By Michael Nagrant
Growing up a Detroiter, there was no mustard-only hotdog religion. The only encased-meat principle that was inviolable was that you got your chili-slathered Coneys at gritty Lafayette, and not the theme-park-like American when you were downtown. With no cultural taboo to hold me back, there were days I ate ketchup on my hotdogs.
June 10, 1983, my first Detroit Tigers game, was one of those days. They played the Cleveland Indians. Dave Rozema pitched for the Tigers and Chet Lemon (a former White Soxer), famous for robbing hitters of home runs with a Michael Jordanesque vertical jump and a sure glove, hit a home run of his own, and the Tigs won 7-1.
I remember the wide-eyed moment most kids probably have of emerging through a narrow tunnel and out to the verdant expanse of grass and an azure sea of plastic seats. I remember how juiced (not like Barry Bonds, but more like in the hopped-up Sunny Delight way) I was to see Sweet Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris and his “Magnum P.I.” ‘stache in the flesh.
Thrilled as I was, what I remember most was the hotdogs. My grandfather was a sausage maker for Kowalski Sausage Co. in Hamtramck and the trip to the ballpark was a company-sponsored outing. Before we boarded a bus bound for the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, there was a pre-party in the company parking lot. Buckets of Miller High Life, the champagne of beers, flanked a massive grill filled with as many free fat Kielbasas and dogs as I could scarf.
My grandfather was raised in Poland and spoke very little English, so we communicated spottily through hand signs and a few Polish and English words. But, when he handed me my first Kowalski dog, a pink charred number with a snappy natural casing full of sputter and sizzle, and looked at me as though he were bestowing the Holy Grail, we understood each other perfectly. In that moment, the relationship between hotdogs and baseball transformed from an abstract American cultural phenomenon to a personal obsession. What I didn’t know then is that it would also mark a standard operating procedure: Twenty-five years later I still like to eat out before the game.
I’ve tried to change. Eating ketchup on hotdogs was not my only youthful indiscretion. Growing up in Detroit, we got WGN, and I saw my share of Reuschel and Ryno on weekday afternoons. Blinded by the lore of ivy and brick, I fell in love with the Cubs too. When I first moved here, I’d had my share of Hebrew National dogs in the bleachers. But I soon came to realize, as Doug Sohn, the owner of Hot Doug’s Sausage Superstore, who brings his own dogs to the game, once told me, “I am convinced that Wrigley cooks all the hotdogs for the year in February, and there’s a hot box under second base where they keep them, because it’s phenomenal how bad they are.”
Eventually my blue-collar upbringing and a desire for better stadium food triumphed and I fell in love with the gritty Sox (in 2001, no bandwagon here). I loved them so much, I cheered them over the Tigers and was pissed that Magglio Ordonez ended up in Detroit. I was mostly angry because I could no longer chant “oh-we-oh, Magglio.”
At the Cell, I scored elotes, sweet corn slathered with chili, lime and mayo, grilled Best’s kosher dogs with caramelized onions and cinnamon-slathered churros. Though my love for the Sox hasn’t wavered, I started realizing the churros were flaccid and the sweet corn soggy, and I started going out to eat more before the games, instead of indulging in the overpriced garbage I was getting served.
Seattle has sushi, and there are shrimp tacos at San Diego’s PETCO field and Cuban sandwiches at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field. Chicago may be a great restaurant city, but it’s striking out in the stadium-eats department. Levy Restaurants group has the rights to concessions at both the Cell and Wrigley. With a profitable captive grip on fan’s palates, there’s really no reason for them to improve. I hope though, on this week of opening days, that they understand their customers deserve better.
I have one idea that might work. Though it’s not a division of Levy Restaurants, the Levy family owns rights to open local franchises of Pollo Campero. Adding kiosks in both stadiums that serve up excellent Guatemalan fried chicken would definitely be a step in the right direction. In the meantime, while I know I’ll succumb to a grilled dog at the Cell on occasion, here’s where I’ll be doing most of my pre-game chow this year:
US Cellular Field
Wings Around the World, 321 East 35th, (312)326-6930; Ramova Grill, 3510 South Halsted, (773)847-9058; Phil’s Pizza, 1102 West 35th, (773)523-0947; Ed’s Potsticker House, 3139 South Halsted, (312)326-6898; Lao Szechuan, 2172 South Archer, (312)326-5040; Schaller’s Pump, 3714 South Halsted, (773)376-6332
Goose Island Wrigleyville, 3535 North Clark, (773)832-9040; TAC Quick, 3930 North Sheridan, (773)327-5253; Erwin, 2925 North Halsted, (773)528-7200; Pat’s Pizza, 2679 North Lincoln, (773)248-0168; Crisp, 2940 North Broadway, (877)693-8653; Matsuya, 3469 North Clark, (773)248-2677