Dara's top five Minnesota State Fair foods
I feel some weird desire to contextualize the Minnesota State Fair right now for people not from here, and am up against the fact that it’s like nothing else in the country—it’s when some quarter of a million people every day, in a state of five and a half million, show up in the middle of the city and eat and drink ourselves silly, gawk at sheep, teach children about seed art, and generally party in a chill family-friendly way for 12 running days. It reminds me of the old country fairs you see in European paintings—it’s literally a place where everyone comes together in the heat and sun and meets. They call it the Great Minnesota Get-Together, and it’s hokey, but it’s actually true. Never is a Minnesotan more Minnesotan than when we get together with a quarter million other Minnesotans and eat corn dogs and look at giant pigs. The food is a huge part. The new foods—this is the small-talk social currency we trade in. For me, I try to eat all the new foods the first day and give you all a running start on separating the wheat from the chaff, to use an appropriately farm-y metaphor. Today I ate tons and tons and tons. And tons! My general observations: 2016 will go down as the year of gimmick beers—Chocolate Chip Cookie! Sweet Corn! Funnel Cake!—and sweet, sweet dessert. I’ll have my top beers later this week, so watch this space but until then here’s the best—and the worst—of the new 2016 foods.
5. (Tie) Cracker Jack Caramel Sundae at Goertze’s Dairy Cone & Bacon Wrapped Tots at Tot Boss
Why have a tie for fifth? Because I couldn’t pick of course! Both of these little things are American vernacular works of genius: The Cracker Jack sundae ($7) is literally a box of Cracker Jacks, sliced open, and then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, some caramel and hot fudge, little M&Ms, whipped cream—this is just a good idea. Stick in a spoon and you’re eating ice cream on Cracker Jacks. Come on, that is good! If you don’t eat this at the fair, most definitely steal the idea for your next backyard bash: Genius. Meanwhile, the Tot Boss is a food truck, which has opened a State Fair presence, and they had the idea of wrapping tots in bacon, threading them on a skewer, and deep frying the whole mess ($5). So crisp! So decadent! They make the dinner party classic of Devils on Horseback (dates wrapped in bacon) seem like health food. Goertze’s Dairy Kone: Cooper St., outside of Merch Martl; Tot Boss: Underwood St., south of Kidway
4. Spicy Pork Bowl at Blue Barn
So on trend! The Blue Barn is the State Fair outpost of Twin Cities neighborhood nuevo diner chain Blue Plate, and one of their new foods this year is: A mixed meat and veg protein-bowl. So, there’s rice, sweet and spicy pork shoulder, braised spinach and black beans, a little charred salsa—it’s good. If you get to the Fair after a long day at work and need some serious dinner before drinking all the beers and seeing Weezer this is your pick. I also tried the new candied bacon BLT on offer—a little too sweet for me, but if you have a sweet tooth, give it a try. West End Market
3. Hot Link and Kool-Aid Pickles at RC’s BBQ
This year longtime BBQ spot Famous Dave’s changed hands, now it’s RC’s. Owner Charlie Torgerson had his special recipe for hot links ($7) manufactured in Texas just for the fair this year, and they’re nothing but excellent: Spicy, juicy, snappy, everything you want in a hot link, and Minnesota is not known for excellence in hot links, so grab this while you can. Get the whole-cucumber Kool-Aid pickles ($5) too, they’re also snappy and fun, but you know, Kool-Aid tinged and sour. If you’ve never had Kool-Aid pickles before, they’re big in the South and all kinds of fun. West of Grandstand
2. Carpe Diem ‘fish shaped miso ice-cream waffle cone’ at Rabbit/Hole MGM
Thomas Kim is the one legit restaurant chef at the Minnesota State Fair, and just like last year, he has peeled away from his home at the restaurant Rabbit Hole to steal the show. His invention is a buttermilk and miso waffle cone shaped like most of a fish, filled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with a salty and concentrated balsamic and strawberry compote, dusted with graham cracker crumbs, and garnished with a strawberry. It’s so good. The waffle cone is delicious, tender, a little salty-savory, just good on its own, and then it’s against the foil of a simple and pure vanilla ice-cream, energized by a slightly salty interesting sauce, and made friendly with that familiar flavor of cinnamon-sugar graham cracker crumbs. This thing is a home run. If you don’t get one this year, you’re missing out. Also, get a friend and figure out if you can get a picture of your own head coming out of the fish-body. I think this may be the souvenir of 2016. International Bazar
La La Palooza Sundae
1. La La Palooza Sundae at Bridgeman’s
If you think the music festival invented the name Lollapalooza, no! Not so! Bridgeman’s is a classic Minnesota ice cream parlor, founded in Duluth in 1883, and its biggest, most spectacular, most massive sundae was called the La La Palooza. When Perry Farrel founded the rock fest, he took the name because it’s awesome. But guess what? I never have actually had a La La Palooza. Most people I know haven’t. And now, for the first time in modern memory you can have one at the Minnesota State Fair. It’s pricey. $25. Cash only. And it’s mammoth. Eight scoops of ice cream, a banana, caramel, pineapple, peanut brittle, peanuts, strawberry stuff, whipped cream, some other stuff I forgot, all in a massive take-home plastic footed chalice. Two different women came up to me and shared their stories of getting a La La Palooza when they were kids—one with her grandfather, one with her mom. Now I have my own La La Palooza story: I actually had one! This seems awesome, on the scale of participating in some important bit of American food culture, like getting to go to the Automat or the diner in the Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks. A La La Palooza! At the Minnesota State Fair. What a happy development for us all. Corner of Judson Ave. and Liggett St.
Worst of the Fair
Of course, you want to know what to stay away from. My top-three worst of the New Foods of the Fair:
3. Candied Bacon Donut Sliders: Candied bacon plus ganache frosting inside an ice-cold donut hole, and the garnished with squirty chocolate syrup—way, way too sweet.
2. Oof Da Tacos: I wanted to like these fry bread tacos, but the meat mixture that was on them was so bland, the toppings so bland, the whole thing so bland—come on folks. Did anyone taste these after they were assembled? There’s mild, and then there’s unseasoned.
1. Spam Curds: Neither fish nor fowl, these small battered and deep-fried cubes of cheese-flavored spam were too small with too much breading to taste the SPAM, and not cheesy enough to taste the cheese.
That’s it, folks! Go forth and eat, and remember: The Great Minnesota Get-Together is an amazing experience unlike any other in the country—so get out there and enjoy it! And I’ll meet you at the Corn Roast.