Shove aside the pork nachos and greasy donut cheeseburgers -- Food Fight has taken on a decidedly refined, upscale flare in 2016.
Round Rock's unique "Lava Rock Fire and Ice" dish claimed victory Tuesday as fans picked it above 71 other items as the best ballpark food in Minor League Baseball.
"We're really excited," said Jill Cacic, Round Rock's vice president of communications. "One thing we try every year is to up the ante on a culinary level from the previous year. We were disappointed when our cheese and bacon-wrapped hot dog finished second-to-last the last time, so we're excited we were able to pull it off."
Food Fight, an online voting contest on MiLB.com, aims to crown the best stadium food in the Minors. Voting was randomized and entirely fan-based over several weeks. The contest was last held in 2014, when Lakewood's crab cake sandwich took home the blue ribbon.
This year, the Triple-A Express' meal edged worthy contenders such as New Hampshire's "Squealer," Omaha's "Cor-Dog-O," Pensacola's "Cracker Jack Chicken and Waffles" and San Jose's "Frickles Melt."
Round Rock's win was, in a way, 500,000 years in the making. The team's meal is cooked on volcanic lava rock sourced from Mt. Etna in Sicily. One of the club's executive chefs found the rock and decided it would be ideal to cook beef tenderloins on.
"It's extremely unique -- the fact that you can grill your own meat on a lava rock is really amazing," said Cacic. "It kind of pleases everybody."
And while you might be used to a mustard-slathered ballpark frank when you go to a game, things are different in Round Rock. Jay Kudla, vice president of Ryan Sanders Sports, helped create the menu item this past offseason ahead of Opening Day. Since then, it's been offered to suite guests at the Dell Diamond. The meal's components are presented to fans on frozen slabs of marble -- Kudla notes the marble is kept at 20-degrees below zero -- before being cooked to order on the exotic lava rock, which gets to about 700 degrees.
"The idea exists in a lot of Italian restaurants -- volcanic rock," said Kudla. "It's an ancient aboriginal way of cooking. Volcanic rock heats up to 700 degrees, and that allows us to cook on the rock itself. We thought, you know what? Let's take that concept and bring it to the ballpark. We added beef tenderloin and shrimp and it created quite a show."
Lava Rock Fire and Ice features "Nolan Ryan beef tenderloin" served alongside Texas Gulf shrimp, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. It's served on roasted garlic crostini, and the presentation is nothing you've ever seen at a stadium, complete with vegetables cut into flowers and a variety of dipping sauces, including truffle mayonnaise, horseradish crème, lemon aioli and kale pesto. It's available as a package to suite guests and serves 12 with a price tag of $470. Fans can also add the team's signature bottled wine, Ryan Sanders Private Reserve Merlot, for an additional $75.
"You can get it medium rare or well done -- there's something for everyone, which is really unique," said Cacic. "It's a large quantity of food. That covers the spectrum of that whole group."
Round Rock's entry edged New Hampshire's "Squealer" in the final weeks. The Fisher Cats' oversized sandwich includes a "pig roll," which quite literally resemble's a pig's face perched atop a towering stack of BBQ-smothered bacon, ham, Italian sausage, pepperoni, pulled pork and cheddar cheese.
Omaha's "Cor-Dog-O" came in third. The wrap includes BBQ pulled pork and cole slaw alongside a pair of hot dogs in a tortilla shell.
This year's contest featured a handful of chicken-and-waffle-themed dishes, with two placing in the top 10. Pensacola's twist on the Southern favorite included fried chicken tenders crusted with Cracker Jack, vanilla butter-brushed waffles and maple honey mustard syrup. The Charlotte Knights' "Chicken and Waffle Cone" finished sixth with its ice cream cone overflowing with chicken, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw and BBQ sauce. Reigning champion Lakewood came in at No. 8 with the "Jersey Delight" -- a pork roll served inside deep-fried funnel cake batter and topped with chocolate syrup and whipped cream.
Other top-10 finishers included Wisconsin's Grilled Cheese Bacon Cheeseburger and Wilmington's bacon-and-raspberry jelly hot dog, known as "The Sweenie."
Fans have come a long way from burgers and popcorn, Kudla said.
"In the grand scheme of things, we have a very educated fan base and they are looking for that experience, to take it up a notch," he said. "They want hot dogs everyday and they love ballpark fare, but it's not like it was 10-15 years ago, where ballpark fare was the only other option. Austin, Texas, is one of the top three or four restaurant or foodie towns in the county. Our community is very food based -- we take pride in having some of the top items."
Round Rock fans helped get the vote out thanks to a long homestand that included a pair of rehab starts from Rangers ace Yu Darvish. Cacic and Kudla said the Express used the big crowds to their advantage, encouraging fans to vote in Food Fight during games. The team's food service brand also caters to other nearby venues and race tracks with cross-promotion there helping spread the word.
"Whenever you have 9,000-13,000 people in a stadium and can get the messaging out to them, it definitely helps," Cacic said. "We hit it hard on social media, told fans 'Vote in Food Fight.' Internally we encouraged our staff to vote and share. The uniqueness of the dish really helped. If you look back at the other dishes, there isn't anything like it. If you look at other stadiums across the country, you won't find anything like it."
Round Rock, sensing food trends nationwide, believed fans want something new and unique.
"If you look at food trends, it's been piling on more and more," Cacic said, "a burger nacho hot dog and donut sandwich, throwing on some more sprinkles and a candle on top. And from our perspective, we went back and asked, 'What's something no one is doing anywhere? It's taking a concept that nobody is doing and introducing that, and the uniqueness of that helped our campaign. You generally don't see this in this competition."