The Growler’s review of the new foods at the 2018 Minnesota State Fair was supported by underwriting partner, Save the Boundary Waters. Growler food editor James Norton was joined by tasters Ted Held, Amy Rea, and Sarah McGee. Photography by Becca Dilley, Brenda Johnson, and Sarah McGee; illustrations by Terri Myers Wentzka.
The Minnesota State Fair is a cornucopia, a gift from the gods that belches forth an annual bounty that we the people of Minnesota receive with equal portions of gratitude, confusion, and resentment.
Gratitude, because if you do as we do, and pound down nearly 50 items at a go in search of the Fair’s best tastes, you’ll inevitably be blessed by some legitimately sublime culinary moments of discovery. Confusion, because there’s a lot of stuff that just doesn’t make much sense. And resentment, because there are items that seem calculated to suck our wallets dry without giving up much in return, and/or are actively trying to kill us with spicy heat, wet dog-related flavors, or just plain, old-fashioned awfulness.
We’re proud—and confused, and ashamed—to present to you this agonizingly ranked and sorted list of the 2018 Minnesota State Fair’s new food offerings, from the triumphant to the terrible to the please-try-harder-next-time. Happy hunting! (Find The Growler’s tasting notes of the new specialty drinks at the 2018 Minnesota State Fair here.)
The Triumphant Thirteen
S’mores Sundae | $5 | Dairy Barn
This was a winner, and not just from a taste and texture perspective. It was also that lovely rarity of the Fair: a good bargain. For just $5, you get a sizable serving of creamy vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, Golden Grahams cereal, and the most adorable teeny-tiny marshmallows that also had a little crunch to them. It’s an even more luxurious dish than what it’s named after, and it would be a great choice for sharing. –A.R.
Earth Wings | $7 | French Meadow
Earth Wings are nothing more than battered, deep-fried cauliflower florets covered in a sweet and salty sesame barbecue sauce, but they’re compelling eating—the cauliflower has a lovely crunchy texture and the sauce that covers them has real kick and a clear point of view. The dish is also vegan and gluten free, unusual in the context of a Fair where a bacon-covered piece of fried dough is common enough to pass without generating comment.
Honey Cream Soda Float | $9 | Minnesota Honey Producers
Yes, $9 is a lot to pay for a float, but if you want a truly sweet, refreshing, and classic treat, you won’t do better than this particular beverage. The combination of honey cream soda (made without sugar, but still beautifully sweet) and honey ice cream is delicate and enchanting, and the whole beverage is a lovely one-two punch of tastiness and thirst-quenching power.
Wood-Grilled Elote | $5 | Tejas Grill
All the charm of roasted sweet corn plus some serious added zip—spicy mayo, cotija cheese, and a serious dose of lime juice give this simple dish a classic culinary upgrade from “pleasant” to “compellingly delicious.”
Bananas Foster French Toast (Breakfast Only) | $9.25 | Hamline Dining Hall
A good French toast can be a transportive dish, and this Hamline Dining Hall dish is really quite good—there’s a strong cinnamon kick throughout and bananas are present and very much accounted for in the composition of the dish. A sprinkling of marmalade-like candied orange bits is a welcome addition.
Salmon-on-a-Stick Waffle | $10 | Nordic Waffles
It’s not clear that we would have believed you if you’d told us, before the Fair, that one of the outstanding dishes was going to be a waffle folded over a classic lox, scallions, and cream cheese filling, but there you have it. The tender-but-chewy waffle is a wonderful way to show off a classic mix of savory flavors and it’s one of those perfect old-meets-new mashups that the Fair is rightfully famous for.
The Ultimate Minneapple Pie | $10 | Minneapple Pie
There’s not a lot new going on with this ginned-up, sundae-like presentation of Minneapple Pies—it’s just an apple hand pie plus two scoops of ice cream and an apple syrup reduction. And yet, it’s aggravatingly delicious. We fought amongst ourselves for the scraps of this one. The creaminess of the ice cream, the buttery crust, the sugar and apples and cinnamon sneaking in and out of all the elements individually and also taken as a unit—it’s just superb.
