Fairgrounds hall of fame
A fairgrounds rite of passage for the lactose-tolerant set has long been a soft-serve malt ($6) or sundae ($5) at the Dairy Goodness Bar. The portion size remains impressive, and the appealing flavor options run from chocolate and vanilla to rhubarb-strawberry and apple-caramel (the strawberries and apples hail from Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake). I’m happy to report that the $3 soft-serve cone remains one of the fair’s better bargains. One caveat: the line. At first glance, the sheer size of it can be daunting, but it moves quickly (if you’re a fair first-timer, here’s a tip: choose the one on the right, which snakes past another must-see, dairy princesses being immortalized in 90-pound blocks of New Ulm, Minn.-made butter). There’s a fun Minnesota-minded novelty this year, a vanilla sundae with caramel sauce and crispy, slightly salty, melt-in-your-mouth Puff-Corn snacks from Roseville-based Old Dutch.
No lines, no waiting
Don’t want to wait? Check out the thick soft-serve treats at the low-key Kiwanis Club Malts, a fair fixture since 1969. There are far fewer options (just vanilla, chocolate, strawberry) than the frenzy that is the Dairy Building, and they’re smaller than their Dairy Goodness Bar counterparts, but also cheaper: $5. Another bonus? The friendly all-volunteer booth donates its profits to worthy causes.
Cosgrove St. and Wright Av.
Inside the Food Building
Meanwhile, the Dairy Bar — that’s not the one in the Dairy Building — also does the soft-serve shakes/sundaes/cones thing, and holds prices in the $5-and-under range. One point of distinction is the Colombo brand nonfat frozen yogurt (a General Mills product), available in a single flavor — raspberry — and served in cones ($3.50 and $4) and sundaes ($4.50).
Clean and tangy
My favorite fro-yo is at Starberi Frozen Yogurt, where the pristine “original” flavor ($6, $8) has a crisply pronounced sour bite, and the low-fat formula still leaves a little room for lusciousness over its nonfat counterparts. Toppings include honest-to-goodness fresh fruit (pineapple, kiwi fruit, berries) as well as sugarcoated goodies (crushed Oreos, Gummi Bears, Fruity Pebbles cereal), and a single-serving size starts at 120 calories. Which is, apparently, information worth sharing. “My favorite is when people have a turkey leg in one hand and a bucket of cookies in the other and they ask, ‘How many calories is in a serving?’ ” said owner Chuck Lee with a laugh. “I mean, really, they care?”
Liggett St. and W. Dan Patch Av.
Floats fit for a Prince
Count me a fan of the fun, retro-ish West End Creamery, which serves up 33 flavors of shakes and malts ($7), swerving from standard (strawberry, hot fudge) to kid-magnet (Cap’n Crunch, PB&J) to quirky (lavender, Nutella, maple-bacon). There are floats, too, including the eye-catching ode to Prince dubbed Purple Reign ($6), a fizzy violet-tinted refresher made with Sprite splashed over raspberry chocolate-chip ice cream.
West End Market
Fruit (and cream) on-a-stick
They’re not exactly ice cream — the company’s unofficial lingo is “smoothie on a stick” — but Minnesota-made JonnyPops ($4) cover all the requirements: creamy, cold, comforting, with the bonus of having the requisite State Fair on-a-stick portability. The fruit versions (strawberry-rhubarb, raspberry-blueberry) are 48 percent fruit by weight, a flavor-busting formula that pops out in every chilly bite. From there, it’s just cream, simple syrup and a pinch of salt. That’s it. The coffee-chocolate version is particularly dreamy, made with a smooth, 18-hour cold press coffee. Do not, under any circumstances, skip the Chocolate-Dipped Cherry on-a-Spoon ($5), a dark chocolate-coated cherry homage to the Walker Art Center’s Instagrammed-to-death “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture.
West End Market
Luxury goods at the fair
Frozen custard, the Ph.D. version of soft-serve ice cream, is the reason to make a habit of Custard’s Last Stand. Go for the ultra-creamy, egg-enriched cones and sundaes (starting at $4, a relative bargain), but stick around for the over-the-top Custard Cyclones ($7), a spin — literally — on the Dairy Queen Blizzard, in four varieties.
