Do you… smell something? That unmistakable scent of hot grease mixed with fresh manure wafting through the air? Sure has a way of making ya powerful hungry, huh…
In honor of the 2019 Minnesota State Fair's arrival, City Pages took to the fairgrounds like a small but mighty band of locusts hellbent on fried food decimation. We mowed down each and every one of the Official New State Fair Foods on a mission to sort them in our time-tested, highly precise three-tiered rating system of "Skip, Shrug, Scarf!"
Now it’s your turn to go forth and use our research wisely… By which we mean: We eat garbage so you don’t have to.
Deep-Fried Dilly Dog
Pickle stuffed with bratwurst, dipped in batter and deep-fried. At Swine & Spuds, $8
A battered, deep-fried pickle with bratwurst crammed inside? To quote the poet laureates Smash Mouth: “Yep! What a concept!” But though we wanted to like the Dilly Dog, it’s no all-star. Unless you can unhinge your jaw like a boa constrictor, it takes at least four bites to get to the center of this grenade-shaped behemoth (hand above for scale), and when you finally reach the batter/brat/pickle trinity, you’re wishing you’d just gone for a brat or deep-fried pickles. Separately. There’s something to be said for battered-and-fried novelty in a year when the fair’s light on that, but this one doesn’t break the mold.
Boozy Berries & ‘Barb Trifle
Five-layer cold trifle with vanilla pound cake, lemon curd, Cannon River Gris wine and blueberry compote, more pound cake and Gris and rhubarb compote, topped with mint-infused fresh whipped cream and Gris and blueberry coulis. At Hideaway Speakeasy, $9
This dish eats like a farmers market splurge after a mimosa brunch. You won’t just taste berry and ‘barb, you will bite into many of them, each enhanced by an acidic lemon curd. And say what you want about Minnesota wine, but the Cannon River wine (used on both the rhubarb and blueberry layers) does these flavors a favor. Bonus: Isn’t it nice to have something you’re legally prohibited from sharing with children?
Carnitas Taco Cone
Carnitas with a sesame-garlic ginger sauce, cabbage, lime and queso fresco, topped with green onion and sour cream and served in a deep-fried cone-shaped tortilla. At San Felipe Tacos, $10
Where form takes function gently by the hand... and handcuffs it to a street sign. Its bright Asian slaw-like filling is well-executed, and you’d want the deeply flavored carnitas to be dropped into any vessel used in transporting meat to mouth. Except this cone. Too thick to break off, too crumbly to bite into, too dull to eat alone, all it’s doing is making it so the stuff you want must be found in narrower and narrower passages.
A swirled blend of cotton candy and blue raspberry soft serve ice cream in a halo of vanilla cotton candy and sprinkled with a mix of candy toppings. At Rainbow Ice Cream, $9
Inside the Grandstand, just past the Black Lives Matter booth and an actual table selling bath salts, you’ll find a line composed of 90% of women in pink and those fuzzy cat-ear headbands. This magical land is where Halo Cones are born. Here, friends floof the orbs of cotton candy surrounding each other’s ice cream cones, much like a maid of honor cares for her bride’s gown in the loo. The whimsy and absurdity distilled in this dessert reads like a narwhal on acid. The people making it actually let us put gummy bears in a cloud of cotton candy, or perch them on a mountain of pink and purple soft serve. Peel away the cotton candy to reveal a sugar cone wrapped in a paper that reads – we shit you not – JOY.
Carolina Pit-Smoked Brisket Taco
Beef brisket pit-smoked over hickory charcoal, shredded and topped with smoked Gouda cheese, a pickled kale crunch made with kale, Brussels sprouts, carrots, radicchio, napa and red cabbage, with a drizzle of BBQ sauce; served in a flour tortilla with tortilla chips. At Shanghaid Henri’s, $9.
Oh hell no. There’s a decently cooked brisket here mixed in with a slaw that no doubt contains the veggies advertised and is presumably pickled, but good luck tasting either of those ingredients over the Gouda and sauce. If that’s a “drizzle” of BBQ we’d hate to see what they consider a downpour, and the sickly sweet substance tastes like like it came off a Cub shelf. We’d call the whole thing a waste of a perfectly good tortilla—except that’s served stale.
