After a 2020 hiatus and a cautious return in 2021, this year the Minnesota State Fair is back in full gastronomical glory. Nearly 500 foods are served at the fair, which can make wandering its streets in search of the best dishes a Herculean task — but if you’re looking for a place to start, these local Twin Cities chefs have you covered. From lychee coladas to vegan fried chicken to mini pizzas drizzled with jerk sauce, here’s where to find great food by local chefs at the fair.
Brim’s fair stand is known for its house-ground nut butter and organic jam sandwiches, and this year, chef Kate Sidoti and husband Patrick have added a new Jammy Sammie to the mix. The Sundae Sammie is a grilled cinnamon bread sandwich stuffed with strawberry jam, fresh strawberries, and vanilla cream, then topped with a whorl of whipped cream, toasted peanuts, sprinkles, and sea salt. The salted peanuts take the place of nut butter and add savory notes, which keep the sandwich from being over-the-top sweet. The ribbon of cream topping is so thick it’ll hold its form on the hottest August days. Find Brim at the North End area of the fairgrounds, near the pet pavilions.
New vendor Soul Bowl’s Soulsicle is a Southern-style buffet on a stick. The skewered fried chicken comes topped with mac and cheese seasoning, cornbread crumble, and sweet candied yam sauce. The Queen B lemonade, a tart blueberry-lavender blend, makes for an excellent pairing. Owners Gerard and Brittney Klass are thrilled to have their stall in the fair’s Food Building. “We like being in these spaces with a lot of vendors,” says Klass. (The Food Building is akin to Graze Provisions and Libations Food Hall in Minneapolis, where Soul Bowl operates a year-round spot.) “Everyone has been so helpful,” Brittney says. “There’s great energy here.”
Also at the Food Building, find Manny’s Tortas, the State Fair version of chef Manny Gonzalez’s popular Midtown Global Market stand. Gonzalez, a 10-year fair veteran, isn’t serving an official new dish this year, but he has new digs: Last year, he expanded Manny’s Tortas to the space next door, doubling its footprint at the Food Building. The tortas make for a great savory dish between bites of ice cream and mini doughnuts — and if you’re on the hunt for a refreshing drink, this is one of the fair’s best spots. Manny’s nonalcoholic pina coladas are served in a hollowed-out pineapple, and the giant straws make for portable sipping. Even better, they’re waste-free: All those juicy pineapple innards get used up in other dishes.
This year, the Food Building is teeming with new energy. Siblings Aubry and Kale Walch’s mission of crafting vegan meat and cheese alternatives lives on at their first-ever State Fair stand. Herbivorous Butcher is so well-known with the vegan crowd that even celebrities are stopping by: Gavin Rossdale, lead singer of the English rock band Bush, came to pick up his copy of the new Herbivorous Butcher cookbook (the Walches had been holding one for him). If you can’t choose between the Poultrygeist (fried “chicken” tenders, “sausage” gravy, and fried onions) and the Steak-xorcist (the same deal, but with chicken-fried “steak” tenders), order the Monster Mash, a sampling of both.
Chef Yia Vang’s Union Hmong Kitchen stand in the International Bazaar is a huge hit this year. Hop in line — the wait for the mov and nqaij (purple sticky rice with pickled vegetables and a skewer of grilled Hmong sausage, Hilltribe chicken thigh, or lemongrass turmeric tofu) is worth it. Be sure to order a dej qab zib, UHK’s coconut lychee colada, as well. Vang knows it takes a strong team to take on the madness of the fair. His stand is staffed with local teens who’ve grown up eating Hmong food and are thrilled to share it — this is the first time Hmong cuisine has made a State Fair appearance.
Trinidad native Sharon Richards-Noel brings the heat to the fair at her West Indies Soul Food stand in the International Bazaar. This year’s new entry is the tandoor-fired jerk chicken “Mini’zza,” drizzled with a fiery Jamaican jerk sauce. It’s best paired with West Indies’ zesty turmeric ginger lemon drink, for a cool counterbalance to each bite. Richards-Noel also has a year-round restaurant in the works in the Brownstone building on University Avenue in St. Paul.