The 2019 Minnesota State Fair is nearly upon us! In just a few days, the twelve best days of summer begin for their 156th edition, a rite of passage for generations of Minnesotans. As always, each year’s Fair brings with it a class of new foods and beverages fighting for the attention and dollars of fairgoers, trying to rise above all the rest. As always, Fairly Unbalanced will be ordering, tasting and reviewing as many of these new items as we can get our hands on once the Fair begins (pray for our stomachs and our wallets). However, with an endeavor this large, it is wise to familiarize ourselves with many of the new items to find out what we are in for, what we can expect and gain some early first impressions.
We’re categorizing each item into one of three ranks: Must-Trys, the foods and beers that we’ll be anxiously awaiting to get our hands on; Questionables, the items that we’re intrigued by but we’re not quite sold on yet; and Uffdas, the ones we’ll give a fair shake to but have some serious doubts. These rankings are not meant to supersede each item’s coming review once the Fair begins; a high ranking here does not mean we’ll automatically love it once we try it, just that it tentatively seems like it will be great, based on descriptions and other factors like the vendor’s prior history. Last year, we were initially underwhelmed by the announcement of Green Mill’s Za-Waffle Sticks, but ultimately enjoyed them when we got our hands on them; surely, some of what now seems like a surefire hit will turn out to be a flop, and vice versa.
While on the subject of reviewing the Fair’s offerings, a brief update to our scoring system for reviews. Last year, we utilized a system where items were scored out of a possible 20 points, using five categories: Taste, Appearance, Novelty, Value and Portability. For the most part, this system worked really well, and in conjunction with our detailed write-ups about each food and drink we tried, the scores helped to easily identify what was great at the Fair and what wasn’t. We are making a slight change to the system for 2019; each category is now scored 0-5, and we are cutting the Portability category and instead considering it as part of Appearance. Too many items were gaining an automatic five points just for being easy to walk around with, especially every beverage. We still think being able to take something with you around the Fairgrounds is an important attribute, but it was receiving far too much weight with the previous system.
Alright, enough housekeeping. Time to check out some new foods and beverages!
Must-Trys: We Can’t Wait To Get Our Hands On These!
Turkish Pizza from Blue Moon Dine-In Theater: The fine folks at Blue Moon have been consistently reinventing their menu with a new item every year since they first landed their prime real estate on the corner of Carnes Avenue and Chambers Street near the Grandstand. This has led to an eclectic mix of offerings, from tacos to monkey bread to cookie dough platters. Now, you can add a new wood-fired pizza to the long list of items, and hopefully it will be done just as expertly as all the rest have been. One of the prevailing trends of new Fair foods lately has been spreading out the cuisine to all corners of the world, and this follows in those steps by offering spicy minced beef alongside a menagerie of vegetables and herbs.
Fried Tacos On-A-Stick from Midtown Global Market’s Taco Cat: The addition of the Midtown Global Market booth to the International Bazaar was a brilliant way to boost that area’s food offerings, bring in a wide variety of new foods, and showcase wonderful local businesses to visit after the Fair has ended as well. Business owners from within the market located in South Minneapolis take over the Fair stand for a handful of days throughout the Fair. Taco Cat takes their turn in the booth for the final six days of the Fair this year, and it should not be missed, especially with this year’s incredible new menu addition. It’s a little surprising that no one had previously tried deep-frying a taco and skewering it at the Fair, but the mad geniuses at Taco Cat should do it properly. This one is sure to draw a lot of attention.