Mangonada Shaved Ice | $6 | MinneSnowii Shave Ice
The Mexican mangonada is a tricky dish to pull off: It represents a sensuous collision of the sweet and the savory, with everything from chili powder to tamarind to sliced mangos all jamming together to create something complex and lovely. That tension and complexity play out beautifully in the MinneSnowii mangonada shave ice, which unites chamoy sauce, tamarind, shaved ice, chili powder, and incredibly delicate mango boba pearls. Bold and refreshing, it was one of the most interesting (and pleasant) bites of the whole Fair.
Grilled Peach | $9 | The Produce Exchange
Balance the natural sweetness of a peach with goat cheese and herbs, apply a bit of fire, and you get this indulgent-tasting but not unhealthy treat. The Produce Exchange peaches are always a good move at the Fair, but you do gamble a bit with ripeness; the grilling and accoutrements of this preparation let you get the peach without any of the risk. –S.M.
Heirloom Tomato Sweet Corn BLT | $12 | Birchwood at Minnesota Farmers Union
We’re not always fans of stunt grains like Kernza (which can overwhelm the balance of baked goods more typically made with old-school, out-of-fashion all purpose flour), but here in this Birchwood BLT, it really shines. The Baker’s Field Kernza focaccia bun has real chew and substance to it, which is helpful for containing and complementing the sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes, and thick-cut bacon that make this new take on a classic sandwich one of the finest savory options at the Fair.
Chocolate Cream Nitro Cold Brew | $7 | Anchor Coffee House
The Chocolate Cream Nitro Cold Brew at Anchor Coffee House is nothing short of excellent, in an absolute (not graded-on-a-Fair-curve) sense. Its chocolate flavor was rich but not overwhelming and left plenty of room for the coffee to shine. It was well-balanced, pleasantly bitter, sweet, creamy, and refreshing. –T.H.
UpNorth Puff Pasty | $8 | Sausage Sister and Me
This savory treat consists of porketta meat wrapped in a tremendously light and delicate puff pastry covering and combined with cheese curds, mustard, and chopped dill pickle. It’s a little like a Reuben in a pastry pocket and it’s a fantastic lunchtime mainstay. When we arrived at the Sausage Sister counter in the food building, a whole tray of these were emerging from the oven, and it was a glorious sight.
Rainbow Cloud Roll | $8 | Rainbow Ice Cream
In the darkest moment of our tour-de-Fair, after a long run of the stalest and blandest dishes the event had to offer, pure magic entered our lives in the form of the Rainbow Cloud Roll. Three scoops of ice cream (strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate) are rolled in cotton candy along with a crunchy handful of Fruity Pebbles. Something this juvenile and sugary shouldn’t work, but it does: the Pebbles provide a great crunch, the substance of the ice cream complements the ephemeral cotton candy, the thing itself looks magical, and each bite is a strangely compelling delight.
Of all the food-disguised-as-other-food gimmicky dessert burritos and savory meat sundaes that the Fair has generated over the years, this one is a true perfection of the form. It is a burrito as sweet and wonderful as the dreams of children. If you don’t like it, then you are an impenetrable cynic and we feel sorry for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go buy a cotton candy machine and make one of these for everyone I love. –T.H.
The Tragic Twelve (ranked from least bad to worst)
Croissant Breakfast Taco | $6 | Lulu’s Public House
The worst part of the Croissant Breakfast Taco is the “croissant tortilla” that the taco filling is wrapped in. It’s unsettling and vaguely spongy, and in no way has the chew or layered complexity of either a legit tortilla or a legit croissant. The filling, however, is good—it’s a savory clump of moist scrambled eggs thoroughly laced with bell pepper bits, and on its own it’s quite a nice start to the day.
Messy Giuseppe | $7.75 | Mancini’s
The Messy Giuseppe should be our kind of Fair Food—it’s a trashy mix of thick-cut white bread, a sauced-up Italian-spiced ground beef and pork sausage filling, and a welcome heat-plus-acid co-pilot in the form of a pepperoncini. But the version we tried (which lacked an optional $1 saucy upgrade) found the relatively underpowered filling overwhelmed by the thick white bread. Low-brow concepts can be big winners at the Fair, but they need a little more fine-tuning than this sandwich received.
General Tso’s Chicken Tacos | $12 | Taco Cat
Do we like Taco Cat? We do. We go there often and recommend their tacos. Can we endorse the General Tso’s Taco we ordered at the Fair? Not the version we received. The chicken itself was perfectly battered and deep-fried, but the sauce was overly salted by several orders of magnitude. And the flour tortilla would have been immeasurably improved with a few seconds on a hot grill. It’s not an unsalvageable concept but needs some tweaking in practice. –T.H.
