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There are over 60 new foods in which you can indulge at the 2019 Wisconsin State Fair. But which ones are worth trying?
I spent the bulk of opening day working my way through a list of mostly reader-suggested foods, tasting every single one. I've ranked 15 of them from worst to best (15 being the worst) and included my tasting notes for your reading enjoyment.
15. Unicorn Beer Float
Where to find it: Slim McGinn’s Irish Pub, $9.75
I’ll admit it. I got my hopes up really high for this one. After all, Funnel Cake Cream Ale is a delicious beer: not sweet on its own, but potentially complementary to something like cotton candy ice cream, which would ostensibly underscore the creaminess of the beer while contributing to an indulgent, dessert-worthy float. Oh, yeah, and sprinkles. They always make things better, right?
Well, no. By the time my Unicorn Beer Float made it over to the table where I was sitting, most of the sprinkles had fallen to the bottom of the plastic cup. That should have been a sign. But I held out hope. I should have tasted each component first; but I gave the float a stir. The motion of the straw revealed a few sprinkles that had gotten caught in the foam on their way to the depths. Cool. It gave me hope that there was still magic to be found.
From there I tasted the ice cream. Huh. I tasted it again. I could’ve sworn it was plain vanilla (I even went back to the counter to ask if it was really cotton candy flavored; an employee assured me it was, though agreed that it did taste quite vanilla forward). The beer, now tainted with the dairy from all of my frustrated stirring, tasted like creamy beer. I sipped again, conjuring taste memories of funnel cakes and images of unicorns. Nothing. No magic. No rare delights. Just an average beer float with 30-some drowned sprinkles languishing in the bottom.
Where to find it: Bud Pavilion, $4
Now, let’s take a look at the description of this dish: "One battered and deep-fried sausage, wrapped in a pancake, on-a-stick, served with a cup of syrup."
I’m expecting a breakfast corn dog of sorts, but gussied up, or, rather, wrapped in a pancake. But there was no pancake. Just a breakfast sausage battered in a slightly sweet, maybe even maple-tinged batter. And yes, there was syrup. But no pancake.
All-in-all, it was tasty. The breakfast sausage was tender and flavorful and the batter – which tasted a bit like a pancake – was complementary. But, in the end, I’d probably opt for one of the many other breakfast items at the Fair.
13. Puco Locadilla On-A-Stick
Where to find it: Sprecher Landing, $12
This Tex-Mex-inspired Sporkies finalist sounded intriguing: "Flour shell tortillas stuffed with habanero jack cheese, poblano peppers, and tomatillos grilled as a quesadilla and served on a stick with grilled chicken breast. Topped with chili lime sauce, cilantro, cotija cheese, corn, kettle chips and snickerdoodle crumbles."
I couldn’t quite imagine how the snickerdoodles played into it all; but I’m a fan of sweet and salty combinations, so I was definitely game. But the dish was more strange than delightful. The flour tortillas were doughy and soft. The chili lime sauce tasted a whole lot like Buffalo sauce, expunging any Mexican-inspiration from the dish. There was plenty of corn and cilantro; but I failed to find tomatillo anywhere. Meanwhile the chicken – while generously portioned – was quite dry and under-seasoned.
Bite after bite, I delved into the dish, hoping I would eventually have a revelatory moment when I understood how the flavors worked together. But it never quite happened, and I’m still not sure about those snickerdoodle crumbles.
Where to find them: Blue Moon Tavern at the Park, $8.50
Smothered tater tots have a way of getting soggy quickly. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with this version, which sported nicely crisped tots underneath a bed of kraut, mustard, beer cheese sauce, brats and scallions.
I could go on about how I would have loved to see more balance between the mustard and the beer cheese sauce (or even better, the mustard served alongside for dipping). And I could laud the kraut for being crisp and tasty and not at all watery.
Unfortunately, the namesake of the dish was its biggest Achilles heel. The brat slices were flavorful, but quite dry in their texture, as if they had been deep-fried for a bit too long, allowing all their juices to render out.
I wanted to like this oh-so-Wisconsin take on the classic totcho dish. But in the end, it just left me craving a big juicy bratwurst with all the fixin’s.
11. Jumbo Stuffed Lobster Tater Kegs
Where to find them: Shrimp Shack, $6
I like lobster, quite a bit. So I went back and forth on whether I really wanted to chance a lobster-eating experience at an unlikely seafood destination like the Wisconsin State Fair.
