When you’re standing in a scrum of craned-neck media reps and news cameras, holding your iPhone on high to get a badly lit photo of a $23 meat-adorned Bloody Mary that’s being sold as a new and exciting food item available from the publicly funded sportball stadium that was accused of wage theft of its temp food workers and home to a baseball team that pays a single player $35,494 per at-bat, something smells funny.
The scene at Target Field earlier this week was rich with the unmistakable odor of America: The smell of someone selling things you don’t want, at prices you’d rather not pay — and you buying them anyway.
As this odd scene played out — Twins staffers barking into microphones inside Hrbek’s, lauding their new food items while a dozen news cameras jockeyed for position to photograph dozens of those freak show Bloody Marys lined up on the bar, looking like Tim Burton creatures that might rip our faces off at any moment — I came to one inescapable conclusion that felt honest and true: This is weird and confusing, and I just want a really good hot dog.
Springtime ushers in conflicting, transitional feelings in Minnesota. The warmth of the returning sun on the skin also thaws the redolent sidewalk dog turds. The joy of receding snow leads to the anxiety of impending lawn and garden maintenance. And at Target Field in 2016, the always-delicious polish sausage from Kramarczuk’s inhabits the same world as AZ Canteen’s largely flavorless and monochromatic “Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich.” (Seriously, Mr. Zimmern: I hereby challenge you to make eye contact with me while taking a bite of this corpse-grey atrocity and tell me you think it tastes any different from a dollar-menu McChicken doused in Palmolive dish soap. I await your acceptance.)
So it was this past week, on a drizzly cold spring day, that I found myself lured by the promise of free food and the opportunity to update my Facebook status with humblebrags and joyous face-stuffing selfies. Little did I know that I was entering a world not unlike that of the Capitol in The Hunger Games — hotel pans teeming with visually pleasing food of questionable flavor spread out everywhere before our roving band of eager Tweeters, with signs encouraging photos and the plentiful usage of the #TwinsFood hashtag. We scrambled from vendor to vendor, gorging obligatorily and joylessly — a fully willing army of free marketers for The Twins. I was not proud, but I was also not leaving.
The good? Inside Hrbek’s, they’re serving up a new Prime Rib slider with a Boursin horseradish spread and caramelized onions — very tasty. Simple and satisfying.
The new Walleye Taco with mango salsa was better than you might expect from a ballpark fish taco, with decently corn-y tortillas, but mostly unremarkable — the fish itself was crumbly and dry, and not very discernable as fish, let alone walleye.
The trend toward an increased presence of locally owned businesses and brands at Target Field is always welcome, and that’s no different this year. The best thing I tasted all day was a Key lime pie ice cream that was a collaboration between locally adored Izzy’s and the Birchwood Cafe. Just crushingly delicious, simple, and also very ballpark worthy.
Another “home run” (#TwinsFood) is the mango lassi from excellent local food truck Hot Indian — utterly refreshing, with a balance of tangy yogurt, fresh mango, and cardamom. I couldn’t imagine a tastier cool treat during a hot summer day game.
But being local doesn’t automatically translate into being better: Another new vendor familiar to locals is The Loon Cafe, which will be selling its “signature” Texas-stye Pecos River Red chili. Don’t bother — the cup I sampled tasted like a scoop of canned tomatoes spiked with half a bottle of McCormick’s chili powder, with a couple of leather-tough chunks of beef added for your chewing pleasure.
You can wash it down with their Grape Ape cocktail, which is the vomitous Dimetapp-like drink you might remember from college — despicable, even though it’s made with Buddy’s Grape Soda out of New Ulm, Minn. What, then, to wash away the sense-memory of that unholy brew? I’d recommend a solid local beer, of which, thankfully, there are many to choose from again this season.
In general, the instinct to sell “on-trend,” hard-to-eat items that make more sense on the menu of a T.G.I. Friday seems like a poor decision from a food lover and fan’s point of view. One example: pretzel balls from Hot Pretzel Bites & Brews in various sweet / savory treatments that require a knife and fork, as opposed to just a really great pretzel. There’s no way I can eat these pretzel ping-pong balls, covered in beer cheese and candied bacon, while simultaneously cheering and drinking beer without making a huge mess on my throwback Nick Punto jersey.
Another common issue is the often-poor execution of dishes that require greater skill and care than the Delaware North crew possesses, especially cooked-to-order items on a scale for ballgame crowds. The higher price point for a “Barrio-created” burrito or bowl purchased at concourse eatery Señor Smoke’s, for instance, stings more when that burrito isn’t nearly as tasty or well-made as anything you could order at an actual Barrio location. The fact that Señor Smoke himself, Juan Berenguer, has no actual hand in the process is a huge bummer, too.
These sorts of problems aren’t surprising. More people than ever watch the Food Network and shows like Chopped, and expect “cheffy” items in realms where they never used to exist, like the ballpark. And people are willing to pay more for this stuff, even if other people aren’t willing to pay their staff enough to give a shit. A lot of these dishes, at these prices, and in the atmosphere of a ballgame, create an unappealing dissonance — a mismatch of venue and food. The best stuff finds a balance point — classics done really well, or things that are gimmicky and fun without crossing the line into explosive gratuity for its own sake.
So, sure, there is some decent food to choose from at Target Field this year, and with new stadiums hotly competing to offer the best amenities and experiences for fans, the trend toward gussying up traditional ballpark food is clearly not going to slow down anytime soon. Which overall is a good thing. But me? Give me an onion-smothered Kramarczuk’s sausage, a Summit, and some Izzy’s ice cream, and I’m a happy fan. Stick to the simple pleasures at Target Field in 2016 — leave the $23 Bloody Mary to the suckers who don’t mind paying Joe Mauer’s salary.