Park Belly Future

I've got some marvelous summer adventures planned. Among my ideas: 1) Hiking Squaw Peak during an electrical storm with a copper helmet strapped to my head; 2) Supplementing my income selling authentic Apache earmuffs at freeway off-ramps; 3) Checking with the IRS to see if I can continue writing off my tropical fish as dependents; 4) Traveling to Iran and booking a Tehran hotel room under the name Salman Rushdie.

Risky? Crackpot? They're not nearly as risky or crackpot as what I did early this month, during the Arizona Diamondbacks' first homestand: Eating my way through Bank One Ballpark.

Sure, Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest. Yes, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. They, however, didn't accomplish their heroic feats alone. But I downed just about every item at our new ballpark's concession stands, and I did it without the aid of Sherpa guides or a team of NASA specialists.

If there's a Nobel Prize for Courage, I expect serious consideration. That's because, without a doubt, Bank One Ballpark puts out some of the most wretched, overpriced fare on the planet. I can't believe the Geneva Convention is silent on the subject.

Who can we thank for this gastronomic tour de farce? Take a bow, Restaura Inc., a subsidiary of Viad Corporation. Restaura Inc. does for ballpark food service what the Hindenburg did for dirigible travel.

But Restaura isn't the only culinary culprit. Let's point a finger directly at the top. It's obvious that the big bosses didn't care one bit about offering fans high-quality, distinctive fare. Ballparks all over the country whip up nifty dishes that reflect local tastes. You can get crab cakes in Baltimore, brats in Milwaukee, sushi in Los Angeles, knishes in New York, fish tacos in San Diego and queue de castor in Montreal.

So where is the Indian fry bread? Where are the chile rellenos? Where are the cowboy ribs and beans? They're sure not here. Instead, along with Restaura, management decided to bring in McDonald's hamburgers, Blimpie subs and Little Caesars pizza, corporate fast food that targets lowest-common-denominator tastes. And management believes you won't mind paying jacked-up prices for this chain junk, either.

Given the lowbrow culinary philosophy, I imagine Diamondbacks executives didn't bother pressing Restaura on matters of quality and variety. So there's really no surprise that Restaura has lived down to their expectations.

Hot dogs are the heart of ballpark food. At BOB, you can get four different kinds. By far the best is the kosher dog ($4). That's because it's made by Hebrew National, which must answer to an even Higher Authority than Jerry Colangelo. The quarter-pound Diamond Dog ($4.25) comes from Oscar Mayer. It hopes to become the signature frankfurter here, just like the famous Dodger Dog is in Los Angeles. Maybe it will. It's bland but not bad, juicy and appropriately fatty.

It's certainly better than the same company's jalapeno-and-cheese dog ($4), which proves that when it comes to flavoring hot dogs, more is less. And don't even think about ordering the dreadful Perdue turkey dog ($2.75). Forget about anthrax and scud missiles: If Saddam Hussein got hold of these and launched them against an unsuspecting population, he could put an end to civilization as we know it.

If hot dogs are the heart of ballpark eating, beer is the soul. Restaura offers Miller and Miller Lite on tap, and an impressive range of bottled brewskis: Corona, Heineken, Samuel Adams, Bass Ale, Kirin, Fat Tire, Rolling Rock, Killian's Red, Pilsner Urquell and Beck's. But the prices aren't easy to swallow. A large Miller draft will set you back six bucks. A 12-ounce bottle goes for $4.75. On the wagon? Sharp's nonalcohol is $3.75.

Drinking anything at the ballpark may be hazardous to your health--your financial health, that is. A liter of bottled water costs an unconscionable $4.75, a 20-ounce bottle $3. At those prices, the H2O should come blessed by the Pope or Oral Roberts. (I wonder if there's a correlation between the water prices and that I didn't spot a single water fountain anywhere in the park.) Meanwhile, a 44-ounce soda is a whopping $4.50. Fans may revolt when the triple-digit temperatures start arriving. And how come there's no iced tea?

Along with hot dogs, Restaura also puts pseudo-ethnic sausages between its spongy buns. Why "pseudo-ethnic?" It won't take more than one bite for you to figure out why.

