A critic’s favorite foods over 20 years at the Minnesota State Fair
What a heartburn-inducing thought: This year marks the 20th time this critic’s cast-iron digestive system will slog its way through the first day of the Minnesota State Fair as I taste-test — and rate — every new food.
With a smile on my face, of course. And a pocket full of Star Tribune-supplied cash.
There are roughly 300 food vendors at the fair, serving more than 500 dishes. Increasing those offerings is a practice that goes way back. Pronto Pups — the fair’s first on-a-stick delicacy — materialized 71 years ago. Tom Thumb Donuts came along two years later, and Fresh French Fries debuted in 1973.
This ritual among vendors to enrich the fairgoing experience — and, let’s face it, their hope to strike it rich — has made for simultaneously delicious and don’t-make-us-eat-that-again memories.
As I surveyed the results of the past 19 editions of the Great Minnesota Get-Together — digging into the newspaper’s archives and trying to decipher my chicken-scratched notebooks — a few trends emerged.
Over the years, fair food has improved, considerably. Ingenuity has generally been on the upswing, too, although that’s not to say that there haven’t been some truly vapid ideas over the years. Prices have increased, but gradually.
The annual number of new foods has fluctuated, from a handful that first year to 2015’s peak figure of 60. (This year’s official count of 27 has a definite quality-over-quantity vibe, hurrah.) Most make it only a few years, and very few develop into bona fide classics. And the tradition — make that near requirement — of going the battered, deep-fried, on-a-stick route has dissipated as time passes. This year’s official new foods list doesn’t have a single item that fits that description. Progress?
For this roster, I’ve highlighted foods — the gotta-haves, anyway — that remain available to 2018 fairgoers (with mentions of a few can’t-forget head-scratchers and flat-out flops). No waxing rhapsodic on the Dough-Sant, the melt-in-your-mouth marriage of doughnuts and croissants that was a 2013 megahit at the French Meadow Bakery and Cafe, or the rapture-inducing maple-bacon doughnut that the Birchwood Cafe created last year for the Minnesota Farmers Union. Both, sadly, are history.
But change is good, in that it creates room for others. That’s the beauty of the state’s largest temporary indoor-outdoor food court. It’s always reinventing and renewing itself, one dish at a time.
1999: When restaurateurs Wayne Kostroski and Mark Haugen landed their Tejas Express (the Garden) inside what had been a dumpy beer garden, they decided to nab early fairgoers with a whopper of a breakfast burrito: a large flour tortilla stuffed with scrambled eggs, grated Cheddar and grilled onions and sweet peppers, served with a roasted tomato salsa that’s a few notches feistier than “Minnesota spicy.” It was a bargain at $2.50 in 1999, and it’s still a steal today at $5, especially since it’s served with a free cup of coffee. Plan accordingly: It’s available from 8 to 10:30 a.m. only.
2000: Unfortunately, the year’s big hit, a fennel-packed porketta bratwurst, is long gone. Fortunately, the year’s biggest loser, teriyaki ostrich on a stick, has gone to that big fairgrounds dumpster in the sky. Most notable was the arrival of Giggles’ Campfire Grill (Cooper St. and Lee Av.), selling robust elk burgers (still available) and other Up North-inspired fare. Many more hits would come — a parade of them, in fact — but none would top the 2001 debut of what might be owner Tim “Giggles” Weiss’ most enduring culinary contribution to the 12 Best Days of Summer: a pair of pan-fried walleye cakes, a hand-formed blend of Canadian walleye, smoked salmon and wild rice. The words “instant classic” apply.
2001: Wouldn’t a frozen Snickers be better? The inexplicable charms of the Deep Fried Candy Bars stand (Nelson St. and Carnes Av.) — the excessive epitome of State Fair novelty fare — were overshadowed by sweets that weren’t battered and plunged into hot oil: fresh-roasted peanuts, pecans or cashews rolled in a generous white nougat filling, dipped in dark chocolate and served on a stick, at the superb Colonial Nut Roll Co. (Underwood St. and Dan Patch Av.). The cruelest joke to fairgoing dieters was, seriously, deep-fried crudité: super-bland batter-dipped celery sticks. Whatever.
2002: A much needed revamp of the Food Building was responsible for the debut of many of the year’s three dozen new foods — a record at the time — most notably the spectacularly luscious vanilla ice cream at Nitro Ice Cream, where owners (and chemical engineers) Will Schroeder and T.J. Paskach had the smarts to put on an appropriately carnivallike show (it’s still a gas) with their flash-freeze process. The divine Sausage Sister and Me, the work of siblings Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry, kicked off a remarkable run with their Twisted Sister, spiral-wrapping golden brown, Parmesan-enriched breadstick dough around porketta sausage, an ingenious rethinking of the fair’s Pronto Pup tradition, minus the deep fryer.
