Here’s a culinary tale of two baseball games. On a Thursday night, I’m sitting with a friend just behind home plate at Citi Field in Flushing, home of the New York Mets. Our seats, procured via an online reseller, cost $70 each; on other nights, they’d easily run double that. While pitcher Bartolo Colón, all 283 pounds of him, is making quick work of the Pittsburgh Pirates, concierges are canvassing our seating section like first-class flight attendants, handing out menus and taking custom orders on their tablets. Can I get a Jim Beam Manhattan and some Shake Shack? Not a problem. Ten minutes later, I’m drinking a cocktail out of a plastic cup — glassware is not an option — and I’m eating a courier-delivered Shackburger. The patty is underseasoned, with none of the chain’s signature griddle char, but hey, it’s better than waiting in line, right?
On a Friday night, we’re sitting in Citi Field’s upper deck, watching at something of a distance as the Braves crush the Mets. Our tickets were $34 each. There’s no in-seat delivery offered to those occupying these vertiginous environs, so we purchase our Shake Shack the old-fashioned way: by queuing up ourselves. The burger is spectacular — oodles better than the hand-delivered one I’d eaten earlier. It packs a soft, meaty crumble and a salty, crusty exterior. Just one problem: We spent 40 minutes in line for it, not to mention the time spent walking there from our seats and back. We passed nearly a third of the game not actually watching the game.
When Citi Field opened in 2009, it boasted a Shake Shack — New York’s third one ever, which helped make the ballpark a true culinary destination. But now, Danny Meyer’s burger stands are scattered throughout the U.S., the Middle East, Russia, and elsewhere — not to mention throughout New York, where they’re approaching ubiquity. That changes the microeconomic equation: If a venue levies a steep charge for a commodity (a ballgame seat) that’s both in tight supply and effectively unavailable elsewhere (you probably only root for one team), and if the monetary value of that commodity diminishes to zero after three hours (the game always ends), well then maybe that venue isn’t the best place to wait it out for a burger you can get elsewhere. (Unless you’ve splurged on luxury seats with those expeditious concierges, who source their burgers from a separate Shack kitchen exclusively dedicated to them. In fact, this is the only place in America where you can get "authorized" Shake Shack delivery.)
Since its opening, Citi Field has enjoyed a reputation as one of the top American stadiums for good food; its vendors champion local eats over the more generic carnival-style fare found at so many sporting arenas. The utility of the in-seat delivery program notwithstanding, there’s something brilliantly democratic about the fact that the best dining options at this ballpark are found not in an exclusive clubhouse but over by the outfield, near the cheap seats.
You could certainly dine at the high-end at Citi Field, at the terraced Acela Club in left field, or in Pat LaFrieda’s windowless chophouse in the Delta Club. But there are enough windowless chophouses outside of sports stadiums, and presumably if you’re at the ballpark, you want to watch the game. There are plenty of options for where to eat in the stands, some of which are already classics. Here’s my rundown of the more recent additions to the park’s concessions program, from David Chang’s Fuku to Josh Capon’s grilled cheese joint, along with a few older spots thrown in for good measure. That Friday night Shake Shack trip aside, I didn’t wait for more than 10 minutes at any of these venues.
It was rare for me to see more than a single person in line for Danny Meyer’s brand new pizzeria, which is a shame since his newest concept at Citi Field might be his best. (In addition to Shake Shack, he runs a Blue Smoke, French fry joint Box Frites, and El Verano Taqueria.) Papa Rosso is also Meyer’s first Neapolitan pizzeria — at Marta in Manhattan, he sells Roman-style pies with cracker-like crusts.
There’s none of the usual pizzeria visual stimulation at this stand, no chefs pulling bubbling pies out of fire-breathing ovens. You ask for a margherita, and the cashier hands you a 10-inch, pre-made pie in a closed cardboard box. So be it. The tomatoes are fragrant and the mozzarella is milky and unblemished by heat. It’s not quite Motorino quality; the basil is about as discernible as a piece of parsley and the gently underbaked crust isn’t enough to make anyone wax poetic about artisanal kneading techniques. But Papa Rosso is nonetheless an impressive ambassador for New York’s blossoming artisanal pie scene, especially in the context of a venue better known for oil-caked slices (there’s a Two Boots in the upper deck). The white pie packs ricotta as rich as foie gras and maitake mushrooms as heady as dry-aged steak. Know any other ballparks selling maitake mushrooms?
