Target Field concessions a home run for the Twins and fans
When the first pitch is thrown at the Twins' home opener at the new Target Field next week, I won't so much be anticipating the first connecting swing—the unmistakable "crack" that echoes all the way up into the cheap seats—as I will my first trip to the concessions. I don't mean to disrespect the players' skill or athleticism, but pop flies make me nervous. And popcorn makes me happy.
I do have the Twins to thank for one of my favorite childhood memories: fall of 1987, Mr. Johnson's science class, a voice came over the loudspeaker announcing that, due to the Twins winning the World Series, school would be canceled the following day. We ditched our studies and headed downtown to toss tickertape on the likes of Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett, swaddled in fur coats and riding in convertibles.
But today, without my brother's collection of baseball cards to reference, I don't know any of the players. I wouldn't recognize Joe Mauer if he were wrapped in a towel and slathered with chocolate sauce. Fortunately, the new Target Field has something to draw those of us who don't know an R.B.I. from a barbecued r.i.b.: delicious things to eat.
For years, the sports fan's game-day diet has been limited mostly to ho-hum hot dogs and plastic-cheese-topped nachos washed down with watery lager. Maybe, if you were lucky, your kids would share a few bites of their cotton candy. Still, knowing nothing else of stadium concessions, we thought of them fondly, less for their flavor than their novelty, as we scooped ice cream with those little wooden paddles that made each bite taste like tree bark.
But millennial stadium concessionaires have really started to capitalize on the food-sales potential of their facilities' enormous, captive—and hungry—crowds. With the Mets' new Citi Field offering tacos and lobster rolls and the new Yankee Stadium serving dry-aged steaks, the notion of passing the innings with a bag of peanuts or a box of Cracker Jack seems inordinately quaint. Somewhere in Los Angeles, a composer is penning new lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" that include Korean poutine and pomegranate molasses.
Last week, when the Twins and their concessions partner, Delaware North Sportservice, invited members of the media to sample some of the stadium's new fare, I spotted the first sign of improvement when I rode up in a service elevator. The guy standing next to me wore a chef's coat with a meat thermometer tucked into the pocket. Was it just for show, or were there actual cooks on the premises, making fresh food to order?
I know some of you are starting to panic: Don't tell me they've taken away all our favorite junk foods and replaced them with quiche and wheatberry salad! Yes, the famed Hormel Dome Dogs are gone, but you can still have one of four types of hot dogs made by Minnesota-based Schweigert meats. The so-called Big Dog comes on a hefty bun that won't turn into gooey mush with the slightest squeeze like the cheap ones do, but that seemed a little thick for even such an outsize wiener. Without tasting the dog and its predecessor side by side, we struggled to find concrete differences between the Bigs and the Domes. "It doesn't seem as bad for me as a Dome Dog did," one sampler suggested as she polished off a juicy bite.
While hot dogs may be as American as paying a guy $23 million a year to whack a ball with a stick, one of the best things about the new concessions is the expanded ethnic offerings. Former Twins star Tony Oliva has his own branded Cuban sandwich, which is stuffed with roasted pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles and pressed, panini-style, until the bread is toasted and the filling is warmed. Your seatmates may tease you for eating out of an Asian Wok takeout container, but the stir-fry of chewy noodles and fresh vegetables in a pungent, spicy sauce is worth it. Let it be noted that at least one—and likely only one—person in the history of stadium food was delighted by the idea of eating bok choy at a baseball game.
But as the Twins celebrate their 50th season in Minnesota, I'm even more excited about the concessionaires' choice to champion our regional cuisine. I haven't seen any hot dish—yet—but there are several State Fair classics, such as cheese curds, pork chop on a stick (modeled after J.D. Hoyt's Cajun version), and walleye on a spike—and, no, I'm not sure why the walleye is on a "spike" either. I can't quite picture myself spooning up soup at a ball game, even if it is Byerly's famously creamy wild rice slurry, but after nearly 30 years of watching the Twins play indoors, perhaps it was intended for fans who may not have calibrated their clothing for chilly spring or fall temps. If only they'd dish it into those plastic baseball caps like they do the soft serve.
Several notable names in Minnesota's food and beverage business are supplying the stadium, including Wild Acres turkey drumsticks and Caribou coffee. One of the concessions executives told me they spent more than two years dining at local restaurants and forming partnerships with those they considered the best.
That's why Kramarczuk's is browning its bratwurst alongside a whole grill full of onions and peppers and sauerkraut. The Polish sausage I sampled roused my spirits more than the plain hot dog. The smell alone will make you as hungry as if you just played nine innings instead of sat on your duff and hollered. The best thing I ate was the concessionaires' riff on the Murray's steak sandwich, with tender, toothsome chunks of sirloin, sweet onions, and provolone cheese piled onto a ciabatta bun. If you're going to pay $7.50 for a beer—they do sell Summit, Schell's, Finnegans, and Grain Belt—you might as well pay $10.50 for the Murray's steak sandwich, though another sampler told me that during one of the preview games the wait in the sandwich line was nearly 30 minutes.
And of course no celebration of Minnesota's culinary contributions would be complete without a Ju(i)cy Lucy. The stadium offers the original, old-school, American-cheese-stuffed burger, one with onions and pepperjack cheese called the Rex Burger that's sold in Hrbek's restaurant, and Vincent restaurant's titular Vincent Burger, filled with braised short-rib meat and smoked Gouda. The Vincent Burger is listed alongside various other burgers and dogs with little fanfare—no description or hint of its legendary pedigree (its credits include a City Pages' Best Burger designation) to rationalize its $12 price tag. (It's actually $1.50 cheaper at the ballpark, though the restaurant offers it for $8 during happy hour.) The Vincent I sampled at Target Field didn't taste as good as I remember from the restaurant—the meat seemed a little tough, and I don't suspect the bland pink tomato slice would have passed muster in Le Grand Fromage's kitchen—but the meat had a nicely charred exterior, the filling was wonderfully rich, the bun sweet and eggy.
Still, I was impressed by Delaware North's choice to serve the Vincent Burger, especially because I'm skeptical about its practicality from a business perspective. Would the extra labor, the more costly ingredients, and the hassle of incorporating a restaurateur's wishes be worth the opportunity to charge a few more bucks for the burger? Arguably not. But the decision to promote our homegrown goods takes the long view on the situation, seeing not just the team and the stadium as sources of civic pride, but also the concessions.
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