While having a below average selection of food with varying quality, Houston generally compensates by excelling in a few regional categories. Its one of the tougher categories to grade because Houston doesn’t really demand “gourmet cuisine,” like in Denver, Seattle, or San Francisco, nor does it have a good selection like others. While its not one of the best concession providers, it really excels in the categories it wants too. It doesn’t have breadth, but it has depth.
While the regular fare comes off as a bit uninspired and limited, especially the Papa John’s pizza, Houston has an excellent selection and quality of authentic Latin/Tex-Mex cuisine. Along with a nice selection of fresh Latin fruits, the Goya Latin Café serves a variety of tacos, burritos, and nachos, with your choice of spicy beef picadillo, chipotle chicken, and tomatillo pork. What’s nice is that they actually use real ingredients, and yes, real cheese.
Speaking of nachos, they have five varieties throughout the ballpark. In addition to the ones served at the Goya stand, the Astros serve beef fajita nachos, monster chicken nachos, buffalo chicken nachos, and BBQ Pork nachos. But the highlight of the Mexican selection is actually the El Real Fajita stand down the right field line. A Houston establishment run by chef Bryan Caswell, the tortillas are made from scratch with the tenderest chicken or beef you’ll ever taste in a ballpark. Topped with lime, tomatoes, and onions, it’s a true treat, and about the highest quality item you can get in any ballpark. For 2012, they added a new Mexican stand serving Tamales.
Other than the outstanding Mexican selection, I was a bit disappointed by the rest of the food, especially the BBQ. Texas is BBQ country, but you wouldn’t know it in Minute Maid Park. The Maverick Smokehouse only serves the common BBQ Brisket and turkey Sandwich. But to be fair, its selling point is the famous loaded BBQ Baked Potato, which we’ll get to later. Other deli, seafood, international, or unique cuisine is non-existent.
Larry Big Bamboo is marketed as their tropical joint, serving garlic fries, Caribbean jerk/tangy wings, and fish tacos. Perhaps the Astros could integrate some seafood specialties in here. The Burgers are of note, led by Little Biggs sliders and Prince’s Hamburgers, a local chain. Another award winning restaurant run by Bryan Caswell, Little Bigs serves good portions with caramelized onions.
Other than smoothies, Minute Maid Park was known for it’s distinct lack of healthy or gluten free options in the ballpark. In 2012, Astros management addressed that by adding the largest salad stand in the majors, known as Green Fork, offering three varieties of lettuce and over 20 different toppings. Texas Cobb and Shanghai salads are especially of note.
The alcohol selection never really comes to my attention, but due to quirky Texas liquor laws, this is the only ballpark you’ll see without hard alcohol on the main levels. Coupled with a limited beer selection, that’s pretty outrageous. This is a rarity in major league baseball, and enough to deduct half a point.
While not having a wide variety, Houston certainly succeeds in providing some quality concessions. But some of its shortcomings seem to endure a bit more when comparing to other parks.
The one area where Minute Maid Park has actually gotten a lot of positive press is in the signature food category. While I think it’s probably a little bit overrated, the Texas Stuffed BBQ Baked Potato has long been sited as one of the best signature foods in the majors.
Frequently topping the lists of best ballpark foods, the baked potato is loaded with Texas-style beef brisket, cheese, barbeque sauce, onions, sour cream, jalapeño peppers, and sometimes bacon. This is definitely one of the best snacks you can get in baseball, but in terms of quality, Minute Maid Park has a much better item.
Again, the beef fajitas at Bryan Caswell’s El Real Tex Mex, which is a highly acclaimed restaurant in Houston, serves up some of the tenderest meat you can get in any ballpark. Little Bigs sliders are also good.
Minute Maid Park does a relatively decent job in providing fans with a place to sit down and relax.
The FiveSeven Grille, a tribute to Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, is Houston’s signature restaurant. Evoking a casual hip club atmosphere, the full service restaurant offers huge portions of steak, fish, salads, and a full bar. Due to the quirky Texas liquor laws, this is the only place on the main concourse where you can get hard liquor, and you aren’t allowed to take it out of the restaurant to your seats. The FiveSeven loft features an additional tequila bar.
Larry’s Big Bamboo, which is named after the former Astros pitcher, manager, and broadcaster, Larry Dierker, is a casual sit down area with tropical fare and a beach décor. It includes a host of memorabilia of the Astros legend. This may look like a bar, but it only serves beer, wine, and watered down margaritas.
However, somewhat like San Francisco, they are one of the few ballparks to lack a restaurant with a field view, although the ticketed patio seats will do. There are also no sit down areas in the upper deck. Those two factors, mainly the former one, automatically merit a score of 1.
Considering Houston has the 2nd most fortune 500 corporations in American (behind New York City), Minute Maid Park makes a special effort to cater to wealthy corporate patrons, stressing high quality.
However, considering the market, the consensus in the industry is that Houston was perhaps the only ballpark to air on the conservative side in premium seating during the dot com boom, as they built a small diamond club and a modest number of suites. This is especially surprising considering the meteoric growth of the energy sector in Houston before 2002. Get this: Minute Maid Park is the only ballpark built prior to 2001 (other than Rangers Ballpark, which needs to), that hasn’t had to reduce their inventory of luxury suites. In the current economic climate, their modest approach makes them look like geniuses, as demand is still met. They even chose to add a third premium seating area for 2011, despite the awful team.
