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These 2 underrated spots serve up the Minnesota State Fair's best comfort food

Both have been around for decades, but the food isn't stuck in the past.

State Fair food has its worshippers. So maybe it's appropriate that at a couple of places the money spent by hungry fairgoers helps support local churches. 

Church dining halls first sprouted on the fairgrounds more than a century ago and in their heyday there were dozens of them. As visitors moved toward grub-on-the-go, most of these diners closed their doors. 

But there are still two old-time church diners at the State Fair. Judging from what their organizers and customers told GoMN, they seem to be sticking around. 

Hamline Church Dining Hall 

Hamline United Methodist Church has the distinction of being the first church diner at the Fair, as well as one of the last two standing. 

In 1897 a church member who had a coal wagon used it to haul a group of women up to the Fair. There, they would sell sandwiches they'd made in the church basement, said Teresa Renneke, who co-chairs the church's dining hall committee. 

That makes this year their 120th anniversary, and St. Paul's mayor proclaimed it Hamline Church Dining Hall Day in the city on Friday. 

What accounts for their staying power? For one thing, some Fair visitors like a place where they can use mealtime to take a break, sit down, and use silverware and a plate instead of a stick.

"You get to rest and relax while you eat. That way we have more energy to keep walking," said Chuck Nolte of New Ulm who was visiting the diner for the first time with his wife on Friday. 

The diner has also earned a reputation over the decades for serving good food. Their best-known item is the ham loaf (@Try_our_Hamloaf is their Twitter handle) and the Hamline Egger is popular at breakfast.

But just because they're 120, don't think the diner is stuck in its ways. This year they've reworked their traditional Swedish meatball dinner into wild rice cranberry meatballs – and it seems to be a hit. One critic crowned it the best new State Fair food of 2017. 

After singing the praises of the meatballs, gravy, and sides of lingonberries and corn, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl of Mpls St. Paul magazine concluded: "If you want to find the true essence of the Fair go to the Hamline Church Dining Hall! My top pick of the year."

Salem Lutheran Church Dining Hall

Meatballs are also a big deal at Salem Lutheran Church's dining hall, where they've been making them for 65 years. They expect to hand-roll about 1,200 during the Fair this year. 

Swedish egg coffee is another claim to fame at Salem. Fans of it (like those at Twin Cities Eater) say adding an egg to the coffee grounds before boiling the brew produces coffee with no hint of bitterness.

You don't have to take a seat in the diner to enjoy church food. There's a takeout window and you can even get a variation of the meatball dinner that's made to be portable. The "meatball sundae" mixes a meatball and gravy over mashed potatoes (no ice cream).

But skipping the dining hall would mean missing out on the table service, which is one of the highlights at Salem. While Hamline lets you serve yourself cafeteria style, Salem has a crew of volunteers waiting tables.

Dining hall manager Mario Carillo said you might have your order taken by a server who's 14 or one who's 70, adding to the personal touch that helps make a meal at the dining hall special.

"In the morning we have a maitre'd waiting at the door to greet you and bring you in and seat you. It might even be our pastor," Carillo said. 

Do these diners make any money?

Well, they're no threat to pass Sweet Martha as the most lucrative vendor at the Fair. But both Hamline and Salem said they take in more than they spend.

"By the time we get done paying for everything, we usually profit about $25,000," said Salem's Carillo. "We figure it's about $2,000 a day and for our small church, we're not going to find another fundraiser to match that."

Hamline's Renneke said the main reason they come out ahead is that they're staffed mostly by volunteers. It takes about 60 people a day to keep the dining hall running, she said. The only ones who get paid are their chef and members of the church's youth group, many of whom are working their first job. 

Salem's staff is completely volunteer. 

In keeping with its church mission, the Hamline dining hall shares some of each year's proceeds with a food-related charity or two. (This year it's Feed My Starving Children and The Sheridan Story.) 

So even if you aren't a regular churchgoer, you can still get a taste of it – along with a home-cooked meal – during the high holy days of State Fair food. Amen.

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