Sugar Pie, this is not my first State Fair. I’ve been at the State Fair on Day One trying all the new foods since Microsoft Sidewalk was a thing. (Does anyone remember Microsoft Sidewalk? They came to town from Seattle with all that Bill Gates money and put free cocoa packs in the break room. It was like our own little Silicon Bubble, in Swiss Miss form.)
Anywho, I was there for the first season of deep-fried candy bars. I was there for the first year of deep-fried lamb next-generation-generators. And I tried the ghastly chocolate-dipped jalapeno, on two consecutive years. Which I tell you to let you know that, Sugar Pie, you have to do a damn sight more than deep-fry nasty stuff to impress me. I am officially a skeptic. And yet, I all-out love the Fair! The fresh barn smells of new hay, the crazy looking drag-queen alien chickens, the seed-art, the Sputnik-era Mod sky-ride, pet surgery, the hollow, wet smell of Ye Old Mill Log Ride—I could really enumerate the whole darn thing. Love! So I’m unabashedly enthusiastic, and a total skeptic. And that’s why I raced to the Minnesota State Fair this year on the first day it was open, and ate through $100 worth of new foods—faux cronuts, Cajun pork rinds, candied bacon cannoli, liquid nitrogen caramel corn, cocoa-dusted cheese curds, sweet-corn corn dogs, and more, more (burp), more! So that I could present to you:
An Unabashedly Enthusiastic Skeptic’s Guide to Best New (and Old!) Foods at the Minnesota State Fair, 2013:
Let’s get the oldies out of the way, shall we? If this is your first visit to the State Fair, don’t mess around with the next best thing, just zip over to:
1) Corn! The corn roast. The best! The MN State Fair goes through some 200,000 ears of corn a year, 4,000 pounds of butter, and probably a third of that will be eaten by me.
2) Cheese curds, at the Mouth Trap, in the food building. There are no others! Crisp as a bubble, gooey-creamy, my only problem with the Mouth Trap is I wish they had a one fat curd for a dollar line, because that’s really all I need.
3) MN Craft Brewer’s Guild Exhibit. The second year of this, and about the greatest thing to happen to local brew since 50 breweries opened. For jaded beer-heads it’s an unbelievable chance to sample rarities that don’t make it in bottle to local stores, for novices it’s a fun opportunity to taste through flights of beer in an insightful, yet very accessible way. I feel like this Craft Brew exhibit also captures something about the best of the Minnesota spirit: smart, hands-on, and truly friendly. In the Ag building!
4) Harry Singh's Doubles. I know, you thought I’d say mini-donut! But as much as I love the State Fair mini-donut, the Tom Thumb classic where you watch them made right in front of you, I have to confess that the mini-donuts all over town (Chef Shack!) have diminished the mini-donut thing for me —which is totally not fair! But it’s also true. So now I always get doubles, the Trinidad street food which I think Harry debuted in 2009. These little fry-breads with a spicy curried chick pea filling are very State Fair—fry bread!—but also fresh and satisfying and unusual.
5) Honey Lemonade. Bees are in dire trouble (read the recent nihilistic Time magazine cover story to get a glimpse of a world with robot bees and no fruit). But you can help by supporting good local beekeepers, and enjoying a glass of their delicious lemonade. Tastes like a simpler time, and so good.
1) Dough-Sant, French Meadow. For those of you who have been living under a rock, you might want to know that 2013 has been the year of the cronut, a concoction by a lawsuit-happy French baker in New York who had the idea of deep-frying croissant dough, calling it a cronut, making only a limited number every day, trademarking the name, and threatening legal action at anyone else who might want to deep-fry croissant dough and call it a cronut. Well, take this as a big Brooklyn cheer aimed at the universe East: French Meadow made a Dough-Sant, a donut made from their locally legendary croissant dough, and it's a humdinger of a tongue-tickler. The exterior is ultra-crisp flakes of dough, the interior is so tender it's almost creamy, the powdered sugar adds a little State Fair decadence, and there it is. Best of the year, says me, and I bet everyone else.
