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Take Me Out to the Ball Game Cafe

Ruggles at Enron Field hits for the cycle without ever leaving the dugout

On the TV monitor at Ruggles at Enron Field, we were watching Chris Holt put on an amazing performance against the Philadelphia Phillies. Not only did he pitch the entire game, he also singled to left to drive in two runs. It was only the second big-league ball game my daughters had ever seen, and they sat wide-eyed in our spiffy booth taking in the scene. Looking at their faces, I thought back to the time when my father took me to see the Milwaukee Braves play at County Stadium. I saw Hank Aaron hit a home run that night, and we ate bratwursts for dinner. Thirty-five years later, I still remember that the very white sausages were slightly charred on two sides by a hot grill and served on crusty buns slathered with strong German mustard.

I was trying to find something on the menu at Ruggles that said Houston as eloquently as that mustard-slathered bratwurst had once said Milwaukee. Which one would you pick: "Shrimp Pizza with Kalamata Olives, Roasted Garlic, Red Onions, Jalapeños and Fresh Thyme" ($11.95), or "Southwest Style Pizza with Duck Sausage, Cilantro Pesto, Black Bean Corn Salsa, w/a blend of Goat Cheese & Mozzarella topped w/ Pico de Gallo" ($13.95)?

Ever since Jeff Bagwell dropped a homer onto a center-field table, TV sports announcers around the country have been working on their one-liners about Ruggles at Enron Field. ("Waiter, what's this baseball doing in my soup?") Thanks to the exposure, Ruggles has become the restaurant the rest of the country associates with Space City. And in this role of the "official restaurant of Houston," you would expect Ruggles to be emblematic of Houston food.

I watched Bagwell's breadbasket home run from my couch in Fort Worth, and I was fascinated by the interview with the startled diner that followed. The urbane and slightly balding gentleman was standing beside his linen-covered table holding a glass of cabernet (or was it chardonnay?) and saying something about snatching up the stemware just in the nick of time. This was a Houston Astros fan? He reminded me of Frasier's brother, Niles. Nevertheless, like baseball fans across the country, I coveted his table.

I went with the Southwest-style pizza; it arrived piping hot, and the crust was as crisp as Holt's fastball. The duck sausage had some gutsy garlic-and-pepper bang. With the muskiness of goat cheese and the herbal kick of cilantro pesto, it was a shouting match of loud flavors, but then, no one is looking for subtlety at the ballpark.

Equally unsubtle was the Rabbit Ridge cabernet ($6.95 a glass). The California cab's big, jammy fruit flavors hung on the wine's huge frame of acidity, body and tannin like a Hawaiian shirt on a weight lifter. It was just the sort of easy-drinking but sophisticated wine you want with a duck sausage pie at the ballpark.

There was a roar in the stadium as Roger Cedeño stole second. I was so absorbed with the pizza and red wine, I had almost forgotten where I was. The Phillies' catcher made a perfect throw that should have caught Cedeño in his slide, but nobody covered the bag. The ball sailed into center, and Cedeño got a free trip to third. The crowd went wild.

Not since 1993, when Jack Murphy Stadium started serving sushi, has ballpark food captured my imagination in such a dramatic fashion. I decided that reviewing Ruggles at Enron would be a top priority in my new position as food guy here at the Press. I also hoped the food would prove more exciting than the sushi at Jack Murphy, which turned out to be nothing more than premade California rolls. (The fish tacos, however, were excellent.)

When the Astros started their home stretch against the Phillies in late May, I called to find out how to get a table in center field. The tables sit in an area called The Patio and are available to parties of 75 or more, the box office told me. For Memorial Day and several other holidays, seats on The Patio are sold to individuals for $100 apiece. The 100 bucks buys a ticket to the game, the seat, a meal and nonalcoholic beverages. (They are all sold out for this year.) But you can always go to the Ruggles bar or eat in the main restaurant, the box office advised.

So I took my daughters, Katie, 14, and Julia, 12, to Ruggles at Enron. Parking was hard to find, and it was the second inning by the time we entered the restaurant through the door on the outside of the stadium. We were promptly thrown out. Yes, there were tables available, the manager told me, but you had to stand in line for them on the stadium-side entrance.

"You mean I have to go back outside and buy tickets?" I asked in all innocence. I was under the impression that, like The Patio, Ruggles offered some sort of all-inclusive deal that included admission, food, etc. "Yes, you have to buy a ticket," the manager said. So we walked around the whole stadium to the only open ticket windows, on Texas Avenue, where I bought the three cheapest seats available, at five bucks a pop. Then we tromped back through the inside of the park to Ruggles's entrance and waited in line for a table. By the time we were seated, it was the fifth inning, and the score was Astros 6, Phillies 2.

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