Q&A: Favorite ballpark food

I had three holdover questions from last week I wanted to get to, then I spent 1200 words on the first of them. So I guess I’ve got content already mapped out for next week!

Devon with a locked Twitter account asked me to list the “five best things I’ve eaten at a ballpark.”

This is a surprisingly complicated question to tackle, as I’ve done quite a lot of special-event eating at ballparks. In San Diego for the All-Star Game, I sat at a table as one of Petco Park’s chefs brought me all the stadium’s best foods so I could eat them on Facebook Live. I’ve been to five or six of the Mets’ annual food previews, which are incredible, and I attended MLB’s inaugural FoodFest in New York. I even once got the Legends Suite experience at Yankee Stadium, which goes a long way toward explaining why no one’s ever in the seats behind home plate during Yankees games. They’re back in the dining room, eating ridiculously good food, and probably trading hedge funds or something.

I say this not to call out Citi Field or the Mets in particular, only because it’s the place where I’ve (understandably) most often witnessed this phenomenon: The food presented to media, at events specifically created to generate positive press around a ballpark’s food, is never quite as good when you try it in the wild. When I sampled the Fuku chicken sandwich at the Citi tasting event, I figured it would become my go-to meal there. The first time I got it while actually at a game, it was disappointing enough that I never got it again.

Also, for context, I always tried my best not to eat at ballparks while traveling for work. Maybe somewhere in Wrigley Field there’s some astonishingly tasty specialty sandwich (though I kind of doubt it), but in a city that eats as well as Chicago does, there’s no way I’m wasting a meal on ballpark food unless it’s an absolute necessity. I’ve got something of an iron stomach for greasy food, but when you’re spending the entire month of October on the road watching baseball games, you need to take care to eat a salad at some point or the World Series is going to be awfully unpleasant.

OK, here we go: 

5) Dante’s Inferno Pizza, Progressive Field: So you know that thing I just said about trying not to eat at ballparks while traveling for work? It’s more or less impossible to pull off in Cleveland if you don’t have access to a car. Downtown Cleveland, at least as of 2016, has one stretch of sports bars, a takeout pizza place, and, I want to say, a Blimpie. The best places I found to eat in that area were actually inside a casino, but entering a casino to eat pre-game lunch is a risky proposition when you’re a degenerate like myself. 

It’s all good, because Progressive Field is quietly an excellent food park. I’m not even sure the pizza is the best thing I’ve had there, but I remember that it’s cooked to order and that the Dante’s Inferno namesake pizza was spicy and delicious. I also remember a sandwich with pierogi on top, and thinking that the pierogi didn’t actually add anything to the sandwich but appreciating that I could pull them off and eat them as dessert.

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A Torchy’s Taco

4) Torchy’s Tacos, Minute Maid Park: You’re going to notice a theme here. The ballpark foods I like the best are rarely those made specifically for ballparks, because foods made specifically for ballparks these days seem more focused on generating internet buzz and Instagram likes than actually tasting good. A bacon-wrapped chicken-and-waffle fried pizza lobster donut may sound intriguing, but I guarantee it’s not as good as tacos from a good taco place. Torchy’s is an excellent, Austin-based fast-casual taco chain, worth eating at even if you’re not in a ballpark. But the Minute Maid Park location is incredibly convenient to the auxiliary press box.

3) Mama’s Special, Citi Field: I already know Devon’s with me on this one. After years of dallying in Blue Smoke and Box Frites and Two Boots and all Citi’s other good options, I concluded that the best, most consistent, and most convenient meal to eat there is the one carryover from Shea Stadium. An Italian hero is a perfect ballpark food for a ballpark in Queens — it’s a full meal, it’s regionally appropriate, it’s easy to eat with your hands without making a mess, and it’s salty and porky and cheesy and fantastic. The turkey and mozzarella sandwich from Mama’s is also a go-to for me. Why am I going to kill three innings waiting on like at Shake Shack when I can get a really good deli hero in 10 minutes? Makes no sense.

One of the big keys to eating at Mama’s in Citi Field, I think, is making sure to also get a packet of Italian dressing. They have them on hand for salads, but they don’t default to giving you one unless you ask. Really makes the sandwich sing.

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It’s for the belly, not the ‘gram

2) Chili Half-Smoke, Nats Park: Trust that it kills me to put anything related to the Nats this high on the list, but this ranking isn’t about the Nats so much as it’s about Ben’s Chili Bowl. If you’re unfamiliar, the original Ben’s location is a D.C. institution and one of my favorite places to eat in the whole world. It’s a place that brings tourists and locals together to bond around the deliciousness of half-smoke sausages (a D.C. delicacy) drowned in soupy chili, I almost never go to D.C. without getting there, and I envy the heck out of Nats fans for their access to its ballpark location. A Chili Half-Smoke is a mess of a thing to attempt to eat at a baseball game, but whatever. Love Ben’s Chili Bowl. Save Ben’s Chili Bowl!

1) Corn on the Cob, Chiefs Stadium: Maybe this is a cop-out. In 2005 I worked in a high school, meaning I had the whole summer off. I drove from New York to Minneapolis (via Canada and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), met some friends there, and set out on a ridiculous baseball road trip. In the course of maybe 15 days, we hit games in Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Chicago again, Peoria, St. Louis, Kansas City, D.C. and Baltimore.

