I’ll admit it: When I was younger and unenlightened, I hated the Minnesota State Fair. I hate crowds, for starters, and my family didn’t know how to do the fair right — we’d come in the heat of the afternoon, instead of strategically planning a morning or evening run. I also have a late-August birthday, and far too many celebrations of my tween years looked like this: flail around in the House of Mirrors; watch chicks crack their dewy yellow heads out of their shells at the Miracle of Birth barn; drink too much milk at the all-you-can-drink milk stand; get hot; get sick; go home.
Everything has changed. I’m a convert these days, through and through. (I owe much of this to my partner, who grew up near the fair and taught me to chill with the milk.) I love saying the fair’s street names when I cross them because I think it’s so cool that the fairgrounds has street names. Every year I go into Ye Old Mill and pray that tiny boat will deliver me out of the watery darkness and back into the light. I love the hot-glued butterfly cocoons and the Giant Slide and the politically subversive crop art, plus the little beauty salon for sheep behind the swine barn. I love the impeccable vibes at the labor pavilion, and the elderly folks housing vanilla soft-serve at 8 a.m. And, of course, I love the food.
My ride-or-die is the grilled peaches at the Produce Exchange. I’ve said my piece on late-August peaches, and there is no better place to get them than this. Naked, topped with tangy goat cheese or dollops of cream, it doesn’t matter — this stand serves softball-sized, in-season, irresistible peaches from Washington and Colorado. I spend all year thinking about the nitro ice cream at the Food Building, which has the texture of creamed honey. The Agricultural Horticulture Building serves delicious ice cream made with actual honey, too, which is light and a little crystallized.
Because the Twin Cities have such excellent and abundant cheeseburgers at local restaurants, I don’t always get one at the fair. But when I do, it’s the wild rice burger with onions and mozzarella, also at the Food Building. My other favorite for a filling meal is the buttery pork schnitzel sandwich at the Farmers Union Coffee Shop, though it’s hard to imagine a better salty-sweet combo than the lightly fried walleye on-a-stick and the birch beer (a birch tree-derived cousin of root beer, with a lighter, toffee-like taste) at the Food Building.
Just south of the Food Building is the Key Lime Pie Bar, which sells frozen dark chocolate-dipped slices of Key lime pie for $5. These are tart and creamy, and the cold chocolate is endlessly satisfying to bite into. I always hit Fresh French Fries, across from the Dairy Building. (Basic, I know, but I love French fries more than anything, and I can’t resist the golden crisp on these.) Over by the grandstand, the sweet corn roast has the most enthralling energy of any stand at the fair (are we in a scene from Grease?) and is an obvious can’t-miss. Sweet Martha’s is nearby, and honestly, I waver — I love these cookies’ gooeyness but they’re a tad too sweet for me. They’re worth it, though, when paired with the aforementioned all-you-can-drink milk stand.
My final must-have is an order of deep-fried Oreos. I’ve heard it said that deep-fried candy bars were the last truly great invention at the fair, and I don’t agree, but they certainly capture the fair’s irreverent, golden-fried ethos. There are a few new foods that I hope stay forever — the Amish doughnuts from Peachey’s Doughnut Co., which taste like extra-heavenly Krispy Kremes, stood out among the 19 new dishes I could get my hands on. Other standbys caught my eye on opening day: I’m a new fan of the Butcher Boys’ tender London broil steak sandwiches near the grandstand, and I’m long overdue for the red-sauced-doused Gizmos from Carl’s Gizmos. I also noticed that Goertzes’ Dairy Kone serves cherry-dipped soft-serve, a comforting dupe for anyone mourning Dairy Queen’s recent discontinuation. Those are next on the hit list.
Where to find these favorites:
Grilled peaches: At the Produce Exchange, on the northwest corner of Carnes Avenue and Underwood Street, just outside the Food Building
Nitro ice cream: In the Food Building, in the northeast corner
Honey ice cream: In the Agriculture Horticulture building
Wild rice burger: In the Food Building, on the east side
Pork schnitzel sandwich: At the Farmers Union Coffee Shop, on the north side of Dan Patch Avenue between Cooper Street and Cosgrove Street
Fried smelt and birch beer: At the Walleye on a Stick stand in the food building
Chocolate-dipped Key lime pie: Just south of the Food Building in the courtyard
Fresh French Fries: On the north side of Judson Avenue between Nelson Street and Underwood Street
Sweet corn roast: Just east of the grandstand, at the southeast corner of Dan Patch Avenue and Nelson Street
Sweet Martha’s: On the north side of West Dan Patch Avenue between Liggett Street and Chambers Street; other locations on Carnes Avenue and in the North End
All-you-can-drink-milk: At the northeast corner of Judson Avenue and Clough Street
Deep-fried Oreos: At the north side of Carnes Avenue between Nelson Street and Underwood Street (look for the yellow-striped awning)
Amish doughnuts: At Peachey’s Doughnut Co., on the north side of Randall Avenue at Cosgrove Street, just across from the Swedish egg coffee
London broil steak sandwiches: At Butcher Boys, just east of the grandstand, on the north side of Dan Patch Avenue between Nelson Street and Underwood Street
Gizmo sandwiches: At Carl’s Gizmos, near the sky glider on the west side of Cooper Street between Murphy Avenue and Lee Avenue
Cherry-dipped soft-serve: At Goertzes’ Dairy Kone, just outside the Food Building on Cooper Street