Middle relief

At Tropicana Field, the food's better than the bullpen

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click to enlarge FARE BALL: The "Stinger Dog," in all its caloric glory, takes in the game from the front row. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
FARE BALL: The "Stinger Dog," in all its caloric glory, takes in the game from the front row.

My desire for a Devil Rays "Stinger Dog" has grown from complete ignorance to a fever pitch (no pun intended) in just under an hour. Posters crow about this special treat from every available pole in the place, and I grabbed a couple of dollar-off coupons from the bin at the stadium's entrance. But when I finally hit Tropicana Field's Grand Slam concession bar, I'm too excited to remember the potential savings in my pocket.

Editor Max and I carry the boxed dog into the stadium, all the way down to the first row of seats above one of the dugouts. The preternaturally bright dome lights cast everything into sharp relief, especially the vibrant green turf currently tainted by Cleveland Indians players. It feels like I just switched from regular vision to HD.

I suffer an interminable few minutes as Max takes glamour shots of the newly revealed dog — "Stinger," it turns out, is merely code for chili and cheese — but when B.J. Upton smacks a homer off of C.C. Sabathia, I've had enough. So has Max. After a few screams of support for the hard-hitting Rays, we start gnawing at opposite ends of the Stinger in a homoerotic homage to Lady and the Tramp, giant video monitors exploding above us in kaleidoscopic home-run frenzy. I think I'm Tramp, but I could be wrong.

Wait a minute, let's rewind. The Stinger isn't even the first dog I've downed tonight. And it won't be the last.

Within minutes of arriving at Tropicana Field, we were ushered into the vaunted halls of the Whitney Bank Club, the Rays' attempt at keeping up with the upscale ball-game fare of the Giants, Red Sox and Orioles. Ever wondered what a $140 ticket to see a mediocre baseball team (who can still sweep the Yankees) will get you? Quite a lot, actually.

Drinks are free, with top-shelf brands poured liberally alongside sudsy Miller products. But I'm here for the long row of buffet stations facing the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It looks like a high-end hotel buffet — red slices of seared tuna with ginger dipping sauce, pasta tossed with cream and cheese to order, and white coats carving glistening hunks of roast strip steak. Everything I sample is nicely seasoned, finely cooked and on par with the banquet dining executed by your better catering companies and mid-range Vegas casinos. Even the hot dogs are classy.

The $140 Whitney Club dog is the same Hebrew National Kosher frank served down in the plebeian concessions, but there is something to be said for downing one while sitting high above the fray in a cushioned leather club chair, martini in hand. There are other differences. Down there, the dogs are steamed. Up here, griddled, with blisters of caramelized flesh that add an extra hit of meaty flavor. Down there, the chili is a thin and typical sauce. Up here, a bit of chunk. The club dog is better, but I'd have to eat 27 more to justify the cost of this luxury. Time to see how the rest of the world lives.

Feeling frugal? These days, you can get into a Rays game for a mere $8 and sit in the upper deck, with more leg room than your den. Last year, new owner Stuart Sternberg made parking free to the first 6,000 cars (enough for everyone, unless the Yankees are in town) and allowed fans to bring their own food. That's cheap entertainment, even it means enduring the Rays' bullpen.

But BYOF and you'll miss out. I'm not talking about the low-end veggie burgers at the booth run by the Seminole High Band Boosters or the peanuts from the faux trolley that are warmed to simulate that "fresh-roasted" flavor. I'm not even talking about the "Stinger," although with the coupon that's a dog I'd happily eat again. No, if you search a bit — maybe while the Rays are in the field — you'll find some character hidden deep within the bowels of the Trop.

In a little strip of independently operated concessions behind right field is a tiny stand called American Sunday Plate. Much too innocuous a name for a place with an Atwater (Chef Elzo Jr.) behind the counter, dishing out smoked meats and sides that easily rival those served at his storied St. Pete soul-food temple.

For $11 you'll get a bucket of small but meaty rib chunks that are better than most in town — heavily smoked, the luscious meat tearing easily from the bone. There's enough here to stuff a beer-soaked fan or feed a small family, especially if you throw in some creamy mac-and-cheese and stewed greens.

Got kids? Next door to Atwater's place is a restaurant catering to the smallest fans with items like a $2 PB&J and the "Coopie" ($3), an ingenious invention: pie and cookie, two great tastes that taste great together. The kids'll love it, and you can let them run the sugar off in the Trop's empty upper deck.

Stick with ribs, coopies and the authentic Italian sausage ($6) loaded up with onions and peppers, but skip the Outback stand. The steak has the mealy texture and odd flavor of an extended wet marinade in some salty bullion, and the fries just taste, well, a little off. Maybe the seemingly constant parade of crisp and greasy bloomin' onions streaming into the stands taints the fry oil with its breaded pungency.

Let's face it, no one is going to a Rays game for the food. Like any stadium or event, the dining options are over-priced for the quality, conforming to the classic calculation of captive audience and high overhead.

That said, anyone who wants to watch our young players smack the Yankees around can find some fine eats, whether you're spending $140 for highfalutin' buffet fare, $11 for a bucket of Atwater's or $4 for a discount Stinger. Hopefully that smorgasbord can fortify you through the optimistic excitement of early season success and the inevitable disappointment of another sub-70 win season. Go Rays!

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertsing.

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