The action may have been at home plate for Nationals fans in last night’s 8-6 victory over the Cardinals, but four newcomers to the stadium stole the show out in center field.  Last night saw the debut of the new lineup along the Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk, with four of the Union Square Hospitality Group’s restaurants open for business. Fans can now enjoy burgers and custard from Shake Shack, barbecue from Blue Smoke, fries from Box Frites and tacos from El Verano Taqueria in addition to the already robust lineup of stadium concessions.

If the stadium location is anything like the Connecticut Avenue site that opened last month, you’ll need to brave lines longer than the Nats’ six-run rally last night to sample the Shack Burgers and custard creations.  Get there early – they’re worth it.  We had a chance to take a look at the four new concessions and some of their menu items before last night’s game, and we’ve got a first look at each.

The operations team at Nationals Park worked on the deal with Union Square Hospitality Group for more than a year.  They saw Danny Meyer and his variety of restaurant concepts (not to mention his success with a similar venture at the Mets’ Citi Field) as a “premium” offering that could help to elevate the experience at the stadium.  The new concessions are part of an effort to rebrand the Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk as a place that offers more ambience.  To that end, shade sails and cafe lights help to tie everything together in an “open market” atmosphere, creating a park within a park.

We got to talk with Meyer before the game.  As the restaurateur put it, the goal with the stadium offerings was to present “destination-worthy” food that was still in keeping with the kinds of food you would want to see at a ballpark.  “No one wants fussy food at a game,” said Meyer, “but concessions aren’t playing to a captive audience like they once were.  We want to offer restaurant-quality food that’s as accessible as fast food.”  He indicated that USHG had an opportunity to work with the concession employees that would be staffing the four restaurants, encouraging them to embrace the Union Square mentality of quality service at all price points.

Check out El Verano’s tasty tacos, Shake Shack’s stadium-only specials, Blue Smoke’s ‘cue and Box Frites’ dipping sauces – along with copies of all four venues’ menus – after the jump.

Here they are, in the order you’ll encounter them along the Scoreboard Walk.  Click on each restaurant’s name to get a .pdf copy of the menu.

 

El Verano Taqueria

Walk past the comfortable lounge seating at the entry to the Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk, and you arrive at the first of the new concessions.  El Verano Taqueria is a concept that the Union Square Hospitality Group debuted at the Mets’ new Citi Field back in 2009.  They offer three kinds of soft tacos served on corn tortillas with just the right amount of bite: braised chicken mole, slow-cooked pork carnitas, and chili-marinated skirt steak.  An order will get you two of the same taco for $7.75, or you can opt for a combo platter with one of each for $10.25.  Homemade salsas complement the tacos, which are topped with the traditional chopped onion and cilantro.

We tasted all three and were pleased to note that each has its own unique flavor.  The chicken had a nice smokiness to it, though the one we tried was a bit dry.  The skirt steak was delicious, with a mild but lingering heat.  But the standout of the three was the carnitas – the pork was cooked in a spice mixture that offered distinct notes of cinnamon and cumin.  One of our fellow tasters from Let Teddy Win (a blog dedicated to the Nats and the Presidents’ Race that occurs during each home game) likened it to Cincinnati-style chili – whether that’s your thing or not, it’s a quality taco all-around and worth a taste.

Ask anyone who’s ever gone to a county fair and they’ll tell you that any food is better on a stick.  At El Verano you can put that theory to the test with their “Elote” corn on the cob.  For $4.75, the corn is slathered in mayonnaise and covered in grated Cotija and cayenne pepper.  We’re hoping that this one will continue to improve as we get further into traditional fresh corn season…while the external flavors were BIG and tasty, the corn itself was unimpressive with a texture and overly-sweet taste similar to canned kernels.

Standing as it is in the shadow of the Shake Shack, El Verano has the potential to be the sleeper hit of the new concessions.  The flavors are bold and you’re left feeling like you got your money’s worth.  Expect the lines to be shorter than those at Shake Shack and Blue Smoke, but don’t let that keep you away.

El Verano Taqueria at Nationals Park on Urbanspoon

 

Shake Shack

When DC’s Shake Shack opened on Connecticut Avenue last month, we were impressed with the way they incorporated design elements from the original Shack in Madison Square Park without creating a direct copy.  The new location in Nationals Park carries on that tradition, bringing the signature Shack Burger, Shack-cago Dog and frozen custard to the stadium while offering some items only available here in the park.

This is stadium food at its best.  The Shack Burger is a steal at $5.75 for a single, and the Shack-cago Dog packs all the flavors of a Vienna beef Chicago-style dog “dragged through the garden” on a potato roll instead of a poppy-seed bun for $5.75.  For vegetarians who aren’t avoiding meat for health reasons, there’s the ‘Shroom Burger that stuffs melted muenster and cheddar into portobello mushroom caps and deep fries the whole shebang.  The $7.75 price tag is competitive, and the sandwich will definitely leave you satisfied.

But you can get all this stuff at their Dupont Circle location – and at $1, $1.50 and $1 less, respectively.  Since you’re at the stadium, why not try some of the unique items on the menu?  Check out those custards – see anything unusual?  That’s right – honey roasted peanut.  Blended into a shake ($5.75), it gives a sweet peanut butter flavor like the filling of a Reese’s Cup.  Or go for a thick frozen treat that’s likely to last longer than your average starting pitcher with the Take Me Out to the Ballgame! Concrete for $6.75.  This blended custard cup spins chocolate truffle cookie dough, peanuts and caramel into vanilla custard.  It’s enough to make a spoon stand up straight, and it defies any efforts to attack it with a straw for at least the first 20 minutes.

