Much has changed in the 100-plus years since Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer wrote Take Me Out to the Ballgame, extolling the glories of munching on peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the bleachers.
When you head out to a Rangers game these days, you're confronted by hundreds of choices, from old-fashioned hot dogs and nouveau salads to elote, chopped brisket, Nolan Ryan-beef burgers and the "boomstick," a 2-foot-long hot dog with chili cheese and grilled onions for $26. You can wash it all down with boutique brews or brain-freeze-inducing margaritas.
We love the super-sized menu, but it can make the whole ballpark dining experience seem a bit overwhelming sometimes -- like an obstacle course where only the strongest stomachs survive. Which is why we decided to create a little adventure for ourselves.
In honor of our favorite summertime pastime -- and with a nod to our current literary/cinematic obsession -- we give you: The Hunger Games: Rangers Ballpark Edition.
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The rules were straightforward: six players get $50 each to hunt down the best ballpark food and beverage experience.
The strategies were a bit more complicated.
Would it be best to stick to the basics -- pretzels and peanuts, hot dogs and cotton candy -- or venture into uncharted waters? Can a ballpark chef really turn out a halfway decent gordita? And is an alligator po-boy gonna bite back around the seventh-inning stretch?
We descended on an afternoon game in late May -- Rangers vs. Athletics -- and fanned out around the stadium, returning to our seats at the top of the second, fifth and eight innings to eat and to eyeball each other's choices. (A salad? Really!?!)
There was no official judge. There were also no Hunger Games-like sponsors, who might magically send us a parachuted package containing Pepto Bismol. In terms of spending, the idea was to draw closest to spending the entire $50 without going over -- and without inducing a massive stomachache.
In the end, we would leave it to the competitors -- or tributes, in HG speak -- to stake their claim as the winner.
Let the Hunger Games: Rangers Ballpark-edition begin!
Trendy and traditional
By Christopher Kelly
My strategy was simple: I wanted to mix traditional and trendy, creating a meal that honored the sport's culinary past, but also looked to a future of multiethnic offerings and fresh ingredients. This being an afternoon game, I also wanted to be able to enjoy a modest beer buzz without getting so tipsy that I wouldn't be able to get some work done later that evening.
The first course: Keeping with the trendy and traditional theme, I purchased two items to start. On the ground level, I found a cart that offered corn/elote ($4.50) -- the Mexican dish that is one of my favorite appetizers, and that I've never seen before offered in a stadium. Good call. With the exception of the grated Parmesan cheese, which came out of a cardboard shaker can, all of the ingredients -- piping hot, just-steamed corn, sour cream, butter and lime juice -- were fresh; and the concoction was made-to-order. Add a dash of hot sauce and swirl it all together, and you have a marvelous mixture of sweet, spicy, tangy and creamy. The Styrofoam cup-sized portion was substantial, making this one of the best values at the park.
Alas, my traditional choice: The jumbo pretzel ($5.50), available throughout the ballpark, was thin and cardboardy, and served with a bare sprinkling of salt. My bottle of water ($3.50), had at some point been frozen and not successfully defrosted -- which left a big chunk of ice floating in it. Beverage fail.
The main course: Not unlike Katniss early in The Hunger Games, at this point I was feeling a mixture of confidence and anxiety; my early elote success was promising, but I also knew one mistake could sink me. On the way into the ballpark, we ran into a former colleague who insisted we check out the center field taqueria. By the top of the fourth inning, hungry for something substantial, but not interested in anything nearly as prosaic as a hot dog or sausage, I took her advice.
The brisket tacos ($9) were a qualified success. Two soft flour tortillas were filled with smoked brisket, shredded lettuce, cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce. Pico de gallo is served on the side, and pickled jalapeños are optional. The brisket was sweet, faintly smoky and not too fatty -- just the way I like it. The pico was bright and freshly made, and the jalapeños added considerable punch. On the other hand, the tacos are prepared in advance and left beneath warmers; after a couple of innings, the flour tortillas inevitably get a little soggy. The dish was also supposed to be served with a side of Spanish rice, but when I got back to my seat, there was nary a grain to be found.
