Dara’s Picks: Best New Foods at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair

26August 2021

I went, I ate (nearly) all the foods, I picked the best! You want to know what, scroll down. But first, let me answer the question roiling social media for the last month: Why go to the State Fair at all? The pandemic isn’t over, and the fair is not mandating or enforcing anything to eradicate COVID, not masks, not vaccines—and the pandemic isn’t over! If we are really, really good and stay home, can’t we kick this thing?

I have been thinking and reading about this for weeks. I have concluded: Coronavirus is endemic now, despite what any of us would have chosen, it is our new normal. Endemic means it’s going to be circulating forever, in forever new permutations. Like mono, meningitis, tetanus, measles, HIV, herpes—add in whatever endemic risk you can think of, COVID-19 joins them. Do we need to grieve this permanent new danger? Probably yes. Probably some of us are in different stages of that grief—anger and denial seem popular. Importantly, if this is our new normal, what can anyone do except vax, mask, keep calm and carry on?  

My second reason is that my lodestar for all the years I’ve been writing is to do what I can to serve my community—the readers for whom food and our city life is our Vikings or jazz club or whatever, and, to a lesser extent, the food people who bought 14,000 hot dogs or beer cups. Serving this community is what I do. It gives purpose and meaning to my days, and comfort to my soul—as well as talking to people is where the next story idea comes from. So how long can I stay away? For what it’s worth, for my whole life my values have been city values: If I wanted to live in a Unabomber shack I would have chosen that a long time ago. I go out at night, I see music, I eat food, I write about it, I talk about it. That’s me. I have believed throughout this pandemic response that we have as a society undervalued the long-term harms of isolation. How long do you not see a person before they’re just someone you used to know? With that in mind, what else can I do but vax, mask, keep calm and carry on? As you can see, every train of thought I have leads to one conclusion. Vax, mask, keep calm and carry on.

So I went. I tried to be as safe as I could be, arriving at 6:30 a.m., when just about everyone was masked, and departing at 1 p.m., when it started to feel crowded and mask use severely dropped off. I wore a mask the whole time I wasn’t eating. I have no problem wearing a mask, it’s fine, I don’t get why some people make such a fuss. This year however, I also skipped the handful of vendors who have always disappointed me in the past—this year time was too precious to give anyone their tenth chance. Maybe time has always been that precious and it took the pandemic to make me realize? My experience at the fair this year was, as I suppose was to be expected, unusual. Before 8 a.m. I’d guess there were only a third the usual number of visitors, it was easy to get anywhere and do anything, no lines, empty streets. By the time noon rolled around, it felt like pre-pandemic times—crowded, maskless. By that time though, I had sampled more than two dozen new foods, and, as always, came up with my top 5. Which were, in reverse order:

#5: Auntie M’s Gluten-Free Funnel Cake and Gluten-Free Cheese Curds

Light as crunchy air—that’s how I’d characterize the serious celiac-friendly gluten-free batters at Paynesville-based Auntie M’s. That batter makes their cheese curds delightfully taut and springy, and makes the funnel cake as crisp as spun sugar, a bit like Indian jalebi, if you’ve ever had those fried curlicues. I stood on the long line at Auntie M’s mainly to give them a chance, if I had known how good it was I’d have tried the corn dog too. It feels like a very necessary and good addition to the fair, as well as truly and remarkably tasty. 

#4: Farmer’s Union BLT with Fried Egg, Hmong Chili and Cucumber Jalapeño Limeade

The Farmer’s Union has had a hit at the fair for several years with their local-farm peak-of-summer BLT made on a focaccia loaf made with kernza flour. This year however, chef Marshall Paulson, formerly of the Birchwood, is running operations for chef Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen, and decided to jazz up the famed BLT. This year you can order it with a local runny farm egg, and if you’re in the know, ask for a spoonful of the Hmong chili sauce, the one with all the crunchy fried shallots, on top. Well. Spicy, smoky, rich with runny egg, all but vibrating with fat slices of summer tomato, this is a destination-restaurant sandwich, not just fair food. I’d have made it number one new food—except, is it new, really? The cucumber limeade with a bit of jalapeño syrup is also delightful, very spa-tasting, with the generous scoop of cucumber puree in every cup. Since the Farmer’s Union starts serving at 6 a.m., I’d say if you’re really yearning for an ultra-safe fair experience, why not start with that amazing egg sandwich before 7, and get out the door by mid-morning? It could be like the way grocery stores were offering a safe-shopping experience for the elderly or at risk during the first hour of shopping early in the pandemic—except with a spectacular, spicy egg. (FYI, you can get this bacon-free.)

