Take Me Out to the Ball Game Cafe
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.
By late in the seventh inning, the once-crisp pizza crust had gotten so soggy that nobody showed any interest in it anymore. Craig Biggio singled to bring Cedeño home around the time my chicken-fried veal arrived. I had mulled over the main courses; the choices included a New York strip with onions, salmon glazed with ginger, snapper meunière, a rib eye with chili sauce, and baby back ribs. I decided the best candidate for emblematic Houston Astros ballpark entrée had to be the "Chicken-fried Veal Steak topped w/Roasted Corn & Red Chile Gravy" ($15.95). The veal was very tender and juicy, but unfortunately the breading was rubbery. The big ballpark lights that shone into the window of the restaurant shifted the colors of the food and gave the red-chili gravy exactly the same orange hue as Velveeta. It didn't taste like Velveeta, of course. In fact, it didn't taste like much of anything. But since it was standing in for the usual chicken-fried steak topping of cream gravy, I suppose a certain amount of tastelessness is de rigueur. The mashed potatoes were good, and the skinny little French-style green beans were wonderfully crunchy. After several more hits, a double play ended the marathon seventh inning.
The blond wood floors, dark wood paneling and modern Italian-design track lighting make Ruggles at Enron striking. The menu and wine list are quite impressive, too. There was also a game-day buffet where a chef in a tall white toque stood behind eight silver chafing dishes. I went down the line and lifted every lid. The salmon in pinot noir sauce looked tasty, as did the chicken in chili cream sauce. A rare roast of beef and a juicy-looking pork loin stood ready for carving. The buffet includes salad and dessert for $26.95. There were plenty of tables available by then, but the place was mobbed just before the game, the waiter told me.
I was beginning to understand the concept. The idea isn't really to go to Ruggles and watch the game. The ballpark and the restaurant open two hours before game time. If you toil for a living downtown, you can go to Ruggles after work and have a nice dinner and still make it to your seats for the first pitch at 7:05 p.m. Or you can stop in for a bite when things start to drag in the late innings. And Ruggles at Enron is open all the time, not just on game days. I will probably take my out-of-town friends there to see what Enron Field looks like when the Astros are on the road.
In the end, the best thing I ate at Ruggles at Enron wasn't emblematic of Houston at all; it was "Grilled Chicken Salad with Apples & Walnuts in a Roquefort & Honey Dijon Vinaigrette" ($11.95). A well-dressed mesclun was topped with two moist grilled chicken breasts and surrounded by a neat stack of Granny Smith apples cut into little matchsticks, another stack of crunchy green beans, a pile of walnuts and a huge wedge of Roquefort. The aromatic French blue cheese provided the perfect match for the end of my red wine.
After dinner I started to feel a little silly. I had just brought my daughters to a big-league ballpark where we watched the game on TV. I can easily say that the food at Ruggles is the best I have ever eaten at a baseball field. But the experience was somewhat disturbing. For the following week I turned it over in my mind. At first I thought the symbolism was bothering me. I had hoped to find some emblematic Houston Astros food, and I had failed. Duck pizza and chicken-fried veal just didn't say Houston the way grilled bratwurst said Milwaukee. But then I realized that wasn't really it at all.
A new book titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam, pointed me in the right direction. Putnam's book is about the "diminishing sense of social connectedness" that plagues modern American society. In taking my kids to an Astros game, I was trying to connect them to our new hometown. But by sitting in Ruggles, watching the game on TV, we were literally, figuratively and sociologically removed from the community we were trying to join.
The separation between us and the rest of the crowd became extremely apparent when it came time for dessert. We had ordered Domino Cake ($6.25), a big slice of frosted devil's food cake with layers of chocolate and white chocolate mousse inside. It sat on a plate that was decorated with an impressionist painting of fruit sauces. The cake was crowned with two gaudy tiaras, one of dark chocolate drizzled into a zigzag and another of griddle-hardened batter. At the intimacy of a table in a fine restaurant, this showy dessert might have been a lot of fun, but we were sitting next to a picture window at Enron Field.
Our dessert order arrived at almost the exact moment the game ended, as some 30,000 people headed for the exits. Several hundred of them stopped beside our window to stare at our dessert. Some people pointed at us as though we were zoo animals. Others thumped on the glass and opened their mouths as if to ask for a bite. It was funny for a while. But then it wasn't. There was a "let them eat cake" sense of social stratification happening there, and I didn't like it.
"Once upon a time, in a big-league ballpark, a 60-year-old white guy who worked downtown might end up sitting next to a 17-year-old black kid from the inner city," sports writer Michael MacCambridge, author of The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, told me. But in the newest sports arenas, affluent fans sit in luxury skyboxes, corporate suites and expensive restaurants like Ruggles, and watch the game on TV monitors. "They are not really watching the game anymore. They are watching people watching the game."
Ruggles at Enron is a fascinating restaurant with very innovative food. It's a great place for people to get together before or after a baseball game or on a day when the Astros aren't playing. But from now on, when I take my kids to see a ball game, we will sit in the cheap seats and eat chili dogs. Our dinner at Ruggles taught me that going to the ballpark is about being part of the crowd.
Ruggles at Enron Field, 333 Crawford, (713)259-8080.
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