Game day: Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Key matchup 1: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Cleveland Indians. The Cards have been hemorrhaging losses for seven days straight. Can they finally ink one in the W column in this second of a three-game interleague set against the underperforming Indians?
Key matchup 2: Restaurant critic vs. Ballpark food. The advent of the new Busch Stadium has brought with it a panoply of specialty concession stands, plus special-access eating areas for those who hold the right tickets. Will the new eats deliver an all-star performance?
The warm-up: We enter the bowels of Busch and, in one long view, instantly spot new concession stands including Dizzy's Diner, Broadway BBQ, El Birdos Gourmet Nachos, La Colina and, um, Hardee's (hey, at least it's a hometown institution!). Looking to kick off the game on a high note, my plus-one suggests a round of beers before taking our seats. At Broadway BBQ, the suds selection consists of Bud Light and Bud Select on tap. Each plastic pint glass costs $7.75. Upon pursing his lips for the ceremonial first sip, my companion says, "Sleep well, Adolphus Busch. Sleep well."
I give props for the comment and note once we've taken our seats that, contrary to the old Busch Stadium, there's no designated location to be found for the purchase of Schlafly brews. Talk about a squeeze play! Schlafly's heartier and more flavorful potables will be missed though I must also mention that, when sipping nine innings' worth of suds in the St. Louis sun, a lighter, wetter beer ain't a bad thing.
Key plays: I head upstairs to the Redbird Club, an enclosed food court on the loge level. A pair of polo-clad watchdogs at the entrance are checking tickets to weed out rubes from the upper deck. I'm not sure if our seats make us welcome here, but I manage to sneak past and the point becomes moot.
With its soothing beige and pastel tones and its innocuous décor, the Redbird Club is reminiscent of a VIP lounge at an airport. There's a row of identical-looking food stations. There's very little signage and very small signs, so it's impossible to tell from afar what's being sold where. I take my place at the end of the first line I encounter, and when I reach the front, I see a placard that indicates I'll be able to choose among portobello fries, chicken tenders, lobster Rangoon, a Philly cheesesteak sandwich and a Philly cheese chicken sandwich. Heaps of the first three sit under heat lamps, one mound of fried brown after the next. Behind the counter works a tall man in chef's whites. I gamely ask him, "What do you recommend?" To which he responds, with pride and a wide smile, "Everything's good." So charming is this man, I take his word for it and order the Rangoon and the cheesesteak. As the cashier rings up my order, the man in whites preps a fresh order of Rangoon just for me. Nice guy!
And the lobster Rangoon ain't half-bad. Cream cheese dominates the innards of these six-or-so fried dumplings. In fact, there are no recognizable chunks of lobster to be found; just orange-hued smears that suggest its presence, and a decent whiff of shellfish flavor. Some of the thick, crunchy casings are folded over two times or more, but it's a simple matter to peel off the outer layers.
As for the cheesesteak, I'm glad I didn't bring my Philly-native friend to the ballpark. The hoagie is housed in a puffy white bun with no teeth to it. Even worse, lackluster strings of Provel make do as the cheese, while sautéed onion is present only in wisps the size of eyelashes.
The wrap-up: The Cards conk out again, falling 3-1. The food delivers a middling performance: It filled me up, yet it leaves me wanting more.
Game day: Sunday, July 2, 2006
Key matchup 1: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Kansas City Royals
Key matchup 2: Restaurant critic vs. Ballpark food the rematch
The warm-up: Armed this time around with a "roving" press pass, I optimistically bring three willing mouths with me to Busch. Standing-room-only tickets, we discover, are sold out; the only available tickets left cost $78 apiece. I plead my case at the press gate, but strike out. Sending my entourage off to bide their time at Mike Shannon's, I trudge through the gates alone.
Key plays: First stop is La Colina, an Italian-eats outpost that serves no knife-and-fork fare, only handy, portable vittles like pizza and meatball subs. I opt for the latter. I could have used a knife and fork. This sub's floury bun is way too weak to handle all the meat and sauce within. (Wonder Bread is for sopping up barbecue, not supporting subs.) I try to beat the clock, scarfing the sweet tomato sauce with its chunks of white onion (these are what the cheesesteak needed!) and the meatballs, which taste of too-browned beef. Halfway through, though, the bread gives way, and I have to chuck the rest.
Spotting a pair of moms helping their sons open individual boxes of pizza, I see that the pies (purchased at La Colina) are DiGiorno. My expectations drop like an infield popup. I didn't expect Busch to go all-out with the trend toward gourmet ballpark eats, but I had hoped the advent of the new stadium would bring a few concessions that really stand out. I loved that you could buy a big, fat, greasy, ridiculous turkey leg at the old Busch (it's available here at the new Busch, though I didn't actually see any). The Gateway Grizzlies, Sauget's minor-league team, have garnered national headlines with their bacon-cheddar burger sandwiched between two halves of a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Blecchh, yeah, but still that's the sort of one-of-a-kind creation I wanted to see.
At the very least, I didn't think I'd see, in St. Louis of all places, an Italian-food concession conceded to a heat-and-eat supermarket product.
And when I revisited the Redbird Club and saw that the bar there offered mudslides (the only mixed drink listed), I didn't want to see the bartender screw the cap off a bottle and pour the premixed product over ice. I did, however, spy a bottle of Schlafly Pale Ale arrayed with the other available beers and I wished I'd ordered that instead.
Onward. A patty melt at Dizzy's Diner bespoke cow only in its leatheriness. A "fireball burger" from the same stand was nothing more than a hamburger doused with a few pumps of nacho cheese sauce and a scattering of those godawful pickled jalapeño slices. The breading on an order of onion rings delivered the essence of...flash-fried cardboard.
Opposite the food stations in the Redbird Club, there are two or three carts that offer plate dinners. At one, the meal was mostaccioli, a green salad, a sausage-and-pepper sandwich and a bag of chips. You could also opt for two sandwiches plus chips, if you were put off by the idea of eating mostaccioli and salad at the ballgame. If you weren't put off by the idea of them, you probably would be put off by the food itself. The mostaccioli was one stiff breeze away from reverting to dough form, while the salad was visibly dried out. The sausage-and-pepper sandwich was workmanlike but possessed no personality.
The wrap-up: The Cards slugged out a 9-7 victory. The critic hauled herself over to Mike Shannon's, looking for something to eat.