It never occurs to me, as I observe the softly plumped bodies of bleary-eyed journalists milling about at the beginning of a morning "foodie tour" of Marlins Park, that upon seeing a giant tray of lobster rolls, this pack would be able to charge en masse with the speed of Emilio Bonifacio legging out a triple. My surprise at their instinctive athleticism quickly morphs into contempt when I realize there's no lobster left for me to taste — but the rest of the reveals during our traipse through the ballpark's concessions would prove almost entirely positive.
If you've seen the $684-million ballpark on television or been fortunate enough to nab opening-week tickets, you know that, despite the aptly maligned home-run sculpture in left field, the stadium is gorgeous. Fresh digs aside, the Marlins' new concession company clearly knows the truth: The best way to a fan's heart is through his stomach.
"This is the newest and the greatest," boasts Jim Abbey, the regional executive chef for Levy Restaurants, which operates the Marlins Park concessions. "There is nothing out there that compares to this. Nothing."
Hot dog $6
Double cheeseburger $9.50
Shrimp burger $13
Domestic beer $8
Ice-cream sandwich $5
He should know, because Levy also serves the food and drink at the homes of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago White Sox and Cubs, along with lots of other sports arenas.
It would take more than words to lighten my duffle bag of skepticism left over from the awful food at Sun Life Stadium, the Fish's former home. But as Abbey reels off product sources — flank steak from Harris Ranch, "French cage free-range" chicken from Ashley Farms, seafoods from the Keys and Florida coast, and fruits and vegetables from Teena's Pride, Tom Vick Farms, J&C Tropicals, and Paradise Farms — my doubts begin to wane. Abbey adds that everything will be cooked fresh to order, which sounds challenging in light of the sheer number of customers queuing up between innings.
Timothy Hmay, Marlins Park executive chef, concedes that what they're attempting has never been done before. "These aren't concessions stands; they're minirestaurants," he says. "Every single one of our 45 concession stands has a restaurant kitchen in back of them. So everything is prepared fresh. The fryers, the stoves, the flat-top grills are state-of-the-art — any restaurant in the Miami area would love to have just one of these [kitchens]."
Rather than leave prepared food baking under a heat lamp, the eateries in Marlins Park will essentially cook to order. "A burger, when it comes into the concession stands, it's freshly grilled and put into the bun for the customer," Hmay says.
He's referring to a potato bun, made by the local Sedano's bakery. The burger is culled from brisket, short rib, and chuck, which are never frozen or sullied by hormones and antibiotics. "[It's] what you'd find in a premium steak house," Abbey claims. The burger comes with American cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, "vine ripe tomato," and a thick pickle slice. The price: $8.50 for a single cheeseburger, $9.50 for a double. It is a delicious hamburger, and pricey too — but I would rather pay $8.50 for a great cheeseburger than a dollar or so less for the crappy one served at Sun Life. In fact, I rate this burger a home run.
Here's what I thought of some of the other items (each rated by baseball hit), with this caveat: The food that the media sampled was cooked, perhaps in leisurely fashion, in quantities to serve about 50 people. According to estimates, when Marlins Park is filled with fans, there will be 12,000 to 15,000 hot dogs sold every night — never mind the other food, the 25,000 servings of soft drinks and water, and a similar amount of beer. In other words, our chow was probably fussed over more than yours will be.
• Helmet ballpark nachos at the general concessions: The tortilla chips are laden with homemade chipotle cheese sauce, pico de gallo, sour cream, jalapeños, shredded cheddar, and scallions. It's a tasty rendition, and you get to keep the Marlins souvenir helmet. Price: $15. Rating: Triple.
• Steak and wedge at Metro Grill: Seared beef tenderloin sandwich topped with applewood bacon, lettuce, tomato, blue cheese, steak sauce, and spicy fried onions. The steak is substantial and juicy; the roll is buttered and toasted — that's a double, but the crisp onions and bacon stretch this one into a triple.
