It's not the Iowa State Fair without an overwhelming selection of food.
And with 53 new choices and only 11 days, we called in some professionals to help us find the best grub at the fair this year. Alex Carter, chef and owner of Black Cat Ice Cream, and Rateb Aburas, executive chef of the Mulberry Street Tavern at the Surety Hotel Des Moines, arrived Thursday morning to give fairgoers their honest opinions on new dishes and fan favorites alike.
Carter and Aburas tasted and rated the top 3 new fair foods competing for the People's Choice Best New Food, which fairgoers can vote on through Aug. 15 at midnight, as well as four other food items: A State Fair classic, a vegetarian dish, something weird (of choice) and a dessert.
The Des Moines Register paid for the chefs' food, and they rated each item by our official rating system: 1 to 4 corn dogs. One corn dog signifies a dish that’s just OK; two means it's a good, solid example of a dish; three denotes a superior and memorable dish and something you'd buy again; while four corn dogs marks a transcendent dish that sets the local example.
(Editor's note: The chefs' comments have been edited for clarity and length. And concession items are listed in the order they were consumed.)
Crispy on the outside, soft and savory on the inside. This traditional fair dish is the most popular food item at the Iowa State Fair, with more than 15 concession stands selling their own version of the corn dog. Campbell's Corn Dogs has eight stands at the fairgrounds — we chose the one in the West Triangle near the Riley Amphitheater. The no-frills dog goes for $6.
Carter: "It's pretty bready. But it's a good hot dog in there. It's a juicy hot dog It's basically what you'd expect from a corn dog. You know what you're getting here." (Score: 3 corn dogs)
Aburas: "It's more bread than dog — that's my only complaint. The flavor's great. It's nice and salty. But it's a lot of bread." (Score: 2 corn dogs)
Pork Picnic in a Cup
Imagine all of your favorite comfort summer picnic foods stacked in one hot plastic cup. The Pork Picnic in a Cup features layers of barbecue pulled pork, baked beans, creamy coleslaw and a drizzle of barbecue sauce, garnished with brown sugar pork belly. This compact lunch is one of the fair's newest dishes competing for the People's Choice Best New Food. Each cup goes for $10.
Carter: "This is sort of like a State Fair walking taco, basically. It's real sweet, actually. I like the concept. The individual elements are OK. (There's) no 'wow' factor. I would like more smoke, less sweet, ideally." (Score: 2 corn dogs)
Aburas: "It's not doing it. I want more pork and less beans. I don't think the hype is worth it. The pulled pork is actually executed nicely, just a little too sweet. I really like the Fritos. (It's) for sure over-priced." (Score: 1 corn dog)
The OMG Chicken Sandwich
This taste brings another top-three finalist dish to the fair. This chicken sandwich features lightly battered chicken breast that's covered in sugar-coated cornflakes, fried and then served on a Krispy Kreme doughnut. A bit of bacon and maple syrup add to the sweetness of the dish. It goes for $12.
Carter: "(It's) very crispy. It's got a thick crust on it. It's more balanced than I thought. It actually works. I'm kind of surprised. Chicken's really juicy. It's not as sweet as I thought considering it's on a Krispy Kreme doughnut." (Score: 3 corn dogs)
Aburas: "I really like this. The chicken is wicked crispy. The doughnut is not as overpowering as I thought it was going to be. It's fried well, like, execution is definitely all the way there. I thought it was going to be all sweet, but it definitely has a balance. I'm not mad about it. I thought this was going to be what I liked the least and this is already, probably one of my favorite ones." (Score: 3 corn dogs)
Fried avocado slices
Don't forget to get your daily greens in. Opened in 1982, The Veggie Table was intended to fill in a void in the State Fair's celebrated food offerings and has now turned into a beloved fair staple. The stand offers vegetarian and vegan options, from fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick to vegetarian and vegan corn dogs. The most popular menu option is the fried pickle, but Aburas and Carter opted for some fried avocado slices topped with seasoning. The dish comes out to $8.
Carter: "It's something different. It's not bad. Needs a little more seasoning. It's creamy on the inside. Salt would be great." (Score: 2 corn dogs)
Aburas: "It does remind me of like a toasted ravioli. I feel healthy now." (Score: 2 corn dogs)
Rattlesnake Corn Dog
A newcomer to the 2021 Iowa State Fair, the Pioneer Wagon experiments with some wacky meats, including rattlesnake, elk and alligator sausage. Carter and Aburas took the leap and tried the Rattlesnake corn dog, a breaded sausage combination of rattlesnake and rabbit topped with the concession stand's special sauce. The reptilian dog goes for $8.
Carter: "The sauce is good. It's got a little kick to it. This is not a hot dog for sure. I like the originality. It's something different, but it's not too wild. I like it." (Score: 4 corn dogs)
Aburas: "Second bite was nice. It's little gamey. Good texture sauce. It's really good. I won't give it all four corn dogs but like, I'd have this again for sure. This could convince the person who's never had rabbit or rattlesnake to eat it." (Score: 3 corn dogs)
Blue Ribbon Cobbler
Hand-dipped ice cream, fresh blueberry preserves and crushed biscuits: That's what awaits you at the Iowa Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association with the purchase of The Blue Ribbon Cobbler. Topped with blueberries and a dollop of whipped cream, this dish for $9.95 made the top 10 best new fair foods list this year.
Carter: "This is good. Blueberry's great. It's a big portion size. This is enough for a few people. It comes together real nice. It's refreshing. It's good quality." (Score: 4 corn dogs)
Aburas: "The ice cream's nice. The crust is not as crumbly as I want it to be. All the ingredients on their own: Not my favorite. Once it starts to mix together in there ... it's a lot better. They're definitely fresh blueberries They're definitely not cutting any corners with the blueberries. It's honest and genuine. It's really good. I'd feed it to my mother." (Score: 4 corn dogs)
This isn't just any giant baked potato dish. A top three contender, The Finisher, is an extra-large russet potato layered with chopped brisket, smoked pulled pork and Rib Shack's bacon brisket mac and cheese, topping with gourmet barbecue sour cream and garlic rub butter. It goes for $10.
Carter: "Oh, yeah, smoky, real barbecue. This is something the whole family could share. If someone tried to eat this by themselves, your fair day is over. This is the Finisher. No Tilt-a-Whirls after this. This is the best thing we've had today." (Score: 4 corn dogs)
Aburas: "Oh wow, that's extremely good. I mean, being from Kansas City, that brisket it's like — yeah, you're holding a torch. That's fantastic. (It's) properly smoked, nice balance of sweet and salty. Mac and cheese is divine." (Score: 4 corn dogs)
Virginia Barreda is a trending and general assignment reporter for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines chefs taste, rate 7 Iowa State Fair foods