As fried chicken becomes the cool kid of the culinary world, chefs are finding they’re able to command steeper prices for it. Take David Chang’s spicy Fuku sandwich. It costs $12 at Citi Field, $4 more than the same sandwich in the East Village — a steep markup even by ballgame standards.
Is it still worth it? You bet it is. The line is short and the sandwich is perfect. The breading outside is dark and dense; the satisfying crunch evokes a laborious cast iron skillet fry. And the flavor is excellent, salty and spicy as hell. Fuku’s is, without question, one of the country’s great chicken sandwiches, and its Citi Field location, with its non-Momofuku Aramark employees, is the first real sign that Chang can effectively scale this concept. It’s not all flawless, though: During my visit the Fuku fingers were under-fried, with a pale color that evoked something out of the supermarket frozen foods section.
Josh Capon is famous for his expensive steaks, ground beef tacos, tournament-winning burgers, and Instagram photos with celebrities. He is, at his best, a comfort food guy, a trait on fine display here in Flushing with a series of damn good sourdough grilled cheese sandwiches. Get either the broccoli rabe with havarti, light on grease and big on the deep flavor of the greens, or the bacon and tomato marmalade sandwich, a study in smoke and sweet. There’s also a stellar non-grilled option: a muffuletta with capicola, ham, mortadella, provolone, and a generous layer of Cerignola olive salad. Is it the best sandwich in the stadium? It might be. Wait time: less than one minute.
Pat LaFrieda Steak Sandwiches & Pat LaFrieda Burgers
LaFrieda is one of New York’s legit rockstar butchers, and his brand name aims to lure in passersby with the same force as that of a celebrity chef’s name printed on an awning. The reason for this reputation is simple: He blends some of the city’s best burgers, from the vaunted Black Label at Minetta Tavern to the gorgeously beefy Spotted Pig burger. So it’s a shame that at Citi Field, the quality doesn’t live up to the promise — at least, not with the meats.
The steak sandwich showcases filet mignon at its worst: a chewy, gristly serving of beef highlighting the cut’s trademark lack of flavor. The best way to eat this ripoff of a dish is to remove the meat and eat the bread with the caramelized onions and scant bits of bodega-quality melted cheese. LaFrieda’s burgers, available at a separate stand, exhibited the kind of char, salt, and flavor one normally experiences at Shake Shack, albeit with the texture and color of a roofing shingle. The fries, however are majestic: golden ridges ruffled like an accordion surrounding potatoes as fluffy as angel food. Now you know: Get your burgers at Shake Shake; get your fries at LaFrieda.
El Verano Taqueria
New Yorkers may have become more adventurous and discriminating consumers of serious Mexican fare in recent years, but the same can’t be said for the fast-casual space, and Danny Meyer’s Citi Field spot (open since 2009) still serves tacos that are seriously better than any of its peers, Chipotle included. It’s enough to make you wonder why, despite its flaws, Meyer hasn’t expanded the El Verano brand.
The corn tortillas exude a sweet maize aroma, and yes, they’re maybe a little thicker and chewier than they ought to be, but that’s what it takes to keep them from disintegrating en route to your seats. Barbacoa (shredded beef simmered with ancho chiles) is the best order here, a mess of warming, profoundly beefy bliss. If only Verano used fresher, more perfumed cilantro.
Follow the Sutton Rule. Only order if the wait is under 10 minutes or if you’re sitting in the club seats where the burgers come to you. And if the burger is gray, undersalted, and without char, send it back. The smarter move is to stick with the more reliable Shroomburger, a cheese-field fried mushroom, and the shakes. Burgers are $7.50 at Citi Field, versus $5.29 in the city, a reasonable markup for a stadium.
If you’re thinking of going the classic baseball game route and getting a hot dog, think again. The Nathan’s hot dog ($6.50), available throughout the stadium and with virtually no wait, is infinitely better than Shake Shack’s own frank for three reasons: It’s juicier, it’s snappier, and most importantly, comes in a box with a lid on it, so it stays warm while you walk back to your seat. It took nearly six minutes to get back to my row with one of each vendor’s dog; only Shack Shack’s was cold when I took a bite. Even as stadiums modernize their culinary offerings, sometimes the old school is still the best.