Off Hours: Some of the coolest things to see and do at the Iowa State Fair

·8 min read
Yes, I ate a sample of this OMG chicken sandwich from Chicken City. The secret is in the Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut subbing in for a bun.
Yes, I ate a sample of this OMG chicken sandwich from Chicken City. The secret is in the Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut subbing in for a bun.

Hey, it’s Susan Stapleton, your entertainment editor, talking all about the Iowa State Fair. Aside from winning a blue ribbon for a skirt I sewed when I was a kid in 4-H, I also won a blue ribbon in arm wrestling when I was in fifth grade.

Thank you for reading Off Hours, a free weekly entertainment newsletter authored by Des Moines Register reporters and occasional guest writers. Here you can find all of the fun things you can do in central Iowa. 

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The Deal

Here's the deal: I love the Iowa State Fair and everything about it, and over the next 11 days, I’ll be guiding coverage with Adam Wilson, our editor of public safety and communities, from food to concerts, with llama costumes, Big Wheel races, bubblegum blowing, fair queens and more along the way.

The State Fair reports that 70 percent of people attend to eat food. I could have told you that. Who doesn't want to shovel one of 62 foods on a stick down their throat and wash it down with a lemonade that's shaken, not stirred?

Sometimes you just need an excuse to eat a turkey leg in the middle of summer.
Sometimes you just need an excuse to eat a turkey leg in the middle of summer.

This year features 53 new dishes, and I already tasted 10 of them. Do try the three dishes vying for the People's Choice Best New Food. Fairgoers can sample the top three finalists and cast their vote on the Iowa State Fair website through Aug. 15 at midnight.

Head to Chicken City to try the OMG chicken sandwich, a battered chicken breast that's then 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.

It's pork in a cup, in other words, everything that makes the Iowa State Fair tasty.
It's pork in a cup, in other words, everything that makes the Iowa State Fair tasty.

Over at Iowa Pork, the Pork Picnic in a Cup for $10 features layers of barbecue pulled pork, baked beans, creamy coleslaw and a drizzle of barbecue sauce, garnished with brown sugar pork belly.

Talk about a gut bomb. Plan to do a lot of walking to burn off the delicious calories here.
Talk about a gut bomb. Plan to do a lot of walking to burn off the delicious calories here.

Then there’s the Finisher from the Rib Shack. This giant dish for $10 comes with a baked potato stacked with chopped brisket, smoked pulled pork and The Rib Shack's famous bacon brisket mac and cheese, topped with barbecue sour cream and garlic rub butter.

The winner will be announced on Aug. 17 during the State Fair.

If you like the tried and true, go for a corn dog, found at 24 stands across the fairgrounds. The Veggie Table on the Grand Concourse even has veggie and vegan version. Pioneer Wagon in front of the Grandstand carries its own take, made from rattlesnake, elk and alligator.

I like to let the peppermint bar from Bauder's melt a little before taking that first bite.
I like to let the peppermint bar from Bauder's melt a little before taking that first bite.

You can find all sorts of ice cream, include Wonder Bars, technically ice cream on a stick, at two different stands, Zag’s near the Riley Stage and Well’s. I’m partial to the peppermint bar at Bauder’s, found on Rock Island Avenue near the Ag Building and the butter cow. I like to let it melt a bit before biting into the rich square wrapped in hot fudge and Oreo cookies. You can find some form of ice cream at 23 different food stands on the State Fairgrounds

I also love cheese curds. The first time I ever tried cheese curds was at the Minnesota State Fair, and boy, can I tell you, there was nothing quite as tasty as those crispy fried exteriors with squeaky hunks of fresh cheddar melted inside. Only four stands offer them at the Iowa State Fair.

This year, I plan to stop by JR’s SouthPork Ranch for my first time. I’m a sucker for novelty dishes such as bacon and pickle mac and cheese or a BLT roll with sweet corn aioli.

I’m also a sucker for beers brewed in Iowa. The Iowa Craft Beer Tent at the corner of East 31st Street and Logan Avenue features 177 Iowa craft beers, ciders, seltzers, mead, and soda. Sangria frozen slushies from Jasper Winery return along with a new flavor, mimosa.

If you see me at the Iowa State Fair, say hello, and tell me your favorite things to eat. Yes, I want to try them. Or shoot me an email with your favorite dishes at sstapleton@gannett.com.

Clocking in at 418 pounds, last year's Big Ram winner Bigshot. I feel like the Big Ram doesn't get as much publicity as the Super Bull or Big Boar.
Clocking in at 418 pounds, last year's Big Ram winner Bigshot. I feel like the Big Ram doesn't get as much publicity as the Super Bull or Big Boar.

My Top Three Interesting Things to Do at the Iowa State Fair

1.  By now, you’ve been bombarded with everything from chocolate chip cookies from Barksdale's Chocolate Chip Cookies to pork chops on a stick at the Iowa Pork Producers grab stand. So take some time to walk it off by heading down to the see the newly crowned Big Boar, Big Ram and Super Bull in the Swine, Sheep and Cattle Barns on the south side of the fairgrounds. You can also hike over to the Avenue of Breeds to see the Nigerian dwarf goats and Southdale baby doll lambs or bigger animals such as an elk or yak. In 2021, the Avenue of Breeds moved into its own building across from the Iowa Craft Beer Tent at the corner of East 31st Street and Logan Avenue.