Charcuterie on a Stick | $9 | Minnesota Wine Country
This characterless collection of commodity-grade cured meat, cheese, and gritty pita bread confidently proclaims “Fall Semester Faculty Mixer for the History Department.”
Birthday Cake | $7 | Sweetie Cakes
Take a boxed birthday cake mix complete with crunchy sprinkle bits, nuke it in a mug, and sell it at the Fair: that’s basically the gist here. Although one of our tasters did eat a self-destructively large portion of this cake, the majority of our nine-person group heartily disliked it.
Triple Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake | $6 | Strawberry Shortcake
There isn’t a lot to say about this decadent-sounding dessert: It’s an off-the-rack chocolate cake drowning in straight-from-the-syrupy-bag-of-frozen-strawberries strawberries, along with the formerly frozen syrup.
Pot Roast Sundae | $9 | Coasters
Coasters’ pot roast sundae (billed in some places as an equally unappetizing sounding Hot Beef Sundae) was basically a hot beef commercial sandwich without the bread: mashed potatoes, dry shredded pot roast, and gravy. The cherry tomato on top only contributed to a satirical notion of a real ice cream sundae. It was passable cafeteria food. –T.H.
Black Forest Cake | $7 | Sweetie Cakes
See the birthday cake entry above, but minus the amusing crunchy bits.
Spiked Fruit Kebabs | $9 | Minnesota Wine Country
The Spiked Fruit Kebabs (aka Sangria on a Stick) landed down here in the Bad Food Dungeon not because they were terrible (they weren’t: the two tiny skewers holding little chunks of melons, oranges, and so forth were reasonably well-laced with winey flavor and the overall effect was refreshing), but because they represented about $0.75 worth of fruit and $2 worth of labor, and they may be the worst value of anything you can purchase at the fair.
[Update: August 28, 10:04am; Based on this and similar feedback, Minnesota Wine Country will now be adding a third skewer to each order.]
Pepperoni Chips with Roasted Red Pepper Queso | $7 | Lulu’s Public House
This dish consisted of dessicated, thin, crunchy circles of pepperoni dipped into bell pepper–studded cheese dip. It confused us.
Moroccan Sausage Bowl | $7 | Sausage by Cynthia
This bowl of ground beef and lamb sausage, spices, carrots, red pepper, chickpeas, and olives gave the pizza dough balls (see below) a real run for their money in terms of catastrophic tasting experiences. The bowl we tried was like a traffic jam—mega earthy (the phrase “wet dog” came up), clogged up with raw carrot bits, and gritty to a fault. Ultimately, we handed the trophy to the dough balls, because as much as we disliked the execution of this dish, we had to admire its ambition.
Pizza Dough Balls | $7 | Tino’s Pizza on a Stick
Imagine you’ve ordered a thick-crust pizza from a national chain known more for its low prices than its quality. You pull some of the crust off and store it in the fridge for a few days, preferably not wrapped up in any way. Then you take it out and nuke it. Stale, dry-as-dust, tasteless—that’s what these dough balls are. You can dip them in marinara or sprinkle sugar and cinnamon all over them, but no matter: they’re still dried-up balls of nothingness. –A.R.
…And the rest!
CranOrange5 Pie | $6 | Sara’s Tipsy Pies
As pies go, this isn’t typical—it’s got a heavy cranberry presence and a real vodka finish. But it’s a well-balanced dessert with a real point of view, and it’s a lot of fun to eat, which counts for a great deal.
Root Beer Float Pop | $4 | Jonny Pops
This locally made ice pop promises the experience of eating a root beer float on a stick, and it fully delivers on that promise. It’s not complex, it’s not a new experience, but it’s remarkably pleasant and elegantly executed.
Strawberry Basil Lemonade | $5.50 for 12 ounces| Minnesota Farmer’s Union
Here’s our appeal to the vendors of the Fair: Keep making herbed fruit lemonades. The blueberry basil lemonade at the Blue Barn is one of our annual favorites, and this heavily strawberry-boosted version is just as excellent, with a great deal of real fruit flavor (and texture), and the entire drink managing to be tart without being too austere.
Berry Waffle | $8 | Nordic Waffles
This waffle boasts the same pleasantly chewy waffle as its salmon counterpart but lacks most of the impact. The berry filling is good but conventional, and the total impact is fairly mild and mellow.