If I remember it right, the Peoria Chiefs game almost happened on a whim, like, “hey you know what would be a funny thing to do on our one night without baseball during this absurd baseball road trip? Go to a different baseball game!” And at that point, I had been on the road a while (I took three days just getting to Minneapolis), and almost exclusively eating fast food and ballpark food. Oh, and it was in the midst of a brutal heat wave.

Out in the right-field pavilion in Peoria in 2005, they were grilling up corn on the cob. I assume it was local, because why the heck wouldn’t you have local corn in Peoria, and after exclusively eating greasy, processed food for the prior couple weeks, it ranked among the single most delicious things I’d ever eaten. It didn’t even need butter! And I know corn’s not even particularly healthy, but it’s definitely better than, like, your fourth straight meal at Jack In The Box because there’s  Jack In The Box in your hotel parking lot.

So it was that. The corn. Pretend it was wrapped in bacon, I guess.

 

Bonus Q&A: Picking a KBO team

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Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Pexels.com

Hey. there’s baseball going on! My body happens to wake up around 5:30 a.m. most morning for reasons unclear, and so I caught most of the KBO action on ESPN the last two days. It’s real, live baseball, on my TV. It’s fabulous.

I got an email from reader Nicholas this week asking, “Do you have a KBO team picked out? Which team should a Mets fan support? I’m hearing LG Twins and Lotte Giants? Would love your thoughts.”

My initial thought was that it doesn’t matter much, because it’s so freakin’ great that there’s baseball to watch that you can just root for dingers. Then I decided to dive into some English-language KBO information so I could at least caution people against rooting for the Yankees of Korea, which seems to be the Bears. Bears suck!

The baseball Twitter-sphere en masse seems to have adopted the NC Dinos, so I knew I didn’t want to pick the NC Dinos. Not trying to root for the craft beer of Korean baseball teams.

I know very little about South Korea, if I’m being honest. But I know its movie industry churns out some truly badass horror movies because my old roommate used to watch them all the time, and because I caught a particularly awesome one in a bar in Austin at a bachelor party a couple years ago and wound up totally sucked in. That one, a zombie movie set on a train, was called Train to Busan, and the Lotte Giants play in Busan. But the Lotte Giants went 48-93 last year, and while I’m not trying to be a bandwagon Bears fan, I’m also not trying to jump on a wagon that apparently did not survive the zombie infestation.

I totally judge books by their cover, so I next thought that maybe I could pick a KBO team based on uniforms. But it turns out the KBO, just like MLB, has a pretty narrow range of color schemes, and most of them are just blue or red or blue and red. I fell pretty hard for the Kiwoom Heroes, because they have the temerity to wear burgundy and silver (and because they play in an awesome looking dome that I’d love to someday visit if such things are ever allowed again).

Then, while trying to find someplace to sell me a Kiwoom Heroes hat, a Google Image search for “Kiwoom Heroes” hat returned a familiar face: Brandon Knight, who made two starts for the 2008 Mets, pitched for the heroes from 2011-2014 and is now their pitching coach. I remember what Knight looked like because he was one of my first-ever on-camera interviews at SNY, which we did because I was interested in his itinerant baseball lifestyle even he spent six years in the KBO.

Ready to go all-in for the Kiwoom Heroes on account of their association with one random dude who threw 12 innings for the 2008 Mets, I went to the ESPN broadcast schedule and learned that the Heroes aren’t on there at all. So nuts to that idea.

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Park Yong-Taek

Finally, I texted a Mets-fan friend who lived in Korea until he was 11. He offered a definitive answer: The LG Twins. I know this guy to be a man of distinguishing taste, and he said the Twins were his favorite team as a kid. He compared them to the Mets, in that they’re the perpetual “younger brother” team to the Bears, with whom they share a stadium.

And when I thought about it, I already kind of felt for the Twins. In the first KBO game I ever watched — way back on yesterday morning — they got torched by the stupid Bears. But I found a bunch of their players especially appealing. Their starter, Song Eun-Beom, kept cracking wry smiles on the mound, which struck me because pitchers in the U.S. almost never smile when they’re anywhere between the lines. One of their relievers, Kim Dae-Yu, wears No. 69. Their first baseman, Roberto Ramos, is the classic type of Quad-A masher I will be insisting the Mets pick up in a few years when they need a lefty bat for the bench. And their DH, Park Yong-Taek, is Korea’s all-time hits leader and, based on his Wikipedia photo, looks like a dude who might adjunct at Pratt and hang out at my friends’ bar.

So I’m all in for the Twins.

Also, for what it’s worth: I don’t want to beat up on ESPN too much because a) I realize the people in charge of putting together these broadcasts have presumably been rushed into them, b) it doesn’t read well for a dude who couldn’t hack it in baseball media to be doing baseball media criticism, and c) at least they don’t have a stupid K-Zone overlay, but I really wish they’d shift the focus to the games and away from… everything but the games. It’s obvious they’re doing everything they can to make live KBO baseball appeal to American audiences, but what really appeals to me is live baseball.