Ready for my beer, I ordered a Land Shark ($9.50) from the same stall, one of two beers on draft there -- only to experience a bit of sticker shock. Had I realized the cost, I probably would have gone with something cheaper, but two nicely sized lime wedges eased my sense of indignation.
Cost: $18.50 ($32 total so far)
The desserts: We were seated in the upper deck, and by the sixth inning all the shuffling around had worn me down. When I spied a food stall selling ice cream sundaes not far from our seats, I decided to queue up. Unfortunately, so did about two dozen other people. The poorly organized line took nearly 30 minutes to get through. By the time I ordered a helmet sundae ($7) -- so named because it's served inside a bright red, plastic mini-helmet -- the stand was out of toppings, which meant my sundae was merely a heaping pile of ice cream. I opted for mint chocolate chip and a hideous concoction called Krazy Kookie Dough. After just three bites, I gave up and pitched it in a garbage can.
I tried in earnest to erase the damage, by purchasing a pint of Lemon Chill ice ($5) and another bottle of water ($3.50), but neither did the trick. And while I took a small measure of pride in spending nearly all of my money without going over budget, I can't deny that my game took a nosedive in the later innings.
Even more perversely, I was still a little bit hungry.
Overall total: $47.50
Salty snacks and fried delicacies
By Rick Press
I was feeling fairly confident as our band of Ballpark food warriors approached the stadium. This was not my first rodeo -- you might say that processed cheese runs through my veins. My strategy, if you can call it that, was to fill my gut with salty snacks and fried delicacies, wash them down with something icy cold and call it a day, savoring the sweet taste of victory.
The first course : I decided to go straight for the main course because it was lunch time and I was hungry. (We attended a sold-out day game.) The sausage sundae ($12.50) called to me, because it sounded both delicious and a bit repulsive -- did they really combine ice cream and sausage?
The execution was a towering home run.
A cracked, black, smoked sausage was split and arranged on the outer edges of a paper boat, providing a spicy frame for the buttery mound of mashed potatoes. A generous slather of chopped brisket on top of the taters added a sweet and tender contrast. The brisket by itself was terrific; combined with the potatoes and a slice of peppery sausage, it was ballpark nirvana. A red-pepper cherry topped this gluttonous masterpiece, which was supposed to include macaroni and cheese, too, but they ran out by the second inning. Considering this thing was as heavy as a brick, I considered that a blessing in disguise. The sundae, available on the ground level on the third-base side, held up well on the long hike back to our seats in the upper level. I washed it down with an icy bottle of Coke Zero ($4.50) and felt downright smug, knowing I had taken an early lead.
The second course: For my appetizer, I wanted to try the red beans and rice at the Cajun cart, but before I got there, I spotted one of my competitors there so I made a stealthy U-turn and beelined for the cheesy tater tots. Crispy and golden brown, the Ballpark tots put Sonic's to shame. The cheese was gloppy and cloying, as it should be, but the tots plain were a glorious bit of old-school snacking. Best of all, I scored a real ballpark bargain -- the cheesy tater tots alone were $7.50, but the concession folks suggested I try the value meal ($6.50), which included cheesy tots and a big ballpark dog. I felt like I'd just stolen home. I added a souvenir-sized Coke ($5.50) and felt good about going 2-for-2.
Cost: $12 ($29 so far)
Dessert: Frankly, the bonus dog was weighing me down a bit, so I hailed a cotton-candy vendor from my seat. And besides, you should buy something from a vendor to get the genuine ballpark experience. The bag of pink and blue cotton candy was sugary bliss and not nearly as sticky as I'd remembered, but I still needed to find a full-fledged dessert. That would turn out to be more difficult than I'd hoped.
The design-your-own snow-cone stand on the first level ran out of ice by the seventh inning -- did I mention temps were in the 90s? And those multicolored margaritas were sold out, too. Scrambling and racing against the clock, I found a girl selling Lemon Chill ices ($5), but dessert was a bit of a swing-and-a-miss. With time running, I still had some money to spend.