Carolina Reaper Bites | $8 | Sabino’s
If you like pain, you’re going to love these sausage-stuffed dough knots. Sure, they’re not terribly flavorful, but that’s because they’re nothing more than delivery vehicles for over 1.4 million Scoville units of weaponized misery derived from the infamous Carolina Reaper hot pepper. Make sure you dip your Reaper Bites in the accompanying marinara sauce to balance out the peppers’ fierce heat. … Just kidding! They put a bunch of Carolina Reaper dust in there, too. But it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with 12 to 14 glasses of all-you-can-drink milk.
Sweet Greek Cheese Puffs | $5 | Dino’s
These divided our group a bit. Some felt they were too plain: just cream cheese with a bit of pastry topping and honey drizzled over. Others thought they were delicate and lightly sweet: just cream cheese with a bit of pastry topping and honey drizzled over. Same thing, different perspectives. You could definitely do worse for a sweet taste at the Fair. (See the dough balls.) –A.R.
Chicken Piccata Bites | $9 | Minnesota Wine Country
By a sheer cents-per-calorie value, this bucket of high falutin’ chicken nuggets is a pretty grand deal: three people could lightly graze a lunch off of this dish, and two could be well fed. The key piccata components of butter, capers, and lemon are all fully in effect, which means it’s not just cheap food, it’s a reasonably good homage to a classic dish.
The Donut Family | $7 | Cinna Roll Mini Donuts
There isn’t a lot to say about this small bucket of cinnamon-kicked mini-donuts piled high with whipped cream, but, honestly, they get the job done. The cinnamon cream-cheese frosting is a cruel blunt instrument but is ultimately impossible to resist.
Turducken Sausage Sandwich | $7 | Giggles
Giggles has done it again, although not with as much force as in earlier years. This grand-sounding turducken dish is really tasty but ultimately fairly plain. There’s a lovely fennel kick to the snappy, moist, well-composed sausage, and the inclusion of turkey helps lighten the load of the dish.
Irish Tater Kegs | $8 | O’Gara’s
These massive tot-like things boast corned beef, sauerkraut, sour cream, Swiss cheese, and a Thousand Island dressing, but not much really registers beyond the potatoes, corned beef, and dressing. That said, our group (mostly) liked it, and suggested that these spicy carb bombs would be a perfect pairing with any number of beers.
Stroopwaffels | 3 for $5 | Anchor Coffee House
These chewy, soften-’em-on-your-coffee stuffed waffles are a delightful part of Northern European coffee experiences and they can work their magic for you at the Fair, too, thanks to Anchor Coffee House. And at three for $5, they’re an affordable way to give a small pack of kids something to munch on until more substantial fare is in the offing.
Breakfast Burrito | $8 | The Hangar
This respectably sized breakfast burrito featured smoked brisket, impeccably grilled onions, spiced waffle fries, melted cheese, and more—a fine specimen of a breakfast-oriented Tex Mex experience in a flour tortilla. There’s only one reason it isn’t considerably higher on our list: there was no hot sauce available anywhere nearby, and it badly needed the acid and heat.
Smoked Soft Serve Ice Cream | $7 | Blue Moon Diner
Blue Moon Diner proved it knew a thing or two about ice cream several years ago when it debuted its sweet corn ice cream. The smoked iteration is available in a couple of flavors. We chose coffee, and found that simply as coffee ice cream, this was lovely; the ice cream is rich and creamy with a good but not overwhelming taste of coffee. But if we didn’t know this had been smoked, we might have missed that aspect altogether, so slight is the smoky aftertaste. It’s still good, just not quite the smoked product we expected. –A.R.
Bratwurst Burger | $5.75 | Mac’s
The name says it all: this is a burger made from bratwurst meat, offered in a single, double, or triple size, with various toppings. But whereas a good brat has a snappy casing that, when grilled, gets more flavorful from the char, all of that is completely missing here. The brat meat is fine, but you’re missing the actual brat experience that—let’s be honest—makes a brat. –A.R.
Turkey Dog | $7 | Pickle Dog
Stick with the standard pastrami-wrapped, cream cheese–packed, Reuben-inspired pickle dog; the new turkey version is relatively weak sauce, as it misses the smoke and salt of the pastrami and, along with it, most of its punch and reason for being.
