Ballpark food often triggers early baseball memories churned out from childhood, when fans first grew acquainted with the game. It could be the crunch of a peanut shell, that first bite of a hot dog or when Mom brought cotton candy back to your seat. Those classics remain for young fans to experience for the first time, but it's natural for ballpark menus to evolve as new culinary tastes continue to saturate every corner of society.
In other words, baseball fare has come a long way from just peanuts and Cracker Jack. And U.S. Cellular Field continues to be on the cutting edge with offerings that cater to White Sox fans of all tastes.
Sure, U.S. Cellular Field has hot dogs. It's the most popular item in the ballpark as Sportservice and Levy Restaurants -- the White Sox two concessionaires -- can attest to. There are the traditional encased meats sold by those trusted vendors who walk up and down the stadium's aisles. Then there's the unmistakable smell of onions crisping from the various flat-top grills that top a Polish sausage or Vienna Red Hot. Out in Section 154, there's even the "Comiskey Dogs" cart that serves fans Chicago-style hot dogs with all the fixings.
"You can't have a great product on the field and serve them poor food in the seats," said Joey Nigro, Sportservice general manager at U.S. Cellular Field. "It kind of takes away from the whole experience."
Nigro is responsible for food and drink for the main concourse and 500 level. Sportservice goes through an annual process of evaluating what fans want, what works, what doesn't and what can be added. It sure sounds a lot like what the White Sox front office does every offseason with the roster, and that's not lost upon Nigro. He talks to vendors about new items, takes a look at what other parks and stadiums have tried and determines what makes sense for the organization.
So how did Nigro and his staff assess what the fan base wanted? He called on the help of the White Sox' most important asset: the fans. About 200 of them participated in a season-ticket-holder survey during the offseason. One of the survey's revelations was that fans wanted tacos available inside the ballpark. The team then moved into action, and the results are already showing. The early favorite for Rookie of the Year is the 35th Street Tacos cart in Section 138. Fans can watch the staff prepare fresh tacos wrapped in corn tortillas and topped with pork carnitas, diced onions, cilantro and lime. There's also a beef barbacoa option with shredded lettuce and cheese. The popularity of the tacos has Nigro already planning an expansion with a second cart on the way at a to-be-determined location.
Quality and affordability remain the keys for Nigro. And just like the team, Sportservice strives for consistency. Nigro wants to ensure fans attending the final home game -- hopefully in October -- get the same quality food as they would while attending the season opener in April. The ballpark's veteran staff is committed to maintaining high standards.
The Sox concession staff also has to stay on their toes. Take last season's rookie sensation, bacon on a stick. Instead of being content that last year's taste was good enough, the staff sought to improve the product. The thick-cut slice of bacon served on a wooden skewer returned a little sweeter thanks to a new coat of maple glaze. Fans could find that at the Burger Barn at Sections 139 and 529. Also new this year were the avocado/bacon grilled cheese and tomato basil bisque (Sections 110 and 544), the grilled chicken caesar wrap (Sections 122 and 529), fried pickle chips (Section 110) and garlic fries (Sections 110 and 544).
The Sox fare doesn't just have a savory side as fans with a sweet tooth had more options as well. Past right field in Section 105, Comiskey Confections debuted with crème brûlée cheesecake, brown butter and sea salt marshmallow squares, as well as taffy apples. And the rub? These are all gluten-free options. For those without gluten sensitivities, there are choices including a salted caramel cream puff and red velvet and peanut butter cupcakes. Plus, for those summer days when the mercury rises, the booth has fans covered with soft-serve and other ice cream selections.
Getting back to those with special diets, fans seated in the Club Level, Diamond Suites or Stadium Club are lucky to have Sonia Respeto as executive chef. She's ready to accommodate anyone with a special request. Fans who attend games on a regular basis will text her with their needs, and she's happy to deliver -- MSG free, gluten free, whatever.
"We get a lot of gluten-free requests that come in on a daily basis, so we try to have an item or two on the menu," Respeto said. "I always make sure a few regulars have my personal chef's number, so if you're coming I can make this happen."
This was Respeto's second year as executive chef, but she's a 17-year ballpark veteran. Last year, the Sox unveiled the chicken and waffle sandwich That remains one of the chef's favorites, along with the chicken tenders. Respeto is also well aware of food trends happening in the restaurant world outside of the ballpark. For example, Bacon Fest, held every spring in University Village, continually draws sell-out crowds of hungry patrons eating a variety of dishes prepared with bacon. Inside the ballpark, Sox fans can enjoy their own festival of bacon with four varieties of bacon strips: barbecue spice, brown sugar-glazed, black pepper and jalapeño.