Mini Donut Latte
A traditional latte with house-made mini donut flavoring, whole milk and espresso topped with a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. At the Anchor Coffee House, $7. Eventually a day’s caloric intake is gonna make even the hardiest fairgoer groggy, and no sugar high will suffice to perk you up. You need caffeine, and more of it than a church dining hall coffee can offer up. Don’t worry: Anchor’s got you. In this manifestation of their latte, which you can order hot or cold, a tasty little cinnamon donut perches picturesquely on the lip of your cup, and if the drink’s a little on the sweet side, that just seems fair-appropriate. Still, there are a lot of mini donuts to be had elsewhere, and we think you’ll be just as happy with Anchor’s no-frills version of their latte.
The Hot Hen
BBQ chips topped with smoked pulled buffalo chicken, blue cheese fondue, pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, green onions and blue cheese crumbles. At RC’s BBQ, $8
With so many flavors going on here—smoked chicken! barbecue chips! pickled jalapeños! blue cheese two ways!—it would seem impossible to drown everything out with sauce. And yet. We’ve gotta guess the RC’s team uncorked half a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot on this pile of food; every bite, from top to bottom, was pummelled in an all-out buffalo stampede. RIP to those ’peños, which were pretty damn tasty if you could pick ’em (and wipe ’em) off.
Pink lemonade made with fresh lavender leaves. At Farmers Union Coffee Shop, $6 to 7.50
Lavender in foods can be a risky move. If you overshoot the amount, a beverage can quickly veer into potpourri territory. Lemonade is also a delicate balance of tart and sweet. Somehow this drink manages to bring everything together in all the right ways. It’s refreshing enough that you can drink it and feel hydrated, and it’s understated in a way that manages to be memorable.
Duck wings coated in a batter and seasoning blend, deep-fried and served with Giggles’ own tequila lime dipping sauce. At Giggles’ Campfire Grill, $8.75
Chicken wings are fine, but fried limb-gnawers have been sleeping on their meatier, greasier brethren – duck wings! And Giggles does ‘em delicious justice with a light, crispy, expertly seasoned batter that coats tender hunks of umami-loaded waterfowl. Anatomical bonus: The longer duck bone aids in easier plunges into the zingy tequila lime dippin’ sauce. Duck Drummies were my final review item of the day, meaning I was already bursting at the gut, but I still managed to house almost every bite of this generous quack snack.
Grilled Sota Sandwich
Cinnamon nut butter and Minnesota blueberry marmalade served warm on Irish soda bread. Gluten-free and dairy-free. At Brim, $8.38
It’s great that Brim’s debut brings dairy- and gluten-free options—especially ones made with MN ingredients—to the fair this year. But there’s just nothing special about this sandwich. If you have a George Foreman grill, some bread, berries, and peanut butter at home, you could make one yourself in five minutes.
Nordic Waffles in Pebbles & Bam Bam and Al Pastor varieties
Two new fresh-made waffle wraps: Pebbles & Bam Bam with warm Reese’s chocolate peanut butter cups and fruity cereal; and Waffle Al Pastor made with Mexican-style marinated pork, pineapple, onions, cilantro and salsa verde. At Nordic Waffles, $8
The Pebbles & Bam Bam waffle wrap is delicious garbage. It’s also an excellent example of expectation versus reality. The photo online shows a waffle taco with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups playfully peeking out under a sprinkling of Fruity Pebbles. What you get in real life is basically chocolate chaos. That said, this thing tastes good. In the heat, the peanut butter cups melt down into a spread, and the Fruity Pebbles add a citrusy flavor that cuts through the heaviness of using candy as a protein. Meanwhile, the Al Pastor is straightforward and gets everything right. The meat is seasoned just right, the chunks of pineapple add a brightness to each bite, and the fresh onions play nice with everything else.
