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June 27th, 2001 Zach Dundas | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Not Your Daddy's Ballpark Frank

PGE Park is a new-school paradise for the sporting glutton.

     
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Some insiders are calling the Widmer beer garden at PGE Park "the new ¡Oba!"
IMAGE: martin thiel
Under ordinary circumstances, to call ballpark food "interesting" would be to bestow a highly dubious honor. Generally, you want ballpark food to be as uninteresting as possible, since any "interesting" factors would likely entail lengthy gastric situations. The seventh-inning stretch is meant to be a time of enjoyment and revelry, not vicious cramps and sinister gurgling.

The vast majority of arenas in the United States have thus come up with a depressing but commercially astute formula for their food: It's factory-built, unimaginative and bland as heck, and the bastards charge you whopping fees for the privilege of consuming their miserable protein containers and carbo-pills. One basketball-friendly garden has already presented itself for Portlanders' consideration; the reader is invited to draw his or her own conclusions on that one.

Thanks and praise, then, to the culinary approach chosen by Portland Family Entertainment for the city's newest sports venue, PGE Park (né Civic Stadium). Whatever logistical complications may have dogged the renovated stadium's management since its May opening (see recent and--no doubt--coming weeks' Buzz sections), Marshall Glickman, Mark Gardiner et al. did themselves proud with the menu now available to the sporting public during Beavers baseball, Timbers soccer and, soon enough, Portland State football games.

Three key factors separate the PGE fare, solid and liquid, from the crap shoveled at most stadiums: PGE's offerings are varied (showing a degree of honest-to-God food savvy), relatively cheap and, most important, local.

While the food and drink at many stadiums comes from the same class of dodgy purveyors that serve hospitals, prisons, elementary schools and other gulags of the soul, Portlanders will immediately recognize many of the merchants at PGE. You have Pizzicato Pizza, Widmer beer, Good Dog Bad Dog sausages and Boyd's coffee. Jana's Cookies, a local large-scale cookie maker, is in charge of chocolate chips. If life is really good and you have access to one of the stadium's pavilion suites, you may grub on post-yuppie home cookin' from Ken's Home Plate or Hawaiian delights from NoHo's.

So all this quasi-gourmet action must be punitively priced, right? Not really. The PFE gang managed to wrangle deals whereby the local brand-name vendors sell their products for the same prices charged at their regular retail locations. As a soccer fan might say after a Mark Baena goal, ¡Olé!

To borrow a metaphor from the other sport played at PGE during the summer, let's take a quick around-the-horn appraisal of the eating and drinking options at PGE.

We'll start in the area a PFE employee was once heard to describe as "the new ¡Oba!"--the Widmer beer garden. While this drinking corral, which stretches along the first baseline for baseball or the near touchline for soccer, isn't nearly so annoying or dot-glammed as that Pearl District trendspot ("Fewer fake racks," noted the PFE'er in question), it is as consistently jammed. In fact, the beer garden's seating area seems packed even when attendance in the stands is thin. You sometimes get the feeling that the sports event is entirely secondary to many of the young things mingling here.

This popularity creates long (very long, sometimes) lines for both Widmer's brew and the Good Dog Bad Dog sausages served there. In most cases, however, the wait is worth it. There's no denying the satisfaction of tying into a real ale at a game for $4.50, after so many $6 Budweisers at other arenas. The one flaw here is the peremptory way in which sales are cut off, after the seventh inning of baseball games and after the 65th minute of soccer matches. Both sports obviously have had their alcohol problems in the past, and it's necessary to end sales at some point. However, there's nothing quite so infuriating as being refused service not five seconds after the smug schlub in front of you buys a round, especially after standing in line for 10 minutes. PFE should figure out a more graceful way to handle the situation.

Outside, the key feature of the garden is the smoldering grill, where GDBD dawgs ($3.50-$4.50), hamburgers, chicken and--your lucky day--garden burgers are available with all the fixings. A rich brat with kraut and a side of potato salad go excellently well with a hefeweizen from the bar--a few rounds of this combo and you might convince yourself the Timbers are playing Bayern Munich instead of the El Paso Patriots. The "Oregon smoky" does a good job of living up to its name, though it pales in comparison with the evil Swing for the Fences dog, a monster meat-tube the size of a peewee baseball bat.

You can escape with a sausage and a side or two for about $8. The hamburgers, available in two sizes, are decent, but frankly (gosh, a pun!), the dogs have 'em beat.

In the stands, vendors shill for the usual ballpark munchies--though at PGE, the peanuts ($2) are actually roasted and the popcorn ($2-$3.50) popped on-site, providing very welcome freshness. Up on the stadium concourses, two options stand out from the pretzels, nachos and beef franks offered by a series of kiosks marked with cheery neon invitations to "EAT HERE." First, the kosher hot dogs, closer in spirit to a traditional ballpark frank than the fare in the beer garden, are pure salty goodness. Second, there are Pizzicato's pies. The schmancy 'za chain plays it pretty safe at PGE, mostly dishing up cheese and pepperoni pies. On busy nights when the pizza's moving fast, it's safe to say these are some of the better slices ($2.50-$3.50) available at any ballpark in the country. On the other hand, slow nights simply prove that even boutique pizza sucks when it spends a few innings baking under heat lamps.

