Our restaurant reviewers head to the city‚??s new ballpark to check out the eats, including a few surprising offerings.
Ever since Huntington Park opened this spring, we've been thinking about ballpark food. So we're taking an account of the dining options at Columbus's newest architectural gem.
Obviously, everything tastes better at the ballpark. Particularly hot dogs and beer. We tried to retain our professional perspective, but it was hard as we surveyed the mix of offerings at the concession stands run by Sodexo Sports & Leisure and the kiosks operated by such well-known Central Ohio-based restaurants as Bob Evans, Donatos and City Barbeque. Here's a look at our scorecard.
Best at the ballpark
Speaking of City Barbeque, it's already well established that these folks really know how to do 'cue. It takes some searching, but you can find its savory meats and ribs hidden in the right field corner behind Section 1.
We thought the ribs, at $7 for four bones, were the best food in the park. But the sandwiches should not be forgotten. You can see the folks behind the counter cutting the brisket into slices before your eyes.
The price structure needs to be carefully noted: You can get your choice of just one pork, brisket or chicken sandwich, called a Single, for $5, a decent value for the ballpark. But a Double is two for $9, a Triple three for $12 and a Home Run provides two sandwiches and a side for $10. (Sides are $3 on their own.)
The real value item is the Grand Slam Team Pack: eight sandwiches and four sides for a mere $32.
The other reliables
Bob Evans is located on the ground floor of a brick building behind left field that is aptly called the Left Field Building. The menu is limited to ballpark fare, but it's mostly Bob's usual nice blend of price and value. Except there was a real deal hiding out among the regulars: for only $2 and a short wait while they cook it fresh, you get a grilled cheese sandwich, a nice changeup from all the meat. We also recommend the truly spicy jalapeño hot dog, with plenty of pepper bits imbedded in the meat.
There's a Roosters on the third floor of the Left Field Building, and the wings were just as good as always-10 for $8.50, with a choice of sauces. These wings were of the "wet" school, and the "hot" sauce wasn't all that hot, but it sure tasted good: on the wings, on your fingers, on your mustache. We also sampled the onion slivers, and the rather substantial breading was nicely crisp.
And don't neglect Donatos Dugout, near Section 18. We weren't sure that pizza at the park would work, so we were pleasantly surprised by the personal pepperoni pizza ($7). Though on the salty side, it was thin, hot and just a little crisp, but pleasantly chewy. We do like Donatos.
Worth your while
At the Hall of Fame Bar, on the second floor of the Left Field Building, the food was unexpectedly good. The juicy Philly cheese steak was beautifully tender, with lots of flavor. The hummus plate ($10.50) may be the only healthful dish in the park. You get three pots of dip: one a decent hummus, and we're not quite sure about the others. Maybe flavored bean dip? Maybe a mild skordalia?
Anyway, it was fun eating all of them while guessing. And the platter provided a satisfyingly generous portion of things to dip: crisp pita, lots of celery sticks, sliced carrots, scallions, radishes and black olives. All seemed to be freshly cut, too.
How can you go wrong with a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark? For the former, offerings ranged from decent $3 dogs at the Grand Slam Station (between sections 7 and 9) and its clone, High Heat Grill (between 15 and 17), with Coney sauce for another 75 cents. (The dogs at Bob Evans were the same price, but hotter and juicier.) Even better hot dogs were at the Hall of Fame Bar for $4.50.
You already know whether you like Bud or Bud Light, which ubiquitously were on tap at $4.75 or $6.50, depending on size. Choices for better beer were limited. There was Leinenkugel (from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin) behind Section 2 in right field. Its Amber Classic was decent. You'll find Labatt Blue and Blue Light by Section 15.
Our favorite, however, was the city's own Elevator Brewery at the stand near Section 25. It offered a fairly mild Dark Horse and a pleasingly hoppy Elevator Xtra.
You pay more for the better beers ($6 or $7.75). But you get what you pay for, right?
You should definitely skip the "burritos" from the MVP stand somewhere around Section 24. First, the two concession workers struggled with the burrito's construction and it tore before it was served. When one was finally ready, it wasn't worth the wait: The meat was some kind of processed lunchmeat-tasting stuff, and the rest of the ingredients, including shredded Colby cheese and iceberg, were definitely on the gringo side.
Avoid at all cost
Take our advice: Don't order the peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($2) at Bob Evans. It's actually a Smucker's Uncrustables sealed in cellophane. Who knows how long ago it was made. There was a pasty, dry, crimped shell of . . . well, it sure didn't taste like bread . . . surrounding a very sticky glob of PB&J.
Quite a surprise
When one of us asked about a martini, the bartender at the Hall of Fame Bar answered, "In theory." Not a good sign. Its arrival in a clear plastic cup, about half full, also wasn't a good sign. But darn if it wasn't pretty tasty: nicely chilled if a little watery, nice balance between the gin and vermouth, decent plump fresh olives. And my, oh, my, how sophisticated it felt to be drinking a martini at the ballpark.
Service and prices
OK, it's mostly slow everywhere, since the lines are long unless attendance is way off. Learn to be patient. The folks who work at the various operations appeared to be doing their best. And prices were reasonable for a ballpark that only operates when there's a game.
Of course, putting together food service for a place that is only open for a few hours less than half a year is a daunting task. But we did hope to see more local purveyors.
Instead of those white-bread burritos, we wished that we'd be eating ones that came from the folks who run the wonderful taco trucks that pepper the west and north sides of town. Or maybe one of our many great home-cooked meal places (such as Banana Bean) could have a stand? Perhaps it's heresy for a non-California ballpark, but why not have one of our excellent sushi bars ship in some pre-made rolls for the game?
We had so hoped to see our talented local folks used much more than they were. But as they often say up at Progressive Field, there's always next year.
Some nonfood things we can't help but mention
First about parking: There were lots of choices, including a convenient ramp just across Neil Avenue from the park. Be sure to cross with the lights or else the officers on duty will send you back to do it again the right way. And you'll do it; the jaywalking ticket is $120.
For watching a game, Huntington Park is among the best ballparks either of us has visited (and we have visited a lot). Somehow, probably architect's sorcery, the dimensions are just right. All of the seats we tried had a fine view and were reasonably priced, especially the bleachers in left field, where seniors and kids 12 and under can get a seat for only $3. The Left Field Building just blended into the city. There's a modest homage to Fenway Park's Green Monster in right field and a place in center-right where passersby can watch for free through the fence. Child-centered amusements abounded, including a grassy hillside in left-center.
Being there brought a rush of baseball nostalgia, something out of Field of Dreams. As Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, said about the sport: "It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again."
Rating: *** for Triple A. ** for the Bigs.