Strawberries ‘n Crème
Fresh strawberries with non-dairy whipped topping. At Strawberries ‘n Crème, $7-$9
Before high-concept food doodads like Gogurt and Gushers, simple pleasures like strawberries and cream reigned supreme. The namesake treat of this new vender is a throwback delight in concept and, it turns out, a winning dessert in execution. This puppy hinges on berry quality, and we’re happy to report there are big, bright, meaty, and flavorful strawberries suspended amid airy, not-too-sweet oil-based crème. If you’re seeking a health-conscious snack on an oppressively hot day, you’re not gonna do much better. Also, R&B jams frequently cite strawberries and cream as primo foreplay food, so prepare to look sexy as hell walking through Machinery Hill.
Tipsy Pecan Tart
Pecan pie infused with Dubliner Irish Whiskey and baked in a buttery shortbread shell. Gluten-free. At Sara’s Tipsy Pies, $7
What’s that? You want a dense, flavorless hunk of crust and a pecan-pie filling that lacks all the goopy, gooey, gloriousness that said pie filling should have? Then by all means, order one of these! If you don’t, no worries: The Wild can probably use the leftovers as pucks in the upcoming season.
Shrimp & Grits Fritters
Aged cheddar grits, gulf shrimp, onions and Creole seasoning, deep-fried and served with aioli dipping sauce. Gluten-free. At Funky Grits, $5
Who knew that shrimp and grits could be served in ball form? On first glance, these orb-shaped babies look like hush puppies. Don’t be fooled, however. Take a bite and discover molten grits oozing with cheese and chunks of shrimp. The Creole spice is nice, and a little heat builds up in the back of the throat after a few chomps. The aioli dipping sauce does the job, but these guys are great on their own as well.
A Turkish-style cracker-thin flatbread, authentically named Lahmacun, topped with spicy minced beef, onion, tomato, lettuce, cucumber salad, parsley, fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon and garlic sauce, then rolled or folded. At Blue Moon Dine-in Theater, $9
Before diving in, a tip: As when eating Taco Bell in broad daylight, this delight should never be unwrapped for the sake of mess and aesthetics. As a whole, the combination of spices in the ground beef are rich but not fiery, and make a perfect match for the pickled cucumber salad and crisp vegetables topping the… massive gyro? wrap? Small but mighty, that squeeze of lemon over everything really knitted the flavors together for a satisfying meal unlike any other we found at the Fair…even if it should never be mistaken for pizza.
Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites
Bite-sized funnel cake pieces infused with a blend of Parmesan, Romano and mozzarella cheeses, deep-fried and finished with a sprinkle of sharp cheddar and chives, and served with homemade Sriracha aioli dipping sauce. Ranch or garlic butter dipping sauce is also available. At Funnel Cakes, $8
The idea of making a funnel cake savory seems like a good one, but it’s not working here. It turns out that without powdered sugar or a good topping, funnel cakes don’t really have a flavor. While the cake boasted a three-cheese infusion, they didn’t taste like anything different from the original recipe. The shredded cheddar on top didn’t cut through the overall fried taste either. The Sriracha aioli dipping sauce was fine, but nothing special.
Kentikka Fried Chicken Sliders and Bhel Puri
Crispy chicken sliders with creamy tikka sauce and a zinger slaw; savory, crunchy, tangy snack mix from the streets of Mumbai. From Hot Indian at Taste of the Midtown Global Market booth, $10-$12.
Hot Indian rarely disappoints, and its two new fair items this year continue that tradition. The Kentikka Fried Chicken, served on two sliders, so easily transcends its fast-food namesake that the Colonel would be ashamed (and we actually like KFC!). It's assertively but not aggressively spicy, and the cool cabbage and onion add a nice contrast. The buns are too thick, but these sammies could still get addictive. The same goes for the Bhel Puri, a vegan snack that charms the eyes with its newsprint cone and delights the palate with its light, fresh, varied flavors. Puffed rice mingles with cucumber, onion, tomatoes, and nuts in a minty tamarind dressing. We could have polished off a second serving, no problem.
Irish Whiskey Boneless Wings
All-natural white chicken chunks, breaded, deep-fried, tossed in Irish whiskey BBQ sauce and garnished with chopped scallions. Gluten-free. At O’Gara’s at the Fair, $8
After slicing through batter that’s thicker and craggier than the earth’s dang crust, we discovered what appeared to be juicy bits of white-meat chicken. Impossible to taste, however, since O’Gara’s breads and deep-fries these bad boys to oblivion, resulting in tooth-rattling crunchballs slathered in a too-sweet glaze that barely hints at any discernible whiskey flavor. Worse yet, we waited 10 whole minutes for this letdown app – that’s time not spent gawking at fancy chickens in the Poultry Barn.