Firecracker Shrimp-Stuffed Avocado | $14 | The Hideaway
What’s in a name? An expectation. If you order just a shrimp-stuffed avocado, and you receive a plate with a plump, perfectly ripe avocado filled with a delicate shrimp salad with a bit of corn and black beans, you might be delighted with this fresh, light, mild but pleasant dish. If, however, the dish you ordered is called “Firecracker” shrimp-stuffed avocado, you might feel a bit put out that there was not one bite that had anything resembling “firecracker” in terms of flavor. We know that Hideaway ran out of this dish very early in the day, and perhaps when scrambling to bring in more ingredients to restock in the afternoon something got lost. But the name left us hoping for some kind of a tang or kick that just never came.
Shrimp Ceviche | $7 | Shrimp Shack
Shrimp Shack’s shrimp ceviche is made with cooked (not cured) shrimp, which raises existential questions about the nature of ceviche. In the end, we all agreed that cooking the shrimp was probably for the best at the Fair. Regardless, the result was essentially a mild pico mixed with diced shrimp. It could have used more cilantro, some heat, and bracing citrus flavor. The chips were equally inoffensive, bland, and ultimately forgettable.
Swedish Meatball Smorgas | $9 | Blue Barn
What can we possibly say about this lingonberries-on-meatballs-on-carbs rendition of the old Swedish-American classic? Well, they subbed out the mashed potatoes for a hot dog bun, and that’s kind of a shame. But otherwise it works, albeit it with some cannonball-dense meatballs that are sure to offend purists and please a certain nostalgic segment of the populace.
Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl | $9.50 | Cafe Caribe
We were braced for this Fair-ready spin on a Hawaiian poke bowl to headline our “worst of” list, and its murky, brownish, glop-accented appearance seemed to confirm that feeling. Then we tasted it, and, hey—the main flavors were avocado, sesame, and relatively low-key and pleasant fish. It can’t lay a glove on the stuff at Fish Bowl Poke, but it’s not too bad.
Birchwood at Minnesota Farmers Union | $8 | Blueberry Rhubarb Cobbler
There isn’t really anything wrong with this cobbler per se, but there’s not a lot right with it, either—it’s kind of a warm, fruit soup dominated by the tangy taste of rhubarb. The cornmeal biscuit floating in the soup doesn’t do too much damage but neither is it particularly exciting. The fruit soup should be commended for tasting of real, fresh fruit, but it’s not a commendation we hand out with much enthusiasm. This is a dessert for people who would rather not eat dessert.
Zesty PB&J Sausage | $6 | Gass Station
An extended dissection process was required to find the peanut butter in this peanut butter and jelly–laced sausage from Gass Station, and while we did eventually visually identify it, it never came through in the sausage’s flavor profile. That said, the jelly loaned this dish a kind of ketchup-equivalent sweetness, and the snap and overall flavor of the sausage was reasonably good.
Za-Waffle Sticks | $5 | Green Mill
Over the years, we’ve grown into a justifiable suspicion of Green Mill’s Fair offerings, which tend to be some variation on meat, carbs, and a healthy glopping of the restaurant’s industrial-style red sauce. To their credit, this year’s savory Za-Waffle sticks, a funky union of pizza and breakfast food, actually break some new ground. They’re dippable in either maple syrup or (sigh) industrial-style red sauce, and have an inherent sweetness complemented and counteracted by a heavy dusting of herbs and parmesan. Not a killer choice but not a horrible one either, particularly at this price point.
Bierfest Pie | $6 | Sara’s Tipsy Pies
If you want a pie dominated by an aggressive beer flavor and stuffed principally with cured meat that resembles deli case salami, this is your best choice. Otherwise, it’s probably best to relegate this to the “curiosities” section of your list and move on in search of a more reasonable lunch.
Cookies and Cream Pup | $6 | Granny’s Kitchen
We’ve never been fans of the basic dish known as a “fudge puppy,” a sort of super-light, spongy chocolate cake on a stick, but this is one of the better incarnations we’ve tried. An aggressive application of Oreo-like crumbs and white frosting mean that this Fudge Puppy effectively tastes like a squishy Oreo on a stick which is, you know, not terrible.
Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. Visit the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters at the Minnesota State Fair. Join past and present heroes to protect this quiet place from sulfide-ore copper mining. Share your Boundary Waters stories, sign the petition, and come get your free button in the Dairy Building!