10 new Minnesota State Fair foods: Hit or miss?
Hot takes on pickle pizza, dessert hummus, cheese curd tacos, vegan fried chicken, a black licorice ice cream sundae and more new things you can put in your pie hole at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — A cool morning turned into a toasty afternoon as the Minnesota State Fairgrounds filled with people ready to enjoy the Great Minnesota Get-Together on Thursday, opening day. There was a sense of renewed normalcy to the event, which was canceled in 2020 and resumed last year under a cloud of COVID anxiety.
For the State Fair, there's nothing more "normal" than a fresh crop of new foods added in to mix it up with tried-and-true staples like Pronto Pups and roasted corn. I tried 10 of this year's most anticipated new food items, which are for the most part more wholesome than the cookies and deep-fried candy bars the fair is infamous for. That said, the new foods also include cheese curd tacos and pickle pizza.
Sweet Potato Poutine (Blue Barn)
What is it? Often called Canada's national dish, poutine is traditionally made with french fries (or "chips," as they say in the British Commonwealth), cheese curds and gravy. The Blue Barn executes several twists on this formula, making it vegetarian (Beyond chorizo sausage, turmeric gravy) and using sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes. Extra fun: They're waffle fries! Curds, pico de gallo and cilantro also play into this pile.
Hit or miss? The State Fair already has a vendor of classic poutine, and the comprehensively Canada-branded Duke's need fear no threat from the more avant-garde Blue Barn. When eating this dish, it's best to let go of any associations with poutine as you've known it and simply focus on the food at hand. The turmeric gravy has a nice zing, the waffle fries are very nicely seasoned, and the pico pops — but the fresh medley comes nowhere near any resemblance to conventional poutine. I found only a few curds in my serving, which is totally fine, since God knows there is no shortage of cheese curds at the Minnesota State Fair. So let's call it a miss as poutine, but a hit as "veggie-loaded sweet potato waffle fries."
Pork Schnitzel Sandwich (Minnesota Farmers Union)
What is it? Pork schnitzel is a classic dish in Germany: pan-fried breaded pork. The Farmers Union, keeping it local as always, has taken loin cuts from Minnesota-made pigs and plopped them between toasted bun halves to create this new food for 2022. Pickled cabbage and mustard mayo complete each sandwich.
Hit or miss? No new food looked less like its official promo photo than the colossal loin served to me in a paper boat on Thursday morning. The cut came heavily breaded, and practically swimming in the mustard mayo applied very generously to the underbun. To be frank, it was kind of a mess. That said, the meat itself was top-notch, and the creamy sauce made the sandwich reminiscent of a supersize McDonald's Filet-O-Fish. You know how many Filet-O-Fish sandwiches McDonald's sells every year? A lot, and there's a good reason for that. You won't have any complaints about the portion size; even a hearty eater will fill up on this sandwich. (Really, the loin and sauce could just have been served on their own; you may want to toss the bun.) So this is a miss if you're just looking for a savory snack, but not if you're ready to roll up your sleeves and go whole hog.
Poultreygeist (The Herbivorous Butcher)
What is it? The Herbivorous Butcher is a Northeast Minneapolis shop where all the "meat" and "cheese" is 100% vegan. A whiff of controversy — not all vegans want their plant proteins to dress up like meat — has only helped the shop's burgeoning national reputation. The Herbivorous Butcher's new Food Building stand is offering two vegan entrees: the Steak-xorcist, inspired by chicken-fried steak, and the Poultreygeist. Meant to resemble fried chicken with sausage gravy on Texas toast, the Poultreygeist is topped with fried onions. What a trickster!
Hit or miss? On balance, a hit. Don't try to eat it with a fork; just grab the "chicken" tenders with your fingers and bite into the slightly rubbery morsels. Dyed-in-the-wool meat lovers won't be converted, but vegans, vegetarians and people who are simply looking to reduce their meat intake may find this hits the spot. From top to bottom, though, Poultreygeist saves the best for last. The toast has an incredibly rich flavor, so buttery you'll want to take it to the movies.
Kulfi (Hot Indian Foods)
What is it? Despite being served at Hot Indian Foods, kulfi is cold — very cold. Don't bite down hard on one of these creamy pops, but work a piece off into your mouth and get ready for an explosion of fresh flavor as the whipped dairy dessert melts. Located in the Food Building, Hot Indian Foods is now selling three flavors of kulfi. I chose the mango flavor because of its bright blue and orange sprinkles, and had zero regrets.
