On a muggy Tuesday night, I’m at a minor-league stadium scouting this year’s hottest prospects. Oh, not some slugging outfielder or flame-throwing pitcher. I’m scoping out new food offerings at the stadium of the Rocket City Trash Pandas, the Los Angeles’ Double-A affiliate.
The concessions at Toyota Field in Madison, Alabama go way beyond yesteryear ballpark fare, like hotdogs, popcorn and peanuts. Although they have those, if you’re feeling nostalgic. But much like today’s luxe minor-league stadiums are vast improvements from those giant-concrete-ashtray ’80s versions, the food’s advanced significantly since the Jose Canseco era too.
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It’s easy to find and get to the food at Toyota Field. There’s at least four differently-branded concession stands in the open-air concourse, each stand with their own specialty items. There are also several mobile vendors peppered throughout the stadium, which has a clever and comfy design, as many entertainment and sports venues do now – see the new Orion Amphitheater in nearby Huntsville.
Before heading out to a recent Trash Pandas game versus the Montgomery Biscuits, the Tampa Bay Rays Double-A club, I did some recon on the Pandas’ website. The site’s “Know Before You Go” page lists Toyota Field’s current concession menus (without prices listed). There are at least nine new items for 2022. They range from a pot roast sandwich to hickory smoked turkey leg to pecan pie a la mode.
We called the Southern chicken sandwich’s number first. Fried chicken, pimento cheese, braised collard greens on a brioche bun, served with fries and available at the “Gravity Grille” concession stand. At 12 bucks, this is an excellent value for fast-casual-type food in the current Huntsville-area market. Chances are you’d pay the same amount or more for a similar meal at a restaurant. The chicken was deftly fried and ample. And the pimento cheese’s peppery creamy thing played well with the bird. The bun, fresh. Next time, I’d have them leave off the collards though as they were wilt-y and bitter. But I’m picky about greens and generally not a fan, so grain of salt there.
My favorite item we had all night was also the one with the best name, the “Eat Your Opponent Dog.” They were doing these at a mobile stand called Sprocket’s Grill with a grill and steamtable, located in the raised area off left field. Each homestand, Toyota Field’s food and beverage staff comes up with a different specialty hotdog with toppings inspired by the Pandas’ opponent’s own local flavor.
A homestand versus a team called the Biscuits is a hanging curveball for this concept. This Eat Your Opponent Dog was a butterflied ‘dog served on a flaky soft biscuit, slathered with rich gravy and topped with enough pepper bacon to satisfy both Cecil and Prince Fielder. Heavy and hearty. And at $7.75, a ballpark-food steal.
I forked up my Eat Your Own Opponent Dog at the bar-like railing behind the visitor’s bullpen. From below, you could hear the fastballs hiss and catcher’s mitt pop. While I was there, a buzzed 20-something bro taunted the Biscuit players in the bullpen, hollering down to them, unprovoked, “You’d make more money running a weed-eater!” One of the Biscuits then invited the bro to come down to the bullpen and repeat his statement. Shockingly, the bro didn’t take him up on this offer. Instead he lumbered back towards the concourse, to continue making his parents proud elsewhere.
Back to the food. The Gravity Grill’s slugger fries are another all-star concessions. A pitcher’s mound pile of golden fries topped with tender pulled pork, mustard slaw and drizzled with both tangy red barbecue sauce and creamy Alabama white sauce. Interestingly, fries hold up to a pile of toppings a little better than nachos, I think. So the last ones aren’t a soggy lost hope, as you can eat them easily with a fork. At $11, the slugger fries could feed at entire outfield, or at least a double-play combo. And the cardboard iPad-sized baskets many Toyota Field concessions are solid enough you can (carefully) handle them one-armed, if you need to.
In addition to standard hotdogs, Toyota Field also serves a $6 Conecuh dog, which puts the Evergreen, Alabama staple on a brioche bun. Too high of bun-to-dog ratio for me. That said, the dog itself was better than standard issue. The stadium’s mustard, relish, other fixings, napkins and plasticware are located at cart-like stations near the concessions. All a snap to use.
Seating wise, there’s a cluster of seven or so pub tables in the concourse behind the seats behind home-plate. Again, with the open design you’re never separated from the on-field action or crack-of-the-bat sounds that are such a charming part of going to a pro ballpark. There are also a few tables elsewhere in the park. And another railing/bar/counter area with stools, located above the right-field fence. There are picnic tables in the left-field crowded area, but you need special tickets to hang at those though, I’m told. Ticket wise, I opted for the cheapo $8 lawn seats instead of $17 reserved. Although I never went out there, in the right-field foul area there’s a grassy patch where you can put out a blanket and hang, and on this night quite a few people were doing that.
As our closer for the night, we went Southern Philly cheesesteak from the unfortunately named Dumpster Dive concession stand. Twelve dollars for the Philly, served with another of those piles of fries. (Toyota Field’s French fry budget must be approaching New York Yankees roster payroll levels.) The Southern Cheese is elevated junk food, with a steamy bun barely holding up to the pool of Cheese Wiz and shaved roast.
In 2022, at a baseball stadium you can still get food in a souvenir batting helmet. Toyota Field headwear/meal mashups includes nachos pulled pork, beef brisket and jackfruit with fries for $22. A chicken strip helmet, contains eight tenders and, according to one concession employee, “a lot more fries you usually get.”
Toyota Field beverage options range from $3 bottled water/fountain sodas to $6 domestic and $8 craft draft beer (16-ounce) to a $16 margarita flavored “spiked icee” (24-ounce). Signs displayed at the counter of many of the booze-selling stands noted a two-alcohol limit per person. The sign also noted that to legally purchase alcohol a person must be born on or before today’s date in 2000. A cruel reminder my adult journey has taken me from once being younger than most professional baseball players to now being older than many managers.
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