Review: The Best and Worst New Foods of the 2019 Minnesota State Fair

2019 State Fair Foods // Illustration by Terri Wentzka

The Growler’s review of the new foods at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair was supported by underwriting partner Save the Boundary Waters. Growler food editor James Norton was joined by writers Amy Rea and Maja Ingeman; photographers Becca Dilley, Brenda Johnson, Victoria Campbell, and Sarah McGee; and illustrator Terri Myers Wentzka. 

Bristling with heat, spice, earthy layers, bold colors, and a few swaggeringly big portions, the new foods of the 2019 Minnesota State Fair are coming out of the gate (and barns) swinging both fists. While there are a few tragic developments we’re ready to see the back of (the proliferation of Fruit Pebbles as a substitute for creative cookery is at the top of that list), we were generally cheered by some wonderful ice cream novelties, some surprisingly bold flavors, and an overall increase in the number of dishes that did their thing effectively rather than swinging for the fences, blooping a foul ball, and accidentally beaning a perfectly nice grandma in town from Mankato thereby spurring a lawsuit that is eventually settled out of court.

The Elite Eleven

11. Bhel Puri (vegan) | Hot Indian Foods | $10 

Bhel Puri (vegan) at Hot Indian Foods | $10 

Bhel Puri (vegan) at Hot Indian Foods // Photo by Sarah McGee

Let’s get this straight right out of the gate: Not everyone will want to eat bhel puri at the Fair. This puffed rice and chutney-based Indian snack food is one of the least traditional Fair options we’ve ever encountered—but that’s precisely why we all loved it so very much. It’s light. It’s gently crunchy. It’s tart. It’s earthy. It’s beautifully balanced, it’s different from just about everything else, and it’s got a wonderfully vivid point of view. When it comes time to eat the opposite of a corn dog—and that time will come—you know just what to do.

ADDENDUM: We knocked this down to the bottom of our hot foods list because a second sampling, later in the day, featured far chewier (and therefore much less enjoyable) puffed rice, suggesting that it may be vulnerable to staling as it sits out in the summer air. We still endorse it, but our caveat is attached.

10. Peaches and Cream Nachos | Bridgeman’s | $8

Photo by Victoria Campbell

Bridgeman’s literally doubled down on peaches to create these dessert-focused nachos, bringing together peaches and cream ice cream, peach topping, crushed pecans and a drizzle of honey, and slathering all that atop a bed of surprisingly (and enjoyably) savory pita chips. Dip, scoop, crunch, attack—there are plenty of ways to go after this multifaceted dish.

9. Loaded Garlic Cheese Bread | Green Mill | $5

Photo by Sarah McGee

Green Mill has been our consistent State Fair nemesis, as year after year they have served up tired carbs + meat + cheese + marinara abominations that deaden the sensibilities of our great democracy. 

No longer, we’re happy to report: Green Mill’s Loaded Garlic Cheese Bread is a remarkably deft combination of carbs + meat + cheese + marinara, a sort of sensible poor man’s spin on a slice of Sicilian pizza. The dish has a great deal of fluffy loft to it, a satisfyingly crispy crust, and pepperoni, sauce, and cheese applied in perfect proportions to the foamy bread it rides upon. We’d eat this again, with pride.

8. Deep Fried Dilly Dog | Swine and Spuds | $8

Photo by Sarah McGee

You have to love a Minnesota State Fair dish that provides a real sense of spectacle. And the Deep Fried Dilly Dog is like a porcine, bellowing, heavily armored gladiator wallowing into the Roman Coliseum bellowing: “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?” 

The dish is a (massive) entire pickled cucumber that arrives enrobed in fried coating and concealing a reasonably tasty bratwurst core. Like a turducken, it’s not a lot more than the sum of its parts, but all the parts are good and the sense of grandeur it brings to your State Fair crawl is well worth the purchase price.

7. Nashville Hot Chicken on a Stick | Blue Barn | $10

Photo by Becca Dilley

Photo by Becca Dilley

If you want legitimately “Nashville hot” hot chicken, your best bet is a place like Revival that brings the kind of fiery heat that this term implies; the Blue Barn’s Nashville Hot Chicken on a Stick offers mild imitation of that sort of spiciness. But on every other count—the crispiness of the coating, the tenderness of the chicken, the overall balance of chicken to exterior—this dish is a thing of real beauty, and one of the few foods of the day that everyone on our team could rally behind.

