I don't personally understand the appeal of going to the ballpark and getting anything other than a hot dog or a plate of nachos piled high with "cheese" and pickled jalapeños that have been there since the stadium was built. It's the American way.
Nevertheless, ballparks across the country have been fancying up their food offerings, from Seattle -- where Safeco Field offers a wild-caught salmon sandwich on an organic roll -- to carving stations and "farmers' markets" at the new Yankee Stadium. So it's easy to see why Minute Maid Park and the Houston Astros would want to jazz up their own offerings as well.
To that end, the team recently partnered with chef Bryan Caswell and his company, PF&B Management, which is jointly owned by Bill Floyd. Their restaurants -- Little Bigs, Reef, Stella Sola and El Real Tex-Mex Cafe -- are popular tickets around town, and Caswell is Houston's only serious contender for a bonafide celebrity chef, so a pairing between these popular guys and a struggling baseball team seemed like at least one way to lift fans' sagging spirits.
At the Padres game on Saturday night (which we won; go Astros!), I walked the concourse before the game. Here was an El Real food cart, there a Little Bigs stand, both of them mixed in amongst the old favorites like Blue Bell ice cream served in tiny Astros helmets and the always popular BBQ Stuffed Baked Potato. For visiting fans or tourists, it must be quite a sight: Texas foodstuffs on rich display.
But how does the stuff taste?
I ducked out of the blazing sun that was heating up our seats along the first baseline and sought refuge in the FiveSeven Grille, which is headed up by Aramark Executive Chef Jason Kohler, and took a seat at the lower bar area on the concourse. It seemed like the perfect spot, perched just over the outfield, to eat while not missing a moment of the game.
After five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to hail a waiter, however, I moved inside. The wait to find a server there was just as long, but a smiley-faced young kid finally came by to take my order.
I was already overwhelmed by the prices here -- $26 for a Bryan Caswell signature grilled snapper (though, to be fair, it's as much as you'd pay for crispy skinned snapper at Reef) and $17 for a silly-sounding pasta dish involving "prawns" and sun-dried tomato pesto (they're called shrimp over here, and not everything needs to be made into pesto) -- so I decided on a $14 appetizer of orange and fennel cured salmon over greens and a $16 trio of sliders to take back to my boyfriend in the stands.
The salmon appetizer that came out was more like a deconstructed salad, the romaine lettuce on the side already coated in a sugary dressing that didn't at all match the salmon in flavor or tone. That's all right, though, because the salmon was such a wilted mess that it didn't particularly taste of either orange or fennel, just disappointment. I'm not sure that an Aramark-staffed kitchen has the chops to turn out the kind of cuisine that Chef Kohler (or Caswell, for that matter) is attempting here, although the attempt itself is admirable.
The sliders had to be an improvement, right? At this kind of markup, they'd better be.
They were, of course, the same old sliders as one would normally find at Little Bigs: a beef slider topped with caramelized onions and cheese, a pork slider with coleslaw and a cheese-stuffed mushroom slider that gushed forth with molten dairy upon first bite. But much of the charm was absent.
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The fries served alongside them tasted like standard Aramark fries, the dusting of fresh herbs doing nothing to enhance their blandness and soft texture. And the sweet buns at Little Bigs that hold the sliders together were missing here. Between the salmon and the sliders, we were at two strikes already.
Fortunately, a few scoops of Blue Bell ice cream in a mini helmet saved the day. There's a lot to be said for old ballpark standbys like this. And despite the allure of freshly made tortillas at the El Real food cart, I'll probably still be enjoying a hot dog topped with way too much relish at my next Astros game.