42 new Minnesota State Fair foods, from marvelous to meh

As the fair returned from a year off, the Taste team grabbed their masks and ate their way through the first day.

Strawberries and cream funnel cake from Auntie M’s Gluten Free.
Strawberries and cream funnel cake from Auntie M’s Gluten Free.

— LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Seven hours, 15,000 steps, one "extreme" weather event and 42 bites of new food. That was Day 1 of the 2021 Minnesota State Fair.

Like the event as a whole, this year's edition of the Star Tribune's first day eating marathon was unlike any other. The most notable reason (for us, anyway) was the absence of Rick Nelson, the Star Tribune's longtime restaurant critic, who is changing beats and has "kindly" passed the torch to his colleagues.

Then there were the external hurdles, starting with surging COVID cases in Minnesota thanks to the delta variant. Add to that staffing shortages and supply chain problems for food vendors, still hurting after a fair-less 2020. And the finicky challenge of just how to keep our masks free of grease and crumbs (We couldn't.) while sampling every new fair food we could find.

Officially, fair vendors debuted 31 new foods this year. We sought out even more first-timers that were quietly added to menus, scanning food stands as we walked, and walked, through the fairgrounds. We may have missed a few, but 11 extras is a good start. We also noticed a welcome and long overdue bonus: The vast majority of vendors took credit/debit cards. But watch for varying convenience fees.

Below are our first-take assessments. But what constitutes "the best" can be different for everyone. There are curd-heads and dairy devotees, stick fans and people who just want some vegetables. At this year's fair, there is truly something for everyone.

Feel free to disagree. (And let us know in the comments.)

Our star system:
4: We would go back for that.
3: Solid choice.
2: It's fine ... for some.
1: No thanks.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Dual Berry Shortcake •

LuLu’s Public House • West End Market • $7

A lovely sugar-coated Betty & Earl's biscuit gets lovelier with a balanced and not-too-sweet strawberry sauce, fresh blueberries and whipped cream.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Scorchin’ Ghost Pepper Bites •

LuLu’s Public House • West End Market • $7

Ghost pepper-spiked cheese cubes, melted in the fryer, give a quick blast of numbing spice for a hot take on the traditional cheese curd. The spicy dipping sauce is another welcome heat wave.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

The Naughty Biscuit •

RC’s BBQ • Dan Patch Av. and Liggett St. • $10

A perfectly balanced breakfast-all-day sandwich matches fall-apart-tender pork belly with sweet-spicy-salty-cheesy toppings inside a buttery biscuit. We couldn't stop eating it. We'd go back just for this — and a beer.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Dairy-Free Jonny Pops •

Jonny Pops • West End Market • $4

This is the first time this local ice cream bar maker has brought non-dairy pops to the fair. Red, White and Boom (cherry-lemon) and Watermelon are powerfully fruity. Chocolate Fudge Oat Milk is an on-point mimic of the classic Fudgsicle. Nice price, too.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Mocktails •

Summer Lakes Beverage • Underwood St. and Randall Av. • $7

The company that sells growlers of cocktail mixers in liquor stores is a new vendor with three fair-exclusive mocktails: ginger-citrus Wedge-Hammer, lavender-infused Lake Storm Lemonade, and lightly sparkling Bama Lemon Sweet Tea. So refreshing, they're the only items we actually finished.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Hummus Bowls •

Baba’s • Underwood St. and Randall Av. • $10-$12

Seriously creamy hummus is paired with all manner of toppings. Go traditional, or have fun with dill-infused hummus topped with pickles and cheese curds. There's even a baklava version for dessert. Five fluffy pita on-a-stick make this a hearty meal.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Pizza Lucy •

Green Mill • Cooper St. and Randall Av. • $7

There's nothing fancy about this Hot Pocket gone wild (a sausage patty AND pepperoni!). It's just good, cheesy, greasy fun. We like the price, too.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Chile Marinated Shrimp •

