For the 2018 season, Safeco Field’s food lineup gained all-stars Din Tai Fung, Jack’s BBQ and more. Bethany Jean Clement took a swing at eating as much as she could.
I grew up in Seattle, but I haven’t been to many Mariners games since I was in middle school. Back then, I got free tickets for making the honor roll, a reward that meant very, very little to me. But my dad liked sports, so he and I reported to the nosebleed level of the Kingdome to watch a number of games — or, rather, my dad would watch while I sat and read a book. (Yes, really — I guess that’s how I got on the honor roll.)
But: There were snacks! Salty peanuts whose shells could be thrown right on the floor, foil-wrapped hot dogs with squishy buns, Cracker Jack. Dad bought snacks for both of us and beer for him, and while the snacks were admittedly not great, this made baseball fun (probably more so for him, but…). Reminiscing about it, when the broken-down Kingdome got imploded, I finally confessed that I had only gone because he wanted to go — and, secondarily, because of the snacks. He laughed and said he’d had no interest, that he really preferred watching football or basketball, and that he only took me because he thought I wanted to go.
So the experience of watching baseball is threaded through, for me, with love: Love that is unselfish, love that is loyal, love that alters not when it boredom finds — the love of a patient father and a bookish little girl going together to a place they didn’t really want to be and having a pretty good time anyway. We were each other’s biggest fan. Plus there were snacks!
Fast forward to today, when by at least one measure the Mariners are not, shall we say, at the top of their game. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2001 — the longest postseason drought in major professional sports in North America. Beloved Ichiro was no sooner back than embattled. Chew has been outlawed. But hey, we’re actually looking decent so far! Last week’s homestand against the defending World Series champs, Houston Astros, wasn’t as bad as it could have been! I went to a couple games, and while my inability to pay sustained attention to the sport itself remains, I didn’t read at all — there was too much to eat.
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Safeco Field has taken a leadership role in building up stadium food in recent years, first recruiting chef Ethan Stowell to help and then acquiring, season after season, a deeper and deeper roster of Seattle food favorites. (The Safe also leads MLB in recycling/composting, because: Seattle. It even scored the 2017 Green Glove Award for the highest recycling rate in baseball at 96 percent.) Ivar’s and its sibling Kidd Valley signed early on, and the latter’s garlic fries are still the smell of the stadium (and available all over the stadium); later came burger rookie Great State. Hailing from Capitol Hill, Poquito’s Taco Bar makes Safeco Field’s famous chapulines (that’s toasted grasshoppers, and they are good). There’s also Ballard Pizza Company (a Stowell franchise), The Big Cheese (featuring hometown heroes Beecher’s and Hempler’s), Sweet Iron (local Liège-style waffles!), Rita’s Italian Ice (from Kent), CB’s Nuts (which started as a vendor outside the stadium) and Caffe Vita coffee. There’s not just local beer but also local cask beer, and local wine, too.
I set out to try this season’s additions to the home-field food team, starting with the international heavy-hitter that made headlines earlier this spring: Din Tai Fung. No, the chain’s famous soup dumplings are not in the house; they would travel from stand to seat very poorly. Instead, there’s a short menu of other favorites, including pork-and-bok-choy wontons served with a pour-it-yourself spicy sauce ($15). The sauce rang more sweet-and-sour than the out-of-stadium version — in fact, everything billed as spicy at The Safe tasted toned down to safe levels. But the wontons still hit a home run, slippery and savory and fresh-tasting — and the sauce came in for the save as a dip for a big, arguably overly spongy pork bun ($9). Din Tai Fung’s in Section 132, where the hilariously named Intentional Wok used to be; if the kids get antsy, bring them by here to watch three big woks in action (hopefully intentionally, but they’re behind glass just in case).
You have to buy Club level seats to get to Safeco’s new lobster roll ($20 at Sound Seafood), an injustice of food access I’d get much more wound up about if the lobster roll had been better. Without the lobster’s notable chewiness, it could’ve been crab-with-a-K or even tuna fish, an amorphous oceanic taste in a mayo-forward mix. The untoasted squishy-sweetness of a King’s Hawaiian roll was also a bad call. If the New-England-expat owner of the MVP of local lobster rolls, Bar Harbor, tried this one, he’d probably cry (but he’s a Red Sox fan, so he deserves to).
Ethan Stowell’s newest player at the ballpark, Dynamite Chicken in The ’Pen, touts “Bramling Cross Gastropub’s Original Ballard Recipe” and is marked by a cartoon chicken with a stick of dynamite in its beak. You can’t not try something called Dirty Tots ($10), but you may not end up a fan. Unmelted cheese, what seemed like bacon bits, jalapeños and possibly some hot sauce did not make for inspiring totchos, and the Tater Tots themselves were oddly, not-entirely-pleasantly extra-crunchy. (For the record, yes, I love Tater Tots — you can’t not.) The spicy chicken sandwich ($12) also suffered from careless construction: One side of the bottom bun was folded back, causing it to disgorge one of the spicy chicken tenders inside onto the stadium floor upon unwrapping, and some of the pieces of onion were much bigger than regulation size. Though “dynamite” would be a real stretch, the chicken did have a bit of spiciness that tasted a lot like Frank’s RedHot. It was … OK, in a cut-above-fast-food way.
Jack’s BBQ is famous for its brisket, and Jack’s ballpark brisket sandwich ($13) is stuffed full of soft, meaty, delicious goodness (though unevenly applied coleslaw needed redistribution). The only thing noticeably differentiating Jack’s Texas corn dog ($6) from an Any-Other-Place corn dog seemed to be a barely perceptible spicy heat — but it was a corn dog, hence, good, especially at the ballpark. The biggest hit of the new season might be Jack’s Frito pie ($10), served, as it should be in America, in a torn-open chips bag. What makes this Frito pie great is the greatness of Jack’s brisket chili: Its smoky, meaty, around-the-campfire flavor combines perfectly with salty, crunchy, greasy Fritos, plus cheese and sour cream for richness. The portion is big, but persevere: The best part is at the bottom.
Food-assembly fouls aside, it must be pointed out that everyone working at every stand at Safeco Field was incredibly nice. (A shout-out to the beer vendor who sunnily insisted on seeing a very grumpy older gentleman’s ID, as per legal requirements, then told us, “I’d card Kris Kringle himself!” with glee.) The ballpark was glorious: the verdant stripes of the grass, the Sammamish schoolkids cutely belting out the national anthem, the radiance of the mammoth JumboTron, the fan who agreed to have a jug of maple syrup poured over her head on the mammoth JumboTron in honor of Canadian Mariner James “Big Maple” Paxton. On a sunny day, especially, it’s not all about the game — not when there’s so much other wonderfulness, including (unlike the Kingdome slowly shedding its ceiling tiles) the heavenly blue sky above. Take somebody you love, and get lots of snacks.
Mariners info and tickets: mlb.com/mariners
May 3 is Gluten-Free Night and May 17 is Vegan Night at Safeco Field, with specially priced tickets that include a pregame buffet. We also got great seats day-of from the app Gametime, and note that Link light rail is free with your M’s ticket, through June 3.