6. Lavender Lemonade | Farmers Union | $6 for 12 oz., $7.50 for 20 oz.

Photo by Sarah McGee

Much as the Blueberry Basil Lemonade at the Blue Barn has an eternal spot in our shriveled, carbon-scorched, cynical Fair-going hearts for being a restorative font of non-alcoholic refreshment, the Lavender Lemonade at the Farmers Union is that rare N/A beverage that gets it all right. It’s sweet but not too sweet, it’s legitimately tart, and its flavor—lavender—tastes natural and is present without being overwhelming. This is a seriously crushable drink.

5. Dessa’s Night Drive | Hamline Dining Hall | $5.50

Photo by Becca Dilley

Izzy’s knocked it out of the park—or the fairgrounds—with this flavor named for (and developed in conjunction with) everyone’s favorite Minnesota singer/rapper. Cold brew coffee, chocolate-covered espresso chips, toffee crunch, and a gentle touch of cardamom created a gentle yet rich ice cream with myriad textures and flavors, none overwhelmingly sweet. This was an early try for us, but it stayed in the winner’s pile through to the end. –Amy Rea

4. Shrimp and Grits Fritters | Funky Grits| $5

Photo by Becca Dilley

Funky Grits is crushing it on the south side of Minneapolis with their soul food-focused menu and killer shrimp and grits. It turns out that that same culinary magic translates beautifully to the Fair, in the form of incredibly crispy shrimp-and-grits fritters that boast an aioli dipping sauce that provides a satisfying creamy lingering heat. The crunchy fried-ness of these savory bites might make them perfect for the Fair, but they’d be welcome just about anywhere.

3. No Bologna Coney | Mancini’s | $6.75

Photo by Victoria Campbell

“Whoa,” one of our tasters exclaimed after biting into Mancini’s No Bologny Coney, a grilled pork sausage on a toasted split-top bun with a mild olive and pepper salad. “This is actually real food.”

The snap and char on the sausage, the beautiful toasting of the bread, and the bright, sharp, olive oil-covered flavor of muffuletta salad make this deceptively simple-looking dish one of the Fair’s most legit hunger slayers. Take a real sausage and put a real char on it, and hey—presto!—you’ve got magic in your hands. Until it’s all gone.

2. Snow Cap Mini Waffle Sundae | Hamline Church Dining Hall | $6

Photo by Becca Dilley

Waffles—like pizza and hamburgers—tend to fall into the category of “food that can and usually is phoned in under large event conditions.” They are usually flat, flavorless, bland, unpleasantly stodgy things that supply starchy carbs and little else. 

The charmingly small waffle that supports the Hamline Church Dining Hall Snow Cap Mini Waffle Sundae, by contrast, is malty, chewy, light, and incredibly tasty in its own right. Add a gentle coating of real maple syrup and simple, creamy vanilla ice cream and you get a sundae that looks dull on paper but is unforgettable on the palate. 

1. Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites | Funnel Cakes | $8

Photo by Victoria Campbell

What is it that grants a perfect Minnesota State Fair food its aura of perfection? A dusting of powdered sugar evocative of a snowy day in Zurich? A sheen of grease so pure and so shimmering that you can see you own reflection wavering back at you through the blast-furnace heat of August? Fruity Pebbles?

We would put forth that the dish should be visually striking, sharably craveable, and have a distinct and delightful point of view. Enter the Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites. They’re light, crispy, and utterly snackable. They hum with Sriracha-fueled heat—fierce, but friendly. And they’re invitingly gorgeous in their paper boat, calling out to eager hands with their cheerful orangey glow. 

Funnel cakes have been traditionally dull, forgotten food at the Fair, but these gussied up modern savory cakes are—unexpectedly—the belle of the ball.

Illustration by Terri Wentzka

The Egregious Eleven

11. Breakfast Potato Skin | Blue Barn | $9

Photo by Victoria Campbell

We didn’t know quite what to make of this deep-fried potato skin stuffed with scrambled eggs, blackened beef, and a passable but forgettable bearnaise-like sauce. The beefy flavor dominated, we missed the taste of a baked potato, and it didn’t make a lot of sense as a complete dish. Nobody on our team hated it outright, but nobody embraced it either.

