Generally speaking, there are two reasons to attend a sporting event: to watch the home team compete, and to eat ballpark food/drink ballpark overpriced beer. Sadly, for the Washington professional sports fan, neither reason has been compelling enough to warrant a visit to Verizon Center, FedEx Field or Nationals Park over the last, say, ever (save for the Caps, but their recent choke job in the playoffs puts them back down in the dregs with the Wiz, Skins and Nats).
However, in a surprising turn of events, in opening four new eating options courtesy of real-NYC-food-guy Danny Meyer, the Nats have taken an affirmative step toward making reason #2 above a worthwhile excuse to head to the Southeast Waterfront (other than drinking on picnic benches next to a Metro station that someone decided was a biergarten; at least this person got the German spelling correct). We had the chance to preview the restaurants at a “VIP event” on Monday night, and, overall, the results warrant about a .500 record (which is, to say, better than Nats baseball). In the spirit of baseball commentating, below is a play-by-play call of our experience with this newfound stadium culinary “magic.”
Things got off to a solid start with a much-anticipated stroll down the red carpet after walking into Nationals Park. Sadly enough, despite registering as the 12th attendee at the event, I wasn’t able to confirm that there was no Nats game that evening until I reached the outfield and noticed there was a tarp, rather than players, on the field. One high five from Abe Lincoln and a photo opp later, I was ready to eat.
After some back-and-forth regarding which food would serve best as an appetizer (and which would make our stomachs hurt the least), we decided that Mexican made sense, so El Verano Taqueria (“the summer taco place”) was the first stop. Rather than a traditional Mexican entrada (although the only option was chips and salsa), we went right after the steak tacos, upon the recommendation of our lovely food-connoisseur-cum-stadium-cashier-register-woman, who denied my initial request for chicken. Who was I to say “no”? A simple conglomeration of soft corn tortillas, decently cooked steak, and 1-4 cilantro flakes per taco, topped with a container of medium-spiced salsa. On the streets of Chihuahua, they call that a snack, and they pay 30 cents for that meal. In right field, they call it the cornerstone of dinner, and they pay $7.95. And they are still hungry afterwards. I also ordered corn-on-a-stick (“elote”), but it was not ready.
Stomach still intact – and armed with Blue Moons – we head to Blue Smoke, which was neither blue, nor did it have any tangible scent or sight of smoke. In any event, it was time for more eating. Still in an appetizer mood, we went with the ribs and chicken wings, delaying the inevitable pulled-pork sandwich. They gave us six spare ribs each which, if they had Safeway packaging, would have read 90% fat, 10% other. Despite my every chew resembling a battle with a piece of Trident that had lost its flavor, I was willing to fight on because of the delicious chipotle sauce that coated each rib (sidenote: where was chipotle in the 90s?). The wings were equally fatty but not equally good. The $19.75 would be better spent on three pre-game Potbelly sandwiches with chips and sodas (or, if you were feeling bold, trying to stuff the sandwiches in your cargo pockets and battling the notoriously tough Nats security).
A moment of indecision, indigestion and overstimulation.
What are those four lovely girls doing here? And what if they see me with a chipotle-sauce moustache and chicken-wing fat under my fingernails?
Fries. Lots of them, from a place called Box Frites. Or, as they say in France, “Fried Box.” Box Frites only sells fries, but I tend to think that a Royale with cheese would make sense there, no? This fried establishment prominently displays its variety of sauces, which include, in no particular order, chipotle ketchup (chipotle again!), mayonnaise, ranch, aioli, and blue cheese. Hmmmm. The fries do come with a few sprinkles of Parmesan cheese and added garlic flavor, which is fun for the whole family. I ate three or seven or nine, then threw away the plate with no remorse. Oh, and I later find out that they are fried with “soy oil.” Say that quickly out loud and it sounds like “soil.” Do it. Then try the fries.
Time to wash down all of this nutrition with more beer. I’ve only had one vegetable up to this point, a pickle slice that I found wedged between two fat ribs.
An extra wet nap would have been a good choice.
Time for Shake Shack. Although I had yet to taste it, I remained convinced that people just liked to say Shake Shack and therefore went in with a preconceived idea that it would be delicious. Would its name belie its deliciousness? We decided one burger and more fries (crinkle-cut times) would be enough for two people, much to the chagrin of the ever-enthusiastic stadium food vendors, who insisted that this “practice session” was just as important as the real-deal debut on Tuesday (up to the point where they even provided fake receipts, which was probably a terrible idea, because it opened up peoples’ eyes to the outrageous costs). Anyway, the cheeseburger was decent, but it reminded me exactly of a young redhead from my distant past … her name was Wendy and she served square hamburgers and Frosties. As far as I am concerned, the burgers tasted exactly the same as those from Wendy’s. Mark, being the slob that he is, actually enjoyed the fast-food-style burger. Crinkle-cut times were easy to grip and good – better than Wendy’s fries – and probably better than Box Frites. Just to be a stick in the mud, I didn’t try a shake.
Corn-on-a-stick (“elote”) is ready now, or shall we say corn-on-the-glob? They found a new way to ruin an otherwise perfect summer treat, basting half an ear of corn in a mix of mayonnaise, cobijo (err, Parmesan) cheese and Cayenne pepper. It was literally like taking a bite out of a vanilla ice cream cone, only the outer layer was really just spicy fat sauce. All for $4.75 (which breaks down to three cents per kernel; I did the math). If you go for an elote, be sure to eat it before returning to your seat; otherwise, you are one errant foul ball (not unlikely at a Nats game) from a vat of mayonnaise and Cayenne pepper in your lap.
Another beer. I figured two more, and I would think that “The Strasburg Game” from last June, which was being prominently and proudly shown on every TV in sight, was live. Man, he’s the next Cy Young!
One-fourth of a pulled-pork sandwich from Blue Smoke. Terrible bun (isn’t that supposed to be the easy part?!) but delicious, tender meat on the inside. Recommended. One thing to avoid at Blue Smoke, however, is the bologna sandwich. A completely unnecessary and weird addition to the menu. Other than my trip to Italy two summers ago, my bologna days happily ended in 5th grade. So should have yours.
Still no shake from Shake Shack.
7:52 PM – 8:33 PM
A strong desire to try more and eat more, but most of the bases (pun intended) had already been covered. Ran into a few friends so had a nice opportunity to share thoughts on a few of our favorite things.
We break down and decide to order custard from Shake Shack (but not a shake). With closing time 13 minutes away, all they have left is shakes. So we finally bite the bullet and order a chocolate shake. Hands down, the best offering of the evening. Rich in chocolate flavor, it was the type of beverage I dreamed about enjoying at the ballpark as a young boy.
Everything closes in two minutes; am I going to take two tacos to go for lunch tomorrow? Nah, bad form.
We meet Nats GM Mike Rizzo. I notice chipotle sauce under his fingernails; it’s no secret what he had for dinner. I suggest to him that rather large Brewers 1B Prince Fielder, a free agent next season, would really enjoy the bologna sandwich and milkshake combo. He immediately calls Fielder’s agent.
We head home. Hey, the Nats didn’t lose! But, as a whole, the 17 Nats fans out there will win this season and beyond, as the Nationals finally have some decent – if expensive – food to keep them company at the games. Unfortunately, the vast array of greasy tacos, hamburgers, fries, ribs, bologna and, yes, shakes, will do nothing to help cure the heartburn that typically accompanies a Nats game.