Imagine, if you can - six hours at the Minnesota State Fair without a single crispy, glistening Fresh French Fry or cheese curd; deprived of even one warm, melty Sweet Martha’s chocolate cookie; nary a sweet, cool lick of an ice cream cone from the long line at the Dairy Building. I know, impossible. But it was done, for you, readers. Armed with a friend, a pile of cash, and an empty stomach, I set off on a quest to skip the usual suspects and try some of the Fair’s most unique foods. Here is what we found…
Hands-down Loser: Chocolate Covered Jalapeno from Andre’s Watermelon
Location: Underwood Street next to Ye Olde Mill
The day’s first and priciest purchase, and the only one I couldn’t stomach. According to the kid who served them up, they’re one of this year’s hot ticket items, grabbing a lot of attention as one of 2011’s new fair foods. “If you do something weird, anybody will eat it… I mean, its not even deep fried,” commented by dining companion. I generally think deep frying is unnecessary – butter? candy bars? spaghetti? – but it definitely would have been an improvement here. Even a few seconds on the grill. Three fat, raw, cold jalapenos are jabbed on a stick and covered in a thin layer of milk chocolate. The fake sweetness is powerless against the tiny, spicy seeds, and a half hour later I could still feel the first and only bite I took burning in my stomach. Unable to resist chocolate, even of the too sweet variety, I scraped it off with my teeth and dumped the peppers. Need more evidence? Read Heavy Table’s take here.
Most Local: Works Burger from the Lamb Shoppe
Price: Still reeling from the jalapeno experience, I forgot to record this information
Location: Food Building
A burger? Not so unique, you say? What drew me here, before I even knew what they were selling, were the proclamations of “local,” “sustainable,” and “grass fed”. These are words that pull on any urban foodie’s heartstrings, words that are all too uncommon when you’re eating at the Fair. The uniqueness of this burger’s origin is a welcome relief to any conscious eater who suddenly finds themselves in the world of food long hot dogs and spam (more on that later). The Lamp Shoppe of Hutchinson, Minnesota served up a tender, wonderfully spiced lamb burger – on a whole wheat bun at that – topped with yogurt sauce, lettuce and tomato, and the perfect remedy for that lingering, jalapeno-laced aftertaste.
All-around Goodness: Corn Dog
Ok, I cheated. This is not unique in the least. My State Fair standby since my earliest days, I just could not go a year without my corn dog. Always corn dogs, never Pronto Pups, two stripes of ketchup, two stripes of mustard. Perfection.
Most Unique Meat: Alligator Sausage on a Stick from Bayou Bob’s
Location: Nelson and Dan Patch, next to the Giant Slide
Like any strange meat, I had heard that alligator “tastes like chicken.” A little chewy, Cajun-spiced, and covered in barbecue sauce, we could have been eating a bratwurst made out of any generic meat. True Minnesotans, my companion and I puzzled over the fact that there are enough alligators out there to support a whole meat industry. Empowered by my recent experience with the local lamb farmers, I was hoping for an interesting story about sustainably raised alligators and asked the high school kid filling the condiments where the meat came from. He pointed to the sign above us. “Florida.” Duh. Go for it if you like the novelty of eating something that could eat you, instead of something you can go cuddle with in a barn a hundred feet away.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Deep Fried Spam Curds from the Spam Booth
Location: Cosgrove between Wright and Dan Patch
I’ve never dreamed of putting Spam in my mouth, and in fact proclaim myself to be a “mostly vegetarian” most of the time, but I just loved these curds. Little fried balls of spam and cheese, perfect for popping in your mouth with a little barbecue sauce. "Reminiscent of chicken nuggets but “healthier” tasting", according to one eater. Not sure I would go that far, but they’re certainly not too greasy, nicely flavored, and at $5.50 for a paper cup full of them, they’re a great deal. According to one of the booth owners, Spam Curds are without a doubt the most unique Fair food. He and his partner invented them, fought for the use of the word “curds,” and are to this day the only folks making them. How could you not support a true Minnesota story like that?
Award for Taking the Edge Off: Swedish Egg Coffee from Salem Lutheran Church
Location: Cosgrove and Randall, next to the Eco Experience
After a few hours of non-stop consumption, we were slowing down. Time for a coffee break. The Salem Lutheran folks have been selling this famed coffee at the Fair for 63 years. The gentleman behind the counter was unfazed when I told him I’d be writing about it for a local food blog, reporting that they’d been visited by every local news channel so far, except Channel 5. So, not a hidden gem by any means, but unique nonetheless. The moment of respite and quiet nostalgia offered by Salem Lutheran’s off-the-beaten-path corner of the Fair and lunch counter seating, the can’t-beat-it price, and the novelty – an egg in your coffee! – make this is a necessary stop for any weary Fair goer. (The backstory, in case you’ve always wondered, is that Swedish immigrants, forced to brew their coffee with river water, threw a few eggs into the grounds to purify it and take the acid out.)
Favorite Sweet Treats: Sweet Corn Ice Cream from Blue Moon Dine In Theater; Mocha on a Stick from Minnesota Farmers Union Coffee Shop
Price: $5 + $1 per topping; $5.25
Location: Carnes and Chambers; Dan Patch Avenue near the main entrance
The sweet corn ice cream is a new one this year, and unlike the chocolate covered jalapenos, its worth the hype. Deliciously sweet, creamy, and truly “corn-y” tasting, perfectly balanced with a sprinkle of salty, crunchy popped corn kernels, a crisp little cracker, and optional additions of wild blueberry, honey butter bacon or caramel cayenne peanuts. If you shy away from egg coffee, are looking for something a little sweeter, or are just in need of coffee break number two, pick up a Mocha on a Stick. Frozen espresso-chocolate-ice cream perfection.
Need an interactive map? Here it is.
For more suggestions on Fair fare (sorry), check out SGT’s past coverage, Heavy Table’s yearly food tours, or Rick Nelson’s picks. And let us know what you think! What food won and lost in your book this year?
Georgia Rubenstein works at an environmental non-profit in Minneapolis, and loves food in all of its forms -- growing it, cooking it, eating it, feeding it to her worms, and then starting the cycle all over. She can be found philosophizing about food, considering food policy issues, and working to harness the incredible power of food to save the world.