Dara's Picks: Best New Foods at the 2022 Minnesota State Fair – Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

Here’s what to eat at the State Fair, according to our food critic.
August 25, 2022
3:17 PM
I did it! I arrived at 6:30 in the morning with my carefully curated route and list, I ate, I judgily judged. I shall now reveal my top five new foods of 2022, but first with trenchant observations!  
First, holy moly, 2022 is the year of the vegan. Herbivorous Butcher, the homegrown vegan superstar business comprised of a northeast Minneapolis experimental emporium of faux meats and faux cheeses and a south Minneapolis faux-chicken bucket-shop, Herbivorous Butcher, who has been invited to Coachella and is a favorite of Corey Booker, Herbivorous Butcher is now in the Food Building in close proximity to Peter’s Wieners, which has been selling pork hot dogs at the fair since 1939, as an extension of a St. Paul sausage company founded in 1928. Rumor had it that bonafide rock star Gavin Rossdale of Bush popped in the first day to celebrate. But he could have eaten many vegan things! There’s a vegan corn dog at Daryl’s Dog House, vegan meatballs in marinara and fast-food style faux-chicken cutlet sliders at French Meadow, and vegan tofu skewers at Union Hmong Kitchen. There is vegetarian poutine at Blue Barn with Beyond Meat chorizo sweet corn bisque, and pico de gallo on top of sweet-potato waffle fries, just make it vegan by skipping the Ellsworth cheese curds. 2022 is the year that vegans became people with options beyond fries, mini-donuts, grilled peaches, beer, lemonade, and elephant-ears.  
Second big trend? This is the year restaurant professionals came and brought their whole professional experience and careers with them. At Minnesota Farmer’s Union, the truck in the back is run by Pat Weber, a Minneapolis restaurant legend who has opened more restaurants than even he can count, including most recently Wisdom, the e-sports emporium at the Mall of America, and Prime Steak House, which has the state’s biggest meat aging room in Morris. He tapped his friend of 20 years, Kris Koch, who also has worked everywhere, including seven years in the Wolfgang Puck empire, starting at dear departed 20.21 and then eight years running downtown’s Grand Hotel. That’s the caliber of professionals currently in the truck behind the scenes in 2022’s Minnesota Fair.
Gerard Klass is a longtime Crave top-toque and ace parachute-in-to-open-restaurants chef, and his Food Building outpost of Soul Bowl is just… not your grandmother’s State Fair stand, where it was pretty normal for a family of teachers to all sleep on the floors of their trailer at night and sell pork-chops basted with Mrs. Dash all day. Scott Graden, who recently released his second cookbook for North Shore icon the New Scenic Café, is back for his second year with this second offering at his Scenic 61 trailer. The apotheosis—yes, I’m in the mood to use a ten-dollar word meaning tippity-top—of this trend is: Yia Vang, a James Beard-nominee this very year for Best Chef Midwest, opening a stall in the sleepy corner of the Fair known as the International Bazaar. I can’t emphasize what a big deal this is, there used to be such a profound split between the world of fine restaurants and the world of high-volume fair churn. 
What will these two big trends mean for you, in 2022? Mainly: That it’s never been such a good year to eat at the Fair, quality-wise. Secondarily: The biggest change in the Fair in my lifetime has been the modernizing of beer laws (ask anyone what it was like when all State Fair beer had to be 3.2% alcohol or less. It was boring.) and the following explosion in creativity. Now that there are 60 new beers, people will start planning the 2023 batch before Christmas, and the Fair is now a leading see-and-be-seen, make-a-statement, make-some-money beer event of our year. Will this sudden appearance of restaurant important people render the fair similarly important, with restaurant people making big statements here? I truly hope so.
So, enough analysis. Here’s my top-five of 2022: 
LuLu’s has been playing with Betty & Earl’s biscuits for a few years, and I think this is the best they’ve ever done. The flaky biscuit is covered with pimento cheese, the cheese melts with the never-frozen, good chicken tender, and it just makes a tasty fair handheld, a worthy competitor to any fried chicken sandwich in the cities. 
