MESA, Arizona -- I know what you're thinking. Ballpark food reviews are Danny Rockett's bailiwick.
But I certainly couldn't pass up the Cubs' generous invitation for lunch on them Thursday, and to sample some of the new food offerings that will be available at Sloan Park during spring training games this year.
The same group that met with Tom Ricketts Wednesday was invited to tour the park Thursday and have lunch.
Justin Piper, General Manager of Cubs Spring Training Operations, first gave us a rundown of a few incremental changes that are happening at the team's spring-training home this year.
As shown in photo 1, the Cubs have added their six (twice for No. 31) retired numbers, plus the MLB-wide retired number for Jackie Robinson, to the facade of the left-field "rooftop" area behind the left-field berm. This "rooftop" type area, incidentally, has been officially renamed the "Budweiser Rooftop," as opposed to "1876," as it was called last year, and more seating and umbrellas will be added to that area.
You'll also notice in the same photo that the ad billboards that have been on either side of the video board since the park opened are now blank. They'll have new sponsors there before the spring opener March 4.
Another addition, and a welcome one and something I'd suggested, is a ribbon-type message board on the facade of the first-base suite level (photo 2). This will, Piper said, mostly have "baseball-related content" in addition to, of course, some advertising. There will also be what he called "minor adjustments" to the programming on the left-field video board.
The popular food truck area in center field will return, and permanent shade structures have been added for people to sit and eat. This had been an issue in past years as there wasn't enough shade in that area, so this is another good addition.
The Cubs are going to be giving away special Sloan Park baseballs to the first 5,000 fans at the spring opener March 4 against the Angels, so if you're heading to that game, get there early!
Then it was time for lunch. Jay Satenspiel, regional VP for Spectra Venue Management and Food Services & Hospitality and heading up some of the new offerings at Sloan Park, told us about the changes and additions they've made to the menus at the park.
One of the things they've wanted to do is bring a more "Chicago" flavor to the offerings in Mesa, so Portillo's, which operates two locations in the Valley in Tempe and Scottsdale, will have a cart location serving Italian beef. Portillo's, whose sign was on one of the now-empty billboards, will have a sign on the left-field wall this year.
Hot Doug's, another Chicago favorite which was a popular addition to the new Wrigley bleachers last summer, will have a location at Sloan Park as well, serving two sausage concepts.
One thing Satenspiel emphasized was the freshness of the food they'll be serving. You won't be getting, say, a hot dog that's been wrapped in paper and sitting around for hours. They're going to do their best to make and serve your food fresh right after you order it. In a further attempt to expand offerings, they are opening the "Grab 'N Go" in left field (photo 3), which will be kind of like a convenience store with bottled drinks, 16 ounce craft beers, and things like salads and wraps. There will also be other microbrew carts at other locations around the park. And, they will have gluten-free selections for people who need them.
Then it was time to unveil four new offerings. Satenspiel, who told us he's a "Bay Area guy," said he wanted to bring some of the flavor of the West Coast to Mesa, thus the addition of garlic fries (photo 6). They were outstanding, among the best garlic fries I've ever had.
Three "main courses" were then brought for us to check out.
First was what they are calling the "atomic hot bratwurst" with mustard and sauerkraut (photo 4). That was followed by what they called a Chicago favorite, the Maxwell Street Polish sausage with caramelized onions (photo 5) and a BBQ brisket sandwich (photo 7).
We all got one choice, so I picked the brisket, which had a nice tangy sauce and was piled quite high with meat. I rate that one as excellent and would definitely buy it at a game. They didn't mention any pricing for these items, but they would all appear to be a good value and solid additions to the food menus at Sloan Park.
Checking the Cubs website late Thursday, five of the 15 spring home games (3/12, 3/17, 3/20, 3/25 and 3/26) are sold out and three others (3/4, 3/5 and 3/11) have only lawn tickets remaining. If you're making plans to come to spring training -- get your tickets now if you haven't, because they are going fast.
Thanks to Julian Green and Justin Piper of the Cubs for the tour and to Jay Satenspiel for the delicious food.