Everything you’ve heard about the aesthetics of CHS Field, the new Lowertown home of the St. Paul Saints, is 100 percent accurate. The place is gorgeous. Not in a skin-deep kind of way, either; it’s as functional as it is good-looking.
Given Saints owner Mike Veeck’s fun-is-good philosophy, it should come as no surprise that the 7,000-seat ballpark is also designed for baseball fans who love to eat and drink. Which is pretty much everyone, right?
Not only are there vendors seemingly everywhere, but there’s a thoughtful variety of venues — patios, counters and even an outfield lawn, most with views of the field — for ticket holders to sit and enjoy reasonably priced snacks and beverages.
Speaking of beer, that’s what this ballpark really gets right. For beer lovers, there’s no better sports-related venue in Twin Cities. That’s due in great part to the Beer Dabbler, the outfield’s quasi-beer garden, which taps an impressive 32 craft beers and ciders that are culled from 16 breweries (all but two are local) and priced at $6.50 a pop.
The roster is tailored for both occasional drinkers and connoisseurs, ranging from the hearty oatmeal milk stout from Brau Brothers and the hoppy rye IPA from 612 Brew to the fruity Saison de Blanc from Insight Brewing Co. and the crisp Freewheeler apple cider from Sociable Cider Werks. It’s a discerning selection, one that would be the pride of any self-respecting gastropub, and it’s a huge reason to become a season-ticket holder.
St. Paul-based Summit Brewing Co. is all over the ballpark, befitting its long-standing relationship with the team, one that started with a special 3.2 beer for alcohol-shy Midway Stadium back in the team’s early days.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of their beautiful new venue,” said Mark Stutrud, Summit’s founder and president. It is indeed. Summit taps are scattered all over the property, most notably at a handful of stands, where the waits on opening day were blissfully short and snacks (sunflower seeds, in-the-shell peanuts) were plentiful.
Also admirable is the way the ballpark reaches out to the surrounding city. Not just the views of Lowertown’s brick warehouses and downtown’s skyscrapers, but the way it showcases familiar Capital City dining names.
Yep, that’s Snuffy’s, the Mac-Groveland burger-and-malt shop, scooping chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream into creamy hand-mixed malts ($7).
For grown-ups, Snuffy’s is whirring up a shandy-like shake, blending vanilla ice cream, a chunky strawberry sauce and Summit’s summer ale, and it’s the kind of happy novelty that you’d hope to encounter in fun-loving Saintsland.
The beer doesn’t really come through, flavor-wise, other than as a slight substitute for malted milk powder, and it makes for a light, creamy warm-weather repast. Look for the red-and-white stand on the third base line.
Ginkgo Coffeehouse has been a Saints fixture since 1993 — the shop stands about two minutes from Midway Stadium, the team’s former home — and it’s great to see it occupying a place of pride just inside the ballpark’s Broadway entrance.
“We both started the same year, and it has become this great relationship,” said owner Kathy Sundberg.
Along with freshly brewed coffee drinks (coming soon: fresh fruit smoothies), Sundberg’s stand offers a handful of well-made sweets, including a dozen bite-sized, wonderfully buttery chocolate chip cookies ($6) that are easily the tastiest CHS Field dessert.
A close second are a pair of terrific, ever-changing and obviously freshly baked cupcakes ($3.50). On opening day, Sundberg was selling chocolate cakes crowned with a swirl of minty icing, and vanilla cakes with a similarly hefty dose of thick strawberry frosting.
The tastiest savory at CHS Field is, without question, the brats and Polish sausages produced across the street at Heartland Restaurant and sold at the Fries and Pies counter (third base).
Chef/co-owner Lenny Russo and butcher Dan Stepaniak are taking a small-batch approach to sausage-making, by necessity. “We have an automatic sausage stuffer, but we’re still operating it manually,” said Russo with a laugh.