Breakfast Potato Skin from The Blue Barn: Breakfast options at the Fair are surprisingly limited. The church dining halls on the Fairgrounds offer a good traditional breakfast, but often at the expense of waiting in a long line for cafeteria service to receive a breakfast that mirrors what you could find at your local diner. Many fairgoers eschew breakfast foods entirely and kick their day off with a corn dog, cheese curds or some other Fair must-have, but run the risk of a gut bomb ruining their appetite and their day. The Blue Barn is one of your better bets in the breakfast sphere, offering creativity with a tasty take on the most important meal of the day. Their previous Pop Rocks French Toast was an instant hit, and we’re hoping this will be too. The inclusion of the highly-regional chislic, a type of deep fried beef that is a South Dakotan bar food staple, should make this a sort of wild version of steak and eggs, with a potato skin base. Sounds like a sure-fire great way to kick off your day at the Fair!
Boozy Berries & ‘Barb Trifle from The Hideaway Speakeasy: When they reworked the beleaguered second floor of the Grandstand a few years ago to become the Veranda, the brand new Hideaway Speakeasy was the star of the show, with a brilliant theme and a sense of playfulness across each of their food and drink offerings. Now that they’ve become better established, they appear to be swinging for the fences with this decadent dessert. Wine, berries, rhubarb, more wine, pound cake, mint-infused whipped cream, and even more wine layer upon each other to create this visually stunning trifle. We’ll have to get our hands on this just to get a sense of what we’re dealing with; the portion size is difficult to judge from the provided pictures, so this might be one to share with a friend or two, and it might wind up pretty pricey.
No Bologna Coney from Mancini’s al Fresco: The classics are classics for a reason. Sometimes, you just can’t top a perfectly prepared sausage on a bun. It’s one of the most perfect accompaniments to summer. Mancini’s knows a thing or two about classics, as their old-school restaurant in St. Paul will prove. They’ve also created their share of Fair classics in a short period of time, earning themselves a reputation as a destination vendor. We have every reason to believe every ingredient at play here will be high-quality and made to perfection, from the quality of the sausage to the buttered bun to the intriguing inclusion of pistachios and a muffuletta salad mix.
Questionables: Will These Be Good? Will They Flop? Time Will Tell!
Blueberry Key Lime Pie from Farmer’s Union Coffee Shop: We really adore the Farmer’s Union Coffee Shop for providing the best coffee available on the Fairgrounds, available in several different varieties. They’ve also mostly had hits with their food offerings too; all four varieties of their ice cream bars are transcendent, especially on a warm afternoon. However, last year marked their first flop, a disastrous attempt at a Blueberry Rhubarb Cobbler that seems to have now graciously disappeared from their menu. Their history of success will have us returning, but a little more distrustful of their take on small coffee-shop style desserts. Hopefully, this will be a return to form that will prove that last year was just a hiccup.
Deep-Fried Dilly Dog from Swine & Spuds: This is the polar opposite of the Farmer’s Union Coffee Shop scenario above; we’ve never enjoyed the new offerings from Swine & Spuds, and yet we think this one might finally be a hit. For a class of new foods that are overwhelmingly high-concept, this one couldn’t be simpler. A giant pickle, stuffed with bratwurst, speared and deep-fried. Maybe simplicity will finally cure the ails of this bottom-tier vendor located within the Coliseum.
Duck Drummies from Giggles’ Campfire Grill: On paper, this could be a standout appetizer at your favorite upscale sports bar. Duck wings with a tequila lime dipping sauce sounds delectable, if not too decadent for the Fair. In practice, there are some concerns. How simple will they be to eat, especially if one has to take them on the go if they can’t score a table at Giggles’ famously crowded stand? Just how well will the tequila lime sauce pair with the wings, and how will the duck meat be seasoned themselves? And maybe most importantly, how much will these cost? Giggles’ has a reputation of being considerably more expensive than most other Fair vendors; there is room at the Fair for premium prices for premium food experiences, but each new item they have introduced undergoes a deeper scrutiny due to that price barrier of entry.
