Before I dig into this hardball, high-calorie project to compare the concessions at Nationals Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, allow me to reveal two biases: I like the warehouse-cool Yards more than the local team’s concrete sandbox by the Anacostia River, but I bleed Nats red throughout the season.
All right, if you threaten to uppercut me with a Louisville Slugger, I’ll admit to a third prejudice: It still steams my buns that a prominent New York restaurateur has a chokehold on Nats fans in our own back yard. I don’t care if Danny Meyer’s chefs engineer one of the best fast-food burgers on the planet. I’d still rather have Five Guys, DCity Smokehouse and Taqueria Habanero at the ballpark instead of Meyer’s Shake Shack empire on the mezzanine level near right field.
By their nature, sports are a partisan affair, designed to create deep (and increasingly deep-pocketed) loyalties to the hometown clubs, even in this age of free agency. So what does it say when an owner asks local businesses to pony up to pay for his stadium, but then can’t find enough D.C. restaurateurs to fill his multimillion-dollar park? It tells me that, when it comes to sports ownership, loyalties can be a one-way street.
When comparing concessions, however, I tried to put aside this gnawing bias. Which means I didn’t downgrade a sandwich or drink just because its proprietor calls another city home.
1. The hamburger options
Even though Camden Yards offers a good-and-greasy, if underseasoned, double stack from the Baltimore Burger Bar for $9.50, it doesn’t measure up to the fully developed double ShackBurger at $10 per pop. The first run goes to Nats Park.
Nationals Park 1, Camden Yards 0.
2. Taco Time
Each park takes a radically different approach to tacos. Ole Mole at Camden Yards sells a trio of gringo-style tacos for $10 but allows you to select a separate filling for each: pork barbacoa, pulled chicken, “seasoned beef” and black beans. I ordered the beef, chicken and black beans, which were poured into cold flour tortillas and immediately paved over by my requested toppings (guacamole and a tomato-heavy salsa), which so dominated the snacks that I had to concentrate hard to remember what fillings were buried underneath. Three strikes.
El Verano Taqueria, another Meyer property at Nats Park, takes a more authentic approach to Mexican street food, wrapping its fillings in two semi-fresh corn tortillas. Even the taco options sound as if they were prepared by someone with a working knowledge of South of the Border cooking: green mole chicken, vegetable pozole, pork carnitas and beef barbacoa. Alas, you cannot mix and match; you order two tacos for $8.75, you get two of the same. The carnitas meat leaned sweet but found its balance with a potent roasted tomato salsa. Score another for Nats Park.
Nationals Park 2, Camden Yards 0.
3. Taste of the Chesapeake
As expected, you can practically eat your weight in crab at Camden Yards. The park offers a number of ways to inhale the famed shellfish, pulled from the Chesapeake if you believe the vendors. Old Bay Seafood sells a clean, fresh and well-picked crab salad roll for $16. But if you walk down to the Chipper, you can order a regular crab chipper for $9, and the tray of house-made kettle chips will come loaded with arguably more “lump” crab than the salad roll. Even better, the ruffled chips provide much needed texture for the watery meat and its rich white cheddar sauce.
The Chesapeake Crab Cake Company at Nats Park demands $17 for (in my case) a crab cake scorched black on the bottom after lounging on a hot griddle for god knows how long. It was served on a bun as chewy as a bagel and topped with a tomato that could have been used as a hot pad. The Yards plates a run.
Nationals Park 2, Camden Yards 1.
4. Chopstick Food
The Tako Asian Bistro is, as the name implies, a pan-Asian place at Camden Yards, and its barbecue pork Wow Boa Hot Asian Buns (I just report the names, I don’t make them up) are an unexpected change-up. The buns ($6.50 for two) may be a tad gummy, but they go down well with a drizzle of soy sauce. In fact, they’re practically Momofuku-grade snacks compared with the Mongolian beef at Intentional Wok at Nats Park. The vendor with the groan-inducing pun for a name wants $12 for a Chinese takeout container of fat, mushy noodles and beef as chewy as a rawhide dog stick. Another run for the Yards.
Camden Yards 2, Nationals Park 2.
5. Celebrity Fare
After moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005, these Nationals are still too wet behind the ears to have a club legend to match Baltimore’s Boog Powell, who crushed 303 home runs during a 14-year Orioles career.
So when it comes to celebrity fare, Nats Park has to fall back on a local chef with a big footprint. Mike Isabella’s G sandwich shop sells just a fraction of the bread bombs available at the 14th Street NW store. Pre-made for fast pick-up, the ballpark sandwiches aren’t always as fresh as those at the bricks-and-mortar shop, but fortunately for Isabella’s roasted cauliflower sandwich ($12), the full-throated almond romesco makes up for the soggy star at the center of the seeded Italian roll (and for the lack of pickled vegetables).
As wrong as this sounds, I’ll take the chef’s veggie sandwich any day over the regular beef sandwich ($10) from Boog’s BBQ at Camden Yards, even if the former slugger regularly pulls up a chair and signs autographs before first pitch. Closer to roast beef than barbecue, these slices make me think the offset smoker near Boog’s cash register is only for show.