Hit or miss? Smash hit. At a fair that famously celebrates dairy products, kulfi is a long overdue addition to the party.
Birthday Cake Paleta (Hamline Church Dining Hall)
What is it? Church dining halls used to be State Fair standbys, but now they're a vanishing breed. The Hamline hall is celebrating its 125th year at the fair, and inviting fairgoers to celebrate with a Birthday Cake Paleta. Paletas are Mexican ice pops, and Hamline's come from La Michoacana Rose — a growing, family-owned Twin Cities chain of ice cream shops. The Birthday Cake Paleta features ample sprinkles, pieces of birthday cake and a strong vanilla flavor.
Hit or miss? Blow out the (conceptual) candles and break into song. "Birthday cake" is a flavor used for everything from hand soap to energy drinks, but the La Michoacana Rose paletas taste like the true essence of celebration, right down to the spongy texture. Along with the Hot Indian Foods kulfi, these pops are tops if you're looking for superbly refreshing frozen treats on a stick.
Coco-Nuts Hummus Bowl (Baba's)
What is it? The Baba's trailer stands underneath the SkyGlider, next door to the New Scenic Cafe's Scenic 61 Airstream. Baba's offers a range of hummus bowls, most of which are savory. This year, they're adding two wild new offerings: a "Beauty and the Buffalo" bowl (buffalo chicken, buffalo sauce, "buffalo dust") and a Coco-Nuts bowl of what is, effectively, dessert hummus. Hazelnut chocolate hummus is complemented with chocolate chips, hummus, shredded coconut, bananas and powdered sugar pita puffs.
Hit or miss? "Miss" would be a little strong, given that Baba's hummus is consistently excellent and highly nourishing, refreshingly free of the greasy flavors that pervade the fair. That said, this chocolate hummus bowl may be too sweet for most people seeking a solid meal, yet too savory for fairgoers looking to sate a sweet tooth. Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a bowl of hummus. The ingredients come together best when you include a banana slice in your bite.
Pickle Pizza (Rick's Pizza)
What is it? Rick's Pizza, a new vendor across from the Education Building, makes no secret of its marquee offering. Pickle Pizza signs are everywhere, and giant white discs laden with pickle chips sit in the kitchen window. Even before the fair opened, Pickle Pizza was this year's most divisive new food: Should it even exist? Is it a crime against pizza, or the best strange thing to happen to pizza since pineapple? In substance, Rick's Pickle Pizza is made with dill ranch sauce, mozzarella, pickle slices and a dusting of dill weed.
Hit or miss? As you stroll down Cosgrove, everyone within 10 feet will be aware that you are holding a hot wedge of Pickle Pizza. The pizza's gleaming surface exudes dill scent like Lake Superior steaming away on a winter day. The problem with Pickle Pizza isn't the pickle — it's the pizza. My slice was doughy and sodden; after taking a couple bites, I resorted to picking the pickles off the pizza and popping them independently. Far be it from me to question Rick's recipe, but if the vendor took this approach to a tighter slice of pie, it might be a hit. As is, it's a notable novelty. Get a slice to share so you can say you tried it.
Mov + Nqaij (Union Hmong Kitchen)
What is it? Union Hmong Kitchen is one of the most exciting things happening in Minnesota cuisine. The "pop-up restaurant experience" recently opened its first permanent home: Graze Food Hall in Minneapolis' North Loop. Chef Yia Vang now also has a home at the International Bazaar, where he made it worth the wait for Thursday's long line of lunchtime patrons. Mov + Nqaij is a rice and meat entree with a few different, delectable, choices for meats and sauces. I tried the Hmong sausage with Tiger Bite sauce; the Krunchy Chili Oil added a rich flavor to the coarse-ground pork. (This is one State Fair food where "oily" is very much a compliment.) I also couldn't resist the Hilltribe Chicken Thigh, which was robustly seared and neatly complemented by the Lemongrass Scallion Dressing. Each dish comes with a serving of purple sticky rice, which I enjoyed — and so did my friends' 8-month-old, who happily gnawed on a clump of it.