ST. PETERSBURG — One thing is clear at Tropicana Field: Mac is king. And bacon is the crown prince.
At a Wednesday preview of this year's new Trop foods, mac and cheese dominated, taking center stage in two of the marquee additions to the starting lineup: The 2015 signature half-pound Mac Dog ($15) and the Mac Bat ($8), an all-new adventure in portability that puts mac and cheese — topped with chili, bacon and what have you — inside an edible bread cone.
"We try to add a little bit of absurdity every year," said stadium executive chef Marc Spooner, in his fifth year with the Tampa Bay Rays at the Trop. Spooner appeared on an episode of Food Network's Chopped in 2009, on which he won for his Thai-inspired beef salad with chipotle pumpkin puree and curry-dredged flounder with mini watermelons. None of that froufrou stuff will be at the Trop, but this year's additions fit with a national trend at American ballparks.
"We're offering traditional Tampa Bay foods," said John Cirelli, general manager for Centerplate, the Trop's concessioneer. "The theme is 'Make it local.' "
To that end, Tampa's fabled Taco Bus will debut a kiosk (tacos $10) this year in Center Field Street, and St. Petersburg's Ricky P's adds a nearby lineup of shrimp and catfish po'boys ($13).
Last year the big news was grilled cheese (all right already with the cheese) and an expanded array of craft beers. That last item was pumped up even further for the 2015-16 season because, as Spooner says, "You can't walk half a mile from the ballpark without hitting a half dozen craft breweries." This year, thirst can be slaked with Cycle Brewing, Green Bench, Cigar City, and others on tap, as well as 3 Daughters and Odessa's Big Storm in cans (along with those sealed single-serve Zipz wines that keep your sandals from squishing).
Spooner and Cirelli look to other Major League Baseball stadiums for ideas, as well as to state fairs and sites like Eater.com for shock-and-awe novelty items, health-conscious new directions and spins on old favorites.
"We're looking for a good mix of upscale and old school," Spooner said. For upscale, crispy duck steamed buns and pork belly buns debut in the suites this year, and for "old school," Rays chef Herminio Itier is contributing something the players frequently request.
"It's called Pili's Potatoes: jumbo baked potatoes with pulled pork that's cooked for 14 hours, and other toppings. I've been a chef with the Rays for three years, and this year they gave me a new opportunity to also have a stand."
He aims to add sweet potatoes later in the season, but the kiosk in Right Field Street provides a welcome alternative to fried foods, with customizable toppings for these fat, crisp-skinned potatoes ($10) that accommodate a range of dietary restrictions and enthusiasms: broccoli, onion, tomato, cheddar and — wait for it — bacon. Better watch your back, mac.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.