The quality shines through in every snappy bite. Like Russo, the lean, air-dried sausages ($7) have personality to spare, made with premium pork shoulder from Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin family farms. They hold together beautifully in their all-natural pork casings and are seasoned to perfection; the brat gives off hints of nutmeg and ginger, and the Polish is all about garlic and oregano. Any sports venue would be thrilled to serve them.
And now, the bad news: Levy Restaurants/Pro Sports Catering, which manages the food operations at CHS Field, inexplicably chooses to insult this craftsmanship with a disappointingly dull bun. We’re talking convenience store-level baking here. Oh, and the dreary Heinz ketchup, mustard and sweet relish? So not worthy.
Von Hanson Meats is on hand, running a stand near home plate. On opening day, the lines were long but moving relatively fast; when I stepped into the queue, I counted 29 fellow fans in front of me, yet the wait was just under 10 minutes.
The menu includes three sausages with wacky Saints-appropriate names and flavors (the “Garrison Squealer” incorporates wild rice and bacon, the “Brett Favre” oozes cheese and a spicy jalapeño kick) along with a straight-up brat, all running $6.50.
All would be vastly improved with a swipe of coarse-ground, beer-infused mustard (instead, we get the same sorry supermarket condiments). Oh, and before I forget: Three cheers for stocking Roseville-made Old Dutch potato chips, rather than going with a national brand.
Oy, those waits. As the crews behind the counters gain experience, hopefully the endless opening-day lines will dissipate. They prevented me from getting within 20 feet of the Sandwich Lot (right field line), maker of a handful of promising-looking grilled sandwiches. Instead, I stood through two innings in the patience-testing line at the Steakadelphia stand (third base line) to get my hands on a Philly cheesesteak sandwich ($8.50), and it proved to be a waste of time.
No resident of the City of Brotherly Love would recognize the results — dry, thinly shaved beef, topped with barely grilled onions and peppers and a few slices of flavorless cheese, all laid out on a doughy sourdough hoagie. Go ahead: Defy convention and brighten it up with the provided Sriracha and A.1. sauces. You’ll thank me.
Another highly skippable item? The fatty, chewy rib tips ($12) at Mud’s BBQ (outfield), which tasted of Liquid Smoke and sugar and little else. It’s the kind of dish that would send a food truck purveyor scurrying back to the commissary kitchen, head held in shame.
Better, exponentially, was the same stand’s pulled pork sandwich ($8.50), a plentiful pile of shredded pork liberally brushed with a thick, molasses-kissed sauce and topped with wet, nicely tangy coleslaw.
Kudos also to the root beer float ($6), a towering glass of decent soft-serve vanilla ice cream that’s splashed with super-sweet Killebrew root beer. Come to think of it, that’s kind of an odd choice, seeing how le brew Harmon pretty much screams “Twins Territory.” Why not go with an east-sider? Maybe the rich, caramel-ey root beer made at Lift Bridge Brewing Co. in Stillwater. Just a thought.
Levy is offering a host of deep-fried, reasonably priced basics — walleye, chicken fingers, fries, cheese curds — and it’s all familiar, yet it feels like a lost opportunity. CHS Field is far too special a place to settle for been-there, tasted-that food-court fare.
The burgers are a prime example. The Burger Depot (first base line) has a half-dozen burger concoctions on the menu ($7.50 to $9), and they’re standard-issue, nothing more. Best to go with a dolled-up version; the “Diablo,” with its jalapeno-peppered bacon and Sriracha-laced mayonnaise, packed a pleasant, non-Minnesota Spice wallop.
It’s where I made my first — and, I suppose, inevitable — comparison with Target Field. Stupid of me, since CHS Field is roughly a fifth of the size of its big-league neighbor to the west.
Still, when I saw that Red Cow was sponsoring the Beer Dabbler, I couldn’t help but think of the outstanding sliders that the restaurant is serving at its Target Field stand. They sure would taste great in St. Paul, especially with that dazzling array of craft beers.
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