I have to confess I'm a bit of a Minnesota State Fair food skeptic. I've had my fair share (ba dum sha!) of the trendy picks of the year, like deep-fried candy bars (ugh), chocolate covered bacon (two great tastes that taste great separately), and cheesecake on a stick (highly unnecessary.)
But still, I love the State Fair, I love the sense of community, I love the opportunities to gawk at charming bits of American life that are completely foreign, and yet completely informative about my own American life. (Elaborate quilts! Beekeeping! Pre-teen prancing on the midway!)
And of course, I love the food. I love the same food everyone does, my must-visit, top three unbudgeable State Fair foods being:
1) Roast corn
2) Mini donuts
3) Cheese curds
I know, I know, no surprises there. I'll confess I also have two newish tastes that I never miss, which are:
1) Whatever James Beard award-nominated pastry chef Michele Gayer is doing at her Salty Tart presence in the Midtown Global Market booth. (This year she says it will be fresh strawberry parfaits.)
2) Harry Singh's "doubles," in the food building. Doubles are the street foods of Singh's native Trinidad, spicy bits of chick pea-based fry-bread filled with curry. He never makes them at his Eat Street, Nicollet Avenue, restaurant because they're too casual, and are best made in big batches for big crowds, so if you want doubles in Minnesota, you have to go to the State Fair.
But back to the other offerings: Hope springs eternal. Every year I taste through the new offerings at the fair, hoping that one will become a new favorite, a sentimental end-of-summer touchstone to mark the passing of the years. This year I tried: Chocolate-covered jalapenos, breakfast sausages on a stick, sweet corn ice cream, fried apple pies, fusion tacos, and plenty of other fair newcomers (and beer,) in the hopes of finding something fantastic. And I found them! This critic's picks for the best new fair-foods:
Breakfast Lollipops at Axel's: They're basically a corn dog, but with a breakfast sausage in the middle, corn-muffin batter on the outside, and syrup to dip it in. Did a corn dog need syrup? Yes! I'm calling the breakfast corn dog an idea whose time has come. Bring your own bib. (Food Building, SE corner)
Pretzel-dog on a stick, Der Pretzel Haus: How many variations are there on a corn dog/ Pronto Pup? Answer: As many as the human mind can imagine. I liked this one, the sturdy pretzel contrasting nicely with the hot dog, and the whole thing feeling very fair-like. (West side of Ligget, south of Midway).
Sweet corn ice cream, with blueberry or caramel-bacon sauce, at The Blue Moon Diner: Sweet corn ice cream has been popping up on fancy restaurant menus for years now. It's good stuff, the natural sweetness of the corn well complemented by cream, the same way it is by butter. The caramel-bacon sauce just gives it a certain air of devil may care 2011 on-trend relevance. (Carnes and Chambers)
Koshari at the Holy Land's stand, (a sort of vegetarian lentil chili): Everyone yearns for a healthy, but craveable treat, and the Holy Land's Koshari just might be it. This Egyptian street-food is essentially a spicy lentil and rice chili, and it's worth seeking out in the corner of the Bazaar where the Holy Land has their stand; if you've never seen that stand, please know it's the leading source of gyros in the fair, beloved by both fair-workers and visitors alike. (South Wall, Bazaar)
Caprese salad on a stick over chilled wild rice by Giggles Campfire grill: Another bid for healthiness, this is tomatoes and mozzarella balls threaded on a stick, and served over chilled wild rice. Finally, a salad that makes sense on a stick! (Cooper and Lee, in the North Woods)
Individual fried apple pies from Minneapple: For everyone who loves McDonald's fried pies: An even better version! Crisp, appley, it's hard to imagine a better walking-pie. (Judson between Nelson and Underwood)
Minnesota craft brews at the Ballpark Cafe: The other big new news of the fair this year is that the Minnesota Craft Brewers have taken over the little outdoor beer-garden next to the Food Building, so you'll be able to drink Surly, Lift Bridge, and Summit beer with your new foods — or with your old foods. Take it from a card-carrying wine-critic, and Minnesota State Fair lover: A Lift Bridge Farm Girl Saison is just the thing to pair with roasted corn and Summit's summer hefeweizen goes spectacularly with mini-donuts.