Tejas Express • The Garden, North Wall • $10

Our lips stayed numb for at least two stops after just a bite of one of these heavily chile-dusted shrimp. The off-the-cob Mexican street corn underneath had a cooling effect, and the combination is just right.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Kerala Fried Chicken Kati Roll •

Hot Indian • Food Building • $10

This is a wrap we'd order for lunch anytime, no fair necessary. The crisped-up paratha flatbread alone would be a winner. Here, it surrounds a hefty serving of fried chicken tenders, bright and tangy slaw and chutneys for one harmonious sandwich.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Greek Stuffed Ravioli •

Dino’s Gyros • Carnes Av. and Underwood St. • $7

This is exactly the kind of fair food we love. It has all the comfort of a cream-cheese wonton, but is so much more. Tzatziki sauce, mozzarella, tomato and gyro meat provide the base, and the pepperoncini provide the tang. Drizzled with roasted garlic butter, we'll stand in line for this again. And again.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Horchata Soft-Serve Milkshakes and Cones •

Andy’s Garage • International Bazaar, Midtown Global Market • $7 shake, $4 cone

The traditional Mexican drink is tailor made to be an ice cream flavor. It's sweet, but has a light cinnamon flavor that keeps the sweetness in check. The churro garnish with the shake is a nice touch.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Sashimi Tuna Tacos •

Scenic 61 by New Scenic Cafe • Underwood St. and Randall Av. • $15

Delicate tuna with a slice of avocado and (necessary) Thai peanut slaw fill two dainty fried wonton taco shells. Even better than the ingredients is the custom-built slide that sends paper boats from an Airstream trailer down to the counter. This is fine food (at a fine-food price) that feels a little out of place at the fair.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Gluten-Free Corn Dogs and Funnel Cakes •

Auntie M’s Gluten Free • Judson Av. and Nelson St. • Corndogs $6, funnel cakes $8-$9

Great news for those who go gluten free: This vendor has several State Fair classics in gluten-free form. ("It's like the State Fair is finally coming to me," said one fan.) Both the corn dogs and funnel cakes — three flavors are available — were deliciously crisp. And while it doesn't break new culinary ground, it's a game-changer for those who can't eat gluten. Cheese curds also available.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Cotton Candy •

Spinning Wylde • Underwood St. and Randall Av. • $6 for a 'cloud pop,' $24 for a bucket

The bright pink stand and home-spun cotton candy are Instagram nirvana. Yes, it's "just" cotton candy. But it's lighter and fluffier than the typical fair fare, and it's very, very cute. With 30-plus natural flavors, it even won over those of us who really don't care for cotton candy.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Love Me Tender Breakfast Biscuit •

LuLu’s Public House • West End Market • $7

There's that great biscuit again. But it doesn't hold its shape in sandwich form, with scrambled eggs, crunchy fried chicken tenders and a wisp of cheese. This is fork food — and a nicely priced fair breakfast.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Blueberry Mini Donuts •

Solem Concessions • Underwood St. and Murphy Av. • $6 for a bag, $14 for a bucket

Unassuming mini doughnuts get a makeover with the heavy perfume of blueberry and a purple interior. It's a solid switch-up to the same-old cinnamon and sugar.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

New milkshake flavors •

West End Creamery • West End Market • $9.75, dairy-free $13.75

Three new flavors of hand-spun milkshakes (lingonberry, hot fudge bacon, and refreshing and subtle Thin Mint) are clearly made with care one by one (be patient when ordering). Bonus: A dairy-free upcharge is steep, but their soy-based ice cream is delicious.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Hickory Grilled Chicken Lettuce Wraps •

Tejas Express • The Garden, North Wall • $10

A huge portion of chopped chicken, black beans and crushed tortillas on a bed of lettuce is a solid meal and a palate cleanser to fried everything. It's hard to eat as a wrap, but think of it as a State Fair salad.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

