Take me out to the ball game

And buy me some gar­lic nachos and hum­mus. The team of chefs at Cit­izens Bank Park is of­fer­ing much more than tra­di­tion­al ball­park food.

Spill­ing a full beer all over my­self is not how I’d planned to start my food and beer taste test at the Phil­lies’ ball­park. But as I stood there, drip­ping and bit­ing back curses, the wo­men work­ing at nearby con­ces­sion stand #402 did something sur­pris­ing: they mopped me up with pa­per tow­els and told me in whis­pers to gulp down what re­mained in my cup so they could re­fill it, for free. This act of break­ing-the-rules kind­ness was my first hint that the con­ces­sion pro­gram at Cit­izens Bank Park is not what we’ve come to ex­pect through more than a cen­tury of watch­ing Amer­ica’s fa­vor­ite pas­time.

But it was far from the last. 

“This isn’t nor­mal sta­di­um food, is it?” Jeremy Camp­bell, ARA­MARK con­ces­sions dir­ect­or, asked me re­peatedly dur­ing a gam­el­ong eat­ing tour through the park on May 3. And re­peatedly, while shov­el­ing house-smoked ribs, but­ter­milk fried chick­en, honey lem­on donuts and fresh cus­tom-ordered burri­tos in­to my mouth, I answered, “No. These are no or­din­ary base­ball victu­als.” But it wasn’t un­til near the end, when I spot­ted a cup of hum­mus and car­rots at the Philly Fresh healthy food mini-mart, that it really hit me. Cit­izens Bank Park really does boast a pro­gress­ive con­ces­sion pro­gram. 

For starters, everything’s made fresh at the ball­park by a team of chefs (a few who come from uber fine-din­ing spots like the Four Sea­sons), some of whom spend part of the off-sea­son re­ceiv­ing spe­cialty train­ing at the pres­ti­gi­ous Culin­ary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica in New York. For the most part, the chefs who design menus and pre­pare meals in the Dia­mond and Hall of Fame clubs are the same ones com­ing up with the grub at the out­door kiosks that sell to us reg­u­lar folk. 

Second, CBP is one of the only pro sports sta­di­ums in the coun­try with a ded­ic­ated glu­ten-free food stand (new this year at sec­tion 136). And as you’ve prob­ably heard by now, People for the Eth­ic­al Treat­ment of An­im­als (PETA) ranked it the best ma­jor league sta­di­um for ve­get­ari­ans three years in a row. 

Third, and, oh, is it a de­li­cious third, is the new ad­di­tion of Fed­er­al Donuts (sec­tion 140), the 18-month-old South Philly and Cen­ter City donut-and-fried chick­en spot that’s earned about a bil­lion na­tion­al ac­col­ades and ap­pear­ances on na­tion­al cable net­works. So far, the ball­park is re­cre­at­ing two doughy fla­vors: cin­na­mon brown sug­ar and honey-lem­on glaze, which comes with a two-piece or­der of na­ked or but­ter­milk poultry

Fourth is the beer pro­gram. Yeah, so the news re­cently re­por­ted that Cit­izens Bank beer prices rank ninth highest in the coun­try, with an av­er­age small draft cost­ing $7.75. But our “smalls” are big­ger than av­er­age, and I doubt most sta­di­ums carry our craft se­lec­tion, either. 

New this year is the Al­ley Brew­ing Co., a large cir­cu­lar beer-ser­vice sta­tion in Ash­burn Al­ley. There you can sample any Shock Top fla­vor (a Bud product and hence not a craft brand but you get the point), and op­tions from Ot­ter Creek, Goose Is­land and Stella Ar­tois, plus a house beer. Next to Al­ley Brew­ing sits the hil­ari­ous “Your Dad’s Beer” kiosk, selling cans of stuff you and your dad used to drink while watch­ing the Phight­ins on the rab­bit-eared box. You know, ‘Gansett, Bal­lan­tine, Schlitz, PBR … the li­quid all those hip­ster kids dis­covered in Fishtown two years ago.

True craft beer drink­ers will prob­ably want to ven­ture away from this area and wander around to find the nu­mer­ous Brew­erytown kiosks, stocked this year with kegs and bottles from loc­al brew­er­ies like Yards, Fly­ing Fish, Troegs and Vic­tory, plus big na­tion­al craft com­pan­ies like Si­erra Nevada and Sam Adams. No, you won’t find rare one-off beers, ad­ven­tur­ous fla­vors or quirky sea­son­als here but, hey, it is a ma­jor-league base­ball sta­di­um, after all. You want to drink an elu­sive, 10.9 per­cent al­co­hol-by-volume Beer Geek Break­fast from Den­mark? Bring a bottle and pound it in the park­ing lot.

Most of the food I tried was very good. I already raved about the donuts and fried chick­en. Nachos at the hand-craf­ted burri­tos and nachos stand (sec­tion 422) came loaded with gar­lic and laden with cheese and pulled pork braised and slow-cooked in its own juices and a pro­pri­et­ary blend of spices. I was so un­used to tast­ing gar­lic in nachos that I couldn’t place the fla­vor at first. Once iden­ti­fied, it set those creamy chips and cheese apart from any I’d ever had. As for the burri­tos — yes, we ate two — pork and ve­g­gie stuffed with Span­ish rice, black beans shred­ded cheese and salsa — they were hearty and filling and dazzlingly seasoned, just like they would taste in a Mex­ic­an res­taur­ant. The $9.75 price tag, ARA­MARK’s Camp­bell told me, is two dol­lars high­er than a sim­il­ar or­der at your typ­ic­al fast-cas­u­al Mex­ic­an chain. But here, he poin­ted out, you also get base­ball. A fair point, though I thought doesn’t the $87 tick­et cov­er that? 

A $13.75 plate car­ry­ing two ribs, a beef sand­wich, kiel­basa, BBQ beans and slaw at the sig­na­ture Bull’s BBQ, where meat gets smoked and/or barbe­qued all day on what may be the biggest grill in the MLB, did prove to be an ex­cel­lent value for a fam­ily or a very hungry in­di­vidu­al. Three of us fin­ished off the sweet and tender kiel­basa first. The dry rub on the ribs simmered in our mouths with a heavy smoki­ness fol­lowed by a de­light­fully un­ex­pec­ted heat. I think I de­voured the beans and slaw single-handedly but left the some­what dry and fla­vor­less beef sand­wich to my din­ing com­pan­ions. They didn’t eat much of it either. 

We didn’t or­der any hot­dogs but Camp­bell noted the fact that the ball­park sells one mil­lion per year (one mil­lion!) and we didn’t stand in the long line for Chick­ie’s & Pete’s ad­dict­ive crab fries, though, with 2,500 or­ders per game, a lot of people do. Those lines will go more quickly, start­ing this sea­son, be­cause the crew at the North­east chain’s second-ever loc­a­tion have ad­ded fry­ers and now have 32 go­ing at once. 

And fi­nally, we could have walked up a flight of stairs from Ash­burn Al­ley to the new full-ser­vice “Bud Light” rooftop bar for some cold ones and a round of Quizzo. But why would we do that? We still had Cuban pan­inis (sec­tion 125), homemade chocol­ate chip cook­ies (South Philly Mar­ket) and Yards Brawl­er to try be­fore the end of the game, provided I didn’t spill this one all over my jack­et.  ••

Tara Nur­in is a freel­ance journ­al­ist who spe­cial­izes in din­ing, craft beer and sus­tain­ab­il­ity cov­er­age. She was voted the Epi­kur Writer of the Year 2012 by The Wine School of Phil­adelphia. 

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