2003: Tangy, lilac-tinted goodness from Lingonberry Ice Cream (Underwood St. and Carnes Av.) was a made-specifically-for-the-fair formula that impressed, big-time. Less Nordic, far more tropical and similarly refreshing was the frozen slice of Key lime pie, with its appropriately citrusy snap, covered in a hard chocolate coating and stuck on a stick, at the Original Key Lime Pie Bar (Cooper St. near Agriculture Horticulture). The biggest “why?” moment? Deep-fried Twinkies on a stick, at what’s now Spaghetti Eddie’s (Cooper St. and Dan Patch Av.). Yikes.
2004: West Indies Soul (International Bazaar) introduced a handful of noteworthy items — injecting some much needed global personality into the Land O’ Bland — and the blue ribbon went to the crispy-skinned jerk chicken wings that start quietly, heat-wise, before quickly escalating into a four-alarm crescendo. To cool off, fairgoers took to the Custard Cyclones at Custard’s Last Stand (Carousel Park), belt-busting frozen custard knockoffs of the DQ Blizzard phenomenon. The talker — in a good way — was the addition of chocolate to the beloved All You Can Drink Milk stand (Clough St. and Judson Av.), and its naughty counterpart was a dreadful deep-fried sweet corn on a stick, a flash-in-the-pan that was just plain wrong on so many levels.
2005: All hail the introduction of Frozen Mocha on a Stick, an espresso-infused, Dixie cup-shaped Fudgsicle for grown-ups produced by St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery for the Minnesota Farmers Union (Cosgrove St. and Dan Patch Av.). The partnership turned to mango ice cream in 2013, with similarly heaven-on-a-stick results. All-day breakfast ruled at Cinnie Smiths (Cooper St. and Murphy Av.), where warm, yeasty mini cinnamon rolls were lavished with gooey cream cheese icing. Oh, and Sonny’s Fair Food (Food Building) kept its deep fryer busy by cutting Minnesota-grown spuds into parchment-thin, spiral-cut strands and zapping them to crispy, salt-twinkled perfection.
2006: Newcomer Blue Moon Drive-In Theater (Chambers St. and Carnes Av.) hit the fairgrounds running by embracing breakfast in a major way, with made-to-order malt waffles and cinnamon-laced pull-aparts drizzled with caramel. (In 2011, owners Mike and Stephanie Olson bested themselves by cranking out a sublime, perfect-for-the-season sweet corn ice cream). The state’s official grain became the centerpiece of a lively corn dog-style hot dog at Wild Rice Specialties (Food Building). Someone — that would be Ole and Lena’s (Liggett St. and Carnes Av.) — finally introduced a fair food if there ever was one: Tater Tot hot dish on a stick, which turned out to be more amusing than delicious.
2007: A vintage year. Spam (Carousel Park), Minnesota’s canned culinary gift to the planet, showed up at the fairgrounds in the form of a sizzling, cheese-covered Spam burger, redefining the phrase “guilty pleasure.” At their Lamb Shoppe (Food Building), farmers Connie Karstens and Doug Rathke of Hutchinson, Minn., started delivering a taste of their flock of Dorset sheep by spearing tender, merlot-marinated grilled lamb on a stick; more Minnesota farmers at the Minnesota State Fair, please. Delicate, steamy deep-fried smelt was the novelty du jour at Walleye on a Stick (Food Building), and it’s still a must. And the Produce Exchange (Underwood St. and Carnes Av.) launched its glorious tradition of selling peak-experience fruit (oh, those peaches!) in the land of deep-fried everything.
2008: Sarah Wentzien practically grew up at her parents’ root beer stand at the fair, so it wasn’t a stretch when she and hubby Michael launched their excellent San Felipe Tacos (Food Building) with a bang, pulling together a standard-setting fish taco and other delights. Holy Land Deli (International Bazaar) began selling its profoundly refreshing Mediterranean lemonade, a slushy repast crafted from just four ingredients: fresh-squeezed lemon, sugar, ice and garden-fresh mint. In the duds department, is 10 years enough time for us to finally forget the travesty that is chocolate pizza (melted semisweet smeared over crust, ish) and the harsh frozen pickle juice push-up? Here’s hoping.