10. Feta Bites | Dino’s Gyros | $5.50

Photo by Becca Dilley

A creamy olive tapenade (heavy on the cream, light on the olives) was the only flavor-bearing item on this plate of deep-fried, feta-stuffed dough, which resembled nothing so much as Totino’s pizza rolls minus the marinara and pepperoni. More flavor (heat? acid? onions?) would have gone a long way.

9. Potato Pierogies | iPierogi | $9

Photo by Becca Dilley

Is blandness the cardinal sin of State Fair food? If so, fire up the pile-of-wood-with-a-stake-coming-out-of-it, because these things gotta fry. Stodgy and sadly devoid of more than a token sprinkling of browned onions these are not the pierogies still proudly served up in Northeast Minneapolis churches come fundraising time.

8. Blueberry Key Lime Pie | Farmers Union | $8

Photo by Brenda Johsnon

Much like Icarus, this exciting key lime pie concept just flew too close to the sun. In theory, the mix of blueberry, key lime, and graham cracker crust should be an irresistible summer banger. In practice, the heavily roasted and quite thick graham cracker crust took over completely, swamping the mild flavor of the filling which in turn had no discernible lime flavor whatsoever. A bright spritz of lime might have restored the balance of power and distracted from the texture of the filling, which was too heavy to be mousse-like and too uniform to resemble a traditional blueberry pie.

7. The Joey Mary “Almond Cookie” | Brim | $8

The Joey Mary behind the Grilled Sota Sandwich // Photo by Becca Dilley

There’s actually nothing wrong with Brim’s “Joey Mary” iced coffee slushie. It tastes of coffee, it’s refreshing, and we liked it. The honey toffee crunch that came as part of its Bloody Mary–like skewer was legitimately crunchy and delightful, and the white chocolate truffle that came along with it was just fine.

The gluten-free almond cookie garnish was a different thing altogether. Wallpaper paste? Pre-chewed breakfast cereal? The interior of a softball? This dense and chalky abomination has no place in modern society, let alone atop an otherwise perfectly enjoyable beverage. I am tempted to go back and order another one just so that I can step on it, and then yell at it while it sits quietly on the ground.

6. Halo Cone | Rainbow Ice Cream | $9

Photo by Sarah McGee

Last year the Rainbow Cloud Roll at Rainbow Ice Cream was our number one dish, with a bullet—we described that lovely mix of ice cream and cotton candy as “pure magic.” The only thing magical about this year’s Halo Cone (a cotton candy and blue raspberry swirled soft-serve ice cream cone surrounded by a cloud of cotton candy) is the 45 seconds of pure Instagram delight that it offers up before the cone begins to melt and create a sugary mess of unimaginable stickiness. Here’s the thing: the Rainbow Cloud Roll integrated the cotton candy and ice cream in a charming and effective way; this year’s Halo Cone is just those two things served next to each other. With Fruity Pebbles, of course. At $9, it’s very interesting, but stupid.

5. Deep Fried Cookie Dough | Kora’s Cookie Dough | $7

Photo by Brenda Johnson

Everybody needs to cut it out with the fried cookie dough already, because it rarely (if ever) seems to work. Case in point: these tasteless tubes of phyllo dough stuffed with monotonously sweet low-grade cookie dough melted so thoroughly that all texture contrast between the dough and chips has been utterly erased.

4. Shandy Cold Brew | Anchor Coffee House | $7

Photo by Brenda Johnson

Look: we like Anchor Coffee House and the quality coffee presence they bring to a place desperately in need of it. But this iced coffee / lavender lemonade shandy represented two serious missteps: an iced coffee devoid of much flavor beyond “vaguely bitter,” and a lavender presence that was so aggressively insistent that it suggested a confused grandma sprinkling a pitcher of lemonade with a closet-freshening double handful of Alpine Glade potpourri. 

3. Carolina Pit Smoked Brisket Taco | Shanghaid Henry’s | $9

Photo by Victoria Campbell

We’re never totally comfortable with the Shanghaid Henry’s name (is “Shanghaid” seriously a thing we’re still saying in 2019?) and the food usually follows suit. This year is no exception—the food stand’s new offering in 2019 features fairly dry meat riding in a nondescript flour tortilla, drenched in hideous Burger King-grade BBQ sauce, and sprinkled with unseasoned shreds of cabbage. Ours came with exactly one-and-three-quarters yellow corn tortilla chips, which seemed like some kind of an odd, carefully calculated message, or perhaps a threat.

