“You want nachos or a hot dog, or maybe hit the food trucks?” That pretty much sums up the food conversation at the Coliseum. Sure, if you know where to look you can find assorted other fare, but it all mostly falls under the umbrella of classic ballpark food. This year, the A’s are trying to change that conversation, keeping it ballpark but stepping it up a notch. They rolled out the red carpet for me and Tim Eckert-Fong as we gave the Shibe Park Tavern a try.
For those who don’t know, the Shibe Park Tavern is roughly behind home plate, and you enter at the top level. Inside, they have a fully-stocked bar as well as a sit down restaurant. Unlike other stadiums, the restaurant is not exclusive to “club level” tickets and is open to anyone in the Coliseum. On a Monday night, there’s no shortage of tables with a view of the game.
Our Guide: Head Chef Effie Spiegler
We’re greeted by Head Chef Effie Spiegler. Chef Effie is a gregarious New York transplant, (née Mets fan, now A’s fan first) trained at fine culinary institutes and putting his skills to use managing hot dog warmers. OK, he does a lot more than that, but sadly that was his lot in life as the head chef of the Coliseum for a number of years due to some severely outdated facilities. Over the past couple of years he’s gotten a lot more latitude (specifically, he credits Dave Kaval and the A’s new management team with changing the culture) and A’s fans are better for it.
This guy is all about food. He rushed over to meet us after judging an Iron Chef-like competition where the winner would get to throw out the first pitch for the night’s game, and set up a pop-up-stand at the Coliseum at a future date (Chef Nelson German from Alamar Oakland won with a tater tot crusted stuffed bacon sriracha burger, good news for all of you).
Not only is he passionate about food, he’s passionate about the A’s. Of course, it’s kind of his job. Other than running the Shibe Park Tavern, innovating the concessions stands, conceptualizing the menus, and managing all the food going to the suites, he also has to feed the A’s players and their opponents three times a day. And if you’re feeding them, you better know that Sean Manaea was just named AL Pitcher of the Month, and Jed Lowrie is starting off the year at an MVP-caliber pace, and Bob Melvin likes his martini with 4 olives (maybe I made up that last one). Either way, you could tell he is an A’s fan. “I moved here 6 years ago for this job, and I bought a house in those hills just behind the Coliseum,” he says. “I don’t like the East Coast anymore!”
As serious as he is about the players’ food, a constant source of frustration was the difficulty in expanding the food for the fans. Apparently, most of the stands are equipped with just steamers and hot dog rollers, maybe fryers, so options are limited. Given that a wholesale upgrade of all the stands wasn’t an option, Chef Effie has focused on where he can make a difference, chiefly the Shibe Park Tavern. Over the past couple of years they have gutted the kitchen and hired all new staff and sous-chefs, determined to turn this into a great fan experience.
Eating bugs, on purpose!
But, not to bury the lede, the main reason we were here was because of the crickets. As a vegetarian I was able to cop out of trying them, but Tim was all in. When they arrived at our table, his tune changed: “They look super gross.” This, despite the fact that their, erm, appendages (legs, antenna, etc.) are removed. But, Tim and our other companions gamely went ahead and tried em. After a couple bites, he reversed course. “I could see keeping these out at a party, kind of like nuts.” Tim’s friend Garrett who works for the A’s was munching ‘em down like any other snack.
Though the crickets are not brought into the Coliseum and fried en masse (they’re supplied packaged by Oaktown Crickets), Chef Effie is all about integrating them into the A’s offerings (you can even order them as a pizza or salad topping). He rattles off their benefits: “Sustainable, locally sourced and farm raised in San Leandro.” At $5/bag, they won’t break the bank. You can get them at assorted locations including the Treehouse and the Tavern.
Do the players eat the crickets? Apparently, some do, but Effie isn’t yet satisfied: “I wish they would sit on the bench and eat ‘em like sunflower seeds.” For now, we can only hope for a chance to hear Ray Fosse go on about eating crickets.
