Ballpark Eats with Kevin Sbraga

Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga eats at Citizens Bank Park

It’s an overcast and otherwise miserable May evening in South Philadelphia. The Flyers have just been bounced from the playoffs; the Phillies lost last night. (And will lose more. As it turns out, a lot more.) The Sixers lost, too. And now the Mets and the insufferable sideshow savages they call fans are in town. But here, in this particular nook of Citizens Bank Park, Kevin Sbraga is having a grand old time. The air is thick with aromatic barbecue smoke and tales being told.

Before he won Bravo’s Top Chef, and long before he opened his eponymous restaurant on South Broad, Sbraga wanted what all teenage boys want. Okay, fine, he wanted that other thing that all teenage boys want: to play baseball. When he was 13, the Willingboro native and lifelong Phillies fan went to a baseball clinic at Holy Cross High School in Delran. Sbraga is spinning this yarn for the benefit of former Phillie Greg Luzinski, who is here with us at his namesake Bull’s BBQ, and who hosted that camp way back when. Someone asks Sbraga how he did. “Terrible,” he says. “That’s why I’m in the kitchen.”

Sbraga laughs, and the Bull laughs, too. Luzinski has been showing the chef around his outdoor operation in Ashburn Alley, telling Sbraga all about his methods for keeping his chicken juicy and his kielbasa properly charred, but he pauses to offer up his own memory of Sbraga’s fledgling baseball career. “Couldn’t catch the fly ball, couldn’t catch the ground ball, couldn’t hit,” Luzinski roars. “Now it’s all coming back to me.”

More laughs. More smiles. More stories. I get the sense that if it weren’t for the sinful, stomach-stretching task ahead of us, these two could go on jabbering with—and jabbing at—each other all night. Alas, Sbraga is here for a specific purpose: to accompany me on a culinary tour of CBP to determine which, of all the many caloric things one can eat while watching a Phillies game live, is the absolute best.

In a few hours, my notes will be stained in equal measure with cheese sauce and steak grease and shame, because no two people should ever eat this much, this quickly. By the end, we will shovel in enough meats, cheeses, breads, potatoes, ice cream, icings, and powdered and regular sugars to force us into a lasting food coma. But it will be worth it, because what you learn about food when you eat with a chef is everything. What you learn when you eat with Kevin Sbraga is this: Ballpark food can be an experience. Especially when you cleanse your palate with Crabfries.

VIDEO: Hunter Pence Talks Twitter Fans, Justin Bieber and the Best Thing About Philly

It was a random weekday not long ago. I was driving on Pattison Avenue toward the stadiums when I looked to my right. Hunter Pence was staring back at me. He was on the side of a SEPTA bus. There was a giant grin on his face and a sandwich in his hands. It was an ad for Liscio’s Bakery. Not surprisingly, the ballplayer turned pitch man was featured along with his now ubiquitous catchphrase: “Let’s Go Eat.”

In less than a year, Pence has gone from being an outfielder for the Houston Astros, to the player almost every Philadelphian wanted the team to acquire before the trade deadline last season, to an area sensation fawned over by hardcore fans and casual observers alike. That is a steep and treacherous climb, but Pence made the ascent quicker than anyone I can remember. People who spend their entire lives here rarely agree on what makes someone a “Philly Guy” – so how is it that Pence, an outsider in every way, figured out how to become one so quickly? Read more »

The Old-School Passion of Hunter Pence

 

Hunter Pence wants to please.

He’d like to accommodate the request, he really would, it’s just that he’s not sure about entering a room full of men and women he’s just met, only to immediately whip off some of his clothes and stand around bare-chested while everyone gawks and snaps photos—which is, ironically, exactly what he did shortly after being traded from Houston to Philadelphia last season. During a memorable charity fashion show held by new teammate Shane Victorino, Pence went all Right Said Fred on the catwalk, ripping off his t-shirt and firing it into the stunned crowd. It was a ballsy thing to do—to bare so much, so soon, to a community that has leveled athletes with far more tenure for far less dodgy displays. One quick swing of Philly’s well-dented criticism wrecking ball and Pence could have ended up on the he’s-not-our-type rubble pile, along with so many other players.

[See exclusive video of Hunter Pence on CSNPhilly.com]

It didn’t go that way, of course. The fans loved it. The media loved it. Everyone seemed to love it. But that was different, Pence says. That was a lark. That was something to make his new teammates, who were peeking out from behind the curtain and cackling like they’d just been dosed with nitrous, laugh with him and at him. That was, as Pence says—and is—a goof. This? This is a magazine photo shoot in a windowless room of the Citizens Bank Park basement. Even though the art director would like to piggyback on that unforgettable half-Monty moment, Pence will pass. “I’m sorry, guys,” he says. “I just can’t do it.”

He apologizes several times. But after he dons a gray throwback Phillies uniform made from what appears to be super-scratchy Civil War-era surplus wool, the shoot literally starts to click. By the time it’s over, there are hugs and back-claps. It’s as though Hunter Pence has suddenly become the mayor of a very small town.

That Pence could so easily win over so many people makes sense, if only because that’s precisely what he did upon arriving in Philly. How he did it, on the other hand, is much harder to figure. It can be difficult to determine who’s a Philly guy and who isn’t. Hustle and grit and talent help, but aren’t guarantees of approval. There’s no pattern or formula to who is and isn’t rejected here. Just know, as you almost certainly do, that Pence was accepted so quickly and completely that he might have set some sort of record for a town that makes it a point of pride not to swoon for a player until a proper vetting process—which usually includes a few swift kicks to the ego—is complete.

With Pence, there was none of that. A short film about his time in the Phillies uniform thus far would go something like this: He came to Philly. He hit the ball. He went to eat. The fawning populace drooled. Fin.

Even more remarkable is that the lead actor in this feel-good drama hails from Texas. Pence was born in Fort Worth and played his high-school and college ball in Arlington, a short drive west on I-30 from Dallas, a city Philadelphians have long been conditioned to loathe. And before coming to Philly, Pence had only played professionally in Houston. Remarkably, his background doesn’t seem to matter. You get the sense that he could mosey around Rittenhouse Square with spurs sparking the sidewalk and Phillies fans would still beg him for a quick photo.

“The spirit of Philadelphia, I didn’t understand it until I got up here,” he says. In Houston, his former teammate Michael Bourn, who’d played for the Phillies, once said to him, “Man, if you played for Philly, they would love you.” Pence asked him why.

“I don’t know,” Bourn replied. “They just would.”