PGE offers other options, too, many designed and priced to pacify a hungry brood while Dad tries to explain the intricacies of infield defensive strategy. While not every dish at Portland's new/old stadium is a home run, necessarily, the refreshing approach taken by PFE insures that the food here really hits for above average. And with that, the bad sports metaphors, as well as this review, end. Amazingly, astoundingly, unbelievably, the effort to secure $150 million in state money with which to build our very own Field of Dreams is still alive. This, despite the stated intention of legislative opponents to take up pitchforks and torches and pursue the mutating plan into the hills. Last week, Gov. John Kitzhaber suddenly announced his willingness to sign a redesigned financing package that would tap income taxes from players' salaries to cover state bonds.

So-provided anti-stadium warrior Lenn Hannon (a normally jovial Republican senator from Ashland) can't find a stake that will puncture this plan's heart, provided the owner of a troubled franchise like the Expos or As can stomach provisions requiring him/her to take up any discrepancy between actual and expected payroll, provided the Major League overlords approve the first franchise move since 1971 (and, given a sweet deal, they would), provided the city can line up a location for a stadium-play ball!

A couple of weeks ago, this Xtra version of G!F!W! mentioned an email forum on baseball stadium financing proctored (gross!) by the website Politalk.com. The two-week email debate featured heavy-hitters like sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, journalist Neil deMause and a host of others. The wide-ranging and EXTREMELY long-winded discussion touched on stadium controversies from Portland to Boston to Minneapolis (where the same folks who showed no compunction about stealing the Washington Senators 40 years ago now panic over the prospect of losing the Twins). While many interesting points rose and fell, the forum ultimately yielded a few salient conclusions:

1) Taxpayer subsidies for ballparks usually amount to a rip-off.

1a) Except when they don't.

2) Stadiums don't really stimulate economic activity.

2a) Or maybe they do.

Perhaps the most interesting real-life scenario explored was the battle royale over the fate of Boston's Fenway Park. The Red Sox, like every other damn team, think they need a new stadium to "compete" (although they seem to be doing fine right now, old dump notwithstanding), and they've spent some serious hours in smoke-filled rooms winning over Mass political types, a notoriously agreeable breed.

Mysteriously, however, the Sox have failed to convince either the public or the banks that their $600-million-plus new stadium is a worthwhile investment, and now multiple proposals for much cheaper retrofits of Fenway are bubbling, unbidden, to the surface. Meanwhile, the powerful grassroots effort to save America's greatest ballpark (OK, neck 'n' neck with Wrigley-my editor's a Cubs fan, and I don't want to piss him off) can be visited at www.savefenwaypark.org. Check it out to get a preview of the rigamarole Portland baseball fans will face in 90 years.

For a while, before moderator Tim Erickson got sick of the go-nowhere bickering, the Politalk debate stuck on whether or not baseball can actually survive the 21st century. Is it a slow, outmoded anachronism doomed to extinction at the hands of roller hockey and NASCAR? Or will the game survive? Nasty sniping from both sides naturally failed to resolve a bloody thing on this point. The argument happened to coincide, however, with the ballyhooed opening of two new minor league parks in New York; one of them, the Coney Island home of the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones, inspired no end of teary-eyed Dodger nostalgia in the press.

To my mind, the Cyclones' inaugural home stand summed up both what's wrong and what's enduring about baseball. On the former score, the spate of nostalgia reached nearly intolerable levels, especially since the Dodgers' relocation to LA is historical proof positive that there were no "good old days" in baseball. The so-called "golden age" of baseball? Look at the facts: There were only 16 big-league teams, almost all playing east of the Mississippi; the owners, then as now, were unscrupulous moneygrubbers; and until Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, there were no black players. Walter O'Malley's betrayal of Brooklyn was only the most glaring of numerous atrocities perpetrated in the so-called "golden age"-without even mentioning the 1919 World Series and its hideous aftermath, I rest my case.

On the other hand, the Cyclones much-heralded debut proved, once again, that there is a mighty appetite for baseball in the land. Baseball, to be appreciated in all its glory, has to be seen live. There is a nation of fans willing to pay for the privilege as long as prices are reasonable, a fact underscored by the steady increase in minor-league attendance over the last decade and proliferation of independent pro circuits like the rambunctious Northern League. I would submit that no one is sick of baseball-people are sick of being screwed by baseball. There is a difference, and I expect people in this country will be arguing about it for decades to come.

Finally, let's take a break from all this team-sports tomfoolery and give props to the fans of a real test of athletic skill and guile-pro wrestling! The Portland-based wrestling 'zine Polar Bear Vixen has an awesome new issue out, with articles on lucha libre (that would be Mexican wrestling, folks), Rollerball and-of course-actor Bruce Campbell, star of the Evil Dead movies. Grab a copy of PBV (the new 'un has Johnny Cash on the cover-go figure) at Reading Frenzy (921 SW Oak St., 274-1449). Do it, or editor Rose City Rudo will kick your ass.


PGE Park
1844 SW Morrison St.




Open during baseball, soccer and football games, with occasional concerts and other special events. See www.pgepark.com for schedules. Ticket prices vary.




Picks: The beers, the brats, the kosher dogs. Doesn't get any simpler than that, does it?




The beer garden bar's lovely blond wood comes from old Civic Stadium bleachers.
 
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