S’Mores Funnel Cake •

Funnel Cakes • Food Building • $7

Fans of both s'mores and funnel cake will be happy here. Chocolate chips are sprinkled over the hot funnel cake, making it magnificently melty. Adding marshmallows and graham crackers complete the tasty topping trifecta. We didn't notice the advertised graham flavor in the funnel cake, but we aren't complaining.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

ChoriPop •

Andy’s Garage • International Bazaar, Midtown Global Market, $8 for two

Chorizo fans won't be disappointed in this version, which features vegan chorizo from the Herbivorous Butcher. The battered-and-dipped patties come with avocado salsa or mole sauce (we preferred the avocado). The texture was slightly spongy, but we couldn't tell that it wasn't meat. Note: Only available through Aug. 31.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Fudge & Fruit •

Minnesota Wine Country • Underwood St. and Carnes Av. • $11

We didn't detect much wine in the wine-infused dark chocolate, but no complaints here. You can't go wrong with chocolate-dipped strawberries and chocolate-dipped brownies, which were nice and fudgy. It was a classy dessert and, in true fair form, on a stick.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Blue Raspberry Blitzed •

Sara’s Tipsy Pies • Food Building • $7

Individual hand pies are chock-full of a fruity blueberry-raspberry-apple mix blended with raspberry-infused vodka. (No, you can't taste the booze.) The crust is a perfect mix of crusty and flaky, with an unnecessary but lovely sugar topping. It's definitely big enough to share.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Trio of Sliders •

Minnesota Wine Country • Underwood St. and Carnes Av. • $12

The wine-infused touches were hard to detect, but these sliders — Buffalo chicken with blue cheese, barbecue pork with white wine slaw and smoked beef brisket with a sangria demiglaze — were just good food. Plus, the larger portions make it a State Fair bargain.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Caramelized Banana Pudding •

Blue Moon Dine-In Theater • Carnes Av. and Chambers St. • $8

Make this your last stop for dessert. The serving is huge. It's also almost painfully sweet. But it's brimming with bananas, and the Cocoa Krispies on top are a nice, crunchy touch.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Bison Bites •

Giggles’ Campfire Grill • Cooper St. and Lee Av. • $8.75

This one's for the meat lovers. Braised fennel, portobello mushrooms and basil hardly come through; these fried ravioli are all about the ground bison. Word of warning: Watch out when you take a bite. You might get a splash in the face from these tasty treats.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Banh Minn Bun, Banh Minn Bowl •

Sausage Sister & Me • Food Building • $8 each

We appreciate Sausage Sister & Me continuing to come up with different ways to prepare their consistently good sausage. Here, it comes in two forms, sandwich and bowl, with Vietnamese flavors. The sandwich (a vague bánh mì) delivers all the toppings in one bite. The bowl's grain blend is a bit bland, but that's what the squirt bottles of Sriracha mayo are for. Just make sure to give it a good stir.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Cheesecake On-A-Stick •

Libby’s Ice Cream & Co. • Chambers St. & the Grandstand • $7

This new soft serve vendor didn't have their banana split on-a-stick yet; we might have to go back for that. But the cheesecake dipped in chocolate is the frozen treat we didn't know we needed. You can't beat a graham cracker crust.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Paneer Pakora •

Hot Indian • Food Building • $10

Cheese curds are begging for reinvention, and Hot Indian delivers with Indian-spiced fried paneer cheese cubes. Don't expect the Mouth Trap. Do dip into that yummy tomato butter. Bonus: They're gluten free.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

The Island Hopper •

The Hangar • North End • $12

Impressive! There's nothing fried about this enormous half-pineapple filled with a whole dinner's worth of char-grilled chicken, pineapple chunks and white rice (a tad overcooked). It's faintly teriyaki flavored, but desperately needs more sauce. Definitely a sit-down food.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Jumbo Donut Sundae •

Fluffy’s Hand Cut Donuts • Dan Patch Av. and Liggett St. • $6 doughnuts, $8 jumbo doughnuts, $13 sundaes

