Ballpark food in D.C. tops fare here

April 16, 2008|By ROB KASPER

This hurts to admit, but their ballpark food is better than ours.

The concession-stand eats I sampled at the new Washington Nationals Park are superior to those I ate at Camden Yards. This represents a shift in culinary climate.

Three years ago when I compared the fare at Camden Yards with that served at RFK Stadium, then the home of the Nationals, Camden Yards food was the clear winner. "Things are better in Baltimore," I wrote then. "Isn't that music to our ears? I never claimed to be neutral."

But this spring, as this baseball season started and the new stadium opened in Washington, I again ate ballpark fare in the two towns. I chowed down on the basics - hot dog, hamburger, barbecued beef and crab cake. I drank the beer. I took their temperatures with an instant-read thermometer. I took notes.

In my estimation, the D.C. eats bested or tied Baltimore in every category except the crab cake and the local beer. Eating in Washington is also more expensive than eating in Baltimore. Duh!

It was a pretty close contest, except for the crab cake. The Camden Yards crab cake, sold for $13 at the Charm City Seafood stand behind home plate, was a reasonable representation of the Maryland delicacy. There was crab flavor; there was artful seasoning. It registered 113 degrees on the thermometer. Served as a sandwich, the soft bun and tomato were throwaways, but the chips that accompanied it - slices of potato flavored with Old Bay - were outstanding.

In contrast, the $12.50 crab cake from Gray's Grill at the Washington ballpark was minor league. It was hot, registering 141 degrees a few minutes after emerging from a deep fryer. But its flavor was subpar. It tasted fishy and had a stringy texture. It was not a keeper.

In hamburgers, there were differing approaches. In Washington, $8 bought one large cheeseburger with two patties at the Five Guys stand. In Baltimore, $8 bought three small cheeseburgers called "sliders" at a stand on Eutaw Street.

The Five Guys burger was cooked to order. Registering 164 degrees on the thermometer, this was a monumental serving of two grilled meat patties swimming with toppings that soon turned the bun to mush. The flavors were classic, reminding me of the burgers of my youth when, for a formative summer, I worked and ate at a drive-in restaurant.

The sliders in Baltimore were appealing in a cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger kind of way. Topped with onions, registering 132 degrees, the three little burgers were comforting and filling. I gave the nod to the cooked- to-order Washington burger.

I had to wait in long lines to get a hot dog in either park, proving once again there is an undeniable link between baseball and hot dogs. I picked the star or top dog out of the extensive lineup of sausages at both parks. At Camden Yards, it was the grilled dog, a $5 beauty with peppers and onions, sold at stands on Eutaw Street. In Washington, I went for the $6.75 half-smoke chili dog with onions at Ben's Chili Bowl stand.

Both dogs were hot - 126 degrees in Baltimore, 161 in Washington - delivered strong flavors despite being smothered in toppings, and were impossible to eat in a dignified manner. The Baltimore dog was a better value; the Washington dog had an unusually snappy skin. I'm big on skin, and so the Washington dog won by a nose.

Thanks in large part to Baltimore's Boog Powell, baseball games and barbecue sandwiches have become a happy couple. But the $8 pit-beef sandwich I snagged on a cold game day at Boog's stand on Eutaw Street was lukewarm, 100 degrees and chewy. Down in D.C., the smoked brisket sandwich served at the Red Hot and Blue stand was more expensive ($10.50). But served in a foil wrapper, it was warmer, registering 115 degrees, tender and had decent flavor.

As for the beer, I thought it was a tie between the two drafts of high-end imports I tasted at the parks. In Washington, the Pilsner Urquell at the outfield's Red Porch bar was initially a little too cold, 38 degrees, but soon warmed up to a drinkable 43 degrees. The Stella Artois, served at 40 degrees at Baltimore's Bud Lite Warehouse, also got better as it warmed.

As for beers with a local connection, the Wild Goose India Pale Ale, brewed in Frederick and served on tap at the microbrew stands in Camden Yards, was a solid performer, with good body and nice hop bite. There are 13 different brands of beer on tap at Nationals Park, a spokesman for Centerplate, the ballpark concessionaire, said. None is locally brewed. I had Home Run Ale on draft. It, according to the Centerplate spokesman, is brewed by Jacob Leinenkugel in Wisconsin. It was an unimpressive light hitter.

Summing up, I found the fare at the Nationals' ballpark to be more expensive than Camden Yards, but for the most part the flavors were sharper.

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