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Burger Friday at the Minnesota State Fair!

The burger: The Minnesota State Fair and Burger Friday, a match for the ages, right? But rather than focus on a deep-fried monstrosity or some other gustatory fairgrounds nightmare, today's emphasis is on the humble $2.25 burger at the Midway Men's Club. (Note: This is a replay a 2013 edition of Burger Friday, updated by a 2016 visit). 

That's correct: Two bucks, and a quarter. While the Fairgrounds seemed engineered to separate fairgoers from their cash, it's surprising -- and refreshing -- to stumble upon a vendor that leans towards affordability. 

Is it a remarkable burger? No. The modestly-scaled patties come right out of the back of a freezer truck, and they're thawed/grilled on a flat-top stove, with little -- ok, no -- embellishment. Plain is the most generous way to describe the bun. This is a zero-frills burger best experienced by leaning heavy on the (free) condiments: plenty of grilled onions, a few layers of pickles and lots of ketchup and mustard. A gooey slice of American cheese helps, too, although that'll cost you another quarter.

But each paper-wrapped burger is hot, filling and astonishingly affordable. What they recall, more than anything else, are the low-budget burgers that my parents used to pick up by the bag on Friday nights when I was a kid in the early 1970s, stopping at the nearby McDonald's on their way home from work. Since the State Fair experience is soaked in nostalgia, this flashback burger fits right in.

Price: I mentioned the $2.25 price tag, right? Low prices are a theme. A double-patty burger goes for $3 (same price as three years ago), and adding cheese pushes up the tab another 50 cents. Try finding those deals anywhere else on the fairgrounds. Well, outside the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book, anyway.

Fries: Nope, making the MMC one of the fair's few deep-fryer-free zones. Another reason to love.

Good to know: Along with noticeably low beer prices, the stand also earns full marks for sheer niceness. It dates to 1963, back when the Fairgrounds were once dotted with similar diner-style vendors; today, the genre has become something of an endangered species. Everyone working on the premises is a volunteer -- most of the service club's 160-plus members clock at least one eight-hour shift over the course of the fair's 12-day run -- and they pitch in to raise money for St. Paul youth activity programs, primarily in the city's Midway area.

It's a total win-win situation: Fairgoers eat for less, and their patronage helps kids.

Address book: Underwood St. at Dan Patch Av.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at  

Is everybody happy? At Eastside, the answer is "yes."

Eastside, less than a year old, is about to get its third chef. And owner Ryan Burnet is thrilled.

Current chef Nick Dugan — who opened the downtown restaurant as chef de cuisine to executive chef Remy Pettus, then took over the kitchen in February — is moving on to work for Gavin Kaysen at Spoon and Stable. And guess what? Everyone says they’re happy.

“Nick and I have become good friends, and I could tell that maybe there was an inkling that he wanted other challenges,” said Burnet. “It’s a situation that could have been dicey, but it wasn’t. Gavin is lucky to have Nick in his kitchen, and Nick is going to learn a lot from Gavin.”

Burnet said he’s struck by how collaborative the whole process turned out, particularly since similar situations have tended to run in the opposite direction. 

“We had candid conversations, we were all honest with one another, and we were all operating in good faith,” said Burnet. “It has ended up being a great deal for everyone, and for me, that’s really refreshing. This is how these interactions should go.”

Kaysen agrees. “It’s really nice when the stars align,” he said. “There’s that word ‘poaching,’ but it really has nothing to do with it. If people want to leave, they have the right to do so, there are no contracts involved. Besides, this is a small town. Ryan and I stayed in touch through this whole process. It’s better to be respectful with people, and to help them along in their careers rather than hinder them.”

Dugan’s replacement is a familiar name to 112 Eatery’s legions of fans. He’s Dennis Leaf-Smith, 112’s longtime chef de cuisine. For Leaf-Smith, the new job at Eastside is a homecoming, following a stint in Philadelphia.

“He wanted to get out of Minnesota and check out the East Coast,” said Burnet. “Now’s he’s checked it off his list, and he’s excited to come back.”

Burnet said he consulted his Bar La Grassa and Burch business partner, Isaac Becker, who was Leaf-Smith’s longtime boss at 112 Eatery.

“I called him to get a little intel, and to kiss the ring,” said Burnet with a laugh. “And Isaac said, ‘Ryan, this would be a perfect match for Eastside.’”

Leaf-Smith starts at Eastside on Sept. 1, the day after Dugan’s last dinner. Dugan will join the sous chef ranks at Spoon and Stable, said Kaysen.

“I call it ‘stacking the bench,’” said Kaysen, who noted that he’s building up his team to smooth the transition when his second restaurant opens (“Probably in March”) in downtown Wayzata. “We’re going to have lots of opportunities, and we’re excited to get Nick in to be a part of the team,” he said.

Kaysen was calling from California’s Napa Valley, where he and other coaches from top-rated restaurants around the country have gathered for Bocuse d’Or training. He had spent the morning touring the new kitchen at the French Laundry, still under construction and designed by Snøhetta, the red-hot Norwegian architectural firm.

“Have you ever had design envy?” said Kaysen with a laugh. “I experienced it to the tenth degree today.”

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