There’s a school of thought in media — and I can’t say if they’re guilty of this — that says you should never admit to not knowing about something, and I’ve always thought it kind of dumb even if I understand why it exists. In this particular situation, I feel like no one at all would judge the ESPN broadcasters if they just said, “We’re new to this, too, we’re doing our best to learn the players and their stories just like you are.” Right? Who’s expecting Karl Ravech to come in as a KBO expert? I’m sure there are countless desperate, bilingual 24-year-old baseball fans who’d kill to make $20 an hour translating Korean baseball articles for Eduardo Perez. I want to hear more about what I’m watching, not what I’m not watching.

Sandwich of the Week

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Three straight burgers, all of them on identical pretzel rolls? Yes. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a freakin’ global pandemic. I’ll try to mix it up next week, but I’ve apparently got more ground beef than Wendy’s does right now and I’m aiming to make good use of it.

The sandwich: The Great Caesar’s Ghost Burger. That’s what I’m calling it.

The construction: Two ground-beef patties, made with ground beef from Crowd Cow (which is providing more or less all my meat right now, and where we both can get $25 worth of meat if you use my referral code), with bacon, cucumbers, melted Babybel cheese, and a sauce I’ll tell you more about in the next section.

Why Babybel cheese? Because I had some in my fridge, my kid doesn’t seem to like it quite as much for a snack as he likes cheddar cheese sticks, and because I figured (accurately) it would melt well. Slicing it up into enough pieces to cover the surface of a burger patty was kind of a pain in the ass.

I still have no idea if there’s any actual science behind the idea of making “smashburgers” instead of just forming burgers into patties and throwing them on the grill, but I found a recipe online that boldly called for mixing melted butter into the ground beef so I mostly followed that for the burgers. I didn’t have any Worcestershire sauce on hand, so I replaced it with a mixture of soy sauce and hot sauce. I did have fish sauce on hand and I’ve been looking for an excuse to get rid of it, so I incorporated it, per the recipe, even though I find the smell of fish sauce extremely unpleasant. I know that I love a lot of foods made with fish sauce, but I think I prefer it as a don’t ask, don’t tell type of thing.

Important background information: I’m not about to aimlessly wander the grocery store looking for inspiration right now, so instead I turned to the wealth of mostly empty condiment bottles on my refrigerator door. And while looking them over, it struck me that, where blue cheese dressing and ranch dressing and certainly Russian dressing are very often used as dips or spreads, we pretty much only use Caesar dressing for Caesar salads. I’ve had chicken Caesar wraps, for sure, but I think those are the only sandwiches I’ve ever had with that particular salad dressing on top.

Why? It’s delicious.

For this sauce, I was essentially looking to create the Caesar dressing equivalent of Buffalo Ranch — something that married the creamy texture and tangy flavor of the dressing with a spicy, vinegary hot sauce.

I started by mixing Caesar dressing, Cholula and black pepper, but after tasting it decided it needed something sweet in there to take some of the edge off. So I mixed in some relish. Is that weird? Definitely sounds weird, but it turns out to be a pretty delicious sauce.

What it looks like:

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It’s smiling back at you.

How it tastes: Pretty damn good.

First things first, I did a nice job on the burger patties. When you’re cooking them over a super hot cast-iron grill, as I am, it sort of requires a leap of faith to pull them as quickly as you need to pull them. I did not let these linger on the heat, and I think my timing and all the butter that was mixed in to the beef conspired to make for a deliciously juicy burger.

Babybel cheese, in a pinch, turns out to be a fine, if mild, burger cheese. It offered some creaminess and some saltiness, but its flavor mostly lingered in the background behind the more powerful ones, like bacon. Bacon remains excellent. Really can’t say enough about bacon.

I tweeted a photo of this burger yesterday, and a couple of people criticized my use of pickle slices on the burger. These people are flat-out wrong, and their closed-mindedness is negatively affecting their enjoyment of this world. I first encountered sliced cucumbers on a burger at a McDonald’s in China, of all places, but I took note even there that they were a surprisingly tasty way to add texture. I love pickles, too, and I’m not here to bash pickles. But pickles — and I’m sorry if I’m the one to break this to you — are cucumbers, and it’s bizarre that some people might only see cucumbers as an acceptable burger topping if they’re brined.

And the sauce, if I do say so myself, is delicious. It definitely maintains that unmistakable cheesy, tangy Caesar flavor, but it’s also spicy, and it tastes totally appropriate on a burger. I’d make this sauce again, and probably will, seeing as I still have Caesar, Cholula and relish in the fridge.

The main thing holding the burger back is the presence of the fish sauce. I didn’t tell my wife it was in there until after she finished eating, and she said she hadn’t noticed. But I totally noticed. I still enjoyed the burger, but every now and then I got a fish-sauce aftertaste that I wished wasn’t involved. I think I might have still had the smell of fish sauce on my hands.

Hall of fame? Nope, just a really good burger.

Tapping out

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Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I’ll keep this brief because I don’t feel great about preaching willful ignorance, and I think that’s what I’m about to do.

When the COVID shutdown started, I found myself spending every second I could plugged into my phone, scrolling Twitter and refreshing the New York Times app for the latest on the spread of the virus, its effects, its presumed causes, and what I was supposed to be doing about it. For a while, it felt like keeping as tuned in to the news as possible was the only option I had for staying connected to the world around me, stuck as I was inside my apartment.

