We tasted new food at the Minnesota State Fair – here’s our take.
By AndrewZimmern.com Staff
Tasked with sampling a slew of new foods at the State Fair, we skipped breakfast and headed out early Thursday morning with empty stomachs and open minds. There were pleasant surprises (maple bacon shaved ice!), a few safe bets (anything with ice cream) and plenty of misfires. Overall, it made for a great “day at the office,” and now you can learn from our hard-eaten mistakes. Head into the Fair with our map and a clear itinerary of what to try (and what to avoid).
SPAM® Sushi: Grilled SPAM®, sushi rice, fried egg and wasabi rolled in nori (dried seaweed).
AZ.com: It wouldn’t be a list of new foods without a side of SPAM. While the architecture of the roll was impressive, it tasted like how cat food smells. Somehow, this was our first experience tasting the canned meat, so maybe we’re just not SPAM people… or maybe SPAM just doesn’t belong with nori and wasabi.
Location: Sushi Rolls, located in the Warner Coliseum, north side
Minnesota Corn Dog: Custom ground sausage on-a-stick made with blueberries, apples, wild rice, maple syrup and cayenne dipped in a homemade corndog batter and deep-fried.
AZ.com: While not exactly pretty to look at, the batter here was expertly crunchy and crisp. A lot of the added ingredients didn’t come across in the taste, but the sausage flavor was packed with blueberries and quite enjoyable. Not bad for five bucks. Another contender in the corn dog, pronto pup debate.
Location: Gass Station Grill, located on the west side of Cooper Street between Dan Patch and Judson avenues, outside the southeast corner of the Food Building
Carpe Diem: A Taiyaki (fish-shaped) buttermilk miso waffle cone filled with balsamic-roasted strawberry compote and topped with vanilla ice cream, graham cracker crumble and a fresh strawberry.
AZ.com: This fish-shaped cone had many fair-goers talking, and the sundae was certainly delicious. The workers seemed unsure how to properly stuff the fish with ice cream, and without napkins or a paper basket it quickly became messy. Once they work out a few kinks with the carpe diem waffle cone, it’ll be a hit, and a shining example of creativity on the fairgrounds.
Location: The Rabbit Hole, located at the Midtown Global Market booth at the International Bazaar, east wall
Candied Bacon Donut Sliders: Sliced glazed donut holes with thick candied bacon and a chocolate red wine ganache.
AZ.com: A shareable sweet-and-savory donut slider with candied bacon. Although the chocolate red wine ganache wasn’t particularly appealing, and the $9 price tag was a bit steep, these cute bacon-filled bundles were worth sharing with friends.
Location: Minnesota Wine Country, located on the west side of Underwood Street between Carnes and Judson avenues
Rustic Beef Pastry: Moroccan-spiced, grass-fed beef and baby spinach topped with creamy goat cheese and nestled in a flakey butter crust.
AZ.com: We deemed the puff pastry base acceptable, but the toppings were lackluster and dry. We wished we had ordered one of the peach scones that were flying off the shelf instead.
Location: French Meadow Bakery & Café, located on the north side of Carnes Avenue between Nelson and Underwood streets
Macaroni & Cheese Curds: Rich macaroni & cheese blended with fresh cheese curds.
AZ.com: Don’t be fooled by the addition of cheese curds… this was a gloppy disaster. The Velveeta-like fake cheese flavor was only made worse by the chewy curds. Walk half a block and pick up an order of the Original Cheese Curds instead; you’ll be much happier.
Location: Oodles of Noodles, located in the Food building, east wall
Strawberry Donut Delight: A fresh glazed donut sliced in half and filled with strawberries and whipped cream – like a shortcake sandwich!
AZ.com: This beautiful donut-compote assembly certainly earned points for presentation. We can’t help but feel it would’ve been better if made to order, but the donut got a little soggy from the fresh strawberries, which helped in a strawberry-shortcake-kind-of-way.
Location: The Strawberry Patch, located on the west side of Liggett Street between Carnes and Judson avenues
Sheep Dog: Lamb dog served hot in a bun with garlic sautéed kale, raw fermented sauerkraut, quinoa and honey mustard drizzle.
AZ.com: We’re huge fans of the Lamb Shoppe, but in the future we will stick to their regular menu choices. The pile of toppings didn’t add much to the tasty dog. This year they’re also serving locally-brewed kombucha, which was refreshing, and a nice addition to the non-alcoholic offerings at the fair.
Location: Lamb Shoppe, located in the Food Building, east wall
Deep Fried Nachos Supreme: Pepper jack cheese cubes coated with a mixture of crushed seasoned tortilla chips and nacho cheese, then deep-fried, covered with taco meat, guacamole, more nacho cheese and sour cream, and served with jalapeños on the side.
