BY CHRIS REWERS
As anyone who has been to a major league ballgame in recent years well knows, ballpark fare is no longer consists of just hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jack.
A walk down a modern ballpark concourse provides fans with a plethora of food options. The traditional options remain, but concession items today reflect the more sophisticated palates of modern fans. Regional culinary favorites are showcased – such as Chicago-style hot dogs at Wrigley Field, bratwursts in Milwaukee, garlic fries in San Francisco, fish tacos in San Diego, and cheese steak sandwiches in Philadelphia.
Stella’s Restaurant and Batting Cages in Lyons, Ill., 12 miles southwest of downtown Chicago is a celebration of baseball’s recent culinary revolution.
Since it opened in 1986, Stella’s has provided ballplayers with the area’s only year-round batting cage facility that is open to the public. The indoor facility includes nine automated cages with baseball and softball options with pitch speeds ranging from 38 MPH to over 80 MPH.
Adjacent to the batting cages is a full-service pro shop with a selection of bats, gloves, and other baseball equipment for sale, a modestly-sized dining room, and a small patio area.
Stella’s food offerings were fairly typical until Chef Robin Choi and his wife, Rhonda, took over kitchen operations last February. Robin, with 17 years of culinary experience and an extensive background in fine dining restaurants as a sushi chef, seemed overqualified and out of place for a casual joint like Stella’s.
“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life making hot dogs and burgers,” Robin said. “I wanted to tie in some kind of concept and be a little more creative.”
Choi, a passionate baseball fan, visited ballparks throughout the country and was inspired to recreate many of the food items he enjoyed during his travels. He calls his cuisine “ballpark centric street food.”
The food at Stella’s, once an afterthought, has now become the main attraction to many visitors.
My son, Will, and I are long-time Stella’s regulars but last year, on many of our visits, we didn’t even venture into the batting range.
“A lot of people come here to eat,” said Choi proudly.
Standard fare – like nachos, pizza puffs, and soft pretzels – are still available as are local favorites like Italian beef, Polish sausage, and corned beef.
But it’s the newcomers to the menu that distinguish Stella’s. And with most menu items priced under $7, it offers a family of four a culinary tour de force for less than $30.
Ordering at Stella’s is not an easy task. So many choices.
In the mood for sushi?
Spicy tuna rolls and California rolls are made to order.
Craving a taste of Miami on a frigid January day?
Stella’s offers “The Canseco,” a juicy pressed and toasted Cuban sandwich with generous amounts of Mojo-marinated pork shoulder, smoke ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles.
Or how about some Korean-style barbecue?
“The Texas Rangers Choomongousi” features barbecued steak topped with a cabbage Kimchee slaw, Siracha mayo, green onions, thin-sliced radishes and sesame seeds.
Other “ballpark specials” include:
- The “MTL@CHI Poutine” tops french fries with cheddar cheese curds, chopped Italian beef, gravy, and giardiniera.
- “Houston’s Fried Chicken in a Waffle Cone” consists of crispy buttermilk fried chicken thighs and mashed potatoes with salted maple honey butter in a waffle cone.
- “The Phillies Schmitter” is a hot roast beef sandwich topped with grilled onions, grilled tomato, a seared slice of salami, Cheese Whiz, Swiss cheese, and a “special” sauce served on a potato bun.
It’s a winning lineup, for sure.
Stella’s is located at 3903 Joliet Ave,; Lyons, Ill. It is open from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. For more information, call (708) 447-0405.