Ballpark Eats with Kevin Sbraga

Philly's prized Top Chef eats his way through Citizens Bank Park in an epic Best of Philly food challenge.

WE SIT AT a table at Harry the K’s, just beyond the left-field wall. We’ll camp here for the next few hours as various waitpersons deliver delicacies from throughout the park. Phils fans are packed in tight around us. To my immediate left, two parents have brought their teenage daughter and her friend to the game; it’s the daughter’s birthday. Just over Sbraga’s left shoulder, a group of women around a circular high-top peer down at us and giggle. They alternate between gawking at the unfortunate spectacle unfolding on the field—the Phils are in the process of blowing the game to the Mets—and the even more grotesque one in their immediate vicinity. This gallery will serve as a makeshift jury. Throughout the night, they will judge us and remark that they can’t believe how much we’ve eaten. Before it’s over, we will plead guilty and beg for mercy (and antacids).

The food comes in a rush, a torrent of pork sandwiches and french fries, hot dogs and hoagies, a flood of questionable gastronomy that threatens to drown us. It’s impossible to decide where to begin. Sbraga reaches for the Bull’s pulled-pork sandwich. He’s the expert here, like Carlos Ruiz calling for a first-pitch fastball. Sbraga declares that the pork is “bangin’,” but adds that he wishes “there was something a little different with the roll.” Too dry. I’m too busy getting barbecue sauce all over my face and shirt to notice.

Tony Luke’s Roast Pork Italian (bro­ccoli rabe and provolone) gets a better rating. Sb­raga raves that “the broccoli rabe is perfect. The bread is not too dry, and it absorbs the juice from the meat. Great provolone.” He’s grinning now. “This is money.”

Sbraga isn’t quite as thrilled with the Campo’s Italian hoagie (good bread, but too much meat, which he acknowledges sounds “weird”), Harry the K’s Texas Tommy (he doesn’t dig the chili), and especially the regular ballpark hot dog. “It’s a hot dog, you know … eh,” Sbraga says, taking one bite and pushing it aside.

Then come the Chickie’s & Pete’s Crabfries.

When these arrive, Sbraga stops watching the Phillies—no big loss—and focuses. Like much of Philadelphia, he is unable to resist the fries’ cheesy, tasty simplicity. “Delicious,” he says. “You can’t go wrong. I can’t go to a game without eating them.” More food is brought for tasting; leftovers are taken away. But the Crabfries remain.

Our impromptu cheesesteak challenge pits Campo’s Whiz wit’ against Tony Luke’s version of the same. Sbraga doesn’t love Tony Luke’s offering (“Bland,” he declares) but appears overjoyed by what Campo’s has produced. In between bites, he readjusts his red Phillies cap with the blue bill, studies the sandwich, then chomps away again. “Super-cheesy,” he says. “That keeps it moist.” When I note how surreal it is to watch a famous chef enjoy the provincial pleasure of neon orange faux cheese, he chuckles, bits of steak almost shooting out of his mouth. “I’m a Whiz guy,” he says proudly. “I grew up on that.”

More food arrives: the Schmitter. A fried hot dog called the Ripper. An Italian hot dog topped with broccoli rabe. He likes them all, though not as much as Harry the K’s chicken burger. “The pickled veggies make it,” Sbraga says. “The acid really balances it and makes it light. This is a thumbs-up for me. It also depends on the time of year. Fall night, cold out, I’m not doing chicken. But summer, seven o’clock game, 85 degrees out? I’m definitely going with something light like that … and Crabfries.” Of course.

Our pace has slowed considerably. Qu­arter- and half-eaten sandwiches litter the table, along with wadded-up napkins stained with ketchup. It looks like a culinary civil war has been waged. Neither side won. There are no survivors.