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 and PBR.
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.