The Impossible Burger
The other sustainable item that’s got Chef Effie juiced is the Impossible Burger. The Impossible Burger debuted with much fanfare at fancier spots in New York City, but the Oakland-based company makes the Coliseum’s supply of burgers basically right behind the Coliseum, on 85th Avenue. The reason it’s supposedly “impossible”? It’s vegan, and yet avowed burger eaters find it to be a palatable substitute. We were about to put that to the test, as only one of our crew had ever tried it before.
At the Coliseum, they make it multiple different ways. At Section 123, they sell the Impossible “French Onion Sliders.” The French Onion Sliders come with caramelized onions, brie, and a delicious balsamic roasted tomato. Overall, our crew of meat-eaters and one vegetarian all agreed the sliders were delicious. At $12 for 2 sliders, they are a little pricey, but it’s nice to have a veggie option at the park, and they’re pretty healthy compared to their beef counterparts. Tim’s buddy Wilson didn’t mince words: “Anyone that talks sh*t about vegan food needs to try this burger.” Andrea thought it was better than the one she had at a fancy cafe.
At the Shibe Park Tavern, they can make the Impossible Burger vegan, vegetarian, or, as their classic “breakfast burger.” The Breakfast burger comes with bacon, ghost pepper cheese and a fried egg. Why would you make a vegan burger with an egg, cheese and bacon? Apparently, the idea is to promote more earth-friendly choices, and that means converting the beef eaters to occasionally swap out the cow for a veggie burger.
Although skeptical, our crew was duly impressed. Tim, who wasn’t paying attention to Chef Effie’s spiel, didn’t even know that the breakfast burger wasn’t beef. “I didn’t realize that until you just told me,” he said, halfway through his burger. Everyone loved the breakfast burger. I got it vegan to try it on its own. As a guy that doesn’t know what a real burger tastes like, I thought it was fine. I’d definitely add the ghost pepper cheese next time, though.
Simply Shawerma: Another new addition
The other item that Chef Effie was keen to showcase was the new “Simply Shawerma” stand that the A’s debuted in Section 132. These massive shawermas come in chicken or beef. Generally, the consensus was the shawerma was on par with the average Mediterranean counter joint. At $12 it was a good value in terms of quantity and flavor, but difficult to eat as it came in a bun instead of a pita. Apparently it’s doing so well that Spectra (the Coliseum food service provider) plans to expand it to other stadiums.
A whole new menu
Since the Coliseum is the only MLB stadium serviced by Spectra, it’s an important account for them. Hence the opportunity for Chef Effie to take some risks with the menu this year.
Among those risks, one has paid off in droves: Brunch. On Saturday and Sunday day games only, you can step into the Shibe Park tavern and get an actual honest-to-goodness 1500 calorie breakfast. “Brunch is sold out every single Saturday and Sunday” says the Chef.
Aside from the brunch, the daily fare has been upgraded. Although our crew was super full, we had to try the three types of fries: Garlic, sweet potato, and “possum.” The possum fries, named after the short-lived “rally possum” (and presumably not the meat contained in them) are like BBQ nacho fries. To our crew, the possum fries had too much going on, but the garlic fries polled unanimously better than AT&T park’s famous fries. These were just crispier and not heaped on with pounds of raw-ish garlic.
In addition to the traditional french fries, we decided to go for the fried avocado and the buffalo blue cheese cauliflower. They both came with sauces that are all made in-house. And everyone was way into both of them.
Effie’s grandiose vision doesn’t end at the borders of the Shibe Park menu, though: “We’re trying to change the future of food. We care about food. And we’re changing the level of fan expectations.”
As for our immediate future, we were in for a massive food coma, which luckily dulled us to the game at hand as Brett Anderson got shelled in what eventually became the worst loss so far, 16-2 to the Houston Astros. Hey, at least the food was great.