Cost: $11, including tip ($40 so far)
Postgame drink : The beer stands shut down too early if you ask me (seventh inning), so I hoofed it to the Captain Morgan's club in center field, which is the Ballpark's swanky new sports bar that any ticket holder can get into. As the Rangers made one last gasp to defeat the visiting A's, I gulped down a strong rum and Coke, with Captain Morgan's spiced rum ($9, including tip). The Rangers lost, but I smelled victory in these Hunger Games.
Overall total: $49
By Cary Darling
Initially, my goal was to eat healthfully while still enjoying an afternoon partaking in America's pastime. But that dream died with my first bite into a deliciously hot garlic fry. Oh, willpower, why do you abandon me in my hour of need? More on that later.
The first course : When you think of ballpark fare, corn on the cob ($6.75) isn't the first thing that pop-flies to mind. But it's perfect. Consider this: it's portable, filling, tasty and healthy, assuming you don't slather it in butter or some mysterious oily alternative. You can eat it while watching the game from your seat without creating the waste that goes with scarfing down shelled peanuts. So you're being good to your body and the stadium cleanup crew. I found my cob (maybe they should call them Cobb, as in Ty?) in the center-field area food court for $6.75. That might sound like a lot for corn, but they don't give you one of those small, Niblet-size cobs. This one looked as if it was just ripped from the fields by the Green Giant himself.
The main course: My resolve to not go all Homer Simpson at the ballpark ended when I saw this phrase at a cart in Section 21: flatbread gordita ($6). Mmm, gordita. Drool.
Unfortunately, the reality of this gordita didn't live up to the hype. Of course, if they'd called it a tortilla topped with rather ordinary, not particularly well seasoned chicken then they'd never sell any of them. But the garlic fries ($8.50), available at various spots in the stadium, made up for my gordita gaffe. Warm, thin, just salty enough to pose a heart-attack risk, these things are addictive. And they give you enough of them to share.
Cost: $14.50 ($21.25 so far)
The dessert: My goal was to end on a healthful high note from the Centerfield Market Grab n Go, where they claim to "have healthy items like wraps, salads, veggie dogs and gluten-free items." But it was not to be. By the time I jetted there in the seventh inning, they were in the midst of closing. On my way back to the seat, I opted for what seemed to be a relatively healthy option: a Blue Bell frozen strawberry fruit bar ($3.50), available at various locations in the stadium. They don't have a lot of additives and they combat your heat exhaustion with something less injurious than ice cream or a soda.
Overall total: $26.25
A little of everything
By Heather Svokos
I had studied the food list, and the map, so I already had a good idea of what I wanted to eat, and accomplish. And unlike my fellow tributes, er, co-workers, I've actually read all three books in The Hunger Games trilogy, so I had this game locked up. Just like Katniss, I would knock 'em all off.
The main course: I'd skipped breakfast and had been waiting for the guys well before the game, so even before the first pitch my stomach was growling like a wolf mutt. I hailed a water guy in the stands ($4.25), then decided I needed to put the starter course on hold, and skip ahead to my first "entree." I'm a Food Network junkie, so I couldn't resist the lure of the Food Network Cart, which this season was doing the channel's hot dog creations -- offering 12 different toppings for your dawg. I chose the signature hot dog ($9.25), a jumbo topped with mustard, baked beans and corn chips. Yeah, I was dubious, too. But it was a delightful, if slightly messy home run. It tasted like a summer picnic.
The out-of-order starter course: Now that I'd had my ballpark dog, I wanted an appetizer that was a little off the wall. I've always wanted to try elote -- I like corn, I'd surely like it in a cup -- and I thought trying it at the ballpark showed a certain amount of derring-do. But when I got to the elote cart and saw them squeezing butter, sour cream and cheese into the cup, my heart sank. What an idiot -- I'm lactose intolerant! Would the company let me write off my Nexium prescription? Hmm. Time to Plan B it. I'd scoped out the Bayou Cookin' cart, and was intrigued by the idea of an Alligator Po-Boy. (Not strictly an appetizer, but I figured I'd dispense with most of the bread, anyway.) Only ... they ran out! Noooo! They said they were making more, so I planned a return trip. But here I was, needing a nosh. Should I just go for red beans and rice? No. Not exotic enough! Sadly, my defiance cost me. I marched around the stadium without a Plan C. The clock was ticking. Flustered and defeated, I settled for "flavored" popcorn. ($4.75). The flavor came in shakers set off to the side like condiments. Lame. I chose the recommended nacho cheddar flavor, grabbed another bottle of water ($3.50), and trudged back to our seats. My popcorn was fine, if not extremely fresh-tasting. It went down with bitter tears.
