KINSTON — There’s just something about a baseball game that makes a hot dog taste better. So imagine, then, the effect America’s Pastime might have on a burrito or a sandwich piled high with wood-smoked Eastern North Carolina barbecue.
Actually, there’s no need to imagine.
All it takes is one look at the lines snaking 20 to 30 people deep behind the first base stands at Kinston’s Grainger Stadium on a Food Truck Friday to realize how well even the most nontraditional ballpark foods can mix with baseball.
You could say the combination is as natural as a duck in water. Or in this case, a whole flock of Down East Wood Ducks looking to make an impression on fans in their new home.
“I hope we’re kind of bringing the tailgating mentality here,” said Wade Howell, general manager of the Wood Ducks, which began its first season as a Carolina League expansion franchise in Kinston last month.
“It’s a little bit of that cross-demographic where you get people that aren’t necessarily baseball fans that just come out for some food and a good time. They stick around and watch fireworks after the game and maybe they come back for the baseball at some point. You can see from the lines, the response has been pretty positive so far.”
While there are still concession stands serving the standard ballpark fare of hot dogs, chicken fingers, pizza and popcorn for traditionalists and those not patient enough to wait a few extra minutes — or innings — for their orders, the most popular dining options are the food trucks that have quickly become a fixture at every Friday night home date.
At a recent game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the cuisine du jour was served up by Dank Burrito, a Morehead City-based operation serving chef-inspired Tex-Mex offerings, and Sam Jones Wood Fired Whole Hog BBQ of Ayden. There was also a cart selling craft beers from Kinston’s own Mother Earth Brewing.
Dank Burrito was filling in for another regular, local favorite Chef & the Farmer. But it was clear from the steady stream of customers that began an hour before the first pitch and didn’t let up until the third inning, the lure of jerk chicken tacos garnished with pineapple mango salsa and Asian pulled pork burritos with soy ginger slaw was strong — even for those who’d never tried them before.
“The line is the only reason we’re going,” said Nathan Bridge, who waited with his friend Sarah Price for nearly 20 minutes in line before placing their orders. “I figure if it’s this long it must be good.”
His hunch was confirmed by Leanna Tyson, a regular patron standing just in front of him.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It has a twist and a twang that isn’t traditional. It has a little spice and a lot of flair. It’s definitely worth the wait.”
The same could be said for the adjacent barbecue truck, whose line was slightly shorter only because it’s faster to construct a pulled pork sandwich than it is a more elaborate burrito or taco. One of the more popular items on owner Sam Jones’ menu is the loaded mac and cheese — a generous serving of barbecue piled on a bed of macaroni and cheese and topped with a drizzle of sweet red sauce.
“It’s an interesting dish,” Jones said. “We make everything from scratch. “It’s whole hog, cooked over wood, lightly seasoned with vinegar. Unadulterated is the way I like to describe it.”
Though his mobile kitchen is well known at festivals and other events Down East, Jones’ association with the Wood Ducks is his first venture into the arena of sports.
“The management here reached out to us a few months ago,” Jones said. “We came out and did the unveiling of their team name and it’s just been a good relationship. We’re great friends with Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer and it’s worked out well.”
Howell said the Food Truck Fridays are only part of a concerted effort the team has made to enhance the ballpark experience from past incarnations of minor league baseball at Grainger Stadium.
“The concession stand on the third base side was a big improvement, because it was just like a little one window shack that you could only get beer at,” Howell said. “Between that and adding some carts and trying to do things like (the food trucks), those are amenities people will like.
“They’ve always had in-seat services for the box seats, but they never had vendors walking through the stands hawking beer and other concessions, and we’re doing that. We’re trying to speed up people’s service a little bit and not have them wait two or three innings to get what they want.”
That is, of course, unless they have their taste buds up for something more than a hot dog — no matter how much better they taste while in the stands watching a game.
“Just the atmosphere, the goodness of it, it all goes together,” said Tracy Rose, a fan waiting in line for some of Jones’ barbecue. “We decided to come tonight because it’s food truck night and we heard they’d be here. I’ve eaten at their restaurant, but it just seems better out here at the ballpark.
“There’s something about barbecue and baseball. They just go together. It’s even right up there with apple pie and baseball.”