Classics, affordable eats, hidden gems, vegetarian dishes, and more, from a local fair fanatic
How to tackle the culinary smorgasbord that is the Minnesota State Fair? Local fair fanatic Alex Lodner has been hitting the iconic event for the past 15 years, spending nearly all 12 days each year gathering intel on the fair’s best hidden gems, affordable eats, and timeless favorites. Take a stroll down Dan Patch Avenue in her shoes.
Wander down Dan Patch Avenue to the newest Pronto Pup stand on Underwood Street. This is the fair, after all: Meat-on-a-stick is acceptable, even encouraged, at any time of the day. Pronto Pups versus classic corn dogs is a contentious debate in Minnesota. Whichever side you fall on, the distinction between the two is worth noting: While the Pup batter does include cornmeal, like classic corn dogs, the addition of several other flours and less sugar makes for a heartier, more savory bite.
Across the street, the Mouth Trap is located deep inside the Food Building. Get in line for a cup of creamy, golden-fried cheese curds — an old favorite that’s meant to be shared.
Then head south: Snake down Carnes Avenue to Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar. Yes, a single bucket of cookies here might cost as much as a year’s supply of the homemade kind, but did you really go to the fair if you didn’t eat your weight in warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies? Pro tip: Head toward the back of the building, where side windows tend to have shorter wait times.
Taking a family to the fair can be expensive, but if you know where to look, there are bargains all around the fairgrounds. Right next to the Visitors Plaza on Dan Patch Avenue is the RC Cola tent, where a variety of sodas can be bought for as little as a buck. Another semisecret tip: Flip through the State Fair’s official Blue Ribbon Bargain Book and tear out a coupon for a dollar off a large soda. (Buy a book at the ticket office — they’re chock-full of coupons for food, merch, and other fair features.)
Tired of the gimmicky foods? A few steps away from the RC Cola stand is the Midway Mens Club, where volunteers have been slinging classic burgers and pouring ice-cold, bargain beers to benefit St. Paul Youth programs since 1963.
Take the hungry kiddos up to the North Woods area of the fairgrounds, where Giggles’ serves a kids’ meal of chicken nuggets, fries, and Oreo cookies for less than three dollars. No one will balk if adults order one, too.
For a healthy and affordable treat, head back down to the Agriculture Horticulture Building, and find the Minnesota Apple stand in the west wing. The frozen cider pop is tart and refreshing on a hot day and one of the fair’s best bargains.
For the best-kept-secret breakfast at the fair, search for Steichen’s Grocery, tucked down an alley behind the sheep barn and Cafe Caribe. The Blue Ribbon Bargain Book has a coupon for two bucks off a freshly made breakfast sandwich for a hearty start to the day.
Next, it’s time for a caffeine boost. Burn off that sandwich with a brisk walk to the main gates. Right there on Dan Patch Avenue, the Minnesota Farmers Union Coffee Shop serves a creamy, frothy maple nitro cold brew that will fuel you on your way to Manny’s Tortas at the Food Building. Here, order the nonalcoholic pina colada; it’s served in a fresh hollowed-out pineapple that’s festooned with a tiny paper umbrella. You’ll be the envy of the thirsty masses as you snake your way out the south door and pop over to the Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe. This family-run stand sits beneath the Skyride and serves tart frozen key lime pie-on-a-stick, dipped into smooth dark chocolate. Take a seat under the Skyride and count cow-themed gondolas. (Spoiler: There’s only one.)
Then make your way toward the bustling Mighty Midway. On the way, stop at the tiny trailer serving locally made Spring Grove Soda, which mixes up fun flavors like rhu-berry and lemon sour and uses pure cane sugar. To double up on sweetness, venture deep into the Midway to find the Donut Family. Three generations of the Elmstrand family don’t serve any old doughnuts: They whip up mini doughnut sundaes, complete with luscious toppings like marshmallows, Oreos, and chocolate sauce, plus a small mountain of whipped cream.
In the far southwest corner of the fair, just before you reach the love-it-or-hate-it swine barn in the Christensen Pavilion, Hansen’s Foods serves old-fashioned burgers, breakfast sandwiches, and cheesy fries. The Walking Taco is a kid-friendly lunch that allows kiddos to meander through the animal barns with minimal mess. There’s always plenty of seating under Hansen’s red canopy as well.
The Blue Moon is known for dishes like caramelized banana pudding or sweet corn ice cream, but its claim to fame is the dine-in theater, where obscure movies are screened in a dark, cavernous room that’s filled with old car seats. It’s the perfect escape from midday State Fair madness.
There are so many food items at the Fair (nearly 500 items at 300 vendors, actually) that it might seem inefficient to eat anything twice. So much fried food, so little time. But there are a few items worthy of daily repeats, including the Grain Belt Blu beer with Blu topper at the Schell’s booth. This brew is sweet yet refreshing, and the foamy, frothy topping can’t be found anywhere else.
The Blue Barn is a destination, as its perpetual long lines attest, and for good reason. The menu is stocked with fan favorites, including one particular item that keeps Blue Barn on heavy rotation with fairgoers: the cornflakes-encrusted Nashville Hot Chicken-on-a-Stick, which is dipped in a spicy honey butter glaze that gives each crispy, kicky bite just a touch of sweetness.
On your way out of the fair, head up to Kiwanis Malts next to the Fine Arts Building. Yes, there are many malt and ice cream options at the fair, but Kiwanis has been a favorite since 1969. It has a succinct menu of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla malts, and the proceeds support children’s organizations around the state. Plus, malts are a great car snack (grab some extra long spoons and napkins), so it’s a win-win-win.
V= Vegan / VG= Vegetarian / GF= Gluten Free
Known for its high-quality meat and dairy alternatives, new vendor the Herbivorous Butcher offers two vegan entrees topped with gravy and french fried onions and served on Texas toast. Try the fried “chicken” Poultrygeist or the Steak-xorcist. V
French Meadow offers plenty of alternatives at the fair, including this year’s newest entries: the Earth Sliders and the “meat” balls and marinara. These sliders are “chicken” patties topped with a secret sauce on a grilled bun. The “meat” balls are Italian herb-seasoned and sauteed in marinara sauce. V
Certain folks come to the fair for just one thing: the ripe, juicy, organic peaches from the Produce Exchange, served fresh or grilled. Make sure to grab a Fruit & Booch, a giant cup filled with fresh fruit and topped with tangy, refreshing kombucha.
New vendor Nautical Bowls serves a variety of organic, gluten- and dairy-free, vegan superfood bowls made without refined sugar. Try the Anchor Bowl, made with acai, granola, and cashew cacao butter. V, GF
Tot Boss uses a separate gluten-free fryer for its celiac-friendly options, and many of the sauces are gluten-free as well. GF
Corn dogs are the quintessential fair food, and now vegans can partake with a little help from Daryl’s Dog House’s fully vegan corn dog. Piping hot and drizzled with mustard, no one will miss the meat. V
The Perfect Pickle’s deep-fried pickle slices deliver a briney, crunchy bite. Skip the ranch dip and go for the hot sauce — or better yet, choose a massive pickle-on-a-stick. Grab extra napkins. VG, V
The dej qab zib at Union Hmong Kitchen is a vegan beverage of coconut milk, lychee, lime, and mint, and the mov and nqaij (rice and meat) entrees are all gluten-free. A turmeric-lemongrass tofu vegan dish is available, too. GF, V