But I waved aside my doubts, opting instead to set my expectations relatively low. In doing so, I found myself pleasantly surprised by their texture, which was crisp on the exterior and quite light and fluffy inside. For $6, I didn’t expect a generous amount of lobster, and (as expected) the tots were merely dappled with sweet bits of the crustacean. It was a fact that was only disappointing because their name insinuated they’d be not only "jumbo," but also "stuffed" with lobster. They were neither.
Tasty? Yes. An interesting variation on a tater tot? For sure. Would I order them again? Probably not.
10. Tropics Sweet Corn Nachos
Where to find them: Tropics, $10
Mexican-style street corn is among my favorite seasonal indulgences during the summer months. So, these nachos held quite a bit of appeal. And they really didn’t disappoint.
The chips were light and crisp and topped relatively generously with sweet grilled corn, salty cotija cheese, fresh cilantro, a welcome spritz of cayenne and a creamy queso sauce that brought the "nacho" aspect to the dish. I didn’t really taste any mayonnaise (though that was also listed among the ingredients); but I didn’t really miss it either.
All in all, this was a fresh take on nachos. Be sure to avail yourself of the lime that comes atop them. The citrus brightens everything and adds needed balance.
9. Deep-Fried Banana Bread Bites
Where to find them: Leadfoots Race Bar & Grill, $6.50
Banana bread bites. That’s exactly what these are: slightly sweet, bite-sized squares of banana bread, deep fried until ultra-crisp. Based on their appearance alone, I expected them to be hard and dry. But, they weren’t. Nor were they overly greasy.
These simple little noshes came with a side of icing that I thought might make them overly sweet. It didn’t. Instead, it underscored their banana flavor. In fact, if this snackable sweet treat had one downfall it’s that there wasn’t quite enough frosting, even when the bites were moderately dipped.
8. Dill Pickle Pizza
Where to find it: Rick’s Pizza, $8 per slice
I love pickles. If you don’t, you really won’t love this pizza. In fact, you should turn away now – from both the picture and all these words – about little more than this very pickley pizza.
Because it is, indeed, pickly. The crust is soft and chewy, similar to a flatbread, and flavored by a judiciously applied dill-infused sauce. There’s an ample amount of mozzarella cheese, and plenty of pickle rounds on top, giving each bite a slightly crisp, vinegary punch. Their dill flavor is reinforced by a sprinkling of dill seasoning over the top.
The pizza is a bit pricey, even for a somewhat generously sized slice. It’s a factor I would have overlooked more easily had my slice been freshly baked and not languishing (for maybe a bit too long) under the stand’s heat lamp.
7. Deep-Fried Garlic Cheese Curds
Where to find them: Brad & Harry’s Cheese Curds, $8
Hot fried cheese is a highlight of the Wisconsin State Fair. And that’s the way it should be. In some ways, these curds were no exception. They were, indeed, garlicky. They were also salty and maybe a bit too greasy. But they were pretty tasty. After all, it’s tough to mess up fried cheese.
That might also be why – in the end – these curds end up more or less in the middle of my list of foods. They were good, and if you’re craving a bit of garlicky cheese, they’ll do. But there was nothing that took them over the top.
6. Brownie Waffle Stick
Where to find it: Waffle Chix, $7 each or two for $12
A brownie wrapped in a waffle? Why not? It’s actually pretty delicious.
The waffle batter is soft and waffley. But the inside is where the magic happens. The waffle is filled with a gooey, dark chocolate brownie batter that’s just sweet enough – and just chocolatey enough – to make this treat-on-a-stick pretty darned delicious. It would be plenty good even without the drizzle of chocolate sauce on top.
Pro tip: Let this one cool a bit before eating; it’s easy to burn your mouth on the ooey-gooey chocolate filling. Oh, and do yourself a favor. Grab a glass of 50-cent milk from the Milwaukee Bucks’ Milk House on your way over to the stand. You can thank me later.
5. Deep-Fried Milk with Cookie Dip
Where to find it: Slim’s Lakefront Brew Pub & Eatery, $7.75
How the heck do you deep fry milk? Well, you don't. But, you can make it into a pudding, bread the pudding and deep fry that. If you do, it’s pretty delicious. I loved the pudding bites because they were creamy, slightly jiggly and not obnoxiously sweet. But even I have to admit they were even better paired with the cookie dip.