Take the Italian sausage ($4.50). If someone tried to sell this wimpy wiener in Jerry Colangelo's old Chicago neighborhood, he'd have his kneecaps broken. It has no discernible Italian flair, no punch or zest.

The only ethnic element in the pallid bratwurst ($4.50) is the sauerkraut it's topped with. Why couldn't the Diamondbacks have hooked up with any of our fine local German sausage makers? The all-beef Polish sausage ($4.50) is a better option. It's plump and nicely grilled, and tastes even better once you take it to the condiment table and spread on the deli mustard.

Whoever is responsible for the sorry nachos ought to be forced to play catcher without a protective cup. Here we are in the heart of the Southwest, and we get nachos like these: a compartmentalized plastic tray, one section holding stale chips; another section housing cold yellow glunk ("cheese") squeezed out of a 10-gallon tub; and another containing snoozy, watery salsa. And this is the deluxe version, costing $5.50!

I can just picture the Restaura meeting, when the nachos came up for discussion:

Executive #1: "Who's going to buy something so lousy, so tasteless? I wouldn't eat them for free."

Executive #2: "Our profit margin is $5.49."
Executive #1: "Hey, get your nachos, nachos here."
The steak sandwich ($5.25) is another embarrassment. You'd have better luck chewing on the flank of a live cow. The meat is inedible--dry, tough, fatty. The chicken sandwich ($4.75), a small slab of grilled breast, is a marginal improvement.

Two sandwiches stand out, if anything can be said to stand out in this pathetic crowd. The cheesesteak sandwich ($4.75) features shaved, grilled meat that's lean and reasonably tasty. It's helped by a pile of grilled green pepper. You can help it even more by spooning on some diced onion at the condiment counter. And the turkey burger ($4.50) also works, a one-third-pound patty that was crisply grilled. Add ketchup and pickle relish for a flavor boost.

Three other items deserve a wide berth. Chicken tenders with fries ($5) may be okay after they've just come out of a vat of bubbling oil. But once they're placed under the tanning lamps, forget it: The chicken gets rubbery, and the fries become limp and greasy. The corn dog ($3.50), coated with a sweet, leathery cornmeal batter, tastes like it was left over from the State Fair. And the Jamaican beef patty ($3.50) turns out to be a turnover stuffed with ground beef and a bucket of salt. If there were any Jamaican spices present, I couldn't detect them.

At each game, I tried to order the Garden Burger, a vegetarian option. But despite being listed on the menu, it never showed up at the concession stand. Who can blame it?

There is an alternative to Restaura and the chain fare. Look for the kiosks offering packaged goods from Fielders Choice.

You won't find any bargains here. But at least you'll make it to the seventh-inning stretch without cramping.

Mixed veggies with spinach dip ($6) make for first-rate munching. You get a good-size portion of crunchy broccoli, cauliflower and carrot, teamed with a creamy, dill-infused spinach dip dotted with water chestnuts. (Don't want the dip? You can get a veggie bag for three bucks.) A decent bean dip with chips ($5) is a great improvement over concession-stand nachos.

Who goes to the ballpark to eat fruit? Well, I would. Fielders Choice puts out containers of grapes, watermelon, mango, orange, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and papaya, as well as mixed-fruit combinations (all $4). You can even get, Wimbledon-style, strawberries and whipped cream. If this all sounds too healthful, try the chocolate pudding ($2.50), thick, sweet and substantial.

What about traditional ballpark snacks? They're all here, and at prices that would make even a movie-theater operator blush.

Want to buy some peanuts and Crackerjack, as the song suggests? If you get the large sizes, you won't see much change from a sawbuck. Large cotton candy runs $5.50. And a large package of sunflower seeds, a not-so-big soft pretzel and a big bucket of popcorn will set you back $4.50 each.

A note on the popcorn: Don't buy it at the concession stands, where you get prepopped popcorn that arrives at the stadium packed in huge plastic bags. That corn was probably popped about the time Abner Doubleday came up with the infield-fly rule. Instead, go to the kiosks where you see the corn popped before your eyes. The price is the same, and the quality far superior.

Take me out to the ball game? Any time. The ballpark is magnificent, and the team makes up in effort what it lacks in talent. Even the parking hasn't been bad.

But take me out to eat at the ball game? No, thanks. When you step up to these plates, you're bound to strike out.

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