Ballpark Eats with Kevin Sbraga
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.