All things considered, I had a really nice weekend this past weekend. The weather was beautiful, my wife wasn’t working, we got fancy-pants pizza from Emmy Squared and had a picnic in the park, I met up with a former co-worker for a social-distanced walk, and both evenings, my family made it to a nearby corner where people (safely) congregate and dance around huge speakers that blast festive music for the daily 7 p.m. clap. We’re settled into this grim groove now.

Yesterday, while my kid entertained himself with puzzles and his sandbox, I actually read a book. It was novel in multiple senses of the term. I normally only read fiction before bed, and though the book itself was a heartbreakingly bleak one, the act of reading it still proved a whole lot more pleasant than seeing people on Twitter shame strangers for not following the rules of the ‘rona.

This morning, I woke up early and opened the Times app out of habit. The first story I read told of how children who’ve been infected with COVID-19 sometimes develop mysterious, comprehensive and devastating side-effects. Later, while I waited for my kid to use the potty so we could go outside, I checked Twitter and read a long and well-intentioned but scold-y thread about how young adults who may think they’re safe from the disease will in fact die painful, lonely deaths if they don’t distance themselves. When my kid drew in chalk on a park path, I checked my phone and saw a notification with the phrase “relentless crush of infection and death.”

Maybe I’m good on the news for a while? I know I’m going to hear about it if and when somebody cures this godawful thing, and I don’t need to see a million articles and tweets explaining why I should avoid getting the coronavirus because I’m already doing my damnedest to avoid getting the coronavirus. I feel comfortable assuming that the president is taking precisely all the worst and dumbest and greediest actions imaginable in the face of the pandemic, and I certainly don’t need to read about that every day.

I know I’m not good enough to completely divorce myself from the news. I know I’m going to check Twitter. I know I’m going to click on some of the alerts that pop up on my phone. But am I wrong to start consciously trying to avoid those things? I’m just tired of what they have to offer right now.

So, uhh, anyone know any good books?

A-Rod, buy the freakin’ Mets already

arod-boatWe have to agree to mostly leave J-Lo out of all this whole thing. She’s too good for this world: Too indisputably successful, and too widely beloved. And I don’t want to diminish her in any way — I recognize that her net worth is perhaps greater than A-Rod’s and that she undoubtedly maintains more earning potential, but I feel like we all can agree that J-Lo would certainly not be in the market for the New York Mets were she not married to Alex Rodriguez. Right? This is clearly A-Rod’s thing.

And I don’t think there’s a realistic chance A-Rod winds up owning any part of the Mets. I think a lot of non-rich people tend to put all famously rich people in the same rich-person bucket, but A-Rod’s $400-plus million career earnings would be a decent week for Jeff Bezos.

A-Rod’s not pulling together enough cash to buy the Mets unless he crews up with a bunch of significantly richer people, and if all those richer people wanted to own the Mets so badly, I don’t know why they’d need A-Rod involved as a figurehead. Derek Jeter he is not.

Also, an ownership group fronted by A-Rod would, like any other, need to be approved by 29 other MLB owners, and it seems difficult to imagine the 29 other MLB owners letting A-Rod and his friends into their very exclusive club.

There’s just definitely some exorbitantly rich hedge-fund guy out there who’s a way more palatable choice for them. Steve Cohen, for example. Does Steve Cohen have some shady financial machinations on his resume? Heck yeah. Do you really think that disqualifies him in the eyes of MLB owners in the same way as, say, buying HGH gummies off a fake doctor in a South Florida tanning salon? A-Rod is Jay Gatsby and MLB teams are exclusively owned by Tom Buchanans. He’s trying his best to fit in, but he’s never going to fit in.

But all that said, no two forces in the baseball world have quite the capacity for gobsmacking absurdity as the New York Mets and Alex Rodriguez, and the potential marriage is too perfect to ignore. Both the Mets and A-Rod have had a lot more success than their reputations suggest, but the Mets are that team that can finish within three wins of a world championship and still come out of it a punchline, and A-Rod is that guy who can hit 696 Major League homers and marry freakin’ J-Lo and still somehow seem dorkier than anyone I hang out with.

To be clear: I don’t think A-Rod would be an especially good owner for the Mets, in terms of their on-field performance. He’d probably represent at least a mild upgrade over the Wilpons, in that at least his personnel meddling would presumably come with a better eye for baseball talent, but there just seems no way an A-Rod-led conglomerate would help the Mets to more championships than a ruthless, shrewd, bored guy with infinite wealth, like Steve Cohen.

But to love the Mets, and to love A-Rod, is not to love championship baseball so much as it is to love chaos and ludicrousness and sublime self-sabotage, and to appreciate the full meaning of humanity in way you never could by loving the Yankees and Derek Jeter. A-Rod needs to buy the Mets not because it’d be good for either party but because it would be fucking hilarious, and we are here to be entertained.

Friday Q&A

Here we go. First, a couple from the inbox.

Josh writes:

You mention in today’s post that you recently ordered a Cheesy Gordita Crunch with Flamin’ Hot Doritos Taco inside – this leads me to wonder:  is Taco Bell’s original Double Decker Taco their greatest ever food innovation?  (Per the Wiki, the Double Decker Taco dates back to 1995 and was, as far as I know, the first time they offered an item with a hard shell taco inside a less fragile soft shell of any kind.)

