Chow Down In Milwaukee

Restaurant Reviews

Sporkie Finalists

The Wisconsin State Fair is over. The tents have been taken down, the rides have moved on to their next destinations and, of course, restaurant owners have already begun to work on creations to wow next year’s fair goers. Every year a handful of these creations square off in a competition known as ‘The Sporkies’. A panel of local celebrities judge and choose their favorites. Along with awarding first, second and third place, there is also a fan favorite award voted by fair goers. This year out of hundreds of entries there were eight finalists.

I have enjoyed watching the judging for the last 3 years. It does puzzle me the panel includes judges who “Do not like anything with spice in it.” One judge even made it known that they do not eat anything with honey. I found this rather odd considering Wisconsin is a large producer of honey. In addition, two of the judges did not consume alcohol. Considering these facts, I decided to try each of the eight finalists to give the readers of Chow Down in Milwaukee an unbiased review of this year’s offerings.
I will begin with the WI Hot Chicken Bombs from Water Street Brewery. Their description is as follows; loaded mashed potatoes with WI cheddar cheese, corn, and fried chicken breaded and deep fried, then injected with WSB Amber beer gravy and dipped in our hot sauce. They were served in a cardboard boat as most things are at the fair. Crunchy on the outside with the potatoes and gravy making for a soft inside, it seemed the perfect combination. What surprised me was the spice in the hot sauce. I found it just the perfect amount to notice and not too much. You would want a fork and a good supply of napkins when enjoying this dish.

Next up was my personal favorite the Breakfast Bomb from Saz’s. Described as sweet cream cheese stuffed French toast bagel bomb surrounded by triple think brown sugar and spice smoked bacon with a side of rum raisin cream cheese frosting. This was one of the tastiest items I had at the fair. The confusion for both the panel of judges and I must confess myself, was why it was on a stick and the placement of the bacon. The texture of the bagel French toast was perfect. It was firm enough to contain the cream cheese filling but had that delicious French toast flavor. The winning point of this dish was the rum raisin cream cheese frosting. I would have ordered a side of this to go if such a thing were possible. It was sweet with a hint of rum and the raisins gave a nice texture to it. I confess as to using the rest to dip another food offering in after finishing the Breakfast Bombs.

Slim McGinn’s Irish Pub had the only libation offering in the group. S’mores Beer Float had a lot going on. Officially it was Point Brewery’s milkshake malt porter beer with chocolate marshmallow ice cream in a chocolate syrup/graham cracker crumb rimmed glass and a toasted marshmallow on top. When I received my float the first thing I noticed was they managed to rim a plastic cup. I had never experienced such a thing before and it held up throughout my consuming the float. To begin with the flavor of ice cream made the porter seem bitter and extra hoppy. The secret to enjoying this beverage was to give it time to melt and mix a little. Once the flavors had melded together it became very enjoyable. The only draw back was combining beer with an ice cream float left you feeling bloated and lethargic. I would recommend enjoying one of these at the end of the evening.

Pig Candy Cannoli was next. If there was an award for ‘most pleasant surprise’ this would earn it hands down. I split this dish with my lovely lady Margie, my aunt Linda and my mother. That turned out to be a wise idea as two bites, although good, were enough for each of us. Candied sweet and smoky beer candy bacon cannoli shell filled with a cream cheese and mascarpone candied bacon cheesecake filling garnished with candy bacon bits and bacon sea salt make up this amazing creation. You would think with how many times the word ‘bacon’ is mentioned in the description this would be a hearty and smoky flavored dish. What it turned out to be was unique almost bordering on confusing to the palate. There was a bacon flavor to the shell, but it was almost subtle. The most poignant flavor that all of us tasted was peanut butter. This was also mentioned by one of the judges but did not exist in the dish. Tina, the representative of Brew City who offered this dish attributed that to preparing the bacon with beer adding a nutty flavor. This dish was full of flavor and very rich but good to share among friends.