2. Nordic Waffles | Pebbles and Bam Bam | $9

Photo by Victoria Campbell

Our tasting team takes on the heavy charge of serving as judge, jury, and executioner, and our verdict on the Nordic Waffles Pebbles and Bam Bam waffle is this: it’s extremely guilty. Guilty of taking a mildly sweet waffle and turning it into a monstrous concoction with melted Reese’s peanut butter cups coating the waffle’s interior with a slick, slimy base, then adding Fruity Pebbles for color, crunch, and catastrophe. It was overwhelmingly sweet, with flavors smooshing into each other in a cacophony of sugar. Even worse, the poor waffle just collapsed altogether under the weight of all those cloying processed sweeteners. –A.R.

1. Blue Ox Burger Bar | Cheeseburger | $10 with tots

Photo by Becca Dilley

The Blue Ox Burger Bar is a new vendor at the State Fair, and that carries with it a certain expectation: Namely, that the hamburgers would stand for something. Anything! A huge pattie riddled with melted cheese curds. Serious carbon from a serious grilling. Big buttered buns. Mandatory caramelized onions. Anything. ANYTHING. ANYTHING AT ALL, PEOPLE!

Instead, the cheeseburger we received was so thoroughly generic, so devoid of real flavor or perspective, that it could pass, without a disguise, as a corporate cafeteria–issued burger just about anywhere on the planet. Nobody would blink twice; it’s truly the Clark Kent of burgers: mild-mannered, forgettable, retiring, and utterly unmemorable. It is so thoroughly devoid of any personality that it is, paradoxically, incredibly out of place and conspicuous at the Fair, where all the other foods are jostling comically for your attention and trying any trick in the book to make you dig for your wallet.

Let these things fade quietly into the woodwork where they belong, and hopefully next year Blue Ox will be back with a little more ambition and poise.

Illustration by Terri Wentzka

The Best of the Rest and The Other Parts of the Rest, Too

Black Hills Gold Ice Cream Bar | Farmers Union | $6

Photo by Becca Dilley

We didn’t know what to think about this Oreo cookies-and-pralines-loaded ice cream bar, but we fell in love with it in a hurry—the big chunks of chocolate cookie really soaked up the ice cream and softened completely, creating a weirdly delightful kind of reverse ice cream sandwich effect. 

Jammin Brisket Grilled Cheese | RCs BBQ | $10

Photo by Victoria Campbell

The bread? Well-toasted. The cheese? Full-flavored and beautifully melted. The salt level? Ideal. The BBQ sauce-splashed brisket? A bit sweet, but serviceable. This is a sandwich that packs a lot of pleasant flavor and texture into a relatively compact package, and it deserves an audition for a full-on meal if this kind of meat-meets-cheese thing happens to be your deal.

Hot Hen | RCs BBQ | $8

Photo by Becca Dilley

BBQ potato chips are the base of this pile of smoked and pulled chicken, pickled jalapenos, scallions, blue cheese crumbles, and blue cheese fondue. The chips stayed crispy and crunchy, and the overall mass was a pleasant savory flavor bomb.

Warm Cheesecake Tart | Lulu’s Public House | $6

Photo by Sarah McGee

This charming little pastry was in fact too warm for some of our tasters (it got a bit soupy), but everyone agreed that its tart versus sweet balance was just lovely, and that it was a successful dessert by just about any measure whatsoever.

Bada Bing Sandwich | The Sandwich Stop | $9

Photo by Brenda Johnson

There’s nothing remarkable going on with this flatbread sandwich filled with ham, salami, melted mozz, basil, tomatoes, and balsamic vinaigrette, but there’s nothing wrong with that, either. It’s a really classic, simple, enjoyable Italian sandwich that uses tomatoes to good effect to lighten and brighten the overall dish, and it’s big enough to serve as a light lunch for two while leaving a little room for something sweet for dessert. 