So, it depends on how you look at it. Many credit Taco Bell founder Glen Bell with the invention of the pre-formed hard-shell taco, but it turns out pre-formed hard-shell tacos existed long before Glen Bell entered the Mexican-inspired American fast food game, and that he may have just totally ripped off the idea and claimed it as his own.

But there’s little doubt that Taco Bell played a huge role in the dissemination and proliferation of the pre-formed hard-shell taco. The logical parallel here is Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley absolutely did not invent rock and roll, but for better or worse, he was responsible for a whole lot of people finding out about it for the first time.

So if you want to credit Taco Bell for the pre-formed hard-shell taco, it’s impossible to argue that the Double Decker Taco is a bigger innovation — it wouldn’t be possible or necessary without the crunchy taco inside. But failing that, yeah, I think shoving a crunchy tortilla inside of a soft one is probably the best and most important of many incredible gifts Taco Bell has provided us. Once upon a time, there was no way to eat a crunchy taco while driving. Then someone came up with one, and they used it as a way to put Shaq and Hakeem Olajuwon on a tandem bike for the commercial.

The Double Decker Taco is not currently on menus, a great shame. But the Cheesy Gordita Crunch obviously stands on the shoulders of that giant.

Via email, Steven writes:

Where do you stand on the DH in the National League? I like the idea that I can watch more older, limited players hit and my Mets have a handful of candidates.

This is the mildest take: I like the DH rules as they currently exist, even though they make no sense. It’s fun to me that there’s this slight difference between the leagues, and though I think it does give AL teams a mild advantage in interleague and postseason play, it’s clearly not an insurmountable one. Some pitchers hate hitting, but others love it, and at so many levels below the professional ones, the best pitchers tend to be the best hitters on their teams.

But the universal DH is pretty clearly coming. Pitching is so difficult and requires so much preparation that it makes sense to protect pitchers from the batter’s box and basepaths, the union loves it because it helps prolong veteran players’ careers (and the union is always kinder to and more protective of veterans than young players), and I suspect in 25 years, no one will miss the era of pitchers hitting.

A good argument I’ve seen in favor of the universal DH is this one: It gives AL teams more flexibility in free agency than NL teams have. If an NL team thinks a guy only has a couple years left of being a capable defensive player, it’s going to be reluctant to ink him to a four- or five-year deal. AL teams get the comfort of knowing they’ll be able to find use for him as long as he can still hit, and a means of periodically resting his legs while he’s still regularly playing the field.

I thought about this one at great length and concluded that, in pretty much all cases, I’d rather have quality fillings over quality bread. And I don’t mean to diminish bread’s importance in the quality of a sandwich, at all. Bread is important and good!

But how many times in your life have you had bread that you’d truly call bad? If the bread is fresh, it’s fine even if it’s bland. There’s a lot of truly gross stuff one might put inside a sandwich, but not that many truly gross things you could build a sandwich on. Perhaps nothing turns my stomach as reliably as the thought of slimy old lunchmeat, but bread that’s a day or two too old is just unpleasantly dry.

I’ve had sandwiches with great bread and underwhelming filling, and I’m rarely convinced they’re an upgrade over bread alone. What is this, France? Get out of here with that single-slice-of-ham nonsense. Meanwhile, several of the sandwiches I’ve presented here in the past few weeks have featured quality fillings and sub-standard bread, and most of them were really good.

Oh, here’s a nice little minefield!

It’s very hard to imagine Jesus being any good at baseball, miracles notwithstanding. Unless Judea had some sports I’m not aware of, I doubt He ever did much overhand throwing in his youth, and people who did not grow up with that motion tend to be pretty terrible at it in adulthood. Also, I’m not sure Jesus ever said anything to suggest he had the type of competitive drive necessary to excel in sports. Right? Blessed are the meek, but they bat ninth.

The obvious answer here is that Jesus should be your head trainer. Anyone who can cure leprosy with his hands could presumably work wonders on a UCL.

Jason Statham, obviously. No shame in dying by Statham’s hand or drop-kick.

I have no idea what’ll happen, but I thought the idea of splitting teams into Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues for one year made sense. It would suck for the handful of teams that still have lousy spring training facilities, but every team would at least have its own facility, and — as I mentioned last time it came up — lots of players have homes near their club’s spring training bases.

But obviously every proposal is pointless until we know they can pull one of them off safely. Baseball rules and I miss it very much, but baseball is a frivolity and not worth risking lives for. This whole Q&A is fraught with complicated topics and I’m not trying to start fights online when I know my kid will wake up and command my full attention in 45 minutes.

It’s obviously trampoline. I want to dunk. And I know you’re about to tell me about all the potential drawbacks and dangers in having every surface I step on magically transform into a trampoline, but did drawbacks and dangers stop King Midas? I’m going to dunk, folks.

 

Sandwich of the Week

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I’ve been thinking a lot about pizza burgers lately, as one does. And the main thing I’ve been thinking about pizza burgers is that I’m not sure I’ve ever had one that wasn’t at least a little bit disappointing. When you attempt to combine two of our very best foods into one, you set expectations enormously high. And too often, I have come out of the pizza-burger experience thinking I’d have preferred a pizza or a burger served independently of one another.

