Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Baseball Burger: PK Park

"Professional baseball is on the wane. Salaries must come down or the interest of the public must be increased in some way. If one or the other does not happen, bankruptcy stares every team in the face."   
-- Chicago White Stockings owner Albert Spalding, 1881
What is it about baseball that keeps us going series after series, and season after season?  Is it the possibility of catching a foul ball, or seeing a perfectly executed double-play?  Is it the sun on your neck, with a beer and some peanuts in hand, as you sing take me out to the ball game or heckle the other team's right fielder?

Baseball holds a particular soft spot in this blogger's heart.  America's past time is not my favorite sport to watch, nor is it my favorite to play, but something about a baseball game on a sunny afternoon can completely reset me, and make me feel miles away from responsibility.  It's something I enjoyed as a kid, and hasn't become any less fun as I got older.

Lord knows it is not the thrilling, edge-of-your-seat game play that is the staying factor.  Don't get me wrong, watching a close game into the late innings, or a pitcher who is really clicking can be as exciting as anything else in sports, but most of the time baseball is... well, it's boring.  I know all of you baseball lovers are gonna take umbrage to that last statement, but hey, this is my blog, and so I'm standing by it.  It's not the most exciting game around.

Probably the thing that really makes me always down to to catch a game is the promise of delicious baseball park food.  Look, I'm a simple man, and if you sit me down with a beer, a burger, and the sun on my back, you could probably even get me to sit through a live rendition of The English Patient set to the music of Air Supply.  

It was in this spirit that I went to the newly completed PK Park for my first Duck Baseball game Friday afternoon.  The field was finished just in time for the season to start, and I had likely waited too long to get there and catch a game.  The Ducks were set to play the Nevada Wolf Pack, who came into the series with a 10-6 record, blah, blah, blah...  

Did I mention that PK Park has a beer garden, or that they serve a burger that had already been described to me as "really good"?  

My first impression of PK was that it was incredibly well put together.  If this team isn't immediately going to be tops in the Pac-10, their stadium sure is.  I mean, its small, but absolutely beautiful.  The field is all turf, including the base-paths and the warning track; as far as I could tell, the only dirt in the whole place was on the pitchers mound.  

The menu is limited, and expensive.  Beers are going to cost you six bucks whether you get a plastic bottle Bud, or a glass bottle Widmer "micro" that is kindly poured into a plastic glass whether you want it that way or not.  

The burger, cleverly titled the "Fielder's Choice Hamburger," is a double-double that comes with cheddar, and caramelized onions.  It cost eight bucks, which really is not atrocious, but for a family trying to catch a cheap local baseball game my seem a bit pricey.  

You order your burger under one tent, where you receive your bun and package of Tim's Cascade potato chips, and then you get your patties and onions fresh off the grill at an adjacent tent.  It was different, but it seemed like a pretty good system, and there was almost no wait.  I am guessing if the place was packed, it might be a ten minute ordeal.

Upon first glance, the burger looked... good.  The onions were a nice twist, and there was plenty of beef; if I had to guess, I would say two 1/4 lb. patties.  

I was a bit surprised that they didn't give you lettuce, onion, tomato with your bun, but you could garnish to your hearts desire at the designated condiment station.  

I went with the stock package on this guy, because between the caramelized onions and the juicy grill patties there seemed like there was going to be plenty of flavor, and I am a less-is-more kind of fellow.  

As far as the eating part of the process goes, I have to say, the Fielder's Choice is on par with some of the better burgers I have reviewed to date.  It is really, really good.  

The beef was grilled superbly, the patties were the perfect thickness, and the caramelized onions were one of the better touches to a burger I have had recently.  

It started well, it finished well, and I didn't feel bad at all about the eight bucks I shelled out on it.  

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Paris Hilton Burger: Hop Valley Brewing Co.