Yes, this is a $20 sandwich, but also that’s what lobster costs. I did not expect to fall in love with this lobster roll, but it is just exactly right. Fresh with good lobster and small-dice celery, plain with mayonnaise, historically correct with a tasty, simple butter-grilled hot dog bun, and fun with micro-cilantro. It’s just the Goldilocks-right lobster roll: Not too fussy, not too overbuilt, just right. I have long had a no-ocean-foods policy at the State Fair, this lobster roll rewrote that.  
Gerard Klass’s Soulsicle is just a really good piece of fried chicken on a stick, and with some fun garnishes—scallions, hot sauce, cheese. It’s such a good idea that you think: Surely someone has thought of this before. No! That’s why inventors of Hershey bars and bran flakes and such get famous. Having really good food ideas and then executing them well is hard to do, and Klass has just done this here. 
The pork schnitzel sandwich at Farmer’s Union is the best I’ve ever had, tender, rich, porky, golden, just wonderful. “My grandpa was German, I was really channeling Sundays going to grandma’s for dinner, how it’s supposed to be,” chef Kris Koch told me. To do it he used pork from a couple farms that are pretty famous in restaurant circles, Hidden Stream & Pastures a Plenty, and goes through the traditional schnitzel process, with seasoned flour, an egg wash, and panko, layering on flavor. He then adds a coleslaw made of local cabbages, from Hidden Stream, a white vinegar cooked with pickling spices, and caraway, then layers that on with a sauce made from the much-awarded Lost Capital’s Spicy Brown Ale Mustard, cut with lemon juice and mayonnaise, and griddled brioche buns from Minneapolis’ Good Bread Company, butter seared on the flat-top.
“What was important to me was that it was tender, and to really respect and show off what good pork it is,” Koch told me. Koch has been running the Farmer’s Union Kitchen in legendary chef Brenda Langton’s former Spoonriver space by the Guthrie, and has continued to nurture many of Langton’s connections at the restaurant and also through the adjacent farmer’s market she founded, Mill City. Mill City is also the home of one of Minneapolis’ most sought-after pie-makers, Vikings and Goddesses, so that’s why the Farmer’s Union is home to some of the other most-urgent-to-try foods of the fair, including the absolutely dazzling BLT hand pie, which has the flakiest imaginable pastry, made with good Hope Butter and Baker’s Field flours, as well as a good tomato and bacon filling. It’s savory, distinct, savory—not sure hand pies are ever better than this. And I will say the same for the Vikings and Goddesses aronia berry pie! I know aronia berries as chokeberries, they’re wild, native, and grow in lots of places. For these, Vikings and Goddesses got 250 pounds of chokeberries from Winona, Minn., and turned them into a dark, winy filling. The meringue top is an airy cloud, the crust is sturdy and flaky, very different from the hand pie but excellent. The whole situation at Farmer’s Union is a tribute and triumph of local farmers, and truly glorious. 
Is Yia Vang America’s greatest Hmong chef? He’s making a really good case for it at Union Hmong Kitchen’s new outpost in the International Bazaar. The sausage is from Yia’s dad’s recipe, made at heritage Ukrainian butcher Kramarczuk’s with a special coarse-ground so you can see and really taste the chunks of lemongrass. The turmeric-marinated tofu skewers are feather-light and brightly seasoned. But the piles of pickled vegetables, the carefully handled Hmong purple sticky rice (use it like a lettuce wrap to pick up ingredients,) the flurries of microherbs from specialty grower Dragsmith, the fiery hot sauce or mild scallion sauce, each of these elements elevates a fairly humble assemblage of Hmong foods into a really special restaurant creation, which you can then wander around and eat from a paper boat. What a special moment. Don’t miss the lychee colada, dej qab zib (pronounced day-ka-zee), with its garnish of micro china-rose radishes and such. It’s so pretty, so delicate, so original. St. Paul is the world capital of the Hmong diaspora, it feels so fitting that we now have a Hmong restaurant of such stellar qualities here on the St. Paul fairgrounds.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl was born in New York City little aware of her destiny—to live well in Minnesota. Dara writes about food, people, places, and now and then, things! She has five James Beard awards out of 13 nominations, and has won three CRMAs.
August 25, 2022
3:17 PM
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