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May 3, 2007

Slugger Field fare is no picnic

Not only is it Derby Week, but the Louisville Bats’ season is under way at Slugger Field, so even sports fans who have been sweating out the long months until the Cards and Cats are back in play have little to complain about. But food lovers who enjoy a good dinner to go with the baseball game are pretty much out of luck at Slugger Field, where concession quality has dropped off a long way from the splendid fare that the memorable A. Ray Smith brought to Louisville when the old Redbirds played at the Fairgrounds’ Cardinal Stadium back in the early ‘80s. Smith, an old-fashioned baseball man who understood there’s more to winning fan loyalty than opening the gates and yelling “Play Ball,” introduced the city to nachos, a confection so exotic at the time that newspaper stories of the era found it necessary to define the word with a brief explanation when writing about the new team and renovated old ballpark. In those days, a ball fan could put together a pretty good dinner at Cardinal Stadium for a reasonable price and still have change left over for a cold beer. Nowadays at Slugger Field, a light ballpark repast can burn through a $20 bill mighty fast, and you need to pick and choose in order to come up with selections that justify that toll. The good news, however, is that Eat’N’Blog’s “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” index — the price required to buy me some peanuts ($3) and Cracker Jack ($2.50) — is unchanged since last year, and most other concessions have also held pretty close to the 2006 price line. A large draft beer (Budweiser or Bud Lite) has gone up a quarter, to $4.50, with a smaller cup available at a few concession stands for $3.25. Breaking the Budweiser monopoly, Grolsch beer from Holland is also widely advertised around the park, available from a few vendors for $4.50, and there’s a short selection of mass-market imports (Heineken, Bass Ale, Corona and Newcastle Brown) on sale at one of the foodie’s top ballpark destinations, the pork-chop stand under the giant-screen television scoreboard above left field. That pork chop — grilled on the premises and available only at the left-field stand — remains my No. 1 choice for fine ballpark dining. Still $5.75 for an oversize, boneless chop, it comes on a bland white bun and is just about big enough for two. Size and preparation can vary quite a bit: At best they’re sizzling and juicy. But overcooking can quickly dry out and toughen the product, and if you hit the booth at the wrong time and have to take a chop that’s been sitting on its soggy bun in the warmer for a while, you might want to duck out of the line and watch from a distance until you see a fresh batch coming up. New this year is a rib eye steak sandwich ($6), available at the pork-chop stand and scattered other grill stations. Unfortunately, ours was not up to the pork chop’s high standard: It was as thin as shoe leather and not a whole lot more tender, cooked way past well-done, with an odd fruity scent that hinted at a mysterious marinade. Another Slugger Field favorite, available only at the club level concession stand on the first-base side, is the fried-fish sandwich ($3.75). It’s a prefab cube-o-fish akin to the McDonald’s or White Castle fish sandwich, but it’s fried to order and, in a pinch — with the help of “tartar sauce” fashioned from foil packets of mayo and pickle relish — it’s one of the tastier options in a rather bleak landscape. You have to know the secret word to get it, though: It’s no longer on the menu, but a staffer confided that, thanks to public demand, they actually still have it behind the counter, available on request. I wonder how long that will last. Other selections worth further investigation, some of them new this year, are offered at grill stations in the covered concourse area: a big bratwurst ($5), Italian sausage sandwich ($3.50), Philly steak nachos ($6.50) or a cheese steak ($4.75). Another booth offers “Mexican” food that you’ll never find in a Preston Highway taqueria: Bats BBQ nachos ($6.50), grande burrito ($6) and the “Grand Canyon” taco ($5). Top it all off with a funnel cake ($5) or a waffle cone full of Edy’s ice cream ($4) and all you need is a roll of TUMS to make your game complete. But don’t even think about bringing in your own food: Unlike Indianapolis Victory Park, where families are encouraged to spread out picnics, Slugger Field forbids patrons to bring in food or drink, and reserves the right to check your bag to make sure you’re not smuggling in contraband Pringles. Play ball! Derby Eats Meanwhile, with racing season upon us, it’s time to bite the bullet and deliver the bad news to Derby visitors who didn’t make reservations at one of the city’s top tables well ahead of time. Folks, you’re boned. Derby is Louisville’s biggest party of the year, and the city’s favorite places are generally jammed, slammed, and booked up beyond capacity long before the big race. Spots that don’t take reservations may be last-minute doable, but count on a pushy crowd and a very long wait. Patience and a sense of humor will likely find you something, though, even if it’s not the white-tablecloth dinner you had in mind to blow your Derby winnings. Let’s run through my standard list of Qs and As for hungry Derby visitors: • Plan way in advance. If you were frozen out this year, start thinking about 2008 before you leave town. You might seriously consider calling around to your favorites early next week to see when they’ll begin taking reservations for next year’s Derby. • Check out newer restaurants that have opened within the past year and may not be familiar to visitors even if they’re hot with locals. Basa Modern Vietnamese on Frankfort, Mojito in Holiday Manor, Mayan Cafe on East Market and Caviar on Muhammad Ali near Fourth Street are only a few of the fancier spots that may not be on most visitors’ radar. • Are you open to ethnic? While the hordes head for Jack Fry’s, the Oakroom, Lilly’s and other old standards, many of the city’s fine Asian restaurants and Mexican eateries will be looking for hungry diners. Vietnam Kitchen and Annie Cafe in the South End offer excellent outstanding food and value despite being short on ambience, and they’re not far from Churchill Downs. If you’re hankering for real Chinese, try Oriental House, Jasmine and Liang’s in the East End and ask for the authentic Chinese menu. For Thai, it’s Sala Thai in Jeffersontown, Thai Taste in Clifton or Mai’s in Jeffersonville, Ind. Look for the taqueria belts in Clarksville, Ind., or on Preston Highway in the South End, where you can fill up even if you’re tapped out at the races: Rosticeria Luna and La Tapatia on Preston, La Rosita in New Albany, Ind., and Perla del Pacifico in the East End are among our Mexican favorites. • Veer off the beaten path. A half-hour drive up the Ohio to Oldham County will bring you to Westport General Store, a fine bistro on the riverbank; in Southern Indiana, Bistro New Albany and Rockwall both offer classy, upscale dining at rational prices, and aren’t likely to be as jammed as the urban favorites. • These grapes are so sour: Sit home, build a sandwich, nurse your grudge, and tell yourself that all the good places are so slammed on Derby Day that they won’t be any fun. See? Don’t you feel better already? Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com