I went to the opening day of the State Fair, armed with sunscreen, a printout of all the new Minnesota State Fair foods for 2011, and a box of Gas-X. I was searching for the best new State Fair foods. I also found the worst ones.
First, the best! Sweet corn ice cream at the Blue Moon diner. Can you make ice cream out of sweet corn? Sure! Lots of fancy restaurants have been doing it for years—it actually makes a lot of sense as a flavor, butter plus corn being of course an American classic, and cream plus corn having done good work for a few hundred years as corn chowder or corn bisque. That said, the Blue Moon diner had the good idea of bringing it to the State Fair, where it’s just novel enough to be exclamation-worthy, and just delicious enough to make you happy you had it. This corn ice cream ($5 solo) is available with a bunch of toppings for $1 each—a caramel-bacon sauce (very on-trend, but actually pretty yummy, the bacon playing a simple supporting role to a creamy caramel sauce), a wild blueberry sauce (excellent, full of whole blueberries), and cayenne-candied peanuts. My advice: Get them all. Of course I would say that—restaurant critics are by nature samplers—but if you make them put all three on there you get a sort of 2011 maximalist sundae, which is fun. I was also impressed overall with the Blue Moon diner, an operation which seems to have really given full thought to maximizing the impact of everything they do. The sausages are from Kramarczuk’s, and they built a real wood-fired oven for their pizzas. Find it on Carnes and Chambers, near that crazy area by the Midway where people bungee jump in cages.
Second best: Miniapple Pies. I bought a Miniapple fried apple pie with extreme skepticism—how could this be any better or different than McDonald’s version? Actually, very different. The crust is cakey, not at all greasy, and the filling is infused with deep cinnamon flavor. Add a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream and it feels innocent, farm-born, and perfectly fair-like. Find it across from the MPR booth at Judson and Nelson.
Third: Koushari, from Holy Land. Hidden in the back of the International Bazaar is a very large outpost of that Middle Eastern local powerhouse of a restaurant, Holy Land. They have the best gyros of the fair (and seem to make most of their money selling to the people who live at the fair for the duration of the fair; if you want to know where the carnies and the people who sleep in the horse barn eat, this is it). But they are also the best vegetarian restaurant at the fair. This year they debuted two new vegetarian foods, both of which are excellent. One is Egyptian koushari, a dish of lentils, rice, and macaroni covered with a thick layer of mahogany-brown fried shallots and served with a generous ladleful of spicy-sweet Egyptian hot sauce. Every bite tastes zingy, comforting, or deep, depending on what you snare on your fork. Another new Holy Land offering this year is Somali sambusas, like the standard triangular Indian stuffed pastry, but stuffed with lentils and seasoned with African spices (less spicy, more fragrant). I thought both these dishes were delicious, and, for the first time in the history of my fair going, I walked away from a booth thinking: This needs to be a restaurant.
Now, the horrors.
3. Butter on Your Hot Dog?
I walked up to Der Pretzel Haus and said: One pretzel dog, please. “You want butter and cheese-sauce on that?” asked the kind man behind the counter. Butter, on my hot dog? I know this is the state fair and all, but there still should be limits prescribed by human common sense. Also, the butter pump-squeeze-orange-liquid cheese really ruined an otherwise solidly acceptable pretzel dog. (On the west side of Ligget, between the horse barn and the sheep barn.)
2. Corn Muffin Grease Sponge
I had such high hopes for this corn-dog variation, a breakfast sausage encased in corn-muffin batter. After all, there’s no reason corn-muffin-batter can’t be fried—that’s a hush-puppy—and what’s not to like about sausage? But when I tried it, Axel’s hadn’t figured out how to actually make this happen. The corn muffin part was absolutely sodden with frying oil. Biting it made actual cooking oil squirt out. (Outside SE corner of the Food Building, looking at the Sky Ride.)
1. How Much Would You Pay for A Raw Jalapeno?
As I stood in the line before Andre’s Watermelon, I grew nervous: Why were the people who had gotten the chocolate jalapeno before me crunching into something bright green, with seeds in the middle? They couldn’t be serving whole, fresh, untouched jalapenos dunked in chocolate sauce, could they? Yes, they could. For $6.50 you get three jalapenos, evidently completely untouched by human thought, ingenuity, or pride, covered in chocolate sauce, and connected by a skewer. When I read about these chocolate-covered jalapenos, I assumed they would be stuffed, deep-fried, freeze-dried, roasted, braised, boiled, pickled, or in some other way transformed by human creativity so that they harmonized with the chocolate and were delicious to eat. Nope. Start at the pointy end and you’ve got the vegetal pepper taste, and once you reach the seeds may God have mercy on your soul. (On Underwood near Ye Old Mill.)