A sweet new stand goes for a retro diner vibe, with whimsically glazed, salad-plate-sized doughnuts. They're a bit doughy, but pair perfectly with hot fudge and soft serve if you need more sugar in your life. A strong fair debut.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Sidecar Sandwich •

The Hideaway Speakeasy • Grandstand upper level • $11

You wouldn't think a dolled-up version of a bacon grilled cheese would be polarizing, but here we are. The citrus marmalade was a deal breaker for some, and icing on the cake for others. Choose your own adventure.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Cajun Cheese Curds •

Solem Concessions • North End • $7

Subtle, almost undetectable Cajun seasoning dresses up the old-reliable, piping-hot cheese curd. Traditional cheese curd enthusiasts will be fans.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Fresh-Pressed Watermelon Juice •

Spinning Wylde • Underwood St. and Randall Av. • $10

It's 100% watermelon juice — essentially what's left on the bottom of the bowl after a picnic. The edible straw and skewer of candy are cute but won't impress watermelon purists.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Grain Belt Blu Beer Gelato •

Mancini’s al Fresco • Carnes Av. and Nelson St. • $5

A little gimmicky, perhaps, but this gelato made with Grain Belt's blueberry-infused lager is surprisingly refreshing. The blueberry flavor is definitely detectable, and while it doesn't really taste like beer, non-beer drinkers found it a little yeasty. Either way, it's a talker, and that's part of its charm.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

I-Scream Waffle Sandwich •

Nordic Waffles • West End Market • $9

Adorable yet unnecessary excess (but that's what the fair's all about, isn't it?). An ice cream sandwich-stuffed waffle poses an awkward how-do-you-even-eat-it challenge, though it does get easier when the ice cream melts.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Buffalo Chicken Doughscuit •

The Blue Barn • West End Market • $12.75

This odd entry has about every texture and flavor there is — sweet, mushy, crispy, salty. The chicken is undetectable, and the whole thing evokes a mashed potato croquette more than a doughnut. Still, it had some interesting moments. It could really use a beer to wash it down.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

La Floretta •

Mancini’s al Fresco • Carnes Av. and Nelson St. • $7.50

This probably is someone's ideal fair food, but not ours. Yes, it's gluten free and vegan. But despite the addition of a sweet-hot sauce, the "spiced" oven-roasted cauliflower is nothing we couldn't make at home. And where's the fun in that?

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Cracklin Prime Nachos •

Coasters • Carnes Av. and Liggett St. • $9

There's no graceful way to eat this, and that's just fine. The prime rib shavings could have been less ... squishy? But the pork rinds surprisingly keep their snap under the gobs of cheese sauce. And hey, it's high in protein.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Deep-Fried Cheese or Chicken Tamales •

Andy’s Garage • International Bazaar, Midtown Global Market • $7 for two

Sometimes when it sounds like a good idea, it's not. We had one of each, and both were hard and very, very dense. Perhaps it was first-day kinks being worked out, or perhaps something that's dense anyway just wasn't meant to be coated and deep fried.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Cucumber Jalapeño Limeade •

Farmers Union Coffee Shop • Dan Patch Av. and Cooper St. • $6

This quizzically chunky drink (could that be a first?) has all the appeal of liquid salad. It really needs a strainer — and some help.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Waffle Burger •

Andy’s Grille • Carnes Av. and Chambers St. • $7.75

First-day jitters, perhaps? Our burger, slice of American and Liege-style waffles (the kind with the sugar bits baked in) were cold. Done right, the sky could be the limit — just keep the cloying "breakfast syrup" on the side.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Chicken & Macaroni Nordic Waffle •

Nordic Waffles • West End Market • $12

This is textbook over-the-top fair food gone wrong. A massive fried chicken leg gets soggy in a pool of watery, salty mac 'n' cheese. The thing this otherwise terrific stand does best — the waffle — feels like an afterthought. Also: How do you politely eat it? We couldn't solve that conundrum.