If you were looking ahead to Thanksgiving you had to go no further than Water Street Brewery’s Deep-fried Turducken On-a-Stick. French roast turkey, duck confit and fried chicken breast layered with homemade stuffing and gravy, battered and drizzled with WSB Amber beer gravy and cranberry sauce made this taste like all of Thanksgiving dinner rolled into one. You received two pieces, which again was enough to share. The stick they had it on should not have been used to attempt picking it up as it was way too heavy. I was a bit leery at first, but again this dish pleasantly surprised me. There was an odd flavor of lime in the first few bites that seemed not to belong, but it finished nicely.

That brings us to the third-place finisher The PorkSTACKular from the Budweiser Pavilion. This sandwich included pork belly, bacon and deep-fried pickle fries, Swiss cheese, drizzled with sweet n’ spicy “hot” honey and was served on a buttermilk caramelized-onion naan bread bun. I am not usually a fan of the food at the Budweiser Pavilion and to me this sounded like an attempt to pile on as many weird things on a sandwich as we could to gain attention. It was $12 a piece and again I split this dish with Margie. There was a fairly long wait for the sandwich to be completed. Apparently, there was a problem with the bacon. When it arrived, it did not look like something I would have normally tried. Going into this dish with such negative preconceived notions seemed almost unfair. After the second bite not only were those notions gone, but they were proven completely unfounded. Although there was a lot of conflicting flavors happening all at once, the aggregate flavor worked flawlessly. Even at $12, I was game to eat another if only I had room. What I found to be special on this dish was the “hot” honey. It was a honey glaze that was infused with cayenne pepper. To have that extra sweet yet hot kick mixed in with all the savory goodness made this a dish worth enjoying.

Second place went to Slim’s PBR Park and their French Onion Soup On-a-Stick. This was the first of the Sporkie’s finalists I tried. The reason I did so was the same as many other Fair goers. I could not wait to see how they put French onion soup on a stick. Sadly, that park was a little misleading. What it turned out to be was caramelized onions, mozzarella and Swiss cheese rolled into a wonton skin and deep-fried. That was served with a side of beef broth on the side. The broth itself was very salty. The odd thing to me again was the stick. Not only was it completely impractical, but unnecessary. The pleasantly surprising thing about this dish was when you dipped the deep-fried cheese stick into the broth it really did taste like French onion soup. Another thing that left me confused was the fact that just one of the rolls came with a crouton. Slim’s PBR park sold 11,000 of the during the run of the fair. I am not sure how many of those were repeat customers, but I did not go back for seconds. It was a tasty dish, but with so many other offerings at the fair did not warrant a return trip.

Finally, winner of both the judges and the fair favorite was Deep-Fried Spinach Lasagna Bites from Albanese’s. Being that they won for their spaghetti and meatball mozzarella sticks last year I was eager to try this year’s offering. As with the PorkSTACKular, there was a considerable wait for this dish. When I received mine, it was a bit overdone. I sat down at a table and dug in. Let me begin by complimenting Albanese’s on their incredible sauce. It is a recipe handed down through generations and it shows. This was one of the best marineras I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. For those of you who know how much Italian I eat that is quite a distinction. The actual dish itself which was a lasagna noodle rolled with a blend of three cheeses and spinach which was then breaded and deep-fried, came across as rather dry. This could have been attributed to what I would assume was ricotta cheese along with the dish being cooked slightly too long. Dipping it in the sauce certainly helped but I did not feel saved the dish. When serving a dish with such incredible marinera, it was a little disheartening. I will certainly try again next year in hopes I have one that is a little less deep-fried.

When all was said and done I had a great time sampling each of these dishes. They all had great aspects to them that deserved being part of the contest. I encourage all of you who attend the Wisconsin State Fair in 2019 to taste all next year’s finalists. If you happen to find yourself at the Fair on the day of the Sporkie’s awards I recommend attending.  It is entertaining and insightful.


By: Neil Panosian


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