Shake Shack is the marquis venue among the new Danny Meyer restaurants at the stadium and the most anticipated concession.  The Nats have planned accordingly with plenty of space for long lines like those at the Connecticut Avenue location, and they seem ready to handle the traffic. We talked to Larry and Judith Henshaw, the first official Shake Shack customers, and they were generally pleased with what they got.  They pointed out the backyard quality of the burger, though they were less enamored of the honey roasted peanut custard.  At least they got to enjoy a good meal as they watched the Cards fall to the Nationals.

We don’t need to tell you to check this one out – chances are you were already planning to do so.

Shake Shack at Nationals Park on Urbanspoon

 

Blue Smoke

Sure, hot dogs and hamburgers get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to stadium food.  But what could be more American than the pairing of barbecue and baseball?  With Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer brings a pared-down selection of smoked meats from his New York ‘cue joint, along with tangy slaw and a dangerously savory dark chocolate bar for dessert.

As you might expect, this was the concession we were most uncertain about.  After all, the relationship between the District and barbecue is torturous, at best.  And with Blue Smoke turning out enough pork to feed the masses at the stadium, the chances for sub-par ‘cue were pretty high.  On balance, however, this is a solid option that offers another new flavor to the lineup at the stadium.

Their pulled pork is moist and tender, with just the right amount of sweetness and vinegar to the sauce.  Served on a brioche bun, it’s a decent-sized portion for $8.75 (remembering that these are captive-audience stadium prices, after all) and it hits most of the right notes for a barbecue enthusiast.  Our biggest complaint was actually the bun – brioche makes for a big, fluffy bun that helps to reinforce the idea of value for the money, but it comes at the expense of the meat-to-bread ratio.  A few dry, meatless bites were enough to convince us that the superfluous bun was best left uneaten.

Kansas City spare ribs come three to an order for $10.25, and they offered up plenty of meat with minimal cartilage or excess fat.  Maybe it was the fact that we had just returned from a trip to Missouri, but the combination of “magic dust” rub and sauce just didn’t do it for us.  The ribs were good, but they weren’t Kansas City good.

The most talked-about menu item at Blue Smoke so far is the Memphis-style “barbecued beef bologna sandwich.”  That’s not just a clever name.  For $7.75 you get a thick slice of sandwich meat, smoked and grilled and topped with raw onions and pickles.  They’re not subtle flavors, but they work together to make for a smoky, salty sandwich that may be more of an acquired taste than stadium-goers will want to develop.  But if you’re from Memphis and this represents a taste of childhood, you can be sure that you’ve got a faithful recreation waiting for you here.

Waiting for us at the end of the meal was a Blue Smoke “Salty Peanut-Jalapeno Chocolate Bar.”  A devilish combination of flavors and textures, it combines the crunch and salt of the peanuts with the sour heat of smoked jalapenos and covers them with rich dark chocolate.  It has to be unfair to pile that many taste-triggers into one bar.  These things will do some serious damage; thankfully the $4.75 price tag discourages multiple bar binges.

Our friend Babeque was at the game last night, and she Tweeted that the only thing that made the crowds at the stadium bearable was the ‘cue from Blue Smoke.  Now that’s high praise!

Blue Smoke at Nationals Park on Urbanspoon

 

Box Frites

Box Frites is arguably the simplest of the four USHG concessions to open at the park.  They serve Belgian-style frites, either accompanied by one of five dipping sauces or coated in garlic and parmesan cheese.  Picture golden-brown fries that are crisp on the outside and pillowy-soft inside.  Taste that bit of salt that makes them good enough to eat on their own.  Now imagine them with your choice of chipotle ketchup, ballpark mayo, smoke bacon aioli, blue cheese, or rosemary ranch.  Not so simple anymore, are they?

We were able to sample all five of the dipping sauces, giving us a significant advantage over the average Frites patron.  Normally, your small ($7.25) or large ($8.00) box of fries comes with one of the five.  Additional sauces are available for purchase at $2.00 each.  If you want the garlic-parmesan frites ($9.75), you’re out of luck on sauce – not that you need it.

Talk about a tough choice!  These are dipping sauces that put some other local options on notice.  The chipotle ketchup had a nice smoky heat behind the sweetness of the tomato, and the ballpark mayo was satisfyingly thick with a yellow hue that made us think it was handmade using real egg yolk.  Our standout favorites were the blue cheese – thin but not watery, just the way you’d want it served alongside wings; and the smoke bacon aioli, which had chunks of bacon and plenty of that promised smoke flavor in a base with the consistency of that ballpark mayo.  Only the rosemary ranch disappointed, with an overpowering amount of rosemary dominating the sauce and drowning out any other  flavors that may have been present.

Those Garlic-Parmesan fries are no slouches either, with the savory notes of the parmesan and the pungent punch of the garlic rendering any additional sauce superfluous.  They came as a large order, going a long way to justifying that price tag.

We’re anticipating Box Frites will emerge as more of a niche player, catering to potato purists and those who just can’t stand another burger or sandwich.  Even so, their quality offerings shouldn’t be overlooked.

Box Frites at Nationals Park on Urbanspoon

 

So what will your first stop be next time you’re in the stadium?  As that sign on the way up to the Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk indicated, Union Square Hospitality Group is definitely taking ballpark food to the “next level.”  Our only advice?  Don’t try to hit all four stands in one game…at least not until the crowds have died down a bit.  Otherwise you’re likely to miss most of the game just waiting in lines.

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