AZ.com: The deep fried nachos featured a perplexing concept, made even more confusing by its appearance upon arrival: 3 huge deep-fried balls of… Something. Cutting into the dish revealed its mechanism: crushed tortilla chips, formed into balls for deep-frying, filled with nacho cheese. The chips were crispy on the outside, and soaked with cheese on the inside. The consensus was: it’s confusing, but we like it. Can’t say this is the type of food one would typically want on a summer day, but it was shockingly satisfying, especially paired with pickled jalapenos.
Location: Texas Steak Out, located on the west side of Underwood Street between Lee and Randall avenues
Candied Bacon BLT: Crispy, thick candied bacon, rancher’s slaw and green tomato spread on a sweet egg bun.
AZ.com: Typically, any BLT worth its salt depends on texture, starting with well-executed toast for its foundation. This unexpected sandwich makes the case for shifting to buns. A generous pile of bacon, cooked just right, topped with two mildly-sweet sauces made this one of the best foods of the day.
Location: The Blue Barn, located at West End Market, south of the History & Heritage Center
Saucy Shrimp & Slaw: Breaded shrimp tossed in your choice of parmesan garlic, sweet chili or buffalo sauce on a bed of fresh coleslaw.
AZ.com: Can’t say we crave hot shrimp on a sweltering day at the fair, and the seafood flavor in this basket was definitely on the shrimpy side. Run-of-the-mill creamy coleslaw struck us as an odd pairing, and failed to impress. However, there is something to be said about sticky, buffalo-coated deep-fried snacks, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this one’s for you.
Location: Fish & Chips Seafood Shoppe, Two locations: Located in the Food Building, northwest section, and on the west side of Liggett Street just south of Mighty Midway
Spicy Pork Bowl: A mix of adobo pulled pork, rice, black beans, spinach, charred salsa and fried onion strings.
AZ.com: This dish arrived as a rather intimidating pile of pulled pork. The acidic sweetness in the marinade cut the richness of the pork, and made this an enjoyable and hearty bowl. The one misstep here was the exceptionally garlicky spinach, which didn’t quite sit right with the rest of the flavors on hand.
Location: The Blue Barn, located at West End Market, south of the History & Heritage Center
Reuben Pickle Dog: A dill pickle spear with sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing wrapped in a slice of pastrami.
AZ.com: We love the quintessentially Minnesotan pickle dog – a pickle spear, snuggly nestled with cream cheese, wrapped in pastrami. The trappings of a Reuben didn’t strike us as much of an improvement – we wanted more pickle and more meat. Our advice: get the ratios right and stick to the traditional dog.
Location: Pickle Dog, located on the south side of Carnes Avenue between Liggett and Chambers streets
Deep Fried Grilled Cheese Bites: White cheddar cheese blended with beer batter, cubed and deep fried for a taste reminiscent of a grilled cheese sandwich. Served with a bloody mary mix marinara.
AZ.com: The description says it all: “a taste reminiscent of a grilled cheese.” Instead of an actual deep-fried sandwich, we received pre-made “bites” of “cheese,” tossed into a frier. The crispy exterior would have been a saving grace, had it not been for the off-putting taste of the “bloody mary mix marinara.” Thanks for the beer though!
Location: O’Gara’s at the Fair, located on the southwest corner of Dan Patch Avenue and Cosgrove Street
Beer Brat Buddies: Oktoberfest beer brat in a German pretzel bun with sauerkraut, chopped onions and a choice of mustards – a serving for two!
AZ.com: The concept here wasn’t much of a concept: two mini sausages, placed in one pretzel bun, cut in half. The gimmick leaves something to be desired, but if you’re hungry for brats, this one was quite good. Perhaps pairing it with a lemonade and two straws would help send the message home.
Location: Sausage Sister & Me, located in the Food Building, east wall
CRACKER JACK® Caramel Sundae: Soft vanilla ice cream topped with caramel, coated chocolate candies, whipped cream and a drizzle of hot fudge, served atop CRACKER JACK® popcorn in an original CRACKER JACK® box.
AZ.com: Here’s a case of fair food done right: old favorites presented in a new way, where the gimmick isn’t hitting you over the head. You can’t go wrong with a pile of Cracker Jacks topped with ice cream, caramel, M&M minis, fudge, and a healthy topping of whipped cream. Bonus points for serving it in a split-open Cracker Jack box—kids will love this (and let’s face it: we did, too).
Location: Goertze’s Dairy Kone, located on the east side of Cooper Street next to the Merchandise Mart
Chocolate Agate Crunch: Izzy’s® smooth chocolate Caramelia ice cream with chocolate cookie crumbles and edible chocolate rocks inspired by our state gemstone – the Lake Superior Agate, all folded with a salted caramel swirl.