#3: Andy’s Garage Chori-Pop, Fried Tamales, and Horchata Shake

The International Bazaar space shared between different Midtown Global Market vendors has become a highlight of every fair, and this year is no exception. Vegans, pay attention: They took Herbivorous Butcher chorizo, hand-pattied a cornmeal cake around that, deep fried it, drizzled it with your pick of mole sauce or avocado salsa (I liked the zingy and light avocado salsa) and presented the corn-dog-cousin two to a paper boat, with Mexican-spiced potato chips. Similar but different, you can get a different corn dough Andy’s creation in the form of a handmade tamale filled with your choice of chicken or cheese, deep fried so the outside is crisp, the inside well-cooked, and then served with avocado salsa or a tangy frothy dipping crema. These are rib-sticking and hearty, and very comfort-food-fulfilling. However, whatever you do at the International Bazaar, please do not miss the horchata shake, it’s all creamy rice and cinnamon flavors, but so light and refreshing, and then they stick a warm churro in as a garnish and it’s like: Oh it’s a fun little party here! I tried a bunch of new sweets and this shake was by far my favorite.

#2 Baba’s Hummus Bowls

The greatest surprise of the fair to me this year were the delightful hummus bowls from the new Baba’s trailer. Baba’s is the offshoot of the Mediterranean Cruise Café, an historic spot in Burnsville which is an enormous Palestinian restaurant with a bellydancing floor-show. The restaurant expanded into a creamy hummus line available in grocery stores, and, suddenly now, has a bright and cute trailer offering eight hummus bowls. All are served with a hot skewer of tiny just-fried homemade pita breads and each is slightly different after that. One has fresh bright falafel balls, another pairs truffle hummus with roasted mushrooms and almonds, another dill pickles and cheese curds—they’re all meals, but also shareable, like you’d have hummus and accompaniments out as a snack on a coffee table for friends. I couldn’t say enough good things about the bowl called Chili Baba, made with a tangy za’atar hummus graced with a pool of dark garlic chili oil, a mound of bright kim-chi, and a little pool of minced scallions. Creamy, deep-tasting, spicy, bready—what a treat. Don’t miss the fresh mint lemonade made fragrant with a bit of rosewater, it’s refreshing and just what you want at the fair—familiar, but totally surprising.

#1 Hot Indian Paneer Pakora and Lassi

Top fair food: It’s cheese curds, right? And so how very fitting that Hot Indian came out with a new food of cheese curds—but totally different. These are paneer cheese cubes, breaded with a gluten-free, subtly spiced chickpea flour batter, then fried, so you get something a bit dusky, a bit savory, a bit haunting—and totally new. Then you dip the cheese cubes in the little vat of tomato butter—like tomato soup, made very fancy and dippable—fun! Add a mango lassi yogurt drink too, for palate cleansing and to be fun. I really liked the flavors of Hot Indian’s other new food, a sort of burrito with chicken tenders inside, but Indian, though the one I got was cold—first day hiccups are real. Still, everything about the new booth by Hot Indian, the little Minneapolis quick-and-fun concept that has been trying and trying to grow big for as long as anyone can remember, warmed my heart. The success story of moving out of the Midtown Global Market launching pad to their own booth. The talent of chef Janene Holig, trying and trying and never giving up, and owner Amol Dixit, as the two try to figure out exactly what will make average Americans treat Indian with the same casual delight as Mexican. I seriously recommend every fair-head try the Hot Indian Paneer Pakora and the classic Mouth Trap cheese curds side by side—what does that teach you about fried cheese? Thank you Hot Indian, for leading us to a place where we can enjoy new and joyful explorations of fried cheese—after the year we’ve had, we needed this! 

The infuriating also-rans: I really liked a few things I tried that didn’t quite make the top five, so I put them here for your consideration. Also, I fear the problem may be me, because three of the four of my also-rans lost out on top-five status because I thought they were simply too sugary. Have I been home eating too-little-sugar for too long? Possibly. But the sweet and decadent watermelon juice at Spinning Wylde was fascinating—a whole glass of watermelon run through a juicer, who does that? But the gummy-candy garnish and sweet edible straw tipped the whole experience into the land of too sweet for me—though if you have a sweet-tooth you might feel differently. The pork belly and candied jalapeño sandwich from RC’s Barbecue will be a lot of people’s favorite I suspect, but again it was just too sweet for my taste, still, I tremendously admired the tender biscuit and dewy pork-belly. The doughscuit at Blue Barn, halfway between a donut and a biscuit, is, like a donut, sweet!  In this instance, sweet with a sriracha frosting, sort of like a cinnamon roll frosting, but looser. Anyway, too sweet for me, but I can understand why a donut lover would fall for it. Finally, the chicken biscuit sandwich at LuLu’s, only before 10:30 a.m., was pretty spectacular. This year they’re taking frozen Betty & Earl biscuits, thawing them and letting them rise, then serving them with crispy fried chicken and scrambled eggs. If my list was a top six, LuLu’s biscuit would be number six!

Maybe you go to the fair and have two breakfasts this year? It’s so crazy it could work. I met a woman who told me she was going to have two State Fair experiences this year, one entirely before noon, another where she’d arrive at 8 o’clock at night and stay till close. I think that’s an intriguing idea, not least because it reflects some thoughtful examination of traffic patterns. We left our old normal in March of 2020, we’re groping our way towards a new normal day by day, and loss and strangeness, joy and ordinariness will be part of that—as will the fair.

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