Birthday Batter Blast Sundae | Dairy Goodness | $6

Photo by Sarah McGee

Ah, the simple innocence of the dairy world, where one can be blasted in the face with the thrilling flavor of birthday batter without once worrying about a lurking entendre. Name aside, this sprinkle-bedecked vanilla sundae is elegant, incredibly creamy, and just plain delightful, a fine finisher to a meal on a hot day at the Fair. 

Kentikki Fried Chicken | Hot Indian Foods | $12

Photo by Brenda Johnson

Hot Indian Foods definitely has it going on. These crispy chicken sliders had a good dose of a creamy, zippy tikka sauce and a robust slaw. Lots of texture and flavors, all melding beautifully together. They were fresh and bright, hearty without being gut bombs, and a nice antidote to the more traditional sandwiches that are Fair staples. –A.R.

Lamb T-Bone Chops | Holy Land | $6

Photo by Victoria Campbell

These win a prize for being adorable, something one wouldn’t normally associate with lamb chops. They’re tiny—snack-sized—but given the price of lamb, a reasonable portion for the price. Nicely seasoned and beautifully cooked so they’re tender and juicy—a feat, given how easy it would have been to turn these to leather in no time. These were a pleasant surprise, and utterly defied our dire pre-State Fair predictions. It goes to show: When it comes to Fair food, you never can tell. –A.R. 

Strawberries ‘n’ Creme | Strawberries ‘n’ Crème | $7

Photo by Brenda Johnson

Here’s the thing about this new entry (a non-dairy Cool Whip-like whipped cream plus strawberries) into the Fair’s food scene: How ardent are you about real whipped cream? In our group, we had someone who admitted she couldn’t stand the idea of vegan whipped cream. But some of the others, especially a couple of people afflicted with lactose issues, found that the vegan whipped cream was actually not so bad. Is it as good as real, decadent, rich, creamy whipped cream? No. Is it a surprisingly decent substitute? Yes. And the berries were fresh and sweet. –A.R.

Nordic Waffles | Al Pastor Waffle | $9

Photo by Victoria Campbell

Nordic Waffles inspired some thoughtful discussion of what constitutes a Nordic waffle and how far one can go with fusion before it’s not true to its roots anymore. Nordic Waffles’ Al Pastor waffle wrap split the group—several liked the al pastor filling, with its succulent pork and bright notes of pineapple, cilantro, and salsa verde. But in a Scandinavian-style waffle? Is that going too far? It ended as an unresolved question, with some of our team fine with it, some liking the filling alone but not in a waffle, and others, not so much for any of it. –A.R.

Mini Donut Latte | Anchor Coffee House | $7

Photo by Brenda Johnson

Most of the team liked this latte with its sweet homage to the classic State Fair snack (even if the mini donut that came with the drink was simply serviceable). One curmudgeon in the group complained that it was too sweet. Go figure. It’s a mini donut latte. Of course it’s sweet. You just can’t please everyone. –A.R.

Snickerdoodle Ice Cream Sandwich | Thelma’s Handmade Ice Cream Sandwiches | $5

Photo by Victoria Campbell

It’s not clear why this ice cream sandwich company couldn’t pump out a new Fair-exclusive flavor, but their existing product is pretty darn good: rich, firm, creamy ice cream wedged between a couple of nicely softened, cinnamon-kicked snickerdoodle cookies. Nothing fancy, nothing terribly new, but absolutely satisfying and classic.

Grilled Kiwi | Produce Exchange | $5

Photo by Becca Dilley

Here’s a simple idea for a healthy State Fair food: take a kiwi fruit, slice it in half, and grill it slowly on low heat for a long time until it gets all warm and kind of goopy. Without exception, our tasters who didn’t mind the slick and spongy texture enjoyed this dish; the texturally sensitive found it a wee bit too slug-like for their liking.

Boozy Berries and ‘Barb Trifle | Hideaway Speakeasy | $9

Photo by Brenda Johnson

The lone Brit in our tasting group, a veteran trifle eater, was irked at the unsoaked (and therefore texturally wrong) pieces of pound cake atop this dish, but ultimately signed off on the dish based on the incredibly smooth and creamy rhubarb compote, Cannon River Gris wine, and blueberry coulis mixture at the bottom of the dish. 