Shrimp and Grits Fritters from Funky Grits: There is nothing more difficult than trying to establish a brand new vendor at the Minnesota State Fair, where everyone already has their established food routines and traditions. How do you stand out when there are hundreds of other options, all with a sense of establishment? Placing Funky Grits in the Questionables segment singles them out among the seven new vendors at the Fair this year: Blue Ox Burger Bar, Brim, iPierogi, Kora’s Cookie Dough, Strawberries n’ Creme, and Thelma’s Handmade Ice Cream Sandwiches. The good news for these newbies is they’ve made it past the famously lengthy and difficult vetting process the Minnesota State Fair utilizes to become a vendor at the Fair. Will they have what it takes to successfully serve thousands of visitors … and keep them coming back?
Halo Cone from Rainbow Ice Cream: This vendor had easily the most Instagrammed new food on offer last year, with their delightfully ridiculous Rainbow Cloud Roll. More than just a neon-tinted photo op, we actually loved it way more than expected, giving it one of the highest scores of last year’s Fair. Rather than take a step in a more sensible direction with their desserts, the folks behind Rainbow Ice Cream have doubled down with this new offering of blue raspberry ice cream perched atop a birds nest of cotton candy, and of course topped with candy. There is no question that you’ll be seeing their creation all over your social media feeds again this year, but we wonder if it is too similar to last year’s addition to stand out. It’s hard to knock something that looks like this on creativity, but it does seem to be a return to the now-tested formula of ice cream and cotton candy; have they perfected it, or are they resting on their laurels?
Uffdas: What Were They Thinking? Is There Any Chance These Turn Out Good?
Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites from Funnel Cakes: Look, nobody asked for this. We understand the cult of Sriracha, and we know these are going to be a major conversation starter around the Fair this year. But does anyone actually expect these to be good? Even the lovers of the spicy, the bizarre, and the sinfully bad-for-you treats all have to balk at what is being done here. We’ll have to try them and review them to find out truly if a mistake has been made, but we cannot guarantee we will finish these off before tossing it in the trash.
Pebbles & Bam Bam Nordic Waffle from Nordic Waffles: We loved Nordic Waffles debut year at the Fair in 2018, and clearly a lot of others did too, as they frequently had lines that stretched hundreds of feet long, especially the last few days of the Fair. Their Slammin’ Salmon variety earned one of our highest scoring reviews last year, and has elicited a lot of anticipation for their follow-up sophomore season. They’re introducing two new waffle varieties this year; the Al Pastor Pork sounds like a brilliant addition to the savory side of their roster. Unfortunately, when it comes to the sweets, this new version just seems lazy and way out of balance. Standard-issue peanut butter cups and kids’ cereal sandwiched inside their waffle degrades their brand, and more importantly, it looks to be far too much sugar. A great treat at the Fair should strike an equilibrium between how bad it is for you and how sinfully good it seems; unfortunately, this offering looks to be all of the former and none of the latter.
Bada Bing Sandwich from The Sandwich Shop: The Minnesota State Fair is the big leagues of culinary craftsmanship. Fairgoers aren’t looking for what they can make easily at home, or what they can order from their neighborhood restaurant. We want something inventive, something unique, something that invokes a sense that there is only one place on Earth that it can be found. This might be a killer sandwich, but at best it can only be just a sandwich with these rudimentary toppings. Until proven otherwise, this earns a big yawn from us.
All The Beers: This is bound to be controversial, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, but there are 53! new beverages at the Fair this year, most of them alcoholic, most of those beers. We’re not opposed to drinking, and we intend to try and review a great number of these. In fact, we’re downright excited to give some of these a try. However, the Minnesota State Fair has final say on what does or does not get offered by vendors at the Fair, and traditionally has been rather selective about limiting new items to a manageable level. This appears to be out the window with seemingly every brewery in the state trying their hand at a Fair-exclusive beer. Where does one even start with this unwieldy list? We know a lot of these are going to be spectacular, but we still can’t help but feel a little put-off by throwing all of these at us at once and seeing what sticks.
There you have it! Of course, this just scrapes the surface of all the new offerings at the Fair. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as our travels around the Fairgrounds brings us to all these items and more and find out if these first impressions were right or if there are some surprises to be had!