Being the Great American Pastime, baseball’s always going to have its purists — those fans who loathe interleague play and the wild-card setup, who still scoff at the DH and might well spit at the mere mention of Commissioner Bud Selig. In any stadium, on any given night, you can spot one of these guys pretty easily: A sort of sporting Luddite, he’ll be chewing on a stubby half-pencil while keeping score, maybe knocking back a brew and arching an eyebrow at your overdressed red-hot. If smoking in the stands were still allowed, he’d be dragging on a Lucky Strike.
This type of fella might not much care for Nationals Park.
Which means, for our purposes, that you can get a whole heck of a lot more here than your tired old peanuts-and-Cracker Jacks. Whereas the ballparks of yore offered stall after vending-stall of predictable fare, the cathedral in Southeast D.C. presents first-time visitors with a dizzying array of cuisines.
Entering through the left-centerfield gates, you don’t have to know that the heady mix of aromas greeting you results from a cohabitation of several District-area institutions represented in miniature — from Ben’s Chili Bowl to Shake Shack to Hard Times Cafe — for your mouth to commence to watering. But that’s the beauty part: that what’s on offer here, virtually all of it remarkably flavorful, not to mention unexpected, reflects Washington at its many-and-sundry, multitudinous best.
Take, for starters — as many entrants to the ballpark will be wont to do — the Jammin’ Island Outpost. Situated beyond dead-center, the smoke-dense canopy is as arresting to the eye as the nose: It’s the kind of ramshackle-looking tented setup you typically see run by independent vendors outside American stadia, the huge sooty grilling surfaces lined with all manner of dripping, allspice-rubbed meats lapped at by high-heat flame. If it’s a curious fixture, for a baseball field (you might associate Caribbean fare more readily with cricket), it’s also a welcome one. Not to mention filling. A platter of the jerk chicken and ribs served over rice will run you nearly $20 — steep even by gouging live-sport standards — but it’ll be all you need for nine innings, a ridiculously savory mash-up of smoke and heat that’s in all likelihood either too big a portion or too zippy on the palate to finish by yourself. (And of course we mean this as a compliment.)
Spicy seems to be the operative profile at many of the park’s other exciting eateries. A trio of chile-marinated skirt-steak soft tacos from El Verano — one of several vaunted Union Square Hospitality Group outlets to have added concessionaries in the park in the past year or so — were blazingly piquant, their delayed heat actually too much for one of this reviewer’s companions; apparently, El Verano’s not one to water things down in pursuit of broad-spectrum mass appeal. In any event, it has to be said that the true star of El-V’s show is the elote, a Mexican street-food variety of corn on the cob. A steamed ear slathered in mayo, sprinkled liberally with Cotija cheese and coated in cayenne, this delectable textural mezcla should look forward to burgeoning prominence as a choice ballpark finger-food.
Sadly, not all the new offerings go over quite so gloriously. The ballyhooed Blue Smoke disappointed with a pulled-pork sandwich that veered along a vector opposite El Verano’s — that is to say, bland and listless — and would’ve been merely forgettable were it not for the mealy quality of the titular component. (It also suffers by comparison with the barbecue on offer some 40 miles up the road, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards’s deservedly famous Boog’s.) The same goes for the ubiquitous Boardwalk Fries, a pallid offering whose moniker serves only to remind that these are decidedly not what you can get at Thrasher’s, on the actual Ocean City boardwalk.
Still, if it’s an elevated take on the more run-of-the-mill fare you’re seeking, Nationals Park does, thankfully, provide plenty in the way of options. The slices on offer at Flippin’ Pizza put other vendors to shame, all gooey foldable just-a-little-greasy New York-style goodness; likewise the DIY nachos over at Hard Times, on the leftfield concourse, whose makings are of a robust, fresh high quality — a far cry indeed from your usual stadium combination of prepackaged (and probably stale) yellow chips and molten microwaved it-seems-incorrect-to-even-call-it-cheese. And assuming you’re not in the kind of deep food-induced torpor that leaves you unable to even follow what’s going on in the game, let alone contemplate more food, Shake Shack and Dolci Gelati will cover you, admirably, for dessert.
So purity be damned, then, is the point. You could say that what Nationals Park is offering is more akin to a mall’s food court than a traditional baseball stadium, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but with these kinds of vast, lip-smacking upgrades to the standard-issue dog-and-a-Coke, who really cares?
Play ball, we say.
Jammin’ Island Outpost
1500 South Capital St. SE
1500 South Capitol St. SE
Ideal Meal: Jerk chicken-and-ribs platter from Jammin’ Island Outpost; elote from El Verano; Dolci gelato.