Tropicana Field concession stands add flavors to Tampa Bay Rays games

Biggest change of pace

Monstah Lobstah roll, shown here by Allen Berube. They're not speedy at assembly, but the long split roll, packed high with chopped romaine and a pale-pink mound of mayo-moistened lobster salad, is something different. Wrapped in foil, it's a light snack, not apt to fill you up (Right Field Street, Stand 142A, $10). Need ballast? The new Latin Stars kiosk two doors down, 142B, serves an enormous workhorse Cuban for the same $10.

By LAURA REILEY

Times Food Critic

ST. PETERSBURG

Camden Yards in Baltimore has Boog's Barbecue. Miller Park in Milwaukee has the bratwurst with secret sauce.

Still, most serious ballpark foodies speak reverentially about San Francisco's AT&T Park (nee Pac Bell Park). Jerk chicken, ambitious sushi and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Who can compete with that?

Still, I'd say Tropicana Field has a long way to go to keep up with the trend toward fancifying the nation's ballpark fare.

The Oakland A's may have nudged out the Rays by one run on May 20, but I never saw a play. Instead, I roamed the concessions, eating my way through the offerings at the park. The bulk are overseen and administered by Centerplate, a company that provides food service for 130 venues and events around the country, including the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, presidential inaugural balls, the World Series and a skajillion college bowl games. These people are pros, moving customers and product with ease, even launching an Innovation Labs unit in May to share service and efficiency solutions with large-scale food service providers.

In many cases, their services include gastronomically ambitious food, like grilled lamb basted with a mint-pomegranate glaze at a racetrack. Not at the Trop. Perhaps this reflects our tastes. We want to keep it traditional: hotdogs, peanuts, Cracker Jack and beer, with a few standouts beyond that.

Here are the highlights and lowlights, keeping in mind that Centerplate concessions are staffed with volunteers (kudos to Bayside Gymnastics, the Boca Ciega Band Boosters, Fossil Park Youth Baseball, HCU Youth Soccer and 80 other organizations for volunteering their time), and that a percentage of the take goes to local charities. What this means: Amateurs are preparing the goods. They may be well-intentioned, but the more technical challenges, the more room for error.

The Trop is especially tricky for those trying to eat healthfully, or those eschewing meat, but you probably knew that. Here are the best and worst of what I tasted with specific locations mentioned, although many items are offered at multiple concessions throughout the park.

Old faithfuls

The most consistent and ubiquitous grub at the park is the hot dog. A footlong corn dog (Grand Slam Grill, Main Level, Stand 121, $6) beat out a Hebrew National dog (Fan Favorites, Upper Level, Stand 303, $5) by a nose.

First, the corn bread coating was sweet and crisp, the dog within blistering hot. Slather it with yellow mustard, one index finger employed for even spreading, and it's a portable meal.

My dog, on the other hand, was lukewarm and the bun was cut through on both sides. A small thing, sure, but portability is spoiled if the wiener flops out the bottom.

I realized afterward that the dogs at Top Dog portables (P115, P116, $6) may be a better way to go with their amazing array of condiments.

Hamburgers, you ask? The best are the new sliders (Grand Slam Grill, Main Level, Stand 118, $8), which really look like a trio of McDonald's singles. They're not great, but most of the thin gray patties at the park get overwhelmed by bun. No shame there — aficionados have yet to turn up a truly excellent hamburger at one of the nation's ballparks.

Nice touch

At all the Fan Favorite stands on the Upper Level, you'll find Tropicana juices ($4). No one seems to be buying, but it's nice to know our local nectar is represented (even if the headquarters is in Chicago).

Worst idea

The new chocolate popcorn (Mickeys portable, first and third base food courts, $5). In theory, not so bad, like Cracker Jack, the next generation. Brown Crayola or melted Tootsie Roll, but that coating was no chocolate I know. I dare you to finish the bag.

Oh, but another bad idea is the new banana-flavored Dippin' Dots (throughout the stadium, $4, $6, $8), the most artificial of foods in the most artificial of flavors (mmm, isoamyl acetate).

Biggest challenge

At the Centerfield Brewhouse, which looks like a nice airport bar with lots of wood and pennants, they offer a "fan versus food challenge": 2 pounds of burger, four slices of American cheese, half-pound of bacon, 1 pound of fries ($29.98). Finish it all and you get two free tickets to a Rays game. EMTs are standing by.

Not as good as the original

San Francisco Giants fans all blissfully exit their park with robust garlic breath imparted by Gordon Biersch's Gilroy garlic fries. We got a kiosk here this year (Right Field Street, Stand 138, $7), but these are limp and gloppy with the garlic sauce.

With a little expertise at the fryer, this could be a winner.

Most caloric bang for your buck

The Bloomin' Onion ($7.50) at the Outback stand (Main Level, Stand 125) is vast, apt to satisfy multiple hungry people. It's packed expertly in plastic, easy to tuck under an arm when shepherding full beers back to one's seat.

For a more meal-like option, the new tenderloin focaccia sandwich ($10.50) is better than the steak and shrooms ($10.50) with the dry meat and strange flavor.



Saddest loss

I couldn't find Atwater's soul food anywhere this year, which means no collards. Thank goodness Anchor Steam beer ($9) was there to ease the blow.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. Minnesota Twins

The Rays are home against the Twins at 7:38 p.m. Friday, 4:10 p.m. Saturday and 1:38 p.m. Sunday at Tropicana Field. Tickets start at $10 at rays.mlb.com.

• Rays concert series starts Saturday with 3 Doors Down. Page X

Tropicana Field concession stands add flavors to Tampa Bay Rays games 05/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 4:30am]

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