I’ve enjoyed pizza burgers, for sure, as all the standard components — ground beef, mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce — are tasty and complementary. But they always seem to lack some necessary oomph: Tomato sauce is too thin to be a perfect burger condiment, and mozzarella, while amazing, is too mild to offer the amount of flavor you’d get from American or cheddar or Monterey Jack.

I set out to rectify all that this week.

The sandwich: Pizza Burger a la Ted. Wait, no: The Pizza Berger. There it is.

The construction: Two seasoned beef patties with mozzarella cheese, grilled salami, mozzarella sticks, fresh basil and tomato sauce on a pretzel roll.

I started with a pound of ground beef from Crowd Cow, where you’re still welcome to use my referral code and get us both $25 worth of meat. I seasoned it with a lot (probably around two heaping tablespoons’ worth) of grated parmesan cheese, some chopped fresh oregano (maybe a tablespoon), plus maybe a half a teaspoon each of black pepper and garlic powder. Then I divided it up into five patties, two of which went on my burger.

As the son of an Italian woman, I judge the heck out of jarred tomato sauce. I’m more lenient when it comes to pizza sauce, but I still prefer to have control over what goes in there. So I started with a half a can of tomato sauce — the extremely bare-bones kind available from the same companies that sell canned tomatoes, generally found among the different varieties of canned tomatoes.

I put it in a small pot over low heat, gussied it up with some dried oregano, black pepper, garlic powder, crushed red pepper (i.e. all the things you sprinkle on pizza), then — and I think this part’s important — I hit it with a heavy splash of balsamic vinegar. This may be sacrilege, or some breach of cooking fundamentals. But the way I figured it, if tomato sauce usually lacks the assertive, vinegary sweetness that ketchup provides a traditional burger, balsamic made for a good and thematically consistent way to add sweetness and vinegary flavor to a pizza-burger sauce. And putting it over heat let it cook down a little, thickening it up.

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I used Friday’s brand frozen mozzarella sticks for a simple reason: They’re flat, and I didn’t think a round mozzarella stick would stay on top of the burger. The idea to explore the use of mozzarella sticks on sandwiches, which set this project in motion, came from O.G. TedQuarters comments-section mainstay Catsmeat, who’s a real dude that I’ve gotten sandwiches with and not actually named “Catsmeat.”

What I would have preferred to salami would’ve been the big, slicer friendly pepperoni we sold at the deli back in the day, but Fresh Direct seems to only offer tiny pepperoni, and I didn’t want to deal with all that. Fresh mozzarella cheese is obviously superior to slicing mozzarella, but I wanted thin slices and know that the latter is a little saltier and tends to melt better.  The basil is basil.

Important background information: This was my first go-round with the Pizza Berger, and also my first time cooking burgers on a new toy I got myself. I’ve been grilling so much that I decided I deserved a cast-iron attachment for my grill, and I’ve already used it successfully to cook steaks, shrimp and asparagus. But “smashburgers” seem very of-the-moment right now, and even though I have no idea why forming meat into a ball and then squishing it on grill should be preferable to just forming meat into a patty and laying it down like it is, I decided to make these smashburgers.

But you know what? There’s a big, bottle-opener shaped hole in the back of my grill spatula, and I had my fire really hot. Smashing the burgers turned out to be a dangerous and somewhat painful experience, and it took enough time that it prevented me from getting the salami on the skillet as soon as I’d have liked. And that was bad, because it turned out it takes significantly longer than I would’ve guessed to grill salami until it’s crispy. The salami needs basically the same amount of time on the cast iron as the burger does. Who knew?

What it looks like:

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How it tastes: Better than any pizza burger I can remember, honestly, and also, quite a bit like a meatball hero. I don’t know at what point a pizza burger becomes a meatball parm sandwich and I’m not sure which side of that line this falls on. But I’m certain that the line doesn’t matter in any way, and this is good food.

There’s just no shortage of flavor here. The cheese and seasoning in the burger kicks the beef up to meatball territory, though still with burger texture, and the sweet, peppery, vinegary tomato sauce absolutely achieved the effect I was going for when I modified it. The crispy texture of the salami mostly got lost and the salami taste pretty good job of hiding, but it’s there when you look for it, offering pleasant but fleeting hints of that familiar salty beefiness.

Basil is such that two leaves of basil are enough to prove one of the dominant flavors on this thunderous sandwich, but luckily the flavor of basil is incredible and adds some pungent spiciness here. And the mozzarella sticks, perhaps the boldest addition to this sandwich, successfully maintain some of their crunchiness despite all the moist things around them, plus they ooze out creamy melted mozzarella cheese that joins all the other creamy melted mozzarella cheese that is already obvious on this burger.

Also, the pretzel rolls FreshDirect sells turn out to be pretty excellent. They did a heck of a job here holding together and maintaining the sandwich’s structural integrity.

Still, there are some things I could’ve done better. As mentioned, I would’ve liked to give the salami a little more time on the grill to get crispier. I was hoping it would do the job bacon does on a bacon cheeseburger, but it just didn’t have anything like that type of crunch.

