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Ballpark fare more than first-rate at AT&T Park

Delicious culinary scene creates unique ballpark environment

The scent is strong and unusual, enough that if you were blindfolded, walked for two miles and were dropped anywhere inside this sprawling venue, you would still know exactly where you are.

All it takes is one whiff of the garlic sizzling atop French fries to understand this. Combine that with a made-to-order mandate that keeps the scents flowing with regularity for hours, and it's not all that surprising that the garlic fries are one of the best things going at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

OK, obviously, it's not the only thing the Giants have going. They've won two World Series since 2010, they boast a solid, contending bunch year after year and they play to sold-out crowds on a nightly basis. In order of importance, sure, you'd have to start there.

But in the category of deliciousness, they have that market cornered, too. And it starts, unquestionably, with the garlic fries.

It doesn't really matter if you actually order them for yourself. The scent is everywhere. They're grilled fresh at 10 kiosks throughout AT&T Park, and the aftereffects are far-reaching, traveling through every nook and cranny of the Giants' home venue and making it the aroma most relatable to returning customers.

"You can smell it from a mile away," said Sandie Filipiak, who oversees the entire food operation for the ballpark concessionaire, Centerplate. "It's like an addiction."

That's a good thing, of course, for the people selling the fries. But could it be problematic for those who are eating them, especially if they're, say, close-talkers, or on a date, or, even worse, targeted for Kiss Cam?

We are, after all, talking about garlic.

No worries. Every order of fries comes with an offer of -- tada! -- peppermints.

It's the little things that ensure garlic fries remain one of the hottest sellers at Giants games. Consider for a moment the efforts of the lone employee who spends, without exaggeration, eight hours a day chopping the parsley that is sprinkled on top of the fries.

"It's not anything in a jar, which would be a shortcut and obviously easier," Filipiak said. "But that's not what we do here. It's all fresh. It's a big part of the flavor."

The same could be said about any number of food items offered at AT&T Park. Over the last couple of decades, ballpark fare across the country has vastly improved as teams looked to add prestige, and maybe a little sophistication, to the standard favorites. More and more, Major League clubs are taking deliberate measures to incorporate the history and traditions of their cities into their offerings at ballgames.

The days of spilled beer and smushed hot dog buns on the concourse being considered part of a ballpark's charm are long over. The rash of new stadiums built over the last two decades brought with them higher expectations not confined to just on-field performance. A ballgame is a night out, and it's not a cheap ticket. The experience must be worth the price of admission, and without fail, food continues to be an important part of the overall entertainment value of attending a baseball game.

Given the cultural diversity and rich history that has served as a springboard for world-famous dishes found in an array of restaurants in the Bay Area, it's not at all surprising that AT&T Park's food offerings have not only been lauded by San Francisco natives, but also by critics and visitors from far-away places.

Approximately a dozen media outlets visit AT&T Park every year to feature its fare.

"We're looked at as a destination spot for food," said Shana Daum, the Giants' vice president of public affairs and community relations.

The Giants have two very important elements in their favor: They've incorporated food concepts with a slew of famous San Francisco eateries around town, and they have some serious star power on their side when it comes to naming the dishes.

Sausages are standard fare at a lot of ballparks, sure. But wouldn't you be even more moved to buy one if it's named "Say Hey Sausage" after Hall of Famer Willie "Say Hey Kid" Mays?

The same goes for the Cha Cha Bowl, the signature item found at Orlando's Caribbean BBQ behind center field. Named after Giants Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, the Cha Cha Bowl is a Puerto Rican-inspired dish featuring black beans, seasoned rice and jerk chicken topped with pineapple salsa. It's healthy and relatively guilt-free, which makes the heaping portions a justifiable indulgence that won't wreak havoc on the waistline.

Cepeda has two nicknames: "Cha Cha," which he earned during his time with the Cardinals after he brought a stereo into the clubhouse to share his beloved salsa music with teammates, and "Baby Bull," ("Peruchin" in Spanish), a nod for being a chip off the old block of his father, legendary Puerto Rican star Pedro Perucho "The Bull" Cepeda.

Fittingly, two nicknames earn you two signature dishes. Say hello to the Baby Bull Tri-Tip sandwich: a healthy portion of grilled beef, marinated with red wine and served on a soft roll.

The Tri-Tip stand is a stone's throw from the Cha Cha Bowl and makes up a small portion of an expansive food court that dominates the area behind the bleachers in center field. In the old days, the area the furthest from home plate might be relegated to lesser, simpler fare of hot dogs and draft beer. But not at AT&T Park.

The outfield concourse is bustling, jam packed with spectators and the place to be as much as an hour before first pitch. Straight ahead, fans can watch the visitors take their final cuts during batting practice. Behind them, they can take in the breathtaking view of the Bay that makes this ballpark setting one of the most picturesque in baseball.

And, of course, the center-field area is a great place for another activity: face-stuffing.

"These are bleacher seats, which would be, in most ballparks, the least expensive seats you can find," Filipiak said. "But they have some of the best food out here. That was the goal."

Check. For the deeper-pocketed fans -- or those who don't mind splurging every now and again -- the Crazy Crab'z Sandwich is a must-taste. It's a little pricey at $15, but like most dishes at this ballpark, it's worth it.

Its namesake was the Giants' mascot when they still played at Candlestick Park. Actually, the Crazy Crab was sort of the anti-mascot, the furthest thing from adorable. He became somewhat of a cult figure for no other reason than because he was usually pelted with debris by less-than-admiring fans every time he stepped onto the field.

Suffice it to say, Mr. Crab has come a long way since those dark days. Sure, he was replaced by the lovable and highly entertaining Lou Seal, but from Crab's legacy, a sandwich -- rich, tasty, scrumptious -- was born.

"It's made from Dungeness crab, which is indigenous to this area," said chef Touissant Potter, who along with chef Sean Kavanaugh, is responsible for ensuring deliciousness exists at every corner of AT&T Park. "We make it real simple -- it goes on sourdough bread, topped with garlic butter and parsley, and grilled to perfection. Right off the grill, right into the customer's hands."

Perhaps no other team is better at reflecting its home city's rich culinary flavor than the Giants. The seemingly endless list of food options offers some of San Francisco's most revered brand names. A Taste of North Beach, for example, features the traditional Stinking Rose Forty Clove Garlic Chicken Sandwich, the Meatball Sandwich from U.S. Restaurant, tiramisu from Victoria Pastry and spicy Italian sausage topped with peppers and onions.

Then there's Ghirardelli Chocolate -- need we say more? This kiosk rewards even the most hopeless sweets addicts with ice cream, hot fudge sundaes and root beer floats. Guiseppe Bazurro's, named after the famous San Francisco restaurateur during the Gold Rush heyday of the 19th century, offers pizzas and "bazurros," fresh flat bread, filled with luscious salads and lightly rolled.

John J. McGraw's Derby Grill, named after the Hall of Fame manager, features premium hot dogs and sausages, burgers, fries, beer and peanuts. There's also the Sheboygan Bratwurst, an authentic, Midwest-style bratwurst served directly from grill on a grilled sourdough roll topped with sauerkraut and onions.

And on. And on. And on.

When you're on your way to a ballgame, it's a good idea to bring a glove. When you're headed to AT&T Park, be sure to bring your appetite, too.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.
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