Cost: $8.25 ($21.75 so far)
The second-chance course: I needed to redeem my popcorn debacle, but at this point -- 3:30 p.m. -- I needed a beer. What?? They're closing the taps? Ugh. I tried to will Haymitch to send down a silver parachute with a Corona in it, but no dice. I pressed on, seeking another non-ballparky treasure. I headed back to the Bayou to find my Alligator Po-Boy. Not only sold out again, but the cart was closing, too. Lots of carts were closing. PANIC. As if being chased by a swarm of tracker jackers, I bolted for the fancy center-field concession stands, found Smokehouse 557, and pinned the tail on a chopped brisket sandwich and chips ($11.50). The Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce was delicious, but by then, the Nolan Ryan beef sandwich sat pretty dry on an end-of-the-day bun. Washed down with a water ($3.50).
Cost: $15 ($36.75 so far)
The dessert: Game? What game? Who was even winning? I had no time. Had to find dessert. I was so parched that a puckery Lemon Chill ($5) hit the spot, but by the time I got back to my seat, the gang was ready to leave.
Cost: $5 ($41.75 so far)
Postgame drink: I still had $8.25 to burn. Thank you, Captain Morgan Club, and thank you, icy cold Miller Lite in an Arctic blue bottle. ($6.50, plus $1.50 tip)
Overall total: $49.75
In search of salad
By Robert Philpot
My strategy was also simple: Try to put together an appetizer-entree-dessert progression. OK, salad-entree-dessert. Because as we shall see, the salad (yes, at a ballpark) qualified as an entree itself.
The first course: I sought out a salad because a) I wanted to check out the Centerfield Market Grab n Go, a new convenience-store-type place near center field that offers healthful items and b) I had been in the middle of doing "research" on DFW.com's recent roundup of doughnut shops and wanted something light. The staff in the store (which also carries gluten-free cookies and fruit cups) was by far the most friendly I encountered all day, and seemed particularly excited about my grabbing a chicken salad ($8.75), which I was told was made on site that morning.
The salad -- strips of grilled chicken and pepper-jack cheese laid atop a bed of mixed greens -- was large, the kind of thing you stop eating because you've gotten tired, not because you're full. The chicken was served cold but was flavorful; the pepper jack a little sad-looking but providing a nice spicy bite, the greens looking as if they'd come from one of those grocery-store salad bags. The salad also featured a mound of shredded cheddar to sprinkle on to your liking, and corn and black beans that may have been meant to be a salsa but didn't work in harmony. Overall, not bad. And it was portable, so I was back in my seat quickly.
But I quickly ditched the ranch dressing, which was unwieldy if I didn't want to dump the whole mess on the salad, and the salad wasn't the easiest thing to eat in a Ballpark seat. And I envied the guy on the elevator who had turned his Boomstick into a Chicago-dog work of art that he intended to eat all by himself. Not to mention the people in front of us who had brought in some Popeye's chicken.
The main course: While we were walking into the stadium, I scoped out one of the many center-field concession stands and took note of the Black and Blue Burger ($11.50) at the Nolan Ryan Express. When main-course time came, I made a beeline back there. The "Black" comes from the Cajun spices in the patty, the "Blue" from the blue cheese that's cooked into the patty, not crumbled atop. The burger also comes with bacon and grilled onions, all served on a sourdough bun.
This was my day's clear winner. The bun was buttery and toasted to near-perfect texture, and the Cajun spices gave the patty some oomph without being too mouth-burning for wimpier palates. But the idea of cooking the blue cheese into the patty was better than the reality of it. That tangy taste got lost in the middle of the meat. The bacon was a little MIA, too.
This was a pretty good burger, and I'd order it again, but I'd lower my blue-cheese expectations and just enjoy it for the sheer burgerness of it. With a Dr Pepper ($5.50 for a 32-ounce souvenir cup), this really hit the spot.
