Way to go, Minnesota State Fair.

This was my 20th year of hitting the Great Minnesota Get-Together on the first day, draining my pocket of its Star Tribune-provided cash as I taste tested and rated the new-foods landscape from the midway to the former Machinery Hill.

This year’s crop of 27 “official” new foods was among the best I’ve encountered during this two-decade slog. Sure, there were a few requisite flops, but their numbers were the smallest in memory, a highly promising trend.

Even more encouraging, I encountered 15 off-the-books (meaning they didn’t receive the fair’s considerable public relations efforts) items, and this diverse group included some of the year’s top gotta-have delicacies, including the BLT to end all BLTs, glorious grilled peaches, a palate-cleansing apple developed by the University of Minnesota and a Thanksgiving-worthy cranberry-apple pie. Truly delicious food, a legacy that the fair should continue to foster.

As always, what a day. Miles walked: 4.7. Hours invested: 10. Dollars spent: $444.85. Calories consumed: Immeasurable.

★★★★ out of 4 stars

First Kiss Apples

The 2018 fair’s unofficial palate cleanser. This Honeycrisp relation — a recent U of M invention — hits all the right crisp-juicy-tart notes, and fairgoers have Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake to thank for the thrilling preview. Don’t miss it, and yes, the price is worth it. $3.

Location: Minnesota Apples

Grilled Peaches

For years, this stand has been exploiting the peak of Washington State’s superb Sweet Dream peaches. This year, consulting chef Alexandra Motz (her day job is at top-rated Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis) goes further, brilliantly, using heat to unlock even more juices and sugars. Motz grills them straight-up, but also finds success with Greek vanilla yogurt (topped with a gluten-free pie crumble) and chèvre (peppered with thyme, rosemary and parsley). Still, the peaches’ inherent goodness requires no embellishment. $5, $7 and $9.

Location: The Produce Exchange

Heirloom Tomato and Sweet Corn BLT

The BLT is God’s gift to sandwiches. In the hands of Birchwood Cafe chef Marshall Paulsen — and his vast network of Minnesota organic farmers — it’s elevated into a heaven-sent fair experience. No detail is left to chance in this ingenious and obviously labor-intensive effort, from the swipes of basil-kale-sunflower seed pesto and chipotle-fueled sweet corn purée, right down to the sturdy focaccia, baked by Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Minneapolis. Truly spectacular. $12.

Location: Farmers Union Coffee Shop

UpNorth Puff Pasty

Siblings and fair-foods standard-setters Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry shrewdly twist the Iron Range’s pasty tradition by using flaky puff pastry to envelop snappy porketta sausage, vinegary dill pickles and — why not? — chopped cheese curds. Delicious. $8.

Location: Sausage Sister & Me

Wood-Grilled Elote

Chef Mark Haugen does justice to this Mexican street food classic, and then some. Grilling over hickory (“I like everything to be smoky out here,” he said), the charred kernels retain their juicy snap, and the mayo/sour cream spread has a teasing bite, thanks to a jalapeño powder Haugen unearthed in Albuquerque, N.M. Not to be missed. $5.

Location: Tejas Express


Blueberry Rhubarb Cobbler

A (beautiful) taste of Minnesota, in a bowl. Birchwood Cafe’s Paulsen uses Winona-raised berries and rhubarb collected from a half-dozen Gopher State sources to create a warm, barely sweet compote that’s spooned over tender cornmeal cakes. Yeah, that’s honest-to-goodness real whipped cream. $8.

Location: Farmers Union Coffee Shop


During her sophomore year at the fair, owner Sara Hayden plans to sell 26,000 handmade pies, and a hefty percentage should be this festive blend of green apples, vodka-soaked cranberries, orange zest and a dream of a crust. $6.

Location: Sara's Tipsy Pies

Nordic Waffles

Owner Stine Aasland uses soft, golden waffles from her native Norway as sandwich-like vehicles for seven thoughtful flavor combinations, from sweet to savory. Gotta-tries include an all-day breakfast (eggs, Cheddar, bacon), raspberry-strawberry with vanilla-scented cream and a simple, lefse-like cinnamon-sugar-butter combo. $8 and $9.