Peaches n’ Cream Nachos
A bed of cinnamon sugar pita chips with Bridgeman’s Peaches n’ Cream ice cream, peach topping, a drizzle of honey and crushed pecans, finished with whipped cream, a cherry and a dusting of cinnamon sugar. At Bridgeman’s Ice Cream, $8
Imagine a grown-up version (read: not too-sweet) of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, add some lightly cinnamon-y ice cream, garnish with fresh whipped cream and actually delicious peach chunks (not that mealy shite that surfaces in grocery stories so often at this time of year)… Then put a literal cherry on top, and you’ve got this CP-verified blue ribbon-winner from Bridgeman’s.
Jamm'in Brisket Grilled Cheese
Slow-smoked brisket, red onion jam, cheddar and pepper jack cheeses and RC’s hot BBQ sauce. At RC's BBQ, $10
A sandwich that could double as an especially heavy dessert was not what we were expecting here. The components are all fine: the bread nicely grilled, the brisket tender, the cheese present. But none of that matters much when all those flavors are overpowered by the copious and surprisingly sweet onion jam. If there was any spice here, it was also buried. This oddly punctuated item is not unpleasant, but we can't imagine finishing one.
No Bologna Coney
Italian mortadella pork sausage flavored with pistachios and Mancini’s pepper blend, served on a buttered and toasted split-top bun, and topped with mild muffuletta olive and pepper salad. At Mancini’s Al Fresco, $6.75
At times, it felt like the theme of this year’s fair was naming foods wrong and then doing them really well anyway (see also: Turkish Pizza, vegan Strawberries ‘n Crème). With their No Bologna Coney, Mancini’s too pulled this maneuver, considering their astoundingly good dog is nothing like a traditional coney. This dog ranked among our favorite savory items of the year, from its mild sausage topped with a balanced blend of vinegar and peppery muffuletta mix, right down to the signature charred bread it appeared on, for which the famed St. Paul steakhouse is quietly renowned.
Deep-fried Greek pasta dough stuffed with feta cheese, cream cheese and Dino’s Greek seasoning. Served with a creamy olive tapenade. At Dino's Gyros, $5.50
These adorable mini pastry pockets arrived piping hot and perfectly crispy, their crimped edges providing just the right texture to offset the filling – a mild, salty, and delicious combo of feta and cream cheese with Greek seasoning, in a not overwhelming amount. But what makes these a decidedly delectable Fair snack is the accompanying dipping sauce: Supposedly an olive tapenade, ours tasted like straight-up tzatziki, and the cool yogurt and dill flavors were as appealing as always, which is to say a whole lot.
Stuffed Cabbage Roll
Cabbage leaves wrapped around seasoned ground pork and rice, prepared with tomato sauce and served with a dinner roll. At iPierogi, $9
More like Nah, uPierogi Without Me. The most exciting part about this is trying to force a fork through its dense mass without knocking it out of your own hand. The least exciting part is the first bite. It’s classic comfort food, made just how the least culinarily inclined Eastern European aunt-type wants it. Sweet, thin red sauce (think Campbell’s soup) pools around a translucent pork-and-rice package. There’s no cruelty here, but it’s boring. What’s charming in a church basement is, at a state fair, a risk not taken.
Warm Cheesecake Tart
Cheesecake in a tart crust served warm with choice of chocolate, salted caramel or strawberry glaze or without topping. At LuLu’s Public House, $6
The crust deserved better. Crispy, crumbly, and toasty around the edges, the Warm Cheesecake Tart is built atop a solid foundation. But the cheesecake filling, served pipin’ hot, is a viscus mound that wobbles like Jell-O but oozes almost like a liquid. Taste-wise, you’ll get passably rich cheesecake flavor, though the joltingly sweet drizzle of strawberry syrup distracts from that. It’s a textural puzzler, one that some local critics are lauding as crème brulée-adjacent, so maybe our experience was dampened by traditional cheesecake expectations. At just $6, it’s worth a flyer.