Dan Patch Av. and Chambers St.
A honey of an ice cream
It’s true: honey lovers tend to swarm Minnesota Honey Producers, many to get a crack at the mellow yet distinctive honey-sunflower and honey-almond fudge ice creams ($4.50 to $6), served in cones and cups. Go all in and order a simple sundae ($6.50), just scoops of ice cream liberally blanketed in golden Minnesota-made honey.
Sweet corn stunner
What better reflection of late-summer Minnesota than the ingenious sweet corn ice cream ($6) that co-owners Stephanie and Mike Olson prepare on the premises at Blue Moon Dine-In Theater? Toppings ($1) options include bacon (of course) and, even better, blueberries. But this distinctive, teasingly sweet ice cream is appealing enough to stand on its own. No wonder it has been a bestseller since its 2011 debut.
Carnes Av. and Chambers St.
A Minnesota classic
Of all the scoop stands on the fairgrounds, this native Minnesotan naturally gravitates to Bridgeman’s for a heaping helping of the good old days. There are cones ($5 and $6), in seven flavors, including one I hadn’t encountered since roughly 1974: “Butter Brittle.” Oh, and the mint chocolate chip — in that glaring bright green — that locals have long labeled “Peppermint Bon Bon.” Sundaes and old-fashioned sodas, too.
Liggett St. and Judson Av.
Your show of shows
The Mighty Midway has nothing on Nitro Ice Cream. The stand’s sci-fi production system — which invokes liquid nitrogen to freeze the cream in seven milliseconds — isn’t just for show; the patented process also produces seriously addictive ice cream. Easily one of the made-on-the-fairground’s top delicacies, it’s sold in a single flavor, and trust me, plain-old vanilla (the color of butter, and velvety smooth) never tasted like such a luxury. Yet it’s priced for 99 percenters: $4 for two generous scoops, up to $6 for four highly shareable ones.
Cranking it out
Less high-tech but nearly as entertaining is the putt-putting, gas engine-cranked ice cream-making apparatus at R&R Ice Cream. Skip the novelty flavors and opt directly for the vanilla ($5), so creamy it almost qualifies as soft-serve.
Randall Av. and Underwood St.
Of all the specialty ice creams on the fairgrounds, the one closest to my cold Scandinavian heart is the namesake product served by Rainbow Ice Cream at its Lingonberry Ice Cream stand. Produced locally in small batches exclusively for the fair since 2003, the tangy, cranberry-like bite really hits the spot when it’s served straight up in cones ($5.75, $6.25), but the lilac-tinted goodness is also lovely in an effervescent float ($6.25).
Underwood St. and Carnes Av.
I’ve been extolling the virtues of the espresso-laced Frozen Mocha on-a-Stick at Minnesota Farmers Union for a decade, and my enthusiasm hasn’t wavered. This Fudgsicle-for-grownups is produced at St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery, which is also responsible for several other chilly on-a-stick goodies (mango, chai) at the Farmers Union that rate fairly high. New this year: A boffo ice cream sandwich ($5), made with crisp chocolate crinkle cookies (baked at the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis) and a thick slab of Grand Ole Creamery’s unadorned sweet cream ice cream. What a winning combination.
Dan Patch Av. and Cosgrove St.
A perfect partnership
Finally, hats off to the one-two punch that is Izzy’s Ice Cream and the Hamline Church Dining Hall. Four fairs ago, the St. Paul congregation asked the ice cream maker to scoop up a few basics, plus come up with an only-at-the-fair flavor. The result ($4.50, $6.50) was the wonderful Church “Elder” Berry, a cranked-up strawberry ice cream with raspberry, blueberry, blackberry and, yes, elderberry accents. A play on mini-donuts came next (meh), and last year saw the advent of the hilarious and delicious potluck-inspired Jell-O Salad Ice Cream, a sweet cream base swirled with lime, cranberry and marshmallow. They’re all back again in 2015, and upstaged by this year’s entry: a sublime brown butter-coffee ice cream packed with rich espresso chocolate shavings dubbed Butter Queen Coffee Ice Cream. Don’t miss it.
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