2) Stuffed Sausage on a Stick, Mancini's. I tried just about everything on the menu at the new Mancini's pavilion at the State Fair, and while I found a lot of pretty-goods (the steak sandwich is tender and good, the porketta wings are meaty and nice) it was actually the plain old sausage on a stick which struck me as the best of the bunch. Order it and you get a sausage (surprise!) house-made and the meat nicely mixed with roasted onions and peppers. (I wouldn't call it "stuffed" with veggies exactly, but they're abundant and present—stuffed to me means something else.) The sausage is on a stick, the whole thing gets a bunch of good, chunky house-made and famous marinara on top, and a couple of pieces of Mancini's famed garlic toast on the side. All-in-all, it reminded me of being at a Brooklyn street fair: good, fresh, spicy, meaty sausage, not dumbed down, and now walk around! Also loving that Mancini's serves Perroni on tap and Schell's Firebrick (a better pair, but not straight from the boot). Anyway, fun, robust, good—and the best meat at the fair? I can't think of better, and yes, I know of the pork chop on a stick.
3) Smoked Honey & Scotch Stick, Mademoiselle Miel. This is the most foodie of the picks I'm going to pick, so elite chefs and home Wolf rangers, attend! Mademoiselle Miel, of local chocolatier fame, has a number of special honey sticks to offer at the Honey Booth. They're smoked honey (yes, you can do that) blended with a touch of real whisky, for the fire, and: whoa. Smoky and intense, has the depth of a spectacular white-tablecloth restaurant sauce. Stash some to serve at home over aged Gouda. Miraculous stuff. (Cheapskates, this is also the best 50 cents you can spend at the Fair.)
4) Bacon Cannoli, Ole Cannoli. I still hate the chocolate covered bacon at Famous Dave's. Does anyone want to get together and form a support group with me? Such a pandering use of bacon, the Trendoid Food, and it didn't enhance bacon, the legitimate food of bliss! Ole Cannoli, in the farthest reaches of the Fair in Heritage Square goes for the trend thing (bacon, somewhere weird!) but does it with great nobility, because dang! It works. There's a whole strip of candied bacon (that is, bacon glazed with syrup before baking so it crisps up extra sweet) laid in a fresh cannoli shell. Then they pipe in a very fresh, real, simple, great cannoli filling—that's good stuff! The cheese goes well with the bacon, but the whole thing is basically a fair stunt done well, which I respect.
5) Mini-Donut Crunch Ice Cream, Izzy's, Hamline Dining Hall. I tried a lot of stuff I can't really endorse. I sort of loved the idea behind the new Flavored Corndog booth—sweet corn in the corn-dog batter, genius! It is cornbread, after all. But when I tried them—jalapeno (the best, served brilliantly with some stadium cheese goo for dipping), the fresh corn (served smartly with honey), and the bacon (the worst of the bunch)—they weren't quite there: A little burned on the outside, the dog inside a little too sweet to support the oomph of the exterior. I want to say they're almost there, but I can't. Keep tinkering with those corndogs, please—you're on to something!
I hated Axel's cocoa cheddar cheese curds. The combination of cheddar and chocolate was just off-putting. Maybe try a milder, cream cheese-like cheese?
The liquid-nitrogen plunged caramel corn at Blue Moon was a close-but-no-cigar. It's fun to eat something so cold it makes the air smoke, but beneath the cool smoke, no cool fire. The core product kind of tasted like Corn Pops cereal. I tried plenty more that didn't seem promising at first glance, and weren't either. And so, I come to Izzy's mini-donut ice cream flavor: How fair-ish! The good Izzy's ice cream base, the nice texture of crisp donut and moist dough, the perky cinnamon. It's an ice cream that tastes innocent, pure and clean, old fashioned, and just right. Fair food, modern, old fashioned, and just right all over.