Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Greetings from Day 1 of the 2015 Minnesota State Fair! Or as we call it here in Minnesota, our own private Superbowl of food, with extra, extra bacon. And this year: extra sriracha sauce! I got to the fair this year at dawn with a pocket full of cash and tasted nearly every new food, so I could bring you the good, the bad, and the ugly.
First, the top 5!
5). Mancini's cannoli
The first rule of cannoli is they must be fresh. If they're fresh, then the shells stay crisp and crunchy, the ricotta filling stays light and vaporous, the whole thing goes right. The cannoli I tried at Mancini's were so fresh they may as well have been the first daisies of spring: Light, airy, pure as sunbeams. Cannoli are hard to come by in most of Minnesota, and so to anyone living in a cannoli drought I say: Leave the corn-dogs, take the cannoli! Okay that's a Godfather reference, but even without the bad joke I wholeheartedly endorse these little guys. Insider tip: The mini-cannoli come three to an order, making them very easy to dole out to children seeking absolute equality of portion size.
4). Bloody Frozen Beer
Last year Schell's invested in some fancy Japanese machines that make a slushy alcoholic foam which can be added to beer, such as they do in Japan. This year the flavor for the foam is Bloody Mary. Genius. It's like a Michelada in another key, and terrifically refreshing. I slightly wished for a salt-and-pepper rim, but was okay without one too. This is going to be of especial interest for anyone heading toward a Grandstand concert, or powering down on a big turkey leg.
3). Salted Caramel Puff Sundae - Dairy Building
The new flavor at the Dairy building this year is a total charmer: Old Dutch caramel puffs and buttery caramel sauce on the classic silky and innocent vanilla soft serve. The puffs are delicate, the caramel just enough richness without going too far. My top pick for adventurous three year olds and pastry chefs alike. It's a beautiful exercise in something you don't see much of at the State Fair these days: stylish restraint.
2). Tikka on a Stikka
Way in the very back of the International Bazaar sits the Midtown Global Market booth, where, this year, Hot Indian Foods and Rabbit Hole will be dishing out food, each for half the fair. Hot Indian gets the first half and their chicken tikka on a stick is delicious: Creamy, spicy, real food, and delicious. I liked the samosas too, though the real winner is the samosa sauce, herbal and fresh. Insider tip: Ask for some of that sauce on the side of your tikka on a sticka and you're in seriously great food territory, inside of a fair or anywhere.
A new development! Halfway through the fair, as planned, Hot Indian Foods was replaced by another Midtown Global Market restaurant, The Rabbit Hole, known for its streetwise new Korean cuisine. They've got a Korean kimchi poutine, a bona fide spicy pig's tail, and a watermelon salad with chili, herbs, and lime. My genuine critic's pick: Get the watermelon salad! It is delicious, easily one of the best new foods of the 2015 fair. The sweetness of the watermelon, the fresh mint and cilantro, the almonds and spice all come together in a sort of lively snap, crackle, and pop, which is both refreshing and surprising. It's also gluten-free and vegetarian. Get it!
I'm a big fan too of the poutine, the fries are high quality and full of great flavor, and the cheesy and spicy layer over it was nice gilt on the lily. (The poached egg on top was refrigerator cold which I realize is a peril of bringing fine cooking to the fair, but I would have liked it more warm.) The piggy tail is really tasty but crazy fatty—get it if you want a few terrific bites and lifelong bragging rights for having eaten a pig's tail, skip it if you're watching your budget. All in all though, the Rabbit Hole foods were pretty much the good kind of dynamite. Hats off to Midtown Global Market, they really made the great Minnesota get together even greater.
1). Berry (and pop rocks!) French Toast at the Blue Barn.
The Blue Barn is the massive new fair-only experience brought to us by the folks behind the Edina Grill, the Lowry, and associated modern diners, and in this, its second year, they are seriously hitting it out of the park. The French toast is the pick of the fair, it starts off with custardy, tender classic scratch French toast with a nice double berry raspberry and strawberry sauce. But then they take it to a smart and fun double-plus State Fair experience with a big scoop of real whipped cream sprinkled with Pop Rocks. The French toast satisfies your regular-person-who-likes-real-food side, the Pop Rocks satisfy your silly-fun-at-the-Fair-side. It's clever, it's well made, it's a winner.
Best New Gluten-Free Fair Food
Birchwood Cafe's Minnesota-BEE-Nice Gluten Free Muffin
They call it 'bee-nice' because it's from pollinator-friendly (no pesticide) blueberries, it's tender and moist inside and, absolutely bursting with blueberries. A beautiful way to start the day at the fair.
Dara's Worst of the New Foods at the Fair
Ugh, there were some stinkers this year. My worst:
5). Maple Bacon Brown beer at Giggles. Why do I want a floppy, ice cold, fat-coated slice of bacon draped over my beer, precisely? This might have seemed like a good idea in theory, it's horrible in life.
4). Sriracha Balls at Alton's. So fun to say! But these greasy sodden balls of indeterminate presumably edible food tasted like nothing under the cloak of Sriracha blanketing them.
3). Spam burger. These fried slabs of Spam on cold buns couldn't have been any plainer—and that's my complaint. If you're going to bring grocery store food to the fair I truly believe you are obligated to do more than heat and serve it at top-dollar prices.
2). Seafood sliders at Wine Country. Can we have a moratorium on ways to extend lobster to an unidentifiable sludge, please?
1). Raw jalapeño chocolate ice-cream. World! Frozen giant green chunks of jalapeño pepper are as welcome in ice cream as herring. Yes, cayenne goes well in ice-cream. And so does saffron, but that doesn't mean I want chopped up tulips in there. Again, we seem to have a "looks better on paper" situation.