2009: When the French Meadow Bakery and Cafe (Underwood St. and Carnes Av.) traded a cramped Food Building booth for roomy, watch-them-bake new digs, owners Debbie and Christ Gleize used the opportunity to introduce a savory, hint-of-rye pretzel stuffed with corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, and the innovations have kept coming. On the subject of bakeries, Salty Tart (West End Market) baker Michelle Gayer brought her many James Beard award nominations and her highly addictive coconut macaroons to the fairgrounds. Another locally made sweet, Thomasina’s Cashew Brittle (Merchandise Mart), nabbed countless sugar seekers.
2010: Using hollowed-out pineapples, Manny’s Tortas (Food Building) channeled “Gilligan’s Island” with an ultra-refreshing (and, sadly, rum-free) piña colada, and pistachio-topped baklava was all the rage at Holy Land Deli (International Bazaar). On the flops side of the equation, it was also the year of, yes, the corn dog pizza, three words that should never appear together, ever.
2011: Demonstrating that Gopher State food-and-drink landmarks have a place at Minnesota’s largest gathering, Spring Grove Soda Pop (Nelson St. and Carnes Av.), 100-plus-years-young, began hawking its lemon sour, black cherry and other fizzy, brightly flavored refreshments. Ball Park Cafe (Underwood St., outside the Garden) started its highly welcome practice of tapping an impressive assortment of Minnesota craft beers, an idea that really took off. Two years later, owners and brothers Dan and David Theisen took their passion for local craft beers one delicious step further with superb pale ale-battered onion rings, paired with brown ale-infused mustard.
2012: Minnesota Wine Country (Underwood St. and Carnes Av.) poured wines from 13 Gopher State wineries, and scooped wine- and port-flavored ice creams. Hamline Church Dining Hall (Underwood St. and Dan Patch Av.), aka Ham Loaf Central, started partnering with Izzy’s Ice Cream, launching a tradition that has given fairgoers some first-rate frozen treats, including a church basement-inspired Jell-O salad flavor (2014) that’s as tasty as it is witty, and Chocolate Agate Crunch (2016), an exercise in chocolate and salted caramel.
2013: St. Paul dining icon Mancini’s (Nelson St. and Carnes Av.) set up shop at the fair, offering well-seasoned, slow-roasted pork shanks dubbed Porketta Pork Wings. The lows hit a new low, with — and this is not fiction — deep-fried Cheddar cheese rolled in crushed Cocoa Puffs. Why?
2014: The sparkling West End Market — a multimillion-dollar remake of the dilapidated Heritage Square — helped redefine the fair food experience. Blue Barn immediately earned its people-magnet stripes with Cajun-accented fried chicken stuffed into a waffle cone and excellent sweet corn-Gorgonzola fritters. In later years, owners Stephanie Shimp and David Burley would strike it rich with a ciabatta French toast (2015) and other must-eat staples. Neighboring LuLu’s Public House — with its trendy rooftop patio — made mornings shine with a shareable cinnamon pull-apart slathered in a buttery caramel sauce, and drew folks back for tacos stuffed with mesquite-roasted prime rib. Elsewhere, a shrimp corn dog didn’t fly. Neither did a battered and deep-fried pancake wrapped around scrambled eggs, sausage and ham. It also turns out the two most gastrointestinally disturbing words of the year were “Schnitzel Strips.”
2015: On the cold front, JonnyPops (West End Market) delivered a tasty, chocolate-dipped, on-a-stick homage to Walker Art Center’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture. And Sara’s Tipsy Pies (Food Building) owner Sara Hayden wowed fairgoers with her palm-size delicacies, filled with seasonal fruits (and bacon!) and a splash of locally produced wines, beers or spirits.
2016: There was an avalanche of 47 new foods, although quantity trumped quality (and may explain why even many of the “best” items aren’t showing up on the fair’s 2018 online Food Finder). The standouts are the long list of losers — Spam curds, candied bacon doughnut sliders, deep-fried nachos “Supreme” and other myocardial infarction triggers — begging the question: If they impressed the fair’s selection committee, what on earth was rejected?
2017: So much better. A bumper crop, in fact, of what should prove to be enduring newcomers, many from some of the fair’s top performers, including Tejas Express (a slow-roasted pork mole tamale), Hamline Church Dining Hall (a wicked-good s’mores-inspired ice cream from the magicians at Izzy’s Ice Cream), Blue Barn (a chilequiles-esque egg bake), Giggles’ Campfire Grill (wontons filled with duck bacon and sweet corn) and San Felipe Tacos (stout-marinaded steak, rolled in naan).
Such ingenuity and goodness make a fairgoer want to return, and I will: Don’t miss my assessment of the 2018 fair’s new foods. Find it online at startribune.com on Friday, and in Variety on Saturday.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib