Rojo Johnson is back in Round Rock, and this time he's selling tacos.
You remember Rojo, right? A mysterious alter-ego of actor Will Ferrell, Rojo, bedecked in gold chains, took the mound during a 2010 Round Rock Express game and proceeded to drink a beer and start a brawl. He then disappeared into the night, presumably to resume his lucrative, albeit illegal, lizard-smuggling enterprise.
But Rojo, at least in name, has returned to the Express in the form of "Rojo's Southwestern Hideaway" food stand. This is one of many new food additions that the Express have on offer since, prior to the season, they parted ways with their third-party concessionaire to do everything in-house. The result is some of the best food to be found anywhere in Minor League Baseball, and, potentially, the start of something much larger.
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For the entirety of their 15-season existence, the Express have been owned by Ryan-Sanders Baseball. The first name in that equation is all-time strikeout king Nolan Ryan, and the "Express" moniker is derived from Ryan's nickname, "The Ryan Express." Ryan-Sanders Baseball has taken an active role in the Express' day-to-day operations since the franchise's inception -- with the notable exception of food service. That was handled by Sodexho, but the team came to feel that both the food and service aspects of the food service equation were subpar. In September Ryan-Sanders Baseball parted ways with Sodexho and announced the creation of "Ryan-Sanders Sports Services" -- referred to as "RS3" -- which they described as "the umbrella for all food service and retail operations at Dell Diamond."
Jay Kudla, who formerly managed the concessions operation at the Washington Redskins' home of FedEx Field, joined RS3 as the director of food and beverage. One of the first, and almost certainly the biggest, decisions that Kudla made was the hiring of Ed Ebert as the ballpark's executive chef. The two then worked at a breakneck pace throughout the offseason, overhauling the entire menu using an "everything's fresh" philosophy, redesigning and branding the concession kiosks as standalone "storefronts" and instituting a new customer service culture via a comprehensive RS3 training program.
Kudla and Ebert have developed a close working relationship, and both of them exude boundless enthusiasm for seemingly every detail of the team's concession operation. Their conversational patter is fast and furious, riffing on the minutiae of every dish while taking turns praising the work of the other. Ebert has a background in high-end culinary settings and brings that experience to the far more proletariat-friendly surroundings of the ballpark. "High meets low" culinary creations abound, such as the "Big Kahuna Dog," in which the dog is topped with mango salsa, pineapple, mustard and avocado, and the bleu cheese cole slaw-slathered "James Dean."
"Before I got hired, I read every writer I could find who had written about food in sports," said Ebert, explaining his ballpark food crash course. "And garlic fries were one of the things that got mentioned again and again."
Hence the garlic fries, available at the "Coop and Kennel Pub," which are curly, extremely crispy and, in my opinion, better than any iteration I've had at a Minor League ballpark. Ebert says plans are in the works to plant and harvest the garlic at the ballpark with help from Round Rock public school students.
Many of the new menu items were "reverse engineered" by Kudla in that he had the idea for a certain food item and then Ebert would go about creating it.
"I knew going in that I wanted a sandwich named after Willie Nelson, one named after Matthew McConaughey and one named after Stevie Ray Vaughn," said Kudla. "They're all so well-known here."
The sandwiches that Ebert created based on this directive, all available at the Metro Deli, incorporate ingredients that are indicative of the public personality in question. In a subtle nod to his recreational drug of choice, the "Willie Nelson" is a roast beef sandwich dressed with herb mayo; the "McConaughey," meanwhile, references the actor's eccentric personality and healthy lifestyle via the combination of fried turkey and avocado.
But perhaps the most striking item offered by the Express this season, most likely to be a Twitter and blogosphere favorite, is the "Grilled Cheese Dog."
"We tried to come up with a funny name for it, but decided to make it self-explanatory," said Kudla. "Still, until people see it, the concept doesn't really sink in."
The concept is simple, so let it sink in: an all-beef Nolan Ryan-brand hot dog (of course) wrapped in a grilled cheese sandwich. I was unable to partake in this particular item due to my gluten-free diet (though the Express do offer gluten-free hot dog buns), but Phil Boyd, my "designated eater" for the evening, was a fan.
"The taste of the hot dog, that's what you notice first," said Boyd, a musician and -- full disclosure -- my college roommate. "But then it's followed by that buttery grilled cheese flavor. It's a good dog, man."
And then, of course, there's Rojo's Hideaway. A cutout of the man himself stands in front, and a plaque detailing his history with the Express is forthcoming. "Taco flights" are $10, featuring pork carnitas and chicken verde dressed with lettuce, cotija cheese and cilantro lime vinaigrette. These were phenomenal, but the "Tejas Nachos Carnitas" dressed with succulent chunks of pork, "queso Rojo" and blazing red jalapenos are even better.
Whether Rojo makes an appearance to personally try these creations remains an open question. But, potentially, he and the Express' other concession offerings might soon be available at a ballpark near you.
"[The Dell Diamond] is our flagship RS3 location, but we want to make what we're doing salable all over the country," said Kudla. "With the resources I have, and the resources RS3 has, I'm really excited about where we can take this."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.