FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — We pored over the Minnesota State Fair’s new food listings. We picked things that looked pretty, outrageous, or served on a stick. Then we ate our way from end-to-end. This year, long after the News Tribune’s photographer had left, we were off the clock, and Belinda Carlisle had performed a free concert on the Leinenkugel's Stage, we realized we were hungry-hungry — not for fried pickles or funnel cake, but for just, like, food.
Reader(s), we bought the menu at the Blue Barn.
This place is consistently among the state fair’s best options for food, but a place we had skipped this year in favor of, what, a deep fried pickle stuffed with sausage, etc.
We ate pierogies with horseradish dip and tater tots stuffed with bacon. Chicken in the Waffle is great gravy with chicken chunks served in a waffle cone. And as an added bizarre touch, the Whopper at the bottom. Nashville Hot Chicken-On-A-Stick is a solid amount of sweet-spicy-crunchy in juicy chicken.
We got seconds on the blueberry-basil lemonade.
Here is what we ate at this year’s Minnesota State Fair.
BOOZY BERRIES AND ‘BARB TRIFLE
The Hideaway Speakeasy, $9
Grandstand, upper level veranda, northwest side
Second only to whipped cream-based salads, trifle tastes like the signature dish of a certain family member — oft replicated, never duplicated — sitting prettily in the middle of a family potluck. This is an elevated take: layers of sponge cake and the most Minnesotan of fruit compotes — blueberries first, then rhubarb — and saturated in Canon River gris wine and topped with whipped cream. Expect to pucker.
CARNITAS TACO CONE
San Felipe Tacos
Food Building, east wall, $10
This was among the most popular of new-food picks: a meaty taco with queso fresco and cabbage in a fried tortilla shell — with a touch of spice (was it cinnamon?) — shaped like a cone. One employee in an assembly like squirted zigzags of sour cream on top. Optional Sriracha or Cholula. This is a fun way to eat a taco, but grab a fork. It gets messy fast. It takes a bit of nibbling to get to the heart of it, but “once you get to the meat, it makes sense,” one of our tasters said.
Then we spilled carnitas on the sidewalk.
CUBAN FUSION FAJITA
Juanita’s Fajitas, $7
West of Nelson Street, south of the Grandstand
It can feel impossible to get a proper Cuban sandwich. The essence can be there, for instance, but the bread is wrong. Juanita’s Fajitas eliminates the expectation by taking the pork-ham-mustard-pickle mixture and bundling it tightly into a flour tortilla. There is no wow here, no you-did-what-to-what moment. Instead, it’s just a solid, well-balanced fistful of a sandwich and definitely worth dusting off the George Foreman to make in your own kitchen. No muss, no fuss, good eating.
DEEP FRIED DILLY DOG
Swine & Spuds, $8
Warner Coliseum, east side
The line for this one, oof. We started outside of the Warner Coliseum building and wound our way in while mounds of on-a-stick paraded past. Then, after ordering, we were herded into a holding pen to wait and wait and think of names superior to Swine & Spuds. This food checks the Minnesota State Fair boxes with its Pronto Pup aesthetic. It’s a thick pickle stuffed with bratwurst, deep fried. It tastes great, of course, because it’s deep fried and it’s a pickle and there is meat and mustard-ketchup. It takes a bit to get to brat and it’s a messy full facial commitment. So much drippage.
Rainbow Ice Cream, $9
Grandstand, upper level, east side
These CandyLand-eyed folks last year introduced pastel ice cream scoops, topped with Fruity Pebbles cereal, and wrapped in cotton candy as hardy as attic insulation. This year’s Lisa Frank-ian experiment is equally sweet, equally Instagram ready: It’s a swirling cloud of pink pillow with a twist of raspberry and cotton-candy soft serve ice cream. Optional toppings include the fruity cereal, gummy bears, sprinkles. When the sugar hallucination sets in, you might not be able to differentiate where the cotton candy starts and your hair ends. You’ll want to wash your hands before you try to pet an alpaca. Last year’s invention was a what-in-all-holiness moment; this year is Part 2 of aggressively photogenic brand building. Never change, Rainbow Ice Cream.
North End, northwest section
Brim feels like the very last spot on the fairgrounds, but it’s worth the walk past, like, everything else. At the time of drinking, this iced coffee with accoutrements, was exactly what this bod needed. Like its Bloody Mary influence, this booze-free take had add-ons on a skewer: an especially moist almond cookie, a blue truffle with a white chocolate shell, chocolate covered toffee. The coffee was deep and rich with a hint of chocolate. It’s billed as a slushie, but the slushie part was lost.
NO BOLOGNA CONEY
Mancini’s Al Fresco, $6.75
North side of Carnes Avenue, between Nelson and Underwood Street
Mancini’s is always solid, always an event. Its keepers create their own little festive respite from always feeling like you’re walking against the crowd. Tall-top tables, the opportunity to lean against another human body and sway. On this day, a duo performed “Unchained Melody” in the middle of the afternoon. As for the food: mortadella sausage (yes) on a toasted bun (uh-huh) and topped with muffaletta salad (very nice). No mustard required.
SHRIMP & GRITS FRITTERS
Food Building, east wall, 3 for $5
Among the great food combos in all the land: cheesy grits and (fill in the blank). In this case, shrimp. These three deep fried balls are served with spicy, spicy aioli that definitely calls for post-grits pinky dips. Loved the taste, texture. Seemingly a crime: Funky Grits is located right next to an especially hot vendor and that joint’s line made it hard to find this no-wait hidden spot.