Stuffed Cabbage Roll | iPierogi | $8

Photo by Sarah McGee

iPierogi may not have cut it with the actual pierogi, but the stuffed cabbage roll was reminiscent of the kind of home cooking that can generate sentimental sighs and wishes to return to whatever good old days were out there. It’s a generously sized portion, with plenty of ground pork and rice filling out the cabbage leaves and topped with a solid tomato sauce. The roll is standard issue; skip it and enjoy the cabbage roll.  –A.R.

Grilled Sota Sandwich | Brim | $9

Photo by Becca Dilley

Does a grilled PB&J a State Fair food make? Sure, the bread is Irish soda bread, the “PB” is “cinnamon nut butter,” and the “J” is blueberry marmalade, but this is just a pretty straightforward (and nicely executed) classic with a clever name. Simplicity notwithstanding, we quite liked it.

Duck Drummies | Giggles’ Campfire Grill | $8.75

Photo by Becca Dilley

The dense, earthy fullness of duck was evident in these wings, which could have been absolutely killer with the addition of a classic Buffalo-style Frank’s Red Hot-plus-butter type sauce. As it was, the tequila lime sauce added a nice zip to the situation, but more intensity would have improved the dish greatly.

Irish Whiskey Boneless Wings | O’Gara’s | $8

Photo by Becca Dilley

Each bite of these crunchy, tender boneless wings brings with it a distinct splash of whiskey-like flavor. Is that a good thing? Entirely subjective; about half our crew enjoyed it, and half found it intrusive and unnecessary. 

Cuban Fusion Fajita | Juanita’s Fajitas | $7

Photo by Brenda Johnson

Rarely are foods as fixably wrong as this Cubano-style ham + mustard + pickles + cheese stuffed tortilla. The filling on this bland-looking dish is actually quite nicely balanced and enjoyable, but it’s wrapped in what feels like a bedsheet-sized tortilla that is at least twice as big as it needs to be, and overwhelms its own contents. A smaller tortilla (or double the filling) and this would be a sleeper hit of the Fair.

Turkish Pizza | Blue Moon Dine-In | $9

Photo Becca Dilley

The chewy housemade flatbread that this pizza rides atop is the highlight of this dish, which suffers from a meekness of flavor. The minced beef, onion, and cucumber salad are all lacking the brightness of citrus, spicy heat, and clean lightness of fresh veg that would make this a celebration of contrasts. That said: Everything’s nicely prepared, and the bread is tasty, so there’s nothing too wrong about this alternative to a typical pizza.

Carnitas Taco Cone | San Felipe Tacos | $10

Photo by Brenda Johnson

The massive cone that carries this dish’s filling kind of hogs the spotlight—its styrofoam-like crispiness really dominates the taco’s texture and its size overwhelms its interior. If you invert this thing onto a plate and smash up about half the cone, you’d have a pretty nice taco salad, though—the carnitas themselves are tender and enjoyable, and the overall ratio of tomatoes to sour cream to scallions is good.

Tipsy Pecan Tart | Sarah’s Tipsy Pies | $7

Photo by Brenda Johnson

A dry, shortening-dominated crust dominates this tart, which would have been better served with more pecans, and more filling. This is the sort of dessert that calls out for richness and boldness, and it lacks much of either.

Kora’s Cookie Dough | Kora’s | $5

Photo by Brenda Johnson

We tried this straight-up cookie dough-on-a-stick to see if it was better than the abysmal fried cookie dough, and it was. Barely. Too sweet, monotonous, and unremarkable, it bears just a passing resemblance to the deliciousness you scoop out of your KitchenAid bowl at home.

Wingwalker Donut Flight | The Hangar | $9

Photo by Becca Dilley

Lacking the delightfully naughty oral syringes full of flavor that they were originally supposed to come with, these grease-soaked doughnut holes didn’t bring a lot to the State Fair table. Their side sauces were shot-from-a-plastic-pump grade pedestrian, and while we liked their crunchy exterior, we were bummed that there was a visible layer of frying oil penetrating toward the interior of each doughnut we sampled.

Our fearless State Fair 2019 sampling crew

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is leading the effort to ensure permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, America’s most visited Wilderness and Minnesota’s crown jewel, from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining. Stop by our booth at the Minnesota State Fair in the Dairy Building to take action and shop our new merch.