ST. PETERSBURG — Despite their success on the field, the Tampa Bay Rays never have been known as champions of ballpark food.
But changes are coming.
On Wednesday, two days before the first pitch of the 2011 regular season, the team rolled out some new items for review by local news media.
The Rays and their concession manager, Centerplate, are embracing a couple of the biggest local dining trends: barbecue and premium burgers.
The Batter's Eye, the mainstay restaurant at Tropicana Field, never caught on with fans and has been replaced with Everglades BBQ Company Smokehouse.
The area has seen a boom in barbecue restaurants in the past year, and the Rays want to join in.
"Barbecue's catching on," said Josh St. Pierre, the executive chef at the Trop. "People are taking to it. It's comforting, it's economical."
It is difficult to use a word like ''economical" with a straight face in the context of any professional sports venue.
At Everglades, pulled pork nachos are $9, a pulled pork sandwich (served with potato wedges) is $12; an entree of smoked brisket (with two sides) is $14; ribs are $16 for a half a rack or $22 for a full rack (both with two sides). The food will also be sold at a concession stand near first base.
The pulled pork was juicy and tender, though it could have used a bit more smoke.
Three sauces were available — Carolina gold (with a mustard base), smoky original and a slightly sweet, slightly spicy citrus chipotle.
All the meat is cooked over hickory in a large electric smoker — dubbed "Big Daddy" — that can hold up to 400 pounds of meat in the Trop's gargantuan kitchen, behind the Captain Morgan deck.
The first Everglades BBQ Company was a concession stand at the Miami Dolphins' stadium. The Trop is the first with a full-service restaurant.
Another newcomer is Wings Around the World, a concession stand at Center Field Street. It's a misnomer, since it features boneless wings, which are not wings but chunks of fried chicken.
But chicken nuggets doesn't have quite the same ring as wings. Besides, "you can throw a bone," said St. Pierre, and "they don't want you to have anything you can throw."
They are easy to eat, served in a cup with a plastic fork. As for flavor, let's just say they taste like fried chunks of chicken and move on to the slugger in the lineup.
That would be the humongous, tasty Cuban burger from the new concession called Burger Up! Located in the first base food court, it will feature four premium burgers — the meat is ground fresh daily from a mixture of chuck, rib eye and strip loin — served on Kaiser rolls with a large order of fries ($12).
All the burgers come with two 4-ounce patties, but the Cuban burger is served on La Segunda Cuban bread from Tampa and topped with ham, salami, Swiss cheese and pickle. The combination of flavors was a home run.
Other additions include GF! in Center Field Street, featuring gluten-free hot dogs, pretzels and beer, and a redesigned Brew House with craft beer from Cigar City Brewing and Cold Storage Craft Brewery in Tampa.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at (727) 893-8312 or [email protected]