And, while it feels strange to write this, I think I may have used too much beef. This is often an issue for me while making burgers — a pound of ground beef is more than my family needs for a single meal, but not nearly enough for two meals, so I’m stuck in an in-between zone. In this case, I think, the ground-beef-to-other-stuff ratio was a bit too high, and I certainly didn’t need the extra beef to make this a meal-sized burger.

Hall of Fame? Not quite. It has all the elements of a Hall of Fame sandwich, but the execution wasn’t right. Still, it’s a step forward.

Live and let mock

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Photo by Nizam Abdul Latheef on Pexels.com

My neighbors to the east keep having get-togethers. I don’t entirely know what to make of it, but they’re extremely friendly people and I can’t imagine they intend to be aggressive. From the sounds of it, they’re not throwing ragers — just having a couple or a few friends over to their backyard — and there’s definitely enough room there for five or six people to spread out. But it strikes me as inconsiderate, because these neighbors live in a 10-unit building, and the people coming over are undoubtedly touching doorbells and doorknobs and just generally breathing all over shared spaces.

But it’s not my building, so it doesn’t feel like my place to call them out on it. I recognize that what they’re doing could bring harm to someone else, but this is not the Kitty Genovese murder. They’re sharing their outdoor space with people who presumably don’t have any, which is a nice thing to do for friends. Like I said, they’re nice. And since I don’t think they’re putting me at any significant additional risk of getting the ‘rona, it ultimately feels like none of my business.

I understand if you feel otherwise, but when you live in an environment as densely populated as this one, you kind of have to default to living and letting live. There are exceptions, of course, but this one’s not getting me there. I’m not going to say anything to these people now because I don’t want them acknowledging if I do some dumb, dangerous shit in my backyard later. I have a charcoal barbecue, so I do play with fire.

But yesterday while I was out for a walk, these same neighbors were sitting on their front stoop chatting with a few of their friends, including one unmasked man blocking the sidewalk I needed to use to get home. And though I had never seen him before, I knew just from looking at the dude that it had to be Sports Hot Take Guy, a loud and frequent guest in the neighbors’ backyard whom I can’t help but overhear drooling out stale WFAN talking points, trite and bro-ey political observations, and the occasional personal story intended to be funny that is actually, when you think about it, pretty sad.

Sure enough, as I waved hello to my neighbors and tangoed around the guy who was obviously Sports Hot Take Guy, I heard his unmistakable voice in the midst of a rant about how some people’s belligerently pro-mask behavior was responsible for “all the fistfights” that are apparently now happening in my neighborhood, sight unseen.

I scurried past and didn’t say anything, but when I think about the line between what my neighbors do by having guests over and what type of behavior actually merits interference, I’m going to say that planting yourself in the middle of a narrow sidewalk with no mask on while complaining about “the mask police” — his words — is probably a bridge too far right now. It’s an aggressive move. Even if he absolutely does not believe he risks getting himself or anyone else sick by standing there, he clearly knows that many people at this particular juncture of history are bothered by bare-faced bros posturing on the sidewalk, and he’s doing it anyway. Now you’re starting some shit.

I know there’s plenty of anti-scientific, anti-mask, anti-distancing sentiment out there in general, so I assume other people are doing stuff like this elsewhere. And the best solution I can come up with is that we all just agree that’s it’s acceptable and encouraged to vigorously mock these people to their faces.

Right? I’m not about to, like, fight this guy if I see him at it again, in large part because I’m not trying to touch strangers right now. But I might stop to let him know that his actions imply that I should ignore the recommendations of the C.D.C. and World Health Organizations to abide those of a person idiotic enough to think Odell Beckham Jr. was a locker-room cancer who hurt the Giants. And I might throw in that somehow his face is even dumber than his appreciation for George Steinbrenner, and ask if he entered epidemiology after he got rejected for an internship at Barstool Sports. On and on like that.

Maybe he’d punch me, and so — what with the no-touching thing — maybe it’s a bad idea. But I’m going to fantasize about it, at least. To hell with Sports Hot Take Guy.

Kids these days

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This beautiful photo comes from a longtime reader who is, like many people, enduring a rough time right now. He passed it along and said I could use it and that he didn’t want a credit. I’m using it because it’s a near-perfect depiction of some things I’ve been thinking about regarding my own kid.

If it feels like I’ve been writing about fatherhood a lot lately, it’s probably because I spend the overwhelming majority of my waking hours alone with my son, struggling to keep him active and stimulated without access to any of the external resources upon which I normally rely for that.

By the standards of children in New York City right now, my kid’s circumstances seem optimal. He’s 2 1/2, so while he knows something is happening, he’s too young to fully understand and thoroughly fear what it is. He misses the once-a-week school program he was in, and he definitely misses his grandparents, who all usually play big roles in his childcare.

But it’s not like he’s in high school and now needs to be home-schooled in calculus, and he’s not a middle-schooler abruptly torn from all his friends and activities. He’s healthy, his parents are healthy, and (knock wood) everyone he knows and loves is healthy. We have outdoor space, we’re fairly close to a couple of parks where he can run around, and, perhaps most importantly, he has a parent with nothing better to do than cater to him all day.

I can’t imagine how hard this would be for him if I needed to be working, just as I can’t imagine how hard this must be for single parents, or in households where both parents are working full-time jobs, or for people now worrying about where their next paycheck will come from, or for parents of children with special needs, or for kids with abusive parents from whom they now can’t escape.

