An Expert’s Guide to Dining at the Minnesota State Fair
How do you approach the culinary smorgasbord that is the Minnesota State Fair? Local fair fanatic Alex Lodner has been attending this iconic event for 15 years, spending almost all 12 days of the year gathering information on the fair’s best hidden gems, affordable dishes and timeless favourites. Walk down Dan Patch Avenue in his shoes.
Walk down Dan Patch Avenue to the newest Pronto puppy standing on Underwood Street. It’s the fair, after all: meat on a stick is acceptable, even encouraged, at any time of the day. Pronto Pups vs. Classic Corn Dogs is a controversial debate in Minnesota. Whichever side you’re on, the distinction between the two is worth noting: Although Pup dough includes cornmeal, like classic corn dogs, the addition of several other flours and less sugar makes for a bite-sized richer and tastier.
On the other side of the street, the mouth trap is located deep inside the food building. Queue for a cup of creamy, golden cheese curds – an old favorite that’s meant to be shared.
Then head south: walk down Carnes Avenue to Sweet Martha’s cookie jar. Yes, a single bucket of cookies here can cost as much as a year’s supply of homemade cookies, but do you have really going to the fair if you haven’t eaten your weight in warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies? Pro tip: Head to the back of the building, where side windows tend to have shorter wait times.
Taking a family to the fair can get expensive, but if you know where to look there are great deals all around the fairgrounds. Just off the Visitors Plaza on Dan Patch Avenue is the RC-Cola tent, where a variety of sodas can be purchased for as little as a dollar. Another semi-secret tip: Flip through the official State Fair Blue Ribbon Bargain Book and rip a coupon for a dollar off a large soda. (Buy a book at the ticket office – they’re full of coupons for food, merchandising and other fair features.)
Tired of fancy foods? A few steps from the RC Cola stand is the Midway Men’s Club, where volunteers have been whipping up classic burgers and pouring icy, cheap beers to benefit St. Paul Youth programs since 1963.
Take the hungry kids to the North Woods area of the fairgrounds, where Laughter‘ serves up a kids meal of chicken nuggets, fries and Oreo cookies for less than three dollars. No one will mind if adults order one too.
For a health and affordable treat, come back down to Agriculture Horticulture Buildingand find it Minnesota Apple Stand in the west wing. Ice pop cider is tangy and refreshing on a hot day and one of the best bargains at the fair.
Hidden gems and fan favorites
For the fair’s best-kept secret breakfast, search Steichen’s grocery store, nestled in an alley behind the sheepfold and the Café Caribe. The Blue Ribbon Bargain Book offers a two dollar coupon off a freshly made breakfast sandwich to start the day off right.
Then it’s time for a caffeine boost. Burn that sandwich with a brisk walk to the main doors. Right there on Dan Patch Avenue, the Minnesota Farmers Union Coffee serves up a creamy and frothy maple cold brew that will fuel you on the way to Manny’s pies in the food building. Here, order the non-alcoholic pina colada; it is served in a hollowed-out fresh pineapple decorated with a small paper umbrella. You’ll be the envy of the thirsty masses when you exit through the south gate and head down the Key West Key Lime Shoppe from Kermit. This family-friendly stand sits below the Skyride and serves frozen key lime pie, dipped in smooth dark chocolate. Take a seat under the Skyride and count the cow-themed gondolas. (Spoiler: there’s only one.)
Next, head to the bustling Mighty Midway. Along the way, stop at the small trailer serving local produce Spring Grove Soda, which blends fun flavors like rhu-berry and sour lemon and uses pure cane sugar. For extra sweetness, venture deep into the Midway to find the donut family. Three generations of the Elmstrand family don’t serve old donuts: They make mini donut sundaes, with scrumptious toppings like marshmallows, Oreos and chocolate sauce, plus a little mountain of whipped cream.
At the far southwest end of the fair, just before you reach the Christensen Pavilion pig pen, love it or hate it, Hansen’s foods serves old fashioned burgers, breakfast sandwiches and cheese fries. The Walking Taco is a kid-friendly lunch that lets kids stroll through animal barns with minimal mess. There is always plenty of seating under Hansen’s red canopy.
The Blue Moon is known for dishes like caramelized banana pudding or sweet corn ice cream, but its claim to fame is the dinner theater, where obscure films are shown in a dark, cavernous room filled with old car seats. It’s the perfect escape from the craziness of the midday State Fair.
There are so many food items at the Fair (nearly 500 items from 300 vendors, in fact) that it can seem inefficient to eat something twice. So much fried food, so little time. But there are a few items worth repeating daily, including Grain Belt Blu beer with Blu topper at the by Schell stand. This brew is sweet yet refreshing, and the frothy, frothy filling can’t be found anywhere else.
The blue barn is a destination, as evidenced by its endless queues, and for good reason. The menu is filled with fan favorites, including one particular item that keeps Blue Barn in heavy rotation with visitors: the cornflake-encrusted Nashville Hot Chicken-on-a-Stick, which is dipped in a spicy honey buttercream glaze. that gives every crisp, kicky bite just a touch of sweetness.
Leaving the fair, head towards Kiwani Malts next to the Palace of Fine Arts. Yes, there are plenty of malt and ice cream options at the fair, but Kiwanis has been a favorite since 1969. It offers a succinct menu of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla malts, and the profits support the children’s organizations across the state. Plus, malts are a great snack for the car (take extra long spoons and napkins), so it’s a win-win.
Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free foods
V= Vegan / VG= Vegetarian / GF= Gluten Free
Known for high quality meat and dairy alternatives, new supplier the herbivorous butcher offers two vegan dishes topped with sauce and fried onions and served on Texas toast. Try the Poultrygeist fried chicken or the Steak-xorcist. V
french meadow offers many alternatives to the fair, including this year’s newest entries: Earth Sliders and “Meat” and Marinara Balls. These sliders are “chicken” patties topped with a secret sauce on toasted bread. The “meat” balls are seasoned with Italian herbs and sautéed in a marinara sauce. V
Some come to the fair for one thing only: ripe, juicy, organic peaches from commodity exchange, served fresh or grilled. Be sure to grab a Fruit & Booch, a giant cup filled with fresh fruit and topped with tangy, refreshing kombucha.
New supplier nautical bowls serves a variety of organic, gluten-free and dairy-free vegan superfood bowls made without refined sugar. Try the Anchor Bowl, made with acai, granola and cashew cocoa butter. V, GF
Tot Boss uses a separate gluten-free fryer for its celiac-friendly options, and many sauces are also gluten-free. GF
Corn dogs are the quintessential fair trade food, and now vegans can participate with a little help from Daryl’s niche fully vegan corn dog. Very hot and drizzled with mustard, the meat will not be missed by anyone. V
The Perfect Pickles fried pickle slices offer a crispy, salty bite. Skip the ranch dip and opt for the hot sauce – or better yet, choose a huge pickle on a stick. Take extra towels. VG, V
Dej qab zib at Union Hmong Cuisine is a vegan drink made with coconut milk, lychee, lime and mint, and the starters mov and nqaij (rice and meat) are all gluten-free. A vegan tofu dish with turmeric and lemongrass is also available. GF,V