Soup search at O's game is a strikeout

April 14, 2004|By ROB KASPER

HOW COLD WAS it at the Orioles' opening game?

It was so cold that I had to put on insulated gloves to drink my beer.

It was so cold that I went in search of a bowl of hot crab soup, not once, not twice, but three times and came up empty.

Twice I stood in line at the Big Mario's Pizzeria concession stand on the ground-level first-base side and was told the soup was not ready yet. Then I went to another Big Mario Pizzeria on the third-base side. Despite a sign that promised "homemade soups," none was served.

Later Kevin Kenney, overseer of the concession stands for Aramark, described the lack of soup service at the two locations as "an opening-night hiccup." Pots of soup were on the premises, he said, but the staff was overwhelmed by the large crowd that had taken shelter in the warm locations. It was all the staff could do to keep up with the orders for slices of pizza, he said, so the soup was never served. It was a one-night problem, Kenney said, and crab-soup service has since been restored.

If you were caught out in the cold, the opening of the baseball season was a night not fit for man nor feast. Most fans at the game figured this out and headed for the ballpark's indoor eateries. The warm spots dispensing food and drink were extraordinarily busy on opening night, Kenney reported later, and racked up close to record sales.

But eating in the great outdoors was not so pleasant. Perhaps the 30-degree weather and icy winds were why the lines at the concession stands exposed to the elements seemed so slow-moving.

If the weather conditions had been genial, say 60 degrees and sunny, then waiting in line five minutes and 40 seconds to buy a hot dog might have seemed tolerable. But for the crowd queued up to pay a solo cashier working a concession stand in the upper-deck left-field corner, the wait in the nippy night air was painful.

A couple of guys in line grew restless. Seeing a nearby unmanned cash register and some idle concession-stand workers, one of the guys in line shouted, "Here's an idea: Why don't some of you come out here and give this guy [the cashier] some help?"

They were told that he was the only member of this concession-stand crew authorized to work the cash register. The cashier was working as fast as conditions permitted. He had a long line in front of him and biting wind hitting his backside and attacking the dollar bills in the register. Nobody wanted his job.

This year, $1 hot dogs aimed at younger fans with smaller appetites are being sold at two locations in Camden Yards. I sampled a kiddie dog, which is a medium-size sausage that sells for $2.50. This dog was having a hard time battling the elements. When I stuck my instant-read thermometer in its inner reaches, the temperature registered a respectable 108 degrees. But by the time I got it out of its wrapper, and into my mouth, it was cool and chewy.

There was an upside to the chilly evening. The Orioles beat the Red Sox. Moreover, if you were able to take shelter either in the ballpark restaurants or in the climate-controlled eateries of the restricted-admission club level, both the food and the mood improved.

My pick for rookie ballpark concession of the year is the $10.50 soft-shell-crab sandwich. The one I sampled at Pastimes, a buffet-style cafe on Eutaw Street, was mildly spicy and pretty close to crabby.

When I tossed aside the thick bun and simply dug into the 130-degree crab, the results were pleasing. These crabs had been frozen but, according to Russ Szekely, executive chef of Aramark kitchens at Camden Yards, they were plucked from the Chesapeake Bay at the end of last season. Once defrosted, the soft crabs were bathed in buttermilk, rolled in spiced flour, then fried in hot oil, the chef told me.

Szekely was reluctant to tell me the precise source of his soft-crab supply. It was, he said, a professional secret. But he did say his soft-crab connection was local, and that once the season gets under way, he plans to make the sandwiches out of fresh soft crabs, ones that were swimming somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay just hours before they arrived in the big leagues.

Serving soft crabs at a ballpark is a bold menu move. Many people, even some Maryland natives, shy away from eating the critters, put off, perhaps, by their dangling legs. But soft crabs are a local culinary treasure. Even if the early-season frozen ones are a bit dry, we should stand and cheer their arrival at Camden Yards. As the chef put it, "This is not something we would try in Pittsburgh."

Another promising newcomer is the wild wings dish at $10.50 that I sampled on the club level. Nine precooked chicken wings are kept warm (100 degrees on my thermometer), then tossed in a choice of three sauces, original Buffalo, teriyaki or barbecue. By ballpark standards, it is a fair amount of food for the money. While there was a long line of folks queued up in the club level for crab cakes, there was no waiting for chicken wings.

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