If anybody deserves a heaping helping of comfort food right now, it’s Seattle Mariners fans.
The team can’t hit, it is rapidly playing its way out of playoff contention and its biggest star got caught napping in the clubhouse.
Lucky for M’s fans, Safeco Field is still one of the Major League’s culinary juggernauts.
The menus at Safeco’s 83 concession stands offer more than 500 ways for fans to forget their sorrows – including 12 different hot dogs, at least five styles of fries and 99 different beers.
In short, the Mariners and their concession contractor, Connecticut-based Centerplate, have gone to great lengths to make sure fans are at least happy with what they eat.
You want sweets? Try the Ghirardelli brownies or a chocolate chip cookie the size of home plate. Something healthy? Try a veggie dog or a fruit smoothie. Want to forget the diet for a few innings? Go with the poutine fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Want to stick to the classics? They have peanuts and Cracker Jacks, too.
“It’s fair to say that for most people, a ballgame is a time of reward,” said Bob Pascal, spokesman for Centerplate. “The more popular items are traditional ballpark food. With that said, we want to ensure those who want healthier items have options, too.”
I recently decided to put the breadth of Safeco’s menu to the test by inviting my 9-year-old son, Alex, and some friends to eat our way through a game.
We arrived hungry enough to eat the Mariner Moose and with the goal of answering a simple question: Could the ballpark food satisfy me, a 36-year-old wannabe cyclist following a strict training regimen, and Heiner Devereux, a Puyallup 13-year-old who eats like a hummingbird – five times his body weight per day?
FIRST PITCH: HIT IT HERE CAF
Typically you need a $40-$52 ticket (which includes an $18 food voucher) to sit in the Hit It Here Café beyond the right field wall. However, when seats are available, anybody can get a seat in the café.
When Safeco Field opened in 1999, Ken Griffey Jr. used to rattle the glass on the restaurant with gargantuan home-run blasts. Today, patrons need not worry about having their meals interrupted.
As the game got under way with two quick Mariners fielding errors, we started our night by ordering a Seattle Dog ($10), an order of roasted Chipotle Honey Glazed Wings ($14) and a cup of Dungeness Crab Chowder ($6).
Heiner dutifully went to work sampling everything. I meant to eat just one chicken wing and load up on more healthful stuff later, but I was done in by temptation.
The Seattle Dog came on a toasted pretzel bun and was adorned with cream cheese. I’ve sampled concession stands at 20 Major League ballparks and never have seen such an appealing hot dog.
But it wasn’t the dog that did me in. It was my curiosity about the deep-fried pickle that came on the side. I sliced off a relatively harmless bite. I rarely eat anything fried. To my inexperienced palette, it didn’t taste any different from simultaneously eating a pickle and a french fry. In other words, it was good.
The group raved about the wings, dog and the buttery chowder, too. By the end of the night, even after consuming enough food to feed Fife, Heiner still ranked the wings and chowder as his favorite dishes.
FOURTH INNING: ICHIROLLS
By the fourth inning, Tampa Bay was leading 1-0 and we made our way to the bullpen viewing area beyond the left field wall.
A row of concession stands here offered everything from pulled pork sandwiches to teriyaki chicken. But it was my turn to order something more healthful, so I went with the Ichiroll.
The Ichiroll ($10) is spicy tuna sushi named for Mariner’s outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. The cook rolled the sushi in front of us.
While I enjoyed the sushi, the combination of wasabi, seaweed and tuna didn’t sit well with Heiner, so he only had two pieces.
“Items like that (Ichiroll) enable us to offer some local flavor,” Pascal said. “It’s important to do that.”
FIFTH INNING: VEGGIE DOGS AND BURRITOS
By the fifth inning, we settled into the seats behind the third base dugout and got serious about sampling the food.
As the Mariners went down in order, I headed to The Natural, a health food stand on the main concourse. The lone worker looked bored watching fans zip by with all manner of ballpark food – not even glancing at his baskets of bananas, pears and oranges ($1.50 each).