AZ.com: The Lake Superior Agate flavor is essentially chocolate with chunks of “agate,” aka cookie pieces, mixed into the ice cream. Not a particularly creative new flavor, but seriously delicious nonetheless. Really, Izzy’s Ice Cream never disappoints. Try it with a bonus scoop of peppermint!
Location: Hamline Church Dining Hall, located on the north side of Dan Patch Avenue between Underwood and Cooper streets
The Elvis: Homemade banana ice cream infused with creamy peanut butter served in a cup or waffle cone.
AZ.com: Although this was the 10th ice cream dish we tried today, we still managed to finish it… it was that good. Fresh (real) banana flavor, in a heavenly-textured ice cream. We would have voted for a little more peanut butter swirl action, but overall this is a winner. Bonus points because the ice cream machines are powered by tractors.
Location: R&R Ice Cream, located on the southeast corner of Randall Avenue and Underwood Street
Minnesnowii Shave Ice Exclusive flavor also available at the State Fair: Maple bacon shave ice topped with bacon bits and a maple syrup drizzle.
AZ.com: Sounds gross right? Well, it’s actually not bad. While offering little in the way of bacon-flavor besides a few measly bits on top, and looking more or less like a pile of sauerkraut due to the light beige color, this was actually extremely refreshing, and had a few of us going back for more. Imagine asking for an order of pancakes on ice, and you’ve pretty much got it.
Location: Minnesnowii Shave Ice, located at West End Market, south section
Banana Cinnamon & Cream Dipped in Dark Chocolate: Frozen banana, cinnamon and cream dipped in dark chocolate and served on-a-stick.
AZ.com: A little too cinnamon-y for our taste, but any JonnyPop is a worthwhile desert. The shining characteristics here were real fruit flavor and high-quality chocolate.
Location: JonnyPops, located at West End Market, center section
OOF-da Tacos adds a little oomph to typical tacos. A special fry bread dough shell is served with ground beef, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, onion, olives and sour cream. A vegetarian pinto bean taco, nachos, taco salads and more are also available.
AZ.com: Honestly, we went with the vegetarian option, which may have been a mistake. The fry bread was decent, but the toppings left a little to be desired. We’ll return to try the meaty Oof-da taco (and maybe a walking taco, too) and report back.
Location: North side of Dan Patch Avenue between Cooper and Cosgrove streets
Tot Boss takes tater tots to the next level, serving them in a variety of indulgent configurations.
AZ.com: Can’t believe it’s taken this long for the Tot Boss to open a stand at the fair. It’s food made for the fair! We tried the bacon-wrapped tots (bacon item #7 of the day), and they were way better than expected. The bacon was pleasantly crispy, and lent fantastic flavor to the well-executed tots. We would’ve preferred a different dipping sauce over the cheese sauce, which didn’t bring much flavor to the table. Try these tots-on-a-stick with ketchup, or even just on their own.
Location: East side of Underwood Street between Wright and Dan Patch avenues, south of Kidway.
Iron Range Meat & Potatoes: A hearty portion of seasoned beef with a layer of cheddar cheese, topped with mashed potatoes, baked, and drizzled with a wild rice gravy.
AZ.com: We were split on whether this casserole/cafeteria-style meatloaf, topped with mashed potatoes and gravy, appealed to our appetites or not. In the end, we came together in dismissal of this block of prepared and prepackaged foodstuffs. The place was packed – we’re assuming the cheap kids meals and 36 beers on tap helped fill out the lines. Also, we have to give a shout out to the s’mores beer we tried. S’mores beer!
Location: Giggles’ Campfire Grill, located on the southeast corner of Lee Avenue and Cooper Street at The North Woods
Cheesy French Onion Monkey Bread: Savory, pull-apart artisan bread loaf filled with caramelized onions, cheese and beef broth, then baked in a wood-fired oven.
AZ.com: This soft, salty, cheesy loaf was very satisfying. It would have been perfect for sitting on the couch, warming by the fire, watching movies in the middle of winter. Seems like an odd dish to feature at the State Fair.
Location: Blue Moon Dine-In Theater, located on the northeast corner of Carnes Avenue and Chambers Street
Gumbo Frites: French fries topped with Ragin’s traditional New Orleans gumbo made with andouille sausage, chicken, bell peppers, onions, celery and a rich roux-based sauce, then finished off with cheese and green onions.
AZ.com: In the presence of such french fried greatness at the fair, any further attempts need to at least offer something semi-respectable, and these limp fries did not stand up. Topped with what tasted like canned soup and small meat bits, with no peppers, onions or celery in sight, this dish earned a mighty “skip” rating.
Location: Ragin Cajun, located in The Garden, west wall
Italian Taco: A flour tortilla baked with butter and shredded parmesan, filled with Italian sausage and mozzarella, topped with roasted bruschetta, romaine lettuce, Caesar dressing, pesto, pizza sauce and parmesan cheese, and then drizzled with a balsamic glaze.