• Shrimp burger at Burger 305: Made from two types of gulf shrimp, chopped and seasoned with fresh herbs, served with key lime aioli on telera, or torta, bread — which seems too large for the slender shrimp patty. It's $13. Rating: Double.
• Pizza at Sir Pizza: Tastes like ballpark pizza — thin, pale, soft crust with generic pizza-chain flavor. "This is a bigger pie than you usually see in a ballpark — eight inches as opposed to six inches," Claude Delorme, the park's executive vice president of operations and events, says in an attempt to explain the hefty price: $10 for cheese, $11 with pepperoni. Rating: Strikeout.
• Lime 'n' lobster roll at Metro Grill: Large, fresh chunks of Maine lobster tossed with lime juice and scallions and plunked onto a split toasted bun. No, I did not get to taste it, but I got a close look at a sample set out for the photographers and listened to all the other writers marvel at how delicious it was as they munched away with their chipmunk cheeks stuffed with crustacean and bread. Price: $17. Rating: By all accounts, a home run.
• Mahi-mahi tacos at Miami Mex and general concessions: Grilled fish with pickled red onions, cilantro-flecked slaw, and chipotle aioli in a soft flour tortilla. Very tasty. Price: $12. Rating: Double.
• Hot dog and SoBe hot dog at Fan Feast and general concessions: A Smithfield Farms beef frankfurter served in a split-top bun for $6, or the SoBe dog with mango slaw, chipotle mayo, and potato sticks for $9. The latter tastes good with all of that stuff on it, but it's not a top-quality hot dog. Rating: Single.
• Miami Marlins Kids Shack snacks: A hot dog, raw baby carrots, a cup of soft-serve ice cream, apple slices with caramel dip, beverages, and more can be purchased here, but kids' meal combos for $3.75 offer a better deal. One such box brings a hot dog, a juice box, and sliced apples. I'm not sold on the supposedly healthy aspect of the meals — a hot dog accompanied by tofu would still be a hot dog — but the idea of a Kids Shack, along with the thoughtfully affordable pricing, is a home run.
• Beers: Presidente, Corona Light, Budweiser, Heineken, and a few other draft brews are available — $8 for domestic, $9 for imported. Ideally, they could have included a craft beer from Florida or even from elsewhere; this is, after all, supposed to be the cutting edge of new ballpark food and drink, and fans take their beers more seriously now than they did in the old days. Plus, even in light of high ballpark beer prices, the cost seems steep. Guess they have to come up with that $102 million for Jose Reyes somehow. Rating: Weak groundout.
• Taste of Miami: Three local restaurants provide specialty items inspired by the city's Hispanic community:
Papo Llega y Pon — chicharrones, tamales, and a passable pan con lechón. Rating: Double.
Don Camaron — fish sandwiches, fresh oysters, seafood fritters, and a very credible ceviche with fresh fish, cilantro, lime juice, tomatoes, red onion, and corn. Rating: Triple.
Latin American Grill — ham croquetas, beef empanadas, plantain chips with garlic sauce, medianoches, and an impeccable Cuban sandwich. Rating: Home run.
• Kosher Korner: This stand wasn't open for the tour, but it will feature fat deli sandwiches (corned beef, pastrami, etc.) sliced per order, along with homemade knishes and other standard kosher deli fare.
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• Specialty items from visiting cities: Classic New York street hot dogs will be offered when the Mets or Yanks come to play, tortilla chips and marinara sauce when the St. Louis Cardinals visit, and so forth. Seems like a great idea.
• The Clevelander at Marlins Park: A re-creation of the South Beach party bar is located in left field, just a foot from the outfield grass. It has a full bar; a full menu; in-seat service for more than 100; live entertainment before, during, and after games; and a swimming pool — only the second ballpark in America that can make that claim. Half-pound bacon-wrapped Chicago-style hot dogs and "tater tachos" (nachos on tater tots) look to be the big sellers. It's only fitting that the SoBe scene be represented at the park.
Last pitch: Compared with the stale hot dogs and greasy pretzels at Sun Life Stadium, the ambitious, often delicious food at Marlins Park is pretty close to a grand slam.