The Mariners added the health food stand this year even though it’s not nearly as popular as other stands, said Centerplate general manager Scott McNair. Safeco Field had a similar stand, The Healthy Hut, when it first opened, but it was shut down because of lack of business and items were scattered among other concession stands.
“It’s not the fad it used to be, but we think it’s important to offer it one place,” McNair said.
I ordered a slender $4.50 veggie dog, but was disappointed to see it came on a standard white bun. I tossed the bun and was left wishing I also had ordered a hummus platter ($8) or an organic smoothie ($6).
Mariners spokeswoman Rebecca Hale says the hottest sellers at the stadium include chicken tenders, hot dogs, nachos and french fries.
During the course of the game, Heiner sampled them all – after warming up with a burrito. The burrito seemed to be one of the better deals in the stadium. The large $7 burrito was stuffed full of chicken, lettuce, black beans and tomatoes.
SIXTH INNING: POUTINE WITH PRIDE
Poutine is the Medusa of french fries. Just look at it and your arteries turn to stone.
According to Pascal, nobody knows for sure how many calories or grams of fat are in Safeco’s newest indulgence. Centerplate has hired a nutritionist to study all of the concession items, but its unclear whether the numbers will be made public.
King County laws requiring many restaurants to display nutritional information don’t apply to Safeco concession stands because they are not part of a restaurant chain, Hale said.
But you don’t need numbers to know poutine fries aren’t healthful.
The idea for the fries came from their rise in popularity in Seattle’s street food scene and the stadium’s proximity to Canada. Blame Canada for first deciding to smother its fries in beef gravy and cheese curds.
The fries are made from Kennebec potatoes grown by Bud-Rich Potatoes in Hermiston, Ore., and have a reputation for being creamy but firm with a slight nutty taste. The cheese curds come from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Pike Place Market.
“It’s not just Canadian carnival food,” Pascal said. “This is poutine made with pride.”
SEVENTH INNING: GARLIC FRIES
Most nights by the seventh inning stretch, Jim Makinson is on his way home. Makinson is Centerplate’s executive chef at Safeco. On game day,s he starts work at 7 a.m. to coordinate the work of as many as 1,200 people to prepare food for the 83 concession stands.
“It’s a challenge,” said Makinson, who previously worked for Norwegian Cruise Line and a restaurant in Friday Harbor. “You just have to stay on top of it.”
Makinson said calculating the right amount of food to prepare is one of his most important duties. He doesn’t want to run out of food before the game ends or waste food. Extra food often is taken to local homeless shelters, he said.
On this particular night, we did our part to make sure Makinson didn’t have too many leftovers. Despite consuming almost everything in sight – including a handful of kettle corn from the guy sitting in front of us – Heiner still was hungry. So I handed him one of Safeco’s top sellers: chicken strips and garlic fries ($9).
From a distance, this looked like just another basket of deep-fried comfort food. But a closer look revealed this dish was more healthful than I thought. It came with four apple wedges.
I ate the apples and Heiner went for the chicken. But as the inning wound down and the Mariners once again were retired in order, I started to notice Heiner was slowing down.
NINTH INNING: THE GIANT COOKIE
Heiner still held the remnants of his garlic fries basket in his hands when the rest of us were passing around a 9-inch cookie. The moist chocolate chip cookie was covered with the Safeco Field logo made out of powdered sugar.
Heiner reached out to break off a piece when his dad pulled it away. “Hey, you have to finish your dinner before you get dessert,” he joked.
Never mind Heiner already had two chocolate-covered strawberries ($5.50) back in the fifth inning.
Heiner took the challenge. As we cheered him on, he polished off the last few fries.
By our best calculations, I finished the night consuming about 750 calories, well within my goal. Meanwhile, Heiner sampled 15 different items and downed closer to 4,000 calories.
More importantly, we both were full and declared our culinary experiment a success.
But we weren’t quite done.
When Mariners short stop Jack Wilson struck out to end the game, a 5-2 loss, we all broke off a small piece of what remained of the massive cookie.
When you’re in the middle of an eight-game losing streak, there’s always more room for comfort food.
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497, email@example.com