AZ.com: If you can’t tell by the surplus of articles floating around this website, we are fair lovers. We truly get pumped up to join the masses in the dairy, food and farm buildings, and indulge in way too many fried foods. And if it seems like we’re judging these new foods a little harshly, let’s chalk that up to disappointment in the face of genuine excitement. But we are going to get real here for a second: the Italian Taco at Green Mill was an abomination. Too many fillings, too many sauces, sausage bits scraped off a Totino’s pizza, all wrapped up in a parmesan flecked “tortilla”, and permeated with the fake-y cheese flavor that coats many of Green Mill’s offerings. Plus, it was difficult to physically eat. The good news is that you’re at the Fair, so you’ve got plenty of options to try besides the Green Mill.
Location: Green Mill, located on the east side of Cooper Street, between Randall and Wright avenues, at Family Fair at Baldwin Park
Call It Breakfast: A vanilla malt or sundae topped with chunks of bakery-fresh donuts, drizzled with chocolate and latte-flavored syrups, and finished with sprinkles.
AZ.com: The Dairy Goodness Bar is a popular Fair staple, famous for its cheap and addictive cones. After sampling so many successful new ice cream offerings, one was bound to miss the mark – and this was it. From the first bites of dry donut pieces, to the toppings straight off a Sysco truck, this dressed up soft serve was a dud. Don’t skip this stand, but be sure to stick with plain cones and malts.
Location: Dairy Goodness Bar – Midwest Dairy Association, located in the Dairy Building, east wall
Burnt Butt Ends: Premium cuts of pork, seasoned with a BBQ rub, then smoked over oak and served with onions and jalapeños.
AZ.com: We obviously love barbecue, so checking out RC’s BBQ ranked high on our list. This basket of meat left us puzzled, as it beared little resemblance to actual Kansas City burnt ends. The expected charred bits of smoked meat were instead replaced by pork chunks made mostly of fat, dressed in a mild, run-of-the-mill BBQ sauce.
Location: RC’s BBQ, located on the north side of West Dan Patch Avenue between Liggett and Chambers streets (former site of Famous Dave’s)
Bang Bang Fresh Chicken Tenders: Lightly breaded, fresh, never-frozen fried chicken tenderloins served with Bang Bang sweet and tangy chili sauce.
AZ.com: These chicken tenders were well-executed, and an example of why fair food is best when it’s simple and made with real ingredients. They’re juicy, doused in a flavorful, albeit throat-coating, dry rub and served with a mild/sweet chili sauce. And they were definitely a true crowd-pleaser, as everyone around us was emphatically in favor of these fried tenders. Looking to feed 10? Order the large portion, it’s a good price for a huge pile of food.
Location: LuLu’s Public House, located at West End Market, south of Schilling Amphitheater
La La Palooza Sundae: Eight scoops of ice cream (two each of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and butter brittle) covered with caramel, pineapple and strawberry toppings, plus nuts, cherries, sliced banana and whipped cream, all served in Bridgeman’s signature souvenir goblet.
AZ.com: If you’re with a group of 8 hungry ice cream lovers, by all means, get this sundae. It’s what you expect from an ice cream treat called La La Palooza – an overwhelming amount of scoops, drenched in every topping under the sun. No complaints, other than the stomach ache that ensued after we devoured this for breakfast.
Location: Bridgeman’s Ice Cream, located on the northeast corner of Judson Avenue and Liggett Street
Cajun Peel-N-Eat Shrimp: A half-pound of shrimp seasoned in a blend of Caribbean spices and served cold with a side of cocktail sauce.
AZ.com: This seemed like odd (and messy) walking around food for a landlocked state’s annual fair… maybe it would’ve been more appropriate for the Louisiana State Fair. With that said, the shrimp were fresh enough, cold and served with a lemon and decent cocktail sauce (we’ll eat anything doused in the stuff). We could’ve gone without the kitschy red netting presentation.
Location: Café Caribe, located on the south side of Carnes Avenue between Liggett and Nelson streets
SPAM® Curds: Cheese-flavored SPAM® that has been cubed, battered and deep-fried, served with a side of ranch dressing.
AZ.com: The thought of revisiting SPAM did not have us excited. When the “curds” came out, we were ready to change our minds – the spiced and crispy batter looked appealing, even after a truckload of other fried foods. While the breading tasted as good as it looked, our hopes were quickly sunk. Look, we understand that for some of you, SPAM holds a place near and dear to your heart. But this straight up tastes like cat food, and we just. Don’t. Get it. Any hint of cheese flavoring was totally absent, and no condiment could cover that taste. At least we successfully passed the basket off to a guy chowing down on a SPAM burger, obviously one of the aforementioned SPAM lovers – we salute you, sir.
Location: SPAM®, located east of Chambers Street, just south of the Grandstand
Headed to the State Fair this year? Check these out before you go.