There's also a level of creativity Respeto can deploy. Take the barbecue rib dinner. Sure, there are plenty of places you can score a succulent slab of pork ribs with crispy cole slaw and cornbread. But finding a rib dinner served in a replica White Sox batting helmet isn't exactly easy. Of course, the popularity of the helmet nachos found in Sections 122, 152 and 523 helped inspire the dish.
"My idea is when I go to the ballpark, I don't want to sit down and eat fancy food," said Respeto. "I want to get down, watch the game and at the same time enjoy my meal without worrying too much about getting messy or eating properly."
Most ticket holders watching the game from the main concourse are familiar with the Cuban Comet cart -- named for the late, great Minnie Miñoso -- stationed in Section 148. However, Levy is now offering an amped-up version of the Cuban sandwich for fans upstairs. The Cubans served at the Club Level have roasted pork, ham and Swiss cheese finished with sliced dill pickles and whole grain mustard. This pressed sandwich is served on French bread.
A trio of sandwiches completed the new offerings for the Club Level and suites. There's the Buffalo chicken sandwich, supplying a chicken wing in a convenient sandwich form. That's a spicy-breaded chicken breast with celery and carrot slaw, topped with creamy blue cheese dressing. That's backed up by the pizza burger. Every roster needs a player who can play multiple positions. When fans can't decide between a slice of pizza or a burger, they don't need to choose. The pizza burger is made from a handmade patty with Italian seasonings, stuffed with fresh mozzarella and served with a dollop of marinara sauce. Rounding out the offerings is the pot roast sandwich just like Mom used to make: a slab of slow-roasted pot roast with a potato croquet, slapped with mushroom jus and served between a brioche roll.
MillerCoors products are abundant at the Cell for those who enjoy the classics, but in recent years there's been a growing desire for variety. U.S. Cellular Field once featured "Beers of the World" stands that sold imported beer because that was the trend. Four years ago, Nigro swapped concepts and introduced "Midwest Brews" stands focused on domestic beers. Fans can find the stands -- with selections from manufacturers such as Revolution Brewery in Chicago and Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, Mich. -- in Sections 109, 141, 155 and 529. There is also Revolution Anti-Hero IPA, Great Lakes Elliot Ness, Bells Oberon, as well as Founders Porter. Not a beer fan? Try a cider from Smith and Forge or Crispin.
"Craft beer is definitely making an impact, and our fans are looking for it," Nigro said.
But not all fans want a beer or a hot dog at the game, so ensuring that fans of all persuasions have the best-possible experience is the reason that U.S. Cellular Field consistently rates favorably on the People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) annual lists of vegetarian-friendly Major League Baseball stadiums. Veggie dogs are available at the "Go Go Sox Grille" (Section 122), "Billy Pierce's All-Star Stand" (Section 130) and "Little Looie's All-Star Stand" (Section 529). Garden burgers are available at the "Go Go Sox Grille," "South Side Hitmen's Grille" (Section 140) and the Rotunda/Redden's Irish Pub and Fan Deck in centerfield.
Vegetarians and carnivores can find common ground with the fan-favorite elotes -- that's corn off the cob. The simplicity of fresh corn topped Mexican style with a choice of lime juice, butter, salt and chili pepper, among other fixings, is a treat. Find elotes in Sections 104, 127, 142 and 529.
Not only does U.S. Cellular Field offer a variety of menu options, but there's also a variety of places to eat. Fans don't need to be confined to their seats. The ChiSox Bar & Grill at Gate 5 is open before the game, offering fans the perfect place to meet. That's run by the Gibsons Restaurant Group, with high-end options such as smoked brisket nachos. This season, the Miller Lite Extra Base club is open to fans ages 21 and older with a game ticket during game days when the space isn't rented out for a private event. The entrance and stairs are located near Section 158 and give fans a unique view, high above left field.
"Whatever the venue, baseball is the focus," said Marc Zuckert, Levy director of operations at U.S. Cellular Field. "A view of the game is the first attribute we work off of, followed closely by fan access to a large number of video displays. In some respects, the atmosphere is dictated by the location within the ballpark and the existing architectural details that we have to work with."
Zuckert reiterated the need for variety. Not many ballparks have steamed Asian-style buns from a Wow Bao cart (Section 158) available. But the variety also extends to budgets.
"We have such a wide array of offerings that everyone should be able to find something that appeals to them at a reasonable price point," said Zuckert. "I run the premium areas, and if you want a hot dog or a value-priced kid's meal, we have that. But if you want chef-carved tenderloin and a sushi platter, we offer that as well.
"The large array of offerings throughout the park allow us to provide the longtime fan favorites like hot dogs, peanuts and popcorn, while also taping into our culinary creativity and provide new and fresh ideas. We actually have often identified culinary trends and added items to the menu before they became mainstream offerings in free-standing restaurants."