We Tried ‘Em. Here’s Our Favorite New Iowa State Fair Foods

Photos by Starting Line Staff

The smell of the animal barns and the onslaught of the tacky T-shirts and motorized scooters zipping through crowds could only mean one thing: I’m at the Iowa State Fair. 

My mission was simple, I wanted to try as many of the new state fair foods as my stomach handle. I also wanted to see if my pre-rankings stood the test of time or if I would have to reorganize my new fair-food rankings, which were done sight unseen and without tasting them.

I tried three new fair-food finalists and two semi-finalists to determine the ultimate new fair food power ranking:

5. Pork Picnic in a Cup – Iowa Pork Tent

Photo by Sean Dengler

The Pork Picnic in a Cup was a great concept that was poorly executed. Iowans love walking tacos and this dish tried to replicate that concept but the Iowa Pork Tent fell short in recreating that magic. 

The Pork Picnic in a Cup starts with a corn chip base that is then topped with layers of beans, pulled pork, and coleslaw, and accessorized by a strip of brown-sugar pork belly. With a walking taco, mixing up the ingredients is the best part and, unfortunately, the Pork Picnic in a Cup missed this memo. The cup was too narrow, meaning, at most, only two layers could be blended. Unlike the other foods on this list, I had no chance of eating all the layers in one bite.

On the bright side, the tender pulled pork fused with the juicy baked beans were the perfect layers to have next to each other. It felt like a hot summer day picnic plate when they mixed. It took too long to get the corn chips out of the bottom, but when I did, they were the ideal texture combination. Additionally, the salty, crispy corn chips paired well with the pulled pork and baked beans.

4. Blue Ribbon Cobbler – Iowa Fruit & Vegetable Growers

Photo by Sean Dengler

The Pork Picnic in a Cup was an easy No. 5, but deciding the top four was tough. They all were tasty in their own ways.

Sadly, for the Blue Ribbon Cobbler, it is a dessert and the best new fair food deserves to be an entrée. The positive aspect is this dessert was one of the best ones I have ever eaten at the Iowa State Fair.

The Blue Ribbon Cobbler features a made-from-scratch biscuit covered with vanilla ice cream, fresh blueberries, and whipped cream. Whether you are hot from walking down the Grand Concourse or navigating through the animal buildings, stop by the Agriculture Building—where the Butter Cow is located—for this refreshing dessert.

When taking a bite of the fresh blueberries, they provide a cool, healthy reprieve. The appetizing combination of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream also helps you cool off. When I took a bite of this dessert, I had no idea there was a biscuit. The ice cream and whipped cream completely covered it. While the biscuit was not anything special, combining its texture with the ice cream’s coldness and whipped cream’s fluffiness made for a phenomenal tasting dessert. Add in the freshness of this dessert, and it felt much better to eat for you, especially after eating all the fried foods. 

3. Pork Belly Bao Buns – Saigonais Cuisine

Photo by Sean Dengler

The Pork Belly Bao Buns were the most refreshing of the entrées. Given the circumstances, this fair food felt like a healthy choice. The braised pork belly was flawlessly cooked to the right tenderness. I do not enjoy cucumbers; however, in the case of these Pork Belly Bao Buns, this was not the case. The cucumber provided a refreshing bite. I also have never eaten a bao bun before, but after its soft texture melted with each bite, I will have more of them in the future. Combine these three together in one bite, and they are the quintessential complements.

There was a little taste of cilantro, and daikon—a mild and tangy radish—and they helped top off this new fair food along with a sauce. Of the new fair foods, this one provided the greatest number of flavors. 

2. The Finisher – Rib Shack

Photo by Sean Dengler

This new fair food is the best bang for your buck at just $10. This baked potato is topped with a bevy of Midwestern favorites—chopped brisket, smoked pulled pork, bacon brisket mac and cheese, sour cream, and garlic butter—all topped with an inviting barbecue sauce. 

None of The Finisher’s flavors were overwhelming, but the combination of the thick, creamy, and filling sour cream and sweet barbecue sauce is one of the best parts. That alone is well worth the endeavor of the Rib Shack’s huge line to get one. The heat from the Russet potato nearly melted all the cheese and sour cream by the end. There was so much going on with this new fair food. It was hard to focus on one part such as Rib Shack’s “famous mac and cheese” which provided a delightful bite when found.

It was hard to tell when I ate the chopped brisket and smoked pulled pork because everything became a big mash-up. Every bite brought a different consistency and variety of food. This potato is also worth splitting with a friend, and don’t worry, you both will still end up full.

1. “OMG” Chicken Sandwich – Chicken City

Photo by Sean Dengler

The “OMG” Chicken Sandwich was in a tough spot going into these power rankings. It had the highest expectations because it was a fried chicken sandwich with a glazed donut as buns. This unique new fair food did not disappoint. 

This sounds weird, but this sandwich tastes like chicken and waffles. With the savory element of the fried chicken combined with the glazed donut’s sweetness made for a party in my mouth. Sometimes, places make their fried chicken with more breading than chicken, but this is not the case at Chicken City. It was a good helping of perfectly fried chicken.

The sandwich was slightly smaller than anticipated, but each bite was worth it. There could have been more bacon, but for the sake of my health, it was good there was not more. One surprising part was that the chicken was fried in sugar-coated corn flakes. This added a distinctive look and taste to make this one of the best-tasting chicken sandwiches I’ve had.

While I wish I could have tried all the foods on the semi-finalists’ list besides the mint one, I am no millionaire and my stomach can only hold so much. Go and try these new fair foods in addition to the others on the list and tell me where I am wrong, though I doubt you’ll find a reason to disagree.


by Sean Dengler

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1 Comment on "We Tried ‘Em. Here’s Our Favorite New Iowa State Fair Foods"

  • Okay, I’m gonna be a buzzkill here, sorry, bail now if you want.

    I’m not a vegan, but I draw the line at handing over my food dollars to the Iowa CAFO pork industry. Yes, that industry gets my tax dollars, directly and indirectly. But I’m not going to support them further, not after learning what they do to water quality and to pigs.

    If the Iowa State Fair ever offers non-CAFO pork items, which seems highly unlikely, then I might eat pork at the Fair. Until then, no. Okay, I’m done, buzzkilling over.

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