Again: Relatively speaking, my kid has it made. And yet still, this clearly sucks for him. It sucks! He was living a toddler’s fantasy life: Going to the zoo all the time, going to museums all the time, going on adventures all over New York City, going to music class, going to his grandparents’, playing with his cousins and their dog, etc. Then, one day a month and a half ago, it just stopped. Now it’s 55 hours a week worth of pure, uncut Dada. I get old.

I have no other children for comparison’s sake, but my understanding is that he has always been an exceptionally cheerful kid. And while he’s an age at which behavior tends to change quickly, he has been a lot crankier lately, and there’s no doubt COVID is weighing on him. During a prolonged meltdown a few nights ago, he yelled out, “There are no people left on the sidewalks!” While awaiting a Sesame Street episode yesterday, he caught a Chromecast background photo of a crowded New York street scene, pointed at it and said, hopefully, “we can go to there.”

It’s sad. And I can’t help but worry about all the ways I’m probably failing him. Early in the quarantine, I spent way too much time on my phone, idly scrolling through bad news on Twitter. I wish I could find more things for him to climb on. I should give him more vegetables for lunch, not just hot dogs every day.

But the one redeeming (albeit, really, quite depressing) notion to which I keep returning is that every single kid in New York City is going through the same thing, and practically every kid in the world is going through something similar. At some point, those high-school seniors now missing their proms and graduations will go off to college and commiserate with peers from around the country who also missed out. Seventh graders will convene in the fall and fantasize about how good their summer-ball baseball team would’ve been. Elementary schoolers will show-and-tell their best quarantine arts-and-crafts projects.

Kids, for the most part, seem more pliable and resilient than adults. Obviously I recognize that many, many children objectively have it way worse than mine. But for all those like mine, for whom the biggest burden of COVID-19 is the all-encompassing boredom and the complete cessation of educational and social activities, I think, they will be OK. Someday this will end, and they’ll get a chance to bounce back together.

The Flamin’ Hot Doritos Locos Taco: It’s good

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I know it has been roughly 15 years since the Crunchwrap Supreme came out, because I remember writing a poem about it while proctoring an exam when I worked in a high school. I know the Volcano Taco emerged sometime late in 2008 or early in 2009, because I remember that it was new to the scene when my friend Jake and I started the Taco Bell Wiki in a Fort Greene apartment where I only lived for 11 months. I have a general sense of when Nacho Fries first landed in the U.S., because I remember which of three different NYC offices USA Today occupied when I brought them back and which co-workers tried them when I did. And so on.

I have been writing regularly about Taco Bell for so damn long that I can mark Taco Bell stuff in time and mark time in Taco Bell stuff. It’s either depressing or exhilarating, or perhaps depressingly exhilarating.

Still, it amazed me this morning when I thought back to the dawn of the Doritos Locos Tacos era and recalled that I was in Port St. Lucie, Fla. and wrote about it here on TedQuarters.net, meaning I was still covering spring training for SNY when it happened, meaning Doritos Locos Tacos have now been a fixture on Taco Bell menus for more than eight full years. People who were in middle school are now about to graduate from college, perhaps having never really known a Taco Bell menu without the popular cross-promotional item. The Giants were Super Bowl champions the last time Doritos Locos Tacos weren’t available. Encyclopaedia Brittanica was still putting out print editions.

I bring all this up to note that, here in Year 8 ADLT, I’ve probably eaten no more than five Doritos Locos Tacos in my life, and only because I came into them somehow. They’ve become the default offering for Taco Bell giveaways, but Taco Bell giveaways are for amateurs. And, as I mentioned upon eating my first DLT more than eight years ago, I’ve just never eaten a Taco Bell crunchy taco and wished that it could be saltier and more orange.

But I’m in this content game right now, for better or worse, and it beckoned me to Taco Bell this weekend to sample one of the new Flamin’ Hot Doritos Locos Tacos. And friends, I am prepared to call the new Flamin’ Hot Doritos Locos Tacos: Pretty damn good. I’m not sure if time has altered my memories of the Flamin’ Hot DLT’s Nacho Cheese cousins, but these seemed like they had a less assertive dusting of Doritos stuff and existed at a spice level one seldom finds in Taco Bell things. It wasn’t unpleasantly hot, but the spice definitely lingered for a little while after I ate them — think Buffalo wings sold as “hot,” but not Buffalo wings sold as “atomic.”

I also ordered a Cheesy Gordita Crunch with a Flamin’ Hot Doritos Taco inside — something every Taco Bell can do for you, even if you’re not a former honorary president — and was surprised to learn that I found it, somehow: An upgrade over the standard Cheesy G, which is saying something. This particular Cheesy Gordita Crunch was poorly made — they took the flatbread out of the little heater thing before all the cheese was melted, and the spicy ranch sauce was haphazardly distributed. But compared to a traditional Cheesy Gordita Crunch of similar build quality, this offered an extra spicy kick that proved pleasant.

The only downside to the Flamin’ Hot Doritos Locos Taco is that it is red, as as such reminds me of the long-lost Volcano Taco, my one true love. But it’s good nonetheless, and I will likely have one again before it leaves menus. I endorse this Taco Bell thing.