Mornings at the Minnesota State Fair. Fewer crowds. Shorter lines. Lower temperatures. Easier parking. And the food? Not bad. Sometimes quite good, actually.
This being the nation’s Largest Temporary Outdoor Food Court, breakfast wouldn’t be the same without a few artery-clogging on-a-stick concoctions. Hansen’s Foods had an inspired idea for the 2013 fair: make the beloved corn dog a morning repast by substituting breakfast links for the hot dog, and subbing out the ketchup and mustard with maple syrup (imitation, alas). The cornmeal has that welcome crunch and beautiful color, the sausage has plenty of kick and they’re served three to an order ($5, served until 11 a.m.), a tremendous — and shareable — deal.
Scotch eggs are a deep-fried breakfast natural, and the Scotch Egg stand turns out a straightforward product ($7). Here’s how it works: Take a hard-cooked egg, envelop it with plenty of ground pork sausage, roll that in bread crumbs and introduce it to bubbling oil. It’s crunchy, the sausage has a zippy bite, and, oh my goodness, there’s an egg in the middle! Take full advantage of the horseradish sauce.
Axel’s, that hotbed of novelty fried foods, spears a so-so sausage patty, dips it in corn muffin batter, tosses it in the deep fryer and then showers it in a maple syrup-like substance. It’s called the Breakfast Lollypop ($3.50, served to 11 a.m.), and it miraculously manages to taste better than it sounds.
Follow your nose to Big Fat Bacon, where the name pretty much says it all. It’s the fair’s heart-attack-on-a-stick mentality in its most decadent form, just a linebacker-sized slice of smoky bacon ($4), baked and then fried to a tantalizingly crispy and chewy finish and served on a stick. It’s ridiculous yet delicious overkill.
Think of the barely sweet, borderline chunky and altogether marvelous applesauce ($1) at Minnesota Apples as a gift from the palate-cleansing gods. It’s made from late-season Regents and Cortlands harvested at Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, and when it’s not being used as a building block for the orchard’s doughnuts and cakes (which, alas, are not sold at the fair), the surplus inventory is diverted to the fair, and its no-sugar-added taste and pale pink blush make for a lovely morning snack. Truly, there are few better ways to spend $1 at the fair.
A handful of purveyors take a stab at the as-big-as-your-head cinnamon roll. Buni’s Cinnamon Rolls adds crunchy pecans ($6) to its formula, and Cinnie Smiths specializes in golf ball-sized versions, stacking them inside cups ($5 and $8) for portable — and shareable — fun.
But the category’s leader has to be Oklahoma Cinnamon Rolls, which has been making soft, yeasty, caramel-glazed, warm-from-the-oven rolls ($4) since 1982. They’re big enough to feed a family of four, and something magical happens when a generous dollop of buttery icing starts to seep into those loosely rolled spirals. Forget about the calories, just enjoy. Owner Freddie Willis and his Tulsa-based crew also prepare a more-than-decent breakfast stromboli ($4.50 half, $6.50 whole, served to 11 a.m.), wrapping pizza dough around eggs, cheese and sausage or ham.
Few fairgrounds ovens are put to better use than at Sausage Sister & Me, where siblings Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry bake up superb buttermilk- and baking powder-powered biscuits, an exercise in goodness that bull’s-eyes every flaky, melt-in-your-mouth target. Enjoy them smothered in a rib-sticking, peppery gravy that’s dotted with a feisty Tex-Mex-inspired pork sausage ($5) liberally seasoned with cumin, cayenne, coriander and mild green chiles. Or keep it simple, ordering them split and drizzled in the sisters’ bright, fruity strawberry-rhubarb jam. What could be more wholesome? “It’s so Lake Wobegon that I can’t stand it,” said Peterson with a laugh.
Despite having an affinity for cupcakes and croissants (including a first-rate version filled with eggs, bacon and tomatoes, $8), the always-packed French Meadow Bakery & Cafe is clearly Scone Country. Golden, delicate and marvelously crumbly, these beauties are filled with peaches or strawberries and a gooey cream cheese topping ($6), or doused in gravy ($8), and it’s all good. Great, even. But simplest proves best, once again, by sticking with a swipe of sweet butter and a drizzle of strawberry jam ($4), a sublime combination. First-rate coffee, too.
Diners and dining halls
The all-volunteer dining hall is a dwindling fair tradition, with just three remaining. That’s a shame on so many fronts, not the least of which is that they’re calming sanctuaries from the fair’s sensory overload. Particularly at breakfast.
The warm and welcoming outposts at Hamline United Methodist Church and Salem Lutheran Church certainly have their appeal, but don’t overlook the pancakes ($7.50 and $8), crêpe-thin and hot off the griddle, at the Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall. There’s a hearty wild rice version, made with wild rice flour and flecked with cooked wild rice, although the talkers are the buttermilks pocked with flavorful blueberries. All are served with generous portions of bacon or sausage.
The focus on all things flashy and deep-fried also seems to be squeezing the classic fairgrounds diner toward endangered-species status. Both the Lunch Box and J.D.’s Eating Establishment concentrate on breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m., slinging fairly standard a.m. fare. At J.D.’s — where the counters are ketchup red and the picnic tables are mustard yellow — a favorite is the Tex-Mex-style eggs ($7), a heaping helping of scrambled eggs topped with shredded cheese, onions, green peppers, salsa and a pair of warm flour tortillas, served with a smile on a real plate with real flatware, a highly uncommon phenomenon in this land of disposable everything.
For a handful of vendors, “breakfast” translates into inserting scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and other morning staples into their primary product, a strategy that works to everyone’s satisfaction at Quesadilla Junction ($7), the Pizza Shoppe ($4) and most especially at Spam Burger ($6).
The pick of this litter also happens to be the fair’s can’t-be-beat morning value, the breakfast taco at Tejas Express. It’s a basic formula: well-seasoned scrambled eggs, a blend of Cheddar and Jack cheeses and slightly crispy grilled onions and red and green peppers, all rolled into a flour tortilla and garnished with what’s easily the fair’s best salsa, a flavorful blend of grilled jalapeños, grilled tomatoes and roasted garlic. The price? Just $3. It’s served for a limited time — 8 to 11 a.m. — and co-owners Wayne Kostroski and Mark Haugen toss in a cup of coffee, free.
Cheap, and tasty. That’s a fair rarity.