One of the things that our culture invariably appreciates is a story outlining a successful journey from humble roots.  Everyone loves the stories of Henry Ford, Ray Croc, and Oprah Winfrey: people who started from nothing, and wound up conquering the world.  Conversely, we tend to have disdain for the Paris Hiltons of the world: folks who had the good life handed to them, and just don’t seem to have any appreciation it.

It is in between those two models that our dream, the ‘American Dream,’ lays.  It is a model that includes sundry middle variables, and two constants at its extremities: a paupers starting line, and a white picket finish line. 

The cliché is present everywhere in our society: at the Oscars, in hip hop music, in some of our most celebrated films. 

We have the same expectation for our restaurants.  Whether it’s a big chain of restaurants, or a single well-established restaurant, we want to see a big picture in the lobby showing the dinky little first iteration of the chain, or the old unpolished building that the restaurant used to reside in.  It’s a credibility thing.  

Hop Valley Brewing is not that type of place; I hadn't even heard of it the first time I went in.  It is like aliens dropped the place off in the middle of the night, all shiny, with an extensive menu, giant selection of microbrews and four big ol’ fermenters. 

I have to admit, it doesn’t seem right to me.  It has no history, no background story detailing its ugly little shack where its college student owners brewed their first amber ale kit.  No doubt the owners have their own little humble beginning story, but as far as I know, Phil Knight anonymously funded the restaurant.  It lacks a feeling of authenticity. 

Those of you who have been to HV, know exactly what I'm talking about.  When you walk in to the main lobby, the place feels distinctly like a chain.  There is no dusty decorations that are sitting around simply because they have been around for years and years.  All the servers are in uniform, and the tables and chairs all look the same as the other tables and chairs: no chance this place is a small town start-up.

That said, I heard the restaurant had an awesome happy-hour burger, so I decided to check it out.

The entire happy hour menu at HV, which is available every weekday from 3 - 6, is actually pretty awesome, at least on paper.  None of the food is more than four bucks, and all the HV brews are $3.25.  

The happy hour burger is a 1/3 lb. burger with fries, and will cost you $3.95.  The beef was the thing that really intrigued me about the burger; they claim it is a house beef, "seasoned with bacon, smoked, & grilled to order."  

Did I mention that the burger comes with fries, and doesn't even cost 4 bucks?  Did anyone hear the part about beef "seasoned with bacon"?  What could go wrong?

Upon ordering the burger, the server asked me how I wanted it cooked, and I asked for medium-rare.  At this point she mentioned to me that because the burger was smoked, it typically comes out pink no matter how you order it.  I thought little  of the comment at the moment; first, I know smoked beef stays pink, and second... I didn't order it well done, so how was the fact going to affect me?  Well, when the burger came out, it became clear why she said something; my burger was well-done, and, of course still pink.  

So, what happened? Does the server mention the whole smoked-stays-pink thing to everyone, because she is going to just order it well-done, or does she mention it because no matter how she orders it the kitchen is going to cook it well-done?  

Either way, someone screwed up, but hey, did I mention the burger doesn't even cost 4 bucks?

even well done, the beef was tasty, the taste of bacon was subtle, but definitely there, and the smoking process makes the burger unique enough that it isn't just any other pub burger.  

The burger comes out with a steamy plate of handcut looking fries, that are according to the server not made in house, but still very tasty: the type of fries that you dip in ranch.  The bun is totally edible, but nothing special.  

The bottom line is that for the cost this burger is amazing.  At eight bucks, I might be disappointed, but for $3.95 who could be upset?  I give Hop Valley my recommendation, even though there is no backstory.  It is clear that they have worked very hard to make a vision come true, and can you really fault them for making it happen with enough money to do it all polished and shiny?  Hop Valley still has an uphill battle to go to make its restaurant feel like a well oiled machine, but in the meantime they have cheap eats, decent beer and a pretty building.   

Hop Valley Brewing
980 Kruse Lane
Springfield, OR 97477

(541) 744-3330


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