Location: Nordic Waffles

Stacked Chicken Enchiladas

Subtlety and nuance are not normally associated with the slapdash “cooking” that is often the fair’s default mode. But not here. The centerpiece is a smoked tomatillo salsa verde, which complements rather than overpowers hickory-smoked chicken, crunchy radishes and garden-fresh cilantro. Impressive. $11.

Location: Tejas Express

Strawberry-Basil Lemonade

A bracingly refreshing swirl of fresh-squeezed lemons and a compote fashioned from all-local strawberries, with a delicate basil finish. Near perfect. $5.50 and $7.

Location: Farmers Union Coffee Shop

Swedish Meatball Smörgås

Pork-beef meatballs, straight out of a Lutheran church cookbook, with all the right trimmings, and a sweet King’s Hawaiian bun. Hearty and fabulous. $8.95.

Location: The Blue Barn

Yucatán Shrimp Cocktail

Another example of fresh, vibrant, so-not-the-fair fare. Serrano chiles give the cocktail sauce its welcome punch. More of this, please. $10.

Location: Tejas Express


Bacon-Stuffed Tots

More croquette than Tot, in a good way. The reason the sour cream is so irresistible? It’s boosted with bacon fat. $8.95.

Location: The Blue Barn

Bananas Foster French Toast

Good things happen when chef Erik Hendrickson coats thick-cut, cinnamon-swirled bread in a rich, eggy custard. The hot-off-the-grill results are garnished with freshly sliced bananas dunked in a caramel sauce redolent of rum and fresh orange rind. Served 7 to 10:30 a.m. only. $9.25.

Location: Hamline Church Dining Hall


Oktoberfest, in a handpie, a mix of Cheddarwurst (made by Anoka Meats), pungent sauerkraut and gutsy coarse-ground mustard. Too bad owner Sara Hayden doesn’t have a beer license. $6.

Location: Sara's Tipsy Pies

Earth Wings

Cauliflower, the garden’s chameleon, gets treated like chicken wings, with winning results, a victory for those following vegan and gluten-free diets. Love the sticky, sesame-fueled glaze. $7.

Location: French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

Mangonada Shave Ice

Otherwise known as “Fire and Ice,” this refined snow cone has a split personality, with coolly restorative mango playing against the feisty one-two punch of Mexican hot sauce and chili powder. $6.

Location: Minnesnowii Shave Ice

Pepperoni Chips With Roasted Red Pepper Queso

This ideal meat-eater’s bar snack (and a cardiologist’s nightmare) is potato-chip-thin and nearly as wonderfully crisp. Super-fun, and totally beer-friendly. $7.

Location: LuLu's Public House

Root Beer Float & Cream

Here’s an on-a-stick concoction we can all embrace, especially when it deftly channels all of root beer’s nostalgic essence into a cold, creamy bar. $4.

Location: JonnyPops

Turducken Sausage Sandwich

Leave it to the gregarious Tim “Giggles” Weiss to introduce this fun-to-say mix of turkey, duck and chicken into the fair’s food vocabulary. He’s tapped St. Paul’s Big Steer Meats to fashion a lean, peppery, snappy-skinned sausage that’s boiled in beer, grilled, then served in a fennel-flecked bun. $7.

Location: Giggles' Campfire Grill


Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl

Yes, the fair is not immune to culinary trends, and this by-the-book version isn’t bad. Avocado and mango crank up the cool, while the (fresh) tuna’s ginger-soy marinade kicks in a bit of heat. $9.50.

Location: Cafe Caribe

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffin

Gluten-free baked goods often get a bum rap, but not here. This fair newcomer has tapped Margaret Doran of Margaux’s Table in White Bear Lake, and she’s turning out jumbo muffins that sport impressive texture and flavor. $6.

Location: The Anchor Coffee House

General Tso’s Chicken Tacos

What Panda Express and its food-court brethren should aspire to. The portions are hefty and the sweet-hot sauce teases “Minnesota spicy” boundaries. Available though Aug. 28 only. $12.

