We're in the middle of the Minnesota State Fair right now and one of the questions at the top of every fair fan's mind is, "What should I be eating this year?"
James Norton, editor of Heavy Table, heads a team of tasters ("The Wrecking Crew") that every year puts together an encyclopedic guide to the Fair's food and drink. I spoke with Norton about what he and his team found at the fair this year.
CRANN:Tell us a little bit about your method for putting your guide together.
NORTON: I think it's as close to scientific as you can get with something like this. We assemble a posse of more than a dozen writers and photographers and move in the first morning of the fair with an eye to eating as many of the 50 or so new fair food items as we can. This year we broke the fair out into five zones (Zones A-E) and sent out runners at each zone to bring back items to a central sampling location to be photographed, tasted, and evaluated. In total, we tasted more than 50 things — probably closer to 60 once you factor in beverages.
CRANN: What are some of the can't miss savory tastes from the fair?
NORTON: One of my personal favorites are the porketta pig wings — which is to say pig shanks — at the new Mancini's al Fresco restaurant at the fair. They're tender but not gelatinous or too soft and they have this deep, lovely spiced flavor. Shockingly sophisticated.
The deep-fried olives at Fried Fruit really surprised us — the salty, bright flavor of the olives really cuts through the heavy breading, and the creamy ranch dressing and cream cheese tie all the flavors together beautifully.
And mango-on-a-stick with chili and lime from El Burrito Mercado garnered some of the most wildly enthused reactions from our tasters, who really loved its bright, clean, bold, sweet flavors. We called it "the ultimate fair fruit."
CRANN: How about sweet tastes, for those of us looking for dessert while we wander?
NORTON: The Minnepumpkin pie knocked my socks off. It's a fried hand pie with a sugary, flaky crust, a creamy, pumpkin-forward filling and an optional (but should be mandatory) scoop of cinnamon ice cream on the side. Every bit of this dish — flavor and texture-wise — complements every other bit. Really wonderful.
The bacon cannoli at Ole's Cannoli were great. The candied bacon doesn't overwhelm the filling or the crunchy shell, but it isn't overwhelmed by them either. It really brings something new and tasty to the party.
And Izzy's Ice Cream at the Hamline Dining Hall did a terrific job — the Mini Donut Batter Crunch Ice Cream had a beautiful cinnamon flavor and crunchy/chewy texture, and the Pomegranate Pizzazz Sorbet was the best palate cleanser we tried all day. Great for scouring layers of fat and sugar off of your tongue.
CRANN: How about the fair's gastronomic land mines — what were your biggest disappointments?
NORTON: Unfortunately, we tasted a lot of duds — check out our guide for more of those — but I found the wine-glazed meatloaf at Minnesota Wine Country was personally devastating. I thought it would be rich and sensuous, but instead it tasted like a veggie burger with self-esteem problems.
And the Blue Moon Diner chop dog really bummed us out. It started with a terrific Kramarczuk's all-beef wiener but then sticks chopped up grilled wiener bits into this massive loaf-of-bread sized bun that just swallows up all the flavor.
CRANN: Possibly the most buzzed-about items were the Lift Bridge Brewing Mini-Donut beer and the liquid nitrogen-chilled comet corn at the Blue Moon Diner. How were they?
NORTON: The mini-donut beer really divided us. Some of us found it too sweet and basically undrinkable, and some of us thought the sugary yeasty flavor was really good in context, if not something we'd drink year-round.
The Comet Corn was great. It's basically caramel corn hit with cheese dust and then chilled with liquid nitrogen so that it looks like it's smoking with vapor. Really crisp, kind of refreshing, and extremely fun from a presentation perspective.
CRANN: Overall, how'd the fair fare fare this year?
NORTON: I feel as though every year we go to the fair in force, we find more really wonderful hits and more atrocious misses. The food is almost getting more extreme as everyone scrambles to have the big buzzed about hit item of the year. It's one of the reasons that checking our online guide is such a good idea. Let us take the hits for you.