Nationals Park 3, Camden Yards 2.
6. Get Your Beer Here
With a few exceptions (such as the Free State Pub, which has a terrific selection of suds), Camden Yards takes a brand-oriented approach to beer. The park has stands dedicated to Blue Point, Heavy Seas, Flying Dog, Goose Island, Samuel Adams, Budweiser and, of course, Natty Boh. This approach can translate into a long walk, depending on where you and your favorite brew are situated inside the park. The Yards has probably my favorite Baltimore beer (Brewer’s Art Resurrection, a fruity and lightly hoppy abbey brown ale, for $8.25) and my least favorite Baltimore beer (Natty Boh, a malty-sweet can that hasn’t been produced in Charm City in years, for $8).
With an exception or two (such as the Samuel Adams Brewhouse) Nats Park takes a more cross-brand approach to beer. The national labels are available at many stands, so if you’re in dire need of a Miller Lite ($9), head to Intentional Wok, where the line is usually minuscule (for a reason, see No. 4). Local craft beers are poured from taps at several District Drafts booths throughout the park. Both the Port City Optimal Wit and the 3 Stars Above the Clouds, a refreshing farmhouse pale ale, are perfect summer quaffs. They’re $10 a pull.
Call this a draw.
Nationals Park 4, Camden Yards 3.
7. Specialty Links
Whatever you think of Ben’s Chili Bowl and its signature half-smoke, you have to see the wisdom of adding them to Nats Park. Visiting fans can then sample, arguably, the only dish outsiders associate with the District. For my money, the fully loaded chili half-smoke ($9) is custom-built for baseball: Its spice level activates sweat glands to cool exposed skin, and it’s massive and meaty enough to satisfy your appetite, an important consideration when shelling out big bucks for big-league meals.
Das Sausage Haus, branded under the Chinese-owned Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer, hawks something called the “full smoke sausage” for $7.50. When I asked an employee if this was Camden’s answer to the half-smoke, she flashed me a look that said, “Dude, I just griddle sausages, okay?” It doesn’t matter. The link tastes, at best, like smoky baloney. Put one more on the board for Nats Park.
Nationals Park 5, Camden Yards 3.
8. Something Smoky
If Boog’s BBQ is light on smoke, the key element in the low-and-slow tradition, where should a barbecue hound turn at the Yards? Try the Eutaw Street Grill, which offers a pulled pork sandwich on a cushy sesame seed bun for $10. Its smokiness is delicate but detectable just below the surface of the sweet meat, which benefits from an application of sweet-tangy barbecue sauce. It’s a quality bite but still pales by comparison to the jerk chicken plate ($13, with one side) at Jammin’ Island BBQ at Nats Park. This bone-in taste of the Caribbean doesn’t mess around: The smoke/grill flavor is pronounced, and the pepper burn of the jerk sauce packs as much heat as a Stephen Strasburg fastball. Chalk up another for the Nats.
Nationals Park 6, Camden Yards 3.
9. Random Snack
Eutaw Street Grill also sells a thick slab of smoky bacon, dipped in maple syrup, charred briefly on a flat-top and speared with a skewer. It’s salty. It’s sweet. It’s fatty. It’s smoky. It’s bacon on a friggin’ stick! What more do you want for $5? The chickpea falafel ($9) at Max’s Kosher Grill at Nats Park (closed on Saturdays for the obvious reason) doesn’t offer the dancing-bears novelty of — all together now — bacon on a stick! Nor does it include all the toppings available at Max’s Kosher Cafe in Silver Spring. Still, I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) stop eating the tahini-laced sandwich, even with many meals ahead of me.
This is a tough one: Give it to the pork belly by a nose.
Nationals Park 6, Camden Yards 4.
Both parks have small surprises tucked into various corners. At Camden, you can order a Flying Dog Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale ($8.75) at the Roof Top Bar in center field, should you like beer with the aftertaste of a bloody mary. The Chipper sells what has to be the most original, and tooth-destroying, dessert in the stadium: sweet potato chips covered in chocolate sauce, caramel sauce and whipped cream ($9 or $14). And crab can be found in many forms, including mixed with mac and cheese and slathered over a hot dog ($9).
Yet Nationals Park hides many more surprises under its grandstands and on its terraces: gluten-free food, a stand devoted to vegetarian fare (called Field of Greens, where you should avoid the rubbery veggie cheese steak at all costs, even if it’s only $8.50), a burrito vendor, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, a frozen cocktail stand, the Virginia Country Kitchen (with its sticky $6 riff on Cracker Jack), a grilled cheese vendor (the guy operating the griddle at Throwin’ Cheese is a perfectionist, slow and deliberate) and many dessert options, including a stand from the McLean-based Fluffy Thoughts Bakery, which sells cupcakes ($6.50 each) decorated to resemble Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. They’re easier on the eyes than on the palate.
As Charlie Slowes would say: Put a curly W in the books. Nationals Park takes the concessions series from Camden Yards, 7-4. Nats fans win, in other words, even in those rare instances when the home team doesn’t.