Nevertheless, Houston does a great job in this department, as it was one of the first ballparks to stress various club seating over luxury suites and archaic Stadium Club restaurants.
Along with Safeco Field a year earlier, Minute Maid Park was a pioneer in the Diamond Club concept. While not nearly as luxurious as those that opened after 2000, Houston’s premium home plate club has long been one of the most exclusive and hardest to obtain seats in baseball. Due to excess demand, seats were nearly impossible to get in early years, with a waiting list in the 100s for season tickets. Also, former president Bush had season tickets here, so outside entry on the secondary market was somewhat restricted. Even today, with the team struggling, the seats are sold only on a season ticket basis and rarely enter the secondary market.
The décor itself is very casual elegant, but comparatively understated to today’s diamond clubs, with an abundance of wood paneling, banquette seating, brown leather booths, and dark red table cloths. Floors in the buffet and bar area are adorned in hard cherry wood and cream marble. Without a doubt, the highlight of the lounge is the dramatic marble rotunda entrance, with a beautiful sky scene mural on the ceiling.
Improved by a series of perennial enhancements, Minute Maid Park also has one of the highest quality mezzanine club levels in the majors. Except for maybe PNC Park’s club level, it is the nicest in the majors for parks that opened before 2008. The club concourse is ample in size, decorated in black carpet with red accents. Some of the lounge concessions stands are adorned with quality wood paneling, while the regular club concessions are even done in a faux-marble paneling. Even note the high quality of the white ceiling. It is an unusually nice setting for a mezzanine club level.
The club level features a series of lounge areas, the best of which is the Svedka Lounge by first base. The bar and restaurant area features hardwood flooring with a series of black tables and cherry red leather dining chairs. The home plate bar behind home plate is also relatively nice. Like Target Field and some others, it also has upscale tables and chairs by the glass windows with views of the field.
Somewhat like U.S. Cellular Field, the Astros recently added a third premium area in the former press box. Located behind home plate at the back of the seating bowl, the three row Insperity Club is a true premium space unlike other awkwardly located ancillary hybrid club-suite experience throughout the majors. The new Insperity Club features red theatre style seats with tables, a premium buffet, a top-shelf bar, and a small white-hued lounge area.
While they don’t have a museum or plaque area, the Astros do an average job in representing their history. Somewhere in Union Station might be a great future location for a mega Astros museum.
The primary historical area is the left field concourse, formally known as Home Run Alley. The long fan arcade has a series of murals hanging from the ceiling in order of Astros career home run leaders. Those featured include Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Jimmy Wynn, and Glenn Davis. The area also has two extensive displays on the wall dedicated Biggio and Bagwell. Both feature memorabilia alluding to Craig Biggio’s 3000 hits and Jeff Bagwell’s 449 Home Runs, respectively.
The flaw in the display is there is no reference to Astros pitching, which was dominant during the Astrodome years. We see no reference to Mike Scott, Don Wilson, or Nolan Ryan, which is a testament to baseball’s obsession with hitting during the time period. There are some additional memorabilia items in Union Station.
Minute Maid Park has a tasteful historical display on the outside, similar to Great American Ballpark’s historical baseball diamond. Beyond left field outside, the Astros built a mini-ball field featuring Astros historical plaques, division winning pennants, and a statue of Biggio throwing to Bagwell from second to first base. If the Astros ever get a hall of fame caliber pitcher or catcher, there is room for future expansion on the diamond. I must say, building a statue of Biggio and Bagwell when the ballpark opened was quite a presumptuous move, as both were just entering their 30s. It was a testament to the mutual loyalty and expectations between these to legends and the franchise.
While it has since been surpassed by more ridiculous excess (see Kauffman Stadium), the Astros opened the largest kids area in all of baseball in mid-2000. Today, it is still one of the better kids’ areas in baseball, and gets extra credit for being tucked out of sight in the right field corner, unlike Miller Park.
Minute Maid Park’s Squeeze Play features one of the largest playground areas in the majors, along with speed pitch, a virtual hitting game, a virtual pitching game, a water hitting game (“Splatting Cage”), and a base running game, where kids can race against a mechanical ballplayer (“Running Man”). The playground is a replica of Minute Maid Park and even has a train full of oranges. Also note the new umpire’s box and the area where sculpted hands portray different pitching grips. Quite impressive, even if you hate this kind of stuff. You can only enter this area if you have kids.
Also, I love that the Astros actually came up with a creative name for their area. Squeeze Play is a colorful reference to the ballpark’s name and a welcome deviation from the ubiquitous “Kids Land.”
The FiveSeven Loft has a number of fun entertainment features for adults as well. Located a floor above the restaurant, it features two billiard tables and multiple video arcades.
Local Scene: 3.5/5
Exterior Design: 6.5/10
Interior Aesthetics: 9/15
Panoramic View: 3/5
Seat Comfort: 3.5/5
Signature Food: 3/3
Premium Services: 4.5/5
Historic References: 3.5/5
Ballpark Policies: 2/2