Cost: $17 ($25.75 so far)
The dessert: The helmet sundae ($7), located close to our seats on the upper level, was about the most exotic dessert I could find at the Ballpark. By the time I got in line, it was the top of the eighth and things were going slowly at the sundae stand. One woman was running it, and she had to make a side trip to get more helmets. She seemed tired, but she was making beautiful creations, scoops of ice cream nicely placed in those mini-helmets, snowcapped with whipped cream, festooned with colorful sprinkles, a maraschino cherry resting delicately on top.
Then she got help.
And unfortunately, I went to the help.
When I asked for Cookies and Cream (Blue Bell provides the ice cream), I was told they'd run out, so I went with Rocky Road. The woman asked me what I wanted on it. I just said, "Load it." Apparently displeased with my indecision (or gluttony), she dumped a couple of scoops into the helmet, haphazardly sprayed some whipped cream atop them, ignored the sprinkles and carelessly topped it all with a cherry, which fell off the moment I walked away from the stand. You don't expect ice cream to hold up in 90-degree heat, but this stuff was melting onto my hands faster than I could grab napkins. I ate enough to taste it, then dumped the mess in a trash can and headed to the showers -- er, restroom -- to wash off all the gunk.
I will say this, though -- I was back at my seat faster than anyone else. I'm fairly sure I dripped on a couple of innocent bystanders.
Overall total: $32.75
Tacos and nachos
By Preston Jones
Like most of my competitors, the driving force behind my strategy was to try and create something resembling a three-course meal, albeit one served against a backdrop of strikes, swings and slides into home plate.
The first course: Forsaking fine dining for gluttonous ballpark grub, I made tracks to a concession stand on the ground level, near section 23, selling Nacho Grande, what it described as super nachos ($9). Another way to describe it would be "taco salad" crammed into a tiny plastic container: the tortilla chips, adorned with thick globs of cheddar cheese, also came piled high with lettuce, tomato, salsa, sour cream, ground beef and jalapeños. At nine bucks, it seemed reasonable, and was largely flavorful and satisfying in the way only cheap, salty, calorie-loaded food can be. Along with my "souvenir soda" ($5.50), it left me feeling bloated and ready for a midday nap. Did I mention this was just the beginning?
The main course: Having begun with a monstrously large appetizer/salad combo, I felt compelled to continue along the path, seeking out some Mexican-inspired possibilities for my second trip to the concession stands. After roaming the entire ballpark, I found myself in center field, where several new eateries have recently opened, and decided to take a chance with the taqueria. I selected the chicken taco combo ($9), which was supposed to come with rice, but I was nearly back to my seat before I realized mine was forgotten. It's just as well, because I doubt the rice would've redeemed the utter mush that the tacos, served on flour tortillas handmade in the ballpark, turned into during the trip from center field to the upper deck. Dressed simply, with pico de gallo, sour cream and cheddar cheese, the tortillas couldn't handle the juicy pico and disintegrated. What's more, the chicken was totally lacking in flavor, making the whole mess taste like a creamy, vaguely spicy muddle. I tried to take some solace in my second "souvenir soda" ($5.50) of the day, but it wasn't much comfort.
Cost: $14.50 ($29 so far)
The dessert: Disheartened but not discouraged by my chicken taco fiasco, I ventured out once more -- slightly alarmed by the fact I still had so much of my $50 to spend; turns out it's kind of difficult to go on a culinary bender -- and took a stab at finding a dessert to salvage my haphazard meal. But it was the eighth inning, and concession stands were rapidly shutting down, so it was up to the funnel cake ($6.25) I found on the Lexus club level to save the day. My first warning should've been when the cheerful concession worker pulled the cake out of a warmer -- never a good sign. And, sure enough, the funnel cake tasted exactly like it had been sitting around since the top of the first. Even with the small mound of powdered sugar, the funnel cake was as bland as cardboard. A few sips from my water ($3.50) washed away much of the unimpressive taste, but couldn't fully erase what a disappointing day it had been for my stomach at the ol' ballpark. My mighty tummy had struck out.
Total cost: $38.75