Going Beyond the Stick to Find Food Worth Eating at the Minnesota State Fair
Whether you want to spread your culinary wings or spend time inhaling deep fried goodness the Minnesota State Fair has something to eat for everyone. In its 150 plus year history, the State Fair has become almost Valhalla like for people who love to eat food-on-a-stick, gathering hundreds of food vendors who spend all year trying to one up each other to grab as big a piece of the proverbial pie as they can from the State Fair’s million-and-a-half plus visitors.
With so many options the drive to create the hot new fair food often resembles an unholy alliance between P.T. Barnum and Hostess, creating such memorable heartburn inducing dishes as the Deep Fried Twinkie, Deep Fried Candy Bars, Big Fat Bacon On-a-Stick and Hot Dish On-a-Stick.
The whole deep fried on-a-stick shtick often ends up overshadowing some truly creative and delicious dishes from people seeking new ways to use local ingredients and create interesting takes on regional classics. There’s also a whole new group of vendors from Minnesota’s ever-expanding culinary scene creating interesting takes on dishes from around the world.
Of course in our selfie, shareable world dishes without shock value don’t tend to get much ink. To help remedy this, we set out to find a few really interesting things worth eating and drinking at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
Quick cultural note, in Minnesota interesting usually means “I don’t like this, but I’m not going to say so because you might be offended.” In this story, we’re using interesting in its natural state as something we find intriguing, are curious about, and want to eat more than once.
Where are All the Interesting Savory Dishes At?
It can be a challenge to find truly interesting savory dishes at the Minnesota State Fair. The problem is so many of the savory dishes are hunks of meat served on-a-stick or in a foot-long bun. Don’t get me wrong, everyone should eat a Pork Chop On-a-Stick or two in their life, we were just looking for something different. Our goal was to find savory dishes full of interesting flavors with unique combinations of ingredients since there’s no law that says walking around food has to be pedestrian.
There were a couple of close calls with the Oslo Tacos from Shanghaied Henri’s full of pulled pork, Jarlsberg cheese, lingonberry sour crème and so many other ingredients that it would take all day to list them. You know a pulled pork taco has too much going on when one tester says, “I really like the pork,” and the other tester says “Pork?”
There also was the Sheep Dog from the Lamb Shoppe, built up as one of this year’s must have new foods, that was disappointing for its lack of seasoning and use of kale. A better-seasoned dog along with more fresh sauerkraut could bring out its potential.
One of the great things about the State Fair is talking to strangers and nothing starts conversations like bad food. This year’s conversation starter was Chicken-Fried Bacon from Giggles’ Campfire Grill, which we’ll say lots of good things about in a minute, the thin strips of bacon were completely overpowered by an overly dry batter that tasted vaguely like cinnamon and sugar.
What we like about Giggles’ is year after year they consistently provide interesting takes on dishes using regional ingredients. And while the Chicken-Friend Bacon may not have worked, the Walleye Cakes were delicious and for a couple of us were the best savory dish we had all day. The cakes were light and crumbly on the outside, studded with wild rice on the inside, and the type of dish I’d be happy to eat at any nice restaurant in town.
Giggles’ also had one of the most interesting beers of the day with their Maple Bacon Brown Beer The maple and the bacon come together to produce a beer with a strong maple nose and a nice smoky flavor that is good enough for all day drinking. Just consider yourself warned that the bacon stir stick is only for show.
Another interesting new food was the Rustic Beef Pastry from the French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, the Moroccan spiced beef was full of interesting flavors and worked well on top of the type of flaky croissant that only comes from a skilled bakery.
We also enjoyed the Cheesy French Onion Monkey Bread from the folks at the Blue Moon Dine-In Theater with its soft cheesy pull apart bread that tasted like a delicious bowl of French Onion Soup and the Blue Cheese and Corn ‘Fritz’ from the Blue Barn that comes with a Minnesota Nice chimichurri sauce.
Sweet, Sweet, Sweets
There are so many wonderful sweets to eat at the State Fair that you could literally eat until you exploded and not come close to trying everything worth eating. Our favorite this year was the Honey Sunflower Ice Cream from the Minnesota Honey Producers, located in the Ag Building.
The honey provided nice subtle flavors that complement the crunch from the sunflowers. As one tester said, “It’s the best parts of Honey Nut Cheerios.”
The Honey Producers, who have it going on, also make a Honey Lemonade with a nice round floral flavor that is one of the most unusual and best lemonades we’ve had in a long time.
Two of our other favorite sweets were located in the Food Building. The Boozy Blueberry-Lemon Pie by Sara’s Tipsy Pies had just the right amount of blueberries, lemon, and booze to make us happy.
And the poorly named, but delicious Chocolate Dessert Salami by Sausage Sister & Me, who have been making creative sausage dishes at the Fair for years. The Chocolate Dessert Salami is a chilled chocolate ganache type dish with hints of orange and cookie pieces for crunch that is sliced thin and served on crackers. It’s perfect if you’re looking for a small sweet treat to share. The Sweet Corn Ice Cream at Blue Moon is also worth trying.
Sometimes it’s a Good Idea to Spend the Day Drinking
If you’re going to drink at the State Fair, and you should, make sure you’re drinking local. These days Minnesota has a plethora of craft breweries scattered around the state that pairs well with the state’s more traditional breweries.
Which is why the most interesting place to drink at State Fair is the Ag Building where the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild has set up a tasting room for Minnesota craft beers.
The tasting is a craft beer lovers dream. For $10 you get a small tray with four different beers, usually from four different breweries. Depending on your taste preferences, there are six different options grouped by taste and style available at any one time. The beers available change over the course of the fair and according to the Brewers Guild there will be over 300 beers from 75 breweries served this year.
If beer isn’t your thing, try a Lemon Sour from Spring Grove Soda Pop or a Cucumber Lemonade from French Meadow. Clean and refreshing the Cucumber Lemonade is the perfect palate cleanser after a long day of eating everything in sight. There’s also the all you can drink milk stand, malts at the dairy building, Swedish coffee, and what we think might be the last RC Cola stand in America.
If You Go
If you go, and you really should at least once in your life, the Minnesota State Fair runs for 12 days starting in August and ending on Labor Day. The State Fair also has a free app that includes a food finder and map where you can get the exact location for all the dishes and vendors listed in this story.
Mark is Umami's publisher