Breakfast Potato Skin
Deep-fried potato skin stuffed with scrambled eggs and peppers, topped with blackened beef chislic – a South Dakota bar food staple – and drizzled with bearnaise sauce. At Blue Barn, $8.95
A breakfast gut bomb is not necessarily a bad thing, but there was little to like about this nearly flavorless ensemble, try as we might. The crispy edges of the potato are good? The internet confirms that chislic is, in fact, a South Dakota staple, and explains that it consists of red meat cubed, seasoned, and deep-fried. Here it seemed to have the texture and taste of stringy meatloaf, and it didn't do nearly enough to offset the heavy potato and super bland eggs and bell peppers. Some consolation came in the form of Blue Barn's also new Very Berry Frozen Hard Seltzer, a not-too-sweet, lightly effervescent joy of a slushie.
Snow Cap Mini Waffle Sundae
Mini waffle topped with a scoop of Izzy’s cream cheese ice cream, warm real maple syrup and a maraschino cherry. At Hamline Church Dining Hall, $6.
In contrast to the gargantuan portions we’ve come to expect from most State Fair foods, the size of Hamline Church’s new dessert might seem modest, reserved, downright Lutheran. It’s just a scoop of fresh Izzy’s cream cheese ice cream – a snow cap, if you will – on a single tender waffle, with the maraschino cherry the only accommodation to decadence. The presentation is simple, effective, and classic, and the dessert is so satisfying you might start to think that maybe gluttony really is a sin after all.
Blueberry Key Lime Pie
Blueberry Key lime filling in a graham cracker crust, topped with whipped cream and fresh blueberries. At Farmers Union Coffee Shop, $8
If you’re super into key lime pie, this treat is going to disappoint you. However, if you like blueberry pie with a twist of lime, this thing rocks. The custard filling is full-on berry, with a texture that is too chunky to really evoke key lime’s traditional eggy/silky feel. The flavor is reminiscent of a really good cobbler, and the thick graham cracker crust only adds to that effect. Meanwhile, the lime somehow got lost in this pie, only giving us a whisper of citrus at the end of each bite.
Verdict: Shrug OR Scarf!
Wingwalker Donut Flight
An assortment of hot, deep-fried cake donut holes and three sauces: Bavarian cream, chocolate custard and Minnesota lingonberry jam. At The Hangar, $9
We never thought we’d see the day when the phrase “doughnut controversy” referred to anything but America-hating icon Ariana Grande. Enter the Wingwalker Donut Flight, which infuriated folks with its wasteful premise: DIY filling fairgoers inject with a trio of provided syringes. After public outcry, they’ve been repurposed as dips, and the results are… fine? The holes are hot, the would-be fillings are tasty, and you get a lot in an order. It’s just hard to top the classic cinnamon-sugar mini doughnut, you know?
Cuban Fusion Fajita
Carnitas-style roast pork, deli-sliced ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and Juanita’s Fajitas’ signature mustard folded into a flour tortilla. At Juanita's Fajitas, $7
This more than capable version of the beloved Cuban sandwich has its filling neatly folded neatly into a portable pocket, making it one of the best new fair foods to consume while walking. It takes several bites to get past the tortilla-heavy corners to the good stuff, but after that this baby delivers. Crunchy pickles, tangy mustard, and fatty meat commingle so agreeably, we didn't even miss the grilled bread.
Kora’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough on-a-Stick
Cookie dough on-a-stick in five flavors: classic chocolate chip, Grandma’s sugar cookie, monster cookie, Reese’s peanut butter, and Oreo fudge. At Kora's Cookie Dough, $5.
For most of us, cookie dough works best as a prize, whether it’s surreptitiously swabbed out of a mixing bowl while mom’s not looking or excavated from a pint of premium ice cream. But apparently there are some who, preferring their cookies in embryonic form, would like gobs of the stuff handed to them on a stick -- and if you’re one of ’em, sister, this is the truck for you. You get three chunks of dense, sugary dough that will take on an unappealing sweaty look if you don’t down it instantly. Wonder what this would taste like if someone, you know, baked it.
