Local Restaurants Serve Global Flavors at the State Fair

It’s that time of year again, when Minnesotans of every stripe gather at the Great Get-Together for 12 days of farm exhibits and blue-ribbon competitions, midway rides and carnival games, and lots (and lots) of food. When it comes to fairground fare, it’s easy enough to find all-American classics from corn dogs to corn-on-the-cob. But there are also favorite foods that reflect Minnesota’s immigrant history, such as Norwegian lefse, German bratwurst and Italian zeppoles. In recent years, however, the state has also become home to people from Latin America, Asia and Africa, and slowly but surely, State Fair food is beginning to reflect the change.

On a perfect day for the opening of the 2010 State Fair, I went in search of ethnic eats representing the increasingly diverse makeup of Minnesotans and found that it was a bit like foraging for spring morels – although I uncovered only a handful this season, they proved to be hidden treasures that give hope for even more in the future. So, if you’re looking for some global flair in your State Fair meals, try these food finds available now:

Cubana Torta at Manny’s Torta  (Food Building)

“I guarantee you’ll love it,” Tom Gonzalez cajoled a hesitant fairgoer eyeing the menu at Manny’s Tortas. “If you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.” It takes such enthusiasm to close the deal when you're surrounded by equally eager competitors ready to tempt away your customers. But the confidence is well-earned: Tom’s brother Manny has been serving these popular gourmet Mexican sandwiches at his eponymous restaurant to Twin Cities residents since 1999 and this year marks their first appearance at the State Fair. The menu is small but what more do you need when just one torta packs so much between two slices of French bread? In a bit of Latin American fusion, Manny’s gives the classic Cuban sandwich a Mexican twist with the Cubana Torta ($5) – slices of pork, ham and cheese cozy up with tomato, lettuce, onion, avocado, refried beans and chipotle mayonnaise, while pickled jalapeño peppers take the place of traditional dill pickles. It’s piquant, messy and fantastic. Needless to say, no refund was necessary.

Roti Dhalpourie with Chicken at Harry Singh’s Original Caribbean Restaurant (Food Building)

It’s a family affair as Harry Singh, his son Robyn, and daughter-in-law Sally begin their second year at the State Fair outpost of their Eat Street restaurant (closed during the fair). Harry has been a fixture in the Twin Cities’ ethnic cuisine scene for nearly 28 years with his authentic ‘Oh God, It’s Hot’ Trinidadian food. “It’s East Indian influence with a West Indies flavor,” he said, describing the intriguing mix of South Asian and Caribbean cooking, which he prepares using fresh produce from the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market. It’s a cultural combination made delicious in his Roti Dhalpourie ($5), a soft handmade flatbread stuffed with a thin layer of ground dhal (spiced cooked lentils) and used to enclose a choice of mildly-spiced curry chicken, hot and spicy jerk chicken or vegetarian chickpea and potatoes. Watch as Harry’s crew makes these savory rotis at the large, flour-covered table behind the counter, then place your order for one of these hefty handfuls of savory goodness.

Cream-filled Baklava at Holy Land (International Bazaar)

Opening day at the Fair wasn’t running as smoothly as planned at Holy Land, but Majdi Wadi was unruffled. One moment, the CEO of Minneapolis’ celebrated Middle Eastern food institution was putting in a service call for an uncooperative griddle, then next, he was showing a rookie employee how to ring up an order. In between, he took a moment to describe Holy Land’s newest sweet offering. “This is true Middle East-style baklava,” he explained, as I clutched a small plate containing a flaky, golden pastry sprinkled with finely chopped pistachios. Unlike the nut-filled, syrup-drenched cut squares that many of us may immediately recognize as baklava, Holy Land’s version from an old family recipe are individual triangles of folded handmade phyllo dough filled with a creamy custard made from milk, cornstarch and pure honey. I had nearly passed on this new baklava ($2), waving off the recommendation of the young woman at the cash register. Thank goodness I can never resist a free sample – with one bite, I was hooked on the delicate flavor so unlike the usual cloying sweetness of other baklavas. Holy Land may be one of the old pros at the State Fair, but they certainly know how to keep things fresh and sweet.

Midtown Global Market (International Bazaar)

Also at the International Bazaar is Midtown Global Market’s station, which is featuring three of their vendors offering unique and authentic ethnic eats. First up is La Loma Tamales, currently serving their signature dish of steamed masa dough filled with savory meats from August 26 - 30. I was excited to learn that Safari Express will offer East African and Somali food, including camel-on-a-stick, but not until August 30 through September 2, when they take over the space. Then, closing out MGM’s State Fair run will be Jakeeno’s Trattoria, the stalwart Italian eatery in Minneapolis, which will slice up their hand-tossed pizzas for fairgoers from September 3 - 6.

The Great Minnesota Eat-Together has just begun, so there’s plenty of time to enjoy these international flavors. But in case you don’t get your fill during the State Fair, the good news is that this global food is local all year round at these great Minnesota-grown restaurants.

Manny’s Tortas

920 East Lake Street
Minneapolis, MN 55407-5449

Harry Singh’s Original Caribbean Restaurant
2653 Nicollet Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55408-1629

Holy Land Bakery & Restaurant

2513 Central Avenue NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Midtown Global Market
920 East Lake Street
Minneapolis, MN 55407-5449


Tracey Paska is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty who also writes about the complex, confusing and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle.