April 22, 2008

LEO Eats: The Yankees’ loss is our ... hey!

Slugger Field: We’re great fans of the Louisville Bats and thoroughly smitten by Slugger Field, but we’ve found ballpark food service consistently disappointing on Centerplate Inc.’s watch.Centerplate Inc., the South Carolina-based arena and ballpark catering company, has been getting a rough ride lately, with the New York Yankees dumping the company as Yankee Stadium concessionaire after a 40-year ride, and its shares plunging on Wall Street in the wake of blows ranging from financial bad news to a discrimination lawsuit by a Yankees’ bartender.But Centerplate still rides high in the Derby City, where it not only sells us our hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks in Slugger Field and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium but is slated to be concessionaire in the controversial downtown sports arena, and also recently emerged as operator of the new Wolfgang Puck Express, an upscale fast-food emporium in downtown’s Kentucky International Convention Center.Does New York know something that Louisville is missing? We’re great fans of the Louisville Bats and thoroughly smitten by Slugger Field, but I’ve found ballpark food service consistently disappointing on Centerplate’s watch. Like a never-say-die Cubs fan, I come back every spring with renewed hope in my heart. But after a couple of rounds of Slugger Field’s grill stations and concession stands this year, I don’t find much to alter my impression recorded at the start of last season: “Slugger Field remains one of the most pleasant places in the city to spend a summer evening, but it may help to bear in mind that, frankly, it’s a ball game, not a restaurant. The team is owned by bankers, and it shows: Food service is as functional, and as unimaginative, as a slow-moving teller line.”It will probably come as no surprise that prices, overall, have gone up a bit this year. My ballpark-food benchmark, the “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” index, reveals that it will now take $6.50 to buy me some peanuts ($3.75) and Cracker Jacks ($2.75); they were $3 and $2.50 respectively in 2007. We settled in for the opening day game with a cheeseburger, a tray of chicken tenders and fries, a small cola and a beer and whoa, $18! Suddenly it becomes apparent how Centerplate was able to amass annual revenues reported at more than $600 million last year.Still, you’ve got to eat. Unfortunately, management (absurdly invoking fears of 9/11 and the possibility that someone might conceal an exploding ham sandwich) forbids bringing your own food and drink, and subjects bags and purses to random inspection. (One exception: Bottled water in individual bottles is permitted.)One of my ballpark favorites remains the grilled pork chop ($6, up from $5.75 last year), available from a big black iron smoker in left field. They’re somewhat variable depending on who’s cooking and how long they’ve been sitting around, but they’re usually sizable. At best they’re tender and juicy; at worst, overcooked and leathery but still flavorful. I’ve had less good luck with the grilled rib eye steak ($6), which tends to be thin and leathery. One Club Level concession stand, inaccessible to general admission fans, offers a fish sandwich ($3.75), which is usually fried only to order (expect a five- or 10-minute wait) and comes in a perfect, unknown-in-nature square resembling the familiar Mickey D’s Filet-O-Fish. Still, it’s one of the better ballpark picks.Faced with myriad choices, not all of them appealing, I generally stick with ballpark tradition and go with sausages for my evening meal, usually upgrading from the pedestrian hot dog to the more gourmet-style Italian sausage ($4) or the imposing foot-long Big Bratwurst ($5.25). These are quality products, the Italian nicely spiced with fennel and a whiff of red pepper; the brat more subtly flavored, with an old-fashioned thick skin that bursts with a squirt of tasty juice when you bite down. I generally pass on the very greasy grilled onions and peppers offered with these confections.Fresh roasted peanuts ($3.25) seem mighty appetizing as they come steaming from the roaster, but after encountering batches of rancid nuts twice last year, I’ve put them on my no-go list. Ditto for some of the more creatively topped nachos, which start off as crunchy guilty pleasures but invariably end up with soggy chips in a pool of fat at the bottom. Nor am I overwhelmed by Papa John’s pizza ($6 for an individual pie).On a really chilly night, it’s not a bad thing to end your evening with a funnel cake ($5.50), a sweet treat not unlike an abstract doughnut created by Jackson Pollock.¿Taco? ¡Bueno!taco buenoRemember last year, when the return of the old Taco Tico chain brought traffic jams to Southwestern. Jefferson County as crowds of pilgrims trooped out Lower Hunters Trace in search of a nostalgic lunch?We’re seeing something like that again this month as the iconic Taco Bueno chain arrives in the metro, luring lines of supplicants to form around its small new building in Jeffersonville.The 40-year-old chain, based in Dallas, bears some resemblance to Taco Bell, although it’s only a smallish competitor, with about 170 properties against the Bell’s 6,000 stands. Still, local folks who know Bueno have been craving Bueno, and they’re turning out in big numbers.The place has a definite fast-food look, but it seems a bit more upscale than the Bell, with bright desert colors of adobe and sand and deep Western sky blue. It’s a good-sized, free-standing eatery with comfortable leather-look banquettes, dark granite-look tables and sturdy metal chairs. The bill of fare isn’t dissimilar to Taco Bell, with similar faux Mexican dishes, some bearing different names: The Bell’s Gordita becomes Bueno’s Muchaco, for instance; but you’ll find all your familiar tacos, burritos, quesadillas and such without need for translation.In a considerable improvement over Taco Bell’s industrial-made salsas in plastic packets, Taco Bueno’s condiments bar offers freshly made salsas (original red and chunky), pico de gallo, chopped onions, sliced jalapeños from the jar and fresh lemon wedges. (The chunky salsa is quite good, piquant if not painfully fiery, with good tomato and red chile flavors.)We sampled a Combo No. 5 ($5.69 for a muchacho, burrito and taco with a giant cola included) and a tamale platter ($5.69, with a refillable iced tea $1.39 extra), and for dessert a “2-pack” of cheesecake chimichangas ($1.99).The taco was a decent Mexican-American hardshell model, very fresh and crisp, stuffed with finely ground beef laced with mild chile flavors, shredded iceberg lettuce and yellow cheese.The muchacho, as noted, bears a close resemblance to the Bell’s Gordita, taco fixin’s folded into a round of something that bears a close resemblance to Wonder Bread.The burrito was basic, a small flour tortilla wrapped around taco beef and cheese, leaking a bit of unappetizing reddish-orange oil.The tamales seemed to be the real thing, three cigar-size rolls of masa flour stuffed with bits of long-cooked chicken white meat laced with chile seasoning, unfortunately sauced with a gloppy, yellow blanket of “cheez.” Mexican rice was decent, with good spicy flavors; refried beans were standard issue, and a small scoop of guacamole was smooth and bland. A ration of sliced iceberg lettuce is topped with a scoop of sour cream.All in all, I’d declare it significantly superior to Taco Bell, although it passes my understanding why anyone would drive past so many excellent and authentic Mexican options to get to it. (In Indiana alone, I’m thinking of La Rosita, La Herradura, Puerto Vallarta and many more.)Still, lunch for two was an eminently affordable $15.26, and there wasn’t a tip jar in sight.Taco Bueno2909 Highway 62Jeffersonville, Ind.(812) 284-4073www.tacobueno.comRobin Garr’s rating: 75 pointsContact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com