Try some of the beers from across the state, and say hi if you see me!
Try some of the beers from across the state, and say hi if you see me!

2. I also love the baby animals, and I sign up for the phone alerts to find out when mothers are about to give birth so I can see ducklings, goslings (sadly, not Ryan), piglets, calves and my favorites, kids. Text FAIR to 844-844-8508 for special offers, updates on concerts and daily activities, weather alerts and more. Text BABY to 844-844-8508 to receive updates when new babies are born at the Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center.

You had me at kids.
You had me at kids.

3. Trust me, I’m not going to be a downer, but, ahem, we are in the midst of a pandemic. Hy-Vee returns with vaccinations, not only for COVID-19, but pneumonia and shingles during the first six days of the Iowa State Fair. See the Hy-Vee Pharmacy team members at Booth #10040 just west of the North Gate and across the East 31st Street corridor from the Thrill Zone. Bonus, you can pick up over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests as well.

Does the University Library Cafe serve the best nachos in Des Moines? I'd love your opinion.
Does the University Library Cafe serve the best nachos in Des Moines? I'd love your opinion.

Eat This/Drink That

Cheeseburger nachos, $14.99: University Library Café claims it has the best nachos in the city, and I can see why. The cozy restaurant uses flour tortilla shells instead of corn to make its chips, then coats them with everything from pinto beans to banana peppers. My friend and I opted for the cheeseburger version (I don’t know, it felt very Midwest to order hamburger), but options include roast beef, bacon, chicken or corned beef. Weird, I know. But still a fun novelty dish, and I am all about the novelty. At $14.99, they are good for sharing.

Get it: I love the idea of saying that I’m going to the library and then heading to University Library Café at 3506 University Ave. near Drake University in Des Moines. If the restaurant seats 40, I’d be shocked, so expect to wait for a table or move on to the next spot if it’s busy. On the weekend, the Library serves breakfast from 8 a.m. to around 2 p.m. My friend scored a chicken fried steak for $12.99. The bar stays open until midnight Thursdays through Sundays, so you can “study” late. Give the restaurant a call at 515-255-0433.

The Sunset Scoop on the left is a classy and refreshing drink.
The Sunset Scoop on the left is a classy and refreshing drink.

Sunset Scoop, $12: When I see a cocktail with Templeton Rye in it, I will probably order it, and this one was silky, classic and fresh. Indeed.

Get it: I love everything about Hello, Marjorie, from its location in the former Register & Tribune building to its neon ode to Jack Kerouac. Head to 717 Locust St. in Des Moines from 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday and until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, or call 515-369-2296 for more intel.

What are you eating and drinking? I'd love to hear about your favorite newcomers. Drop me a line at sstapleton@gannett.com

48 Hours Off

Friday night: Will Jesus wear a Superman T-shirt? In many productions of the classic Stephen Schwartz musical “Godspell,” he does. The retelling of the Gospel of Matthew set in modern-day New York City heads to the Ankeny Community Theater, 1932 SW Third St., at 7:30 p.m. with tickets priced at $20 for adults.

Saturday afternoon: Learn about all things bonsai when artist Julian Tsai puts on three two-hour demonstrations at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, 909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines. Classes start at 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., with lessons on how to trim a bonsai tree. The event is included in the price of admission which is $10 for adults and $7 for kids 4 to 17.

Sunday afternoon: Though the Des Moines Art Center’s “Images Unbound” exhibit remains up for more than a month, this weekend Dr. Joan McAlister talks about installing the “Hold Me Closer” exhibition, which explores themes of intimacy from romantic to platonic to familial, at the Des Moines Art Center, 4700 Grand Ave., Des Moines. The free event runs from 2 to 3 p.m.

Around Town

My Day Job

Thanks for taking a quick spin through some of the fun things to do in Des Moines this weekend. I'd love to hear what the first thing is that you do when you get to the Iowa State Fair. My answer depends. Sometimes I eat a breakfast sandwich from the WDSM United Methodist Church and other times I head into the Sheep Barn first. If I'm covering something for the Register, I head straight to that without a food stop first.

See you at the fair!
See you at the fair!

I've been submerged in IndyCar, RAGBRAI, Dew Tour, Hinterland and now Iowa State Fair coverage. I always intend to write more than I do, but I tend to get caught up in directing and spend time writing at night, if I can. I hope to have a piece about where Iowa celebrities like to eat at the Iowa State Fair very soon. Look for pieces on chefs rating foods at the fair, concert reviews starting with Brooks & Dunn, and the crowning of the fair queen, along with a boatload of other coverage. If you see something cool that should be covered, drop me a line at sstapleton@gannett.com.

Next week, Chris Higgins, who covers the eastern suburbs and Ankeny for the Register, tells us about some of his nostalgic favorite places to dine in Des Moines.

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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Some of the coolest things to see and do at the Iowa State Fair