Lamb T-Bone Chops
All-natural, 100% grass-fed grilled lamb loins seasoned with Mama Fatima’s Holy Land Marinade. At Holy Land, $6
A godsend if you’ve recently injured your wrist and the doc doesn’t want you lugging around six pounds of protein. Petite, perfect, and doled out with a pulse-raising rapidity, this little lamb’s so good even Mary wouldn’t blame you. It’s served without sauce, and you won’t notice. Forget the fork dispenser, grab for the bone, and bite it mid-air. Doctor’s orders.
An iced coffee slushie topped with a skewer of gluten-free baked goods, including a chocolate bite, honey toffee crunch and almond cookie. At Brim, $7.45
No troupe of sun-weary journalists has ever passed on a midday iced coffee, yet consensus was the Joey Mary just… tried too dang hard. With its skewer of toffee that stuck to our teeth, spirulina-dusted truffle in a boat, and almond cookie that resembled the texture of a kitchen sponge, the spendy drink felt built more for ‘gramming that enjoying. But did the caffeinated good stuff itself go down smooth? You betcha.
Serving build-your-own hamburgers, cheeseburgers and bacon cheeseburgers (with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup, mayo, mustard, BBQ sauce and more); breakfast sandwiches (sausage or bacon with a fresh egg and cheese on a toasted English muffin); crinkle-cut French fries; tater tots; and assorted beverages, including fresh-brewed coffee. At Blue Ox Burger Bar, $7
The shiny new blue trailer, adorned with a toothsome Paul Bunyan and the titular Babe, promises bold new horizons in fried beef patty assemblage. But what you’ll get is a perfectly acceptable cheeseburger on an ordinary bun. And then when you move to the construction site, there’s nothing fancy there either, just containers of Heinz ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce, slabs of tomato bigger than they are flavorful, and the usual pickles, onions, and lettuce. Jalapenos are the furthest out this joint gets. If you need to burg it up at the Fair, the Patio Grill is still your best bet.
Cayenne Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Sandwich
One of 10 varieties of ice cream sandwiches made with two cookies and ice cream. At Thelma’s Handmade Ice Cream Sandwiches, $5
Foisted over the counter in nothing but shrink wrap, this treat is purely for enjoying, and will not impress the “cool” kids based on looks. After harnessing the strength of three beasts to bust through its plasticized exterior, prepare to be amazed by the creeping burn hiding in the cookies’ shell. The creamy center cuts the burn just right when going back for bite after bite, while you marvel as that wrapper that had been a nuisance mere moments ago begins to protect your hands from errant drips. This is a sneakily great fair food harkening back to simpler times, here to remind you that gimmicks are just that.
Bada Bing Sandwich
Italian-inspired warm flatbread sandwich with ham, salami, melted mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, fresh basil and creamy balsamic vinaigrette dressing. At Sandwich Stop, $9
Put your phone in your pocket. This sammich is so greasy you won’t be ready to use your hands for a little while. Good news is, that’s all it’ll take for you to bite through it. A quick press on the grill brings the flavors of its thin layers together in gooey, slightly slimy bliss. We wish we’d been reminded the Bada Bing has basil on it before the second to last bite. Fortunately, that was only a couple minutes and a few Tony Soprano-sized bites since we’d got out mitts on it.
Tangy BBQ sauce drizzled on top of french-fried onions and fresh-made coleslaw, layered over pulled pork, elote, Oaxaca cheese and peppery spices – all on a seasoned hash brown waffle. At the Hangar, $11
Holy hell, skip to the other side of the fairgrounds! A truly haphazard abomination, the Tailspin only boasts one redeeming quality, and that’s the telling name: It’s pure plane wreckage. We’re talking gelatinous globs of fatty pork, sagging fried onions, lifeless cheese, soggy hash brown base, can-quality corn, and purported “spices,” although our bites yielded scant evidence amid the gross-out sweetness. The coleslaw was fine. At $11, you’re dropping serious coin on serious slop. To end on a positive note, we will say an $8 20-ounce Castle Danger Cream Ale washed away memories of the Tailspin quite nicely.
All photos by City Pages staff; italicized descriptions courtesy of the fair