Speaking of the cookie dip, it looks like greasy tar and reminds me of deep-fried Oreos. Here’s why: when you fry an Oreo cookie, the fats from the creamy center soak into the cookie, rendering it into a soft mass of fatty chocolate goodness. And that’s exactly what this sauce is. It’s actually a bit too thick, which makes it tough to dip the wobbly pieces of pudding in it. But, eating everything with a fork makes that a bit easier. Plus, in the end, you might just want to eat all that ugly-delicious cookie sludge by the forkful.
Where to find them: Pistol Pete’s, $5
The joy of sfingi is that they’re not just deep-fried dough. These Italian-style doughnuts are usually filled with cannoli cream, a mixture of strained ricotta, sugar and spices or chocolate chips.
At Pistol Pete’s, you can get them how you like: filled or not filled and tossed with cinnamon, sugar or cinnamon sugar. We opted for ours to be filled and tossed in cinnamon sugar. And they were delicious.
The dough was tender and nicely caramelized by the hot oil. The cinnamon-sugar was flavorful (and smelled amazing). And the filling? It was creamy and sweet, just as you might expect. I’m pretty sure my husband Paul would have eaten the entire paper boat of these doughnuts if I hadn’t been there to stop him.
Most impressive? You don’t usually find a dish that takes this level of effort at the State Fair; these doughnuts are fried, rolled and filled to order. It’s a good reason not to whine if they take a bit of time to prepare.
3. Deep Fried Booyah!
Where to find them: Water Street Brewery, $8
Booyah, a long simmering stew made from chicken, sometimes beef, and vegetables is a traditional dish in the Upper Midwest, where it’s usually made for substantial gatherings in large kettles, often outdoors. In Wisconsin, the booyah-making tradition is particularly common in Green Bay and Southern Door County. It’s said to have been brought to the area by Walloons, French-speaking Belgians, in the mid-1800s.
I was tickled to find it was coming to the Fair in deep-fried form, and even more delighted to find that Water Street Brewery had come up with their own version of this Wisconsin dish.
The stew – made from beef, chicken, pork simmered in Water Street Brewery’s Amber beer and homemade stock with a variety of vegetables – is wrapped in a pastry crust. They describe it as an empanada dough, but I’d liken it more to a pie crust (it’s slightly thicker and less flakey). The result is a relatively substantial mini handpie with a hearty, homemade flavor not unlike something your grandmother might make. The beer jus is pleasantly salty, adding flavor and a bit more moisture to every crisp, comforting bite.
2. Blazin’ Jalapeno Deep-Fried Olives
Where to find them: Fried Fruit & Fried Olives, $8.50
Briny, salty, creamy and crispy. The deep-fried olives have been one of my favorite things at the Fair for a few years now. So, when I saw that a jalapeno version was on the menu for 2019, I had to give it a try.
What are they? Queen green olives stuffed with fresh jalapenos and cream cheese and deep fried in a crisp, seasoned batter.
Despite the word "blazin’" in the title, these olives aren’t overly spicy. But they possess a pleasant jalapeno flavor (and a bit of heat) that’s balanced by their cream cheese filling.
Remarkably, even though these were consumed on the tail-end of my eight-hour whirlwind new-food-eating spree, I enjoyed them just as much as I have in the past. Maybe even more so thanks to their slight kick. These olives seemed the perfect end to a long day of eating and drinking in the sun.
Pro tip: These are salty, so be sure to grab a beer to accompany. Miller Lite is a good choice, as the carbonation helps cut the fat and cleanse the saltiness from your palate. Remarkably, the brininess of the olives also seems to work a little magic on the beer itself, giving it a slightly more robust flavor profile.
1. Deep-Fried Italian Stallion
Where to find them: Water Street Brewery, $8
At the top of my rankings this year is a dish that didn’t even catch my eye as I was scrolling through the list of new State Fair Foods. But it caught my attention at the Fair, when a colleague declared them to be "amazing."
The concept is simple: beer-marinated, slow-roasted Italian beef, piled into an eggroll wrapper alongside housemade giardiniera and Wisconsin mozzarella and provolone cheeses, and then deep-fried.
The result? It really is amazing. The beef is tender and pleasantly salty with a hint of beer and just a bit of kick from the giardiniera. There’s a Wisconsin-approved amount of cheese in each bite, and the accompanying jus just gilds the non-traditional-Italian-beef-sandwich lily.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.