Location: Midtown Global Market's Taco Cat

Loaded Fries

This bruiser elevates carb-loading to dizzying heights. The crispy fries stand up to the challenge of the just-right combo of black beans, pickled jalapeños and a blanket of molten cheese. Shareable, to the max. $12.

Location: Midtown Global Market's Taco Cat

Smoked Black Bean Tacos

Yes, a vegetarian option with some flavor. A cabbage slaw inserts crunch, cotija cheese adds much-needed salt and the smoked beans have real depth. Available through Aug. 28 only. $10.

Location: Midtown Global Market's Taco Cat

Smoked Soft Serve Ice Cream

It’s tough to discern any smokiness in either version — vanilla or cold-brew coffee — but the latter has a wonderfully mellow flavor. Garnishes (hello, bourbon-soaked cherries) are first-rate. $7.

Location: Blue Moon Dine-in Theater

Sweetie Cakes

Kids will dive into these three fragrant, warm-from-the-oven variations — especially the colorful, confetti-filled “Birthday Cake” — all crowned with a lavish swirl of whipped cream. $7 each cake.

Location: Sweetie Cakes


Blueberry Saft and Lingonberry Saft Lemonade

Bottled berry concentrates from Sweden add bursts of color and flavor to summer’s favorite coolant. Both are perhaps just a tad too sweet. $4.

Location: Nordic Waffles

Lime in the Coconut Shake

There’s plenty of coconut (can there ever be too much coconut?) in this lusciously creamy concoction, but the lime side of the title doesn’t really come through. $8.

Location: West End Creamery

Messy Giuseppe

Cheers to the gutsy, garlicky pork sausage and lively marina. Jeers for the dreary bread. $7.75.

Location: Mancini's al Fresco

Mini Sconuts

The fair’s best bakers have replaced their cruelly addictive doughnut-croissant hybrid with these doughy, deep-fried scones, their centers filled with all kinds of gooey goodness. It’s not an even trade. $7.

Location: French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

Shrimp Ceviche

Technically not ceviche because the shrimp is cooked, which, come to think of it, is a reassuring food safety strategy. It’s cool and light, a kind of shrimp-boosted pico de gallo. $7.

Location: Shrimp Shack

Triple Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake

The eternal appeal of the chocolate-dipped strawberry is at play. Oddly, this chocolate cake — studded with chocolate chips and topped with a fudgy glaze — isn’t terribly chocolaty. $8.

Location: The Strawberry Patch


Firecracker Shrimp Stuffed Avocado

Country club luncheon fare (with prices to match) in the form of a perfectly pleasant shrimp salad that’s scooped into underripe, clumsy-to-eat avocados. $14.

Location: The Hideaway Speakeasy

Honey Cream Soda Float

There’s “nuanced,” and then there’s “one-dimensional.” The second one applies here. Overpriced, too. $9.

Location: Minnesota Honey Producers

That’s S’more Like It Malt

Lovely idea to channel this campfire favorite into a cup (there’s a sundae version, too, $5), but the weak, fake-tasting chocolate sauce tarnishes the sterling s’mores reputation. A missed opportunity. $6.

Location: Dairy Goodness Bar

Irish Tater Kegs

Soggy, salty, skippable, even for corned beef fans. $8.

Location: O'Gara's at the Fair

Moroccan Sausage Bowl

“North Africa” doesn’t exactly come to mind with this one-note array of ground beef-lamb sausage. $7.

Location: Sausage by Cynthia

Rainbow Cloud Roll

“It’s kind of like a sugar burrito,” said the nice young woman, as she rolled cotton candy (tinted a vivid “My Little Pony” pink) around three scoops of cartoon-colored ice cream and, yes, Fruity Pebbles. The cavity-creating results are hilarious, totally within the midway ethos and borderline inedible. $8.

Location: Rainbow Ice Cream

Sweet Greek Cheese Puffs

Don’t waste the calories on this sticky, greasy baklava/cream-puff mash-up. $5.

Location: Dino's Gyros

Za-Waffle Sticks

Another hybrid, this time with pizza and waffles. No. $5.

Location: Green Mill

Zesty PB&J Sausage

Whatever. $6.

Location: Gass Station Grill