inspiring hordes of hungry, curious fairgoers to go in search of the Next Big Thing. Here's my assessment.
Locavores will be all over Countryside Market (and will no doubt snap up the stand's chic $20 "Local Foods" T-shirts), which is putting the spotlight on locally produced foods. Don't miss the pair of refreshing, gently flavored Minne-sodas (★★★★, $4); the ruby-tinted one uses chokecherry syrup, and its amber companion (a recipe from the landmark Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais) gets its offbeat flavor from maple syrup. Another nice touch is the pleasant caprese salad on a stick (★★★, $6), which skewers fresh basil, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella, splashed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. My one concern: Local foods, good; high-ish prices, not so good.
The fair's best new-old stand? After spending years baking in the equivalent of a walk-in closet in the Food Building, the French Meadow Bakery & Cafe has gone on a major growth spurt, converting the former Schumacher's space into a breezy beauty and adding a bevy of new products. The swell scones and croissants have returned, supplemented by fabulous stuffed pretzels. (Watching them being made in the fancy exhibition kitchen is a show that rivals anything on the Midway.) Best is a Reuben-inspired variation (★★★★, $5) that stuffs corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese into a rye-kissed dough, a thoughtful and tasty nod to the address' former Czech-German tenant. Also divine: the plus-sized, super-moist vanilla cupcakes (★★★★, $3.75), crowned with an extravagant swirl of vanilla butter-cream icing. Less impressive are the clunky churros (★★, $2 to $5) and the so-so deep-fried risotto poppers on a stick (★★, $5).
Anyone strolling near the south end of the Agriculture/Horticulture Building can't miss the tiny Salty Tart outpost. "You guys like coconut?" barked owner Michelle Gayer to some poor, unsuspecting fairgoers. "Then you'll love my coconut macaroons." Sign me up, because, at Gayer's south Minneapolis bakery, these highly addictive beauties (★★★★, $2 or 3 for $5) aren't called Crackaroons for nothing. Another sweet spot is Thomasina's Cashew Brittle, where co-owners Thomasina Petrus and Leslie Wilson have made two exceedingly smart moves: They've put their out-of-this-world candy into convenient on-a-stick form (★★★★, $1.50), and they're selling two quarter-size brittle bites for a quarter. A delicious taste treat for 25 cents? That almost never happens at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
It's great to see Harry Singh's Caribbean Restaurant in a Food Building berth. The Minneapolis restaurant lives up to its "Oh, God, it's hot" motto with a doughy crêpe wrapped around fiery jerk-style chicken (★★ 1/2, $5), but what really hits the hot spot is the zingy ginger beer (★★★ 1/2, $3). Next door, My Sausage Sister & Me is splitting a tender buttermilk biscuit and smothering it in rich gravy peppered with a Tex-Mex pork sausage (★★★ 1/2, $5) and serving this stick-to-your-ribs breakfast all day. Speaking of breakfast, Tejas is boasting a major winner -- a steak-peppers-onions-scrambled eggs burrito (★★★, $5) -- as well as a bit of a carb-fest loser -- a mushy cinnamon bread pudding burrito (★, $4.25).
Stuffed is an understatement when it comes to the vegetarian double-crust stuffed pizza (★★★, $4) at the Pizza Shoppe. The crust is a bit soggy, but each slice is jammed with spinach and artichokes. Famous Dave's -- love that intoxicating smokehouse scent -- flaunts its provocative names, and this year's "Peach-Glazed Pig Cheeks" (★★ 1/2, $5) is no exception, a kind of short ribs (complete with a spicy slow-burn heat and a sticky-sweet finish) somehow stuck on a stick.
Fair vendors are constantly striving to hit the novelty food jackpot (remember deep-fried candy bars?). Top dog in the 2009 talkers competition is definitely Axel's trashy Nacho Mama Dog (★★★ 1/2, $4). Here's how it works: Dip a greasy taco sausage (who knew such a thing existed?) in corn tortilla batter, drop it in the deep fryer until it crunches like a corn dog, slather it in molten cheese sauce and pico de gallo. It's a guilty pleasure that tastes like a sloppy deep-fried Frito.
Lightly breaded and fried sunfish filets (★★★, $7) are this year's newcomer at the ever-innovative Giggles' Campfire Grill. When paired with the stand's thick-cut fries ($2), the combo morphs into a classic Wisconsin fish-fry moment. Both Texas Tater Twisters and Sonny's Spiral Chips are spiral-cutting, deep-frying and skewering potatoes, and it's a sculptural eye-catcher. The latter's are better, not only because they're cheaper (★★ 1/2, $3.50 at Sonny's vs. $5 at TTT), but because they're less aggressively fried.
Spam Burgers is shaping Minnesota's favorite canned meat product into hot dogs (★★, $3). If you're a Spam fan, you'll enjoy them; if you're not, you won't. The BratBurger (★★, $4.50) at the Ball Park Cafe isn't much more than a patty-shaped ground bratwurst wedged inside a pretzel-topped bun. With the Mouthful! (★★, $4), Green Mill is using its pizza dough to sort of replicate an apple pie -- on a stick, naturally; a big bump in apples and cinnamon would benefit this wallflower. Picture a few seasoned waffle fries wrapped around a hot dog, and you've got the Fry Dog (★★, $4) at the Blue Moon Dine-In Theater.
Several vendors are embracing the comfort foods that we retreat to during distressed economic times. Lynn's Potato Lefse is reliving Sunday dinner at grandma's with mini Swedish pork-and-beef meatballs on a stick (★★★, $4), dressed with a creamy gravy, tangy lingonberries and lefse. Friendly Patinella's Chicken Grill offers a half-dozen overstuffed chicken-and-rice bowls (★★ 1/2, $6.50 to $7.50) that are filling but not terribly thrilling. Ditto the heavy mashed potato-pot roast-gravy "sundae" (★ 1/2, $8) at Main Street Butcher Block.
Fried dough is perennially popular and often disappointing. Witness the ponderous beignets (★, $3) at Ragin Cajun and the greasy funnel cake-shaped "fries" (★, $5) at Apple Lil's. The battered, deep-fried banana that anchors the oddly named Norwegian banana splits (★★, $5) at Ole and Lena's was similarly so-so, but kudos to the stand's elegant krumkake dessert (★★★, $5), a pair of thin waffle cookies rolled into cones, filled with whipped cream and dressed in a berry sauce. Nice.
It's a do-it-yourself situation at Arctic Island Slushies (★, $5 to $7), where customers can mix-and-match their own fairgrounds Mister Misty from nearly a dozen comics-colored choices; all I could think of was the disastrous combination involving a grape-cherry-watermelon slushie and the Tilt-a-Whirl. Instead, cool yourself off with one of a dozen refreshing paletas (★★★, $3 or 2 for $5), Mexican-style ice pops from Fiesta in America, which also boasts a colorful collection of Mexican candies. My one wish: that the stand was hawking the superb paletas from St. Paul's La Chiquita instead.
Maybe next year.