Aziz Kobty believed the promise he made to his father Francis last Opening Day. He just didn’t expect to make good on it so soon.
The Arlington native and owner-operator of Prince Lebanese Grill was sitting in Globe Life Field’s stands alongside Francis, the restaurant’s founder, considering his surroundings. Since Francis opened the restaurant in 1989, Prince has bloomed into a local institution that’s twice been featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network programming. Last September, the restaurant was invited by AT&T Stadium to serve as the celebrity chef for the Cowboys’ home opener on Monday Night Football. They had done so much, served so many, yet as Aziz took in the pageantry of the then-one-year-old ballpark, he let himself imagine what it would feel like to be a small part of it. Then he called his shot.
“Dad, one day, we’re going to cook in here,” he told Francis.
Later this month, the Kobtys will do just that when Prince becomes one of three local restaurants currently slated to participate in Arlington Eats, a new hospitality space in Globe Life Field featuring rotating pop-up outposts that showcase homegrown establishments. It was not the buzziest item announced on Wednesday, when the Rangers also unveiled eight new food items for the media along with a cocktail lounge (The High Ball bar) and a buffet-style dining space (421 Food Hall). It is, however, the most meaningful for a building heavily built on the backs of Arlington taxpayers.
It’s also the sort of home-run swing a new, ambitious ballpark should be taking. Stadium concessions are a tricky business. The menus need to be accessible to the widest swath of diners, which in turn means depending on recipes that are quick to produce and easy to replicate. Delaware North, the Rangers’ concessions partner, did not get where it is in the world—serving more than half a billion guests annually across four continents, per a press release—through lovingly crafting complex dishes from exotic regions. They did it by hustling out nachos, sandwiches, and hot dogs, all of which were bedrocks for new items that the release touted as “creative twists on fan-favorites.”
And, to be fair, they were, from mac and cheese nachos to a vegan chicken salad sandwich to an alligator corn dog. The brisket egg rolls and cornbread chili pie dog upped the ante, demonstrating real innovation in spite of those rigid constraints.
As a group, they were … fine. The stuff that worked—the alligator andouille sausage in the corn dogs and the brisket egg rolls—is decidedly above-average ballpark fare, even if the bite of the former is blunted by breading and mustard while the latter’s wrapper veers too close to chewy than crispy. Much of the rest didn’t. The cornbread in the chili pie dog crumbles like old drywall, while the Golden Chick Loaded Fries felt like getting submerged under the weight of bland cholesterol. The flavors in the mac and cheese nachos were ships passing in the night, never interacting enough to produce a cohesive experience. (I, a non-vegan who loathes chicken salad, can’t conjure up anything close to an objective review of that sandwich. I also wasn’t able to try the chicken-fried brisket sandwich, while the final new item, vegan bratwurst, wasn’t available to be sampled.)
But there is a ceiling to how good any of this can be; the possibility for greatness doesn’t actually exist. How could it when the food stands for nothing and benefits no one beyond a multibillion-dollar sports franchise and a multibillion-dollar hospitality company?
No such constraints exist outside Globe Life Field’s walls, where some of the region’s best restaurants are just a long walk away. So why not incorporate some local flavor into the broader concession strategy? After all, the Rangers may be North Texas’ baseball team, but they’ve always belonged to Arlington. Arlington Eats is the team’s way of spotlighting restaurants and small business owners who can say the same.
“All the people traveling for games, let’s give them that experience,” Kobty says of the Arlington restaurant scene. “People will definitely know Arlington is a real player right here.”
Rangers’ executive vice president of business operations Rob Matwick spearheaded the concept, and he built the initial lineup by sticking with what he knew. A regular Prince diner, he floated the concept of Arlington Eats to Kobty roughly six months ago. Kobty’s response?
“I text[ed] my sister, ‘Is this real life?’” he says.
Several months later, Matwick touched base with Brandon Hurtado, owner and pitmaster of Hurtado Barbecue Co., whom he had befriended on Twitter a couple of years back. It was an easy sell for a hardcore Ranger fan who was also in attendance last Opening Day and roamed the concourse Wednesday in a custom powder blue jersey with his name stitched across the back. It was even easier when Hurtado learned that Kobty, a friend in the Arlington restaurant scene, was already on board. “Anything Prince is a part of, we have to associate ourselves with,” Hurtado says. And, like Prince and Hurtado, Arlington Eats’ third vendor, Cajun restaurant Ella B’s is located within 2 miles of the ballpark. All three will get at least three days to cook at Arlington Eats between Monday’s home opener and the second weekend in May, with Hurtado currently booked for a total of five days over two stints.
It’s a special opportunity rife with unusual challenges. For Hurtado, it’s the inventory and logistics of smoking his meat a mile and a half away at the restaurant for an unknown amount of demand at the ballpark. For Prince, it’s seeing whether a gyro can stand out in the land of Americana staples.
Then there’s the matter of precision. “I hate when I go to a game anywhere when I’m standing in line for an hour and a half and not getting to watch the game,” Hurtado says, and so the restaurateur’s goal is to have every customer served in under a minute. That means streamlining menus to a few choice items instead of the full complement of dishes. Hurtado is going with loaded brisket nachos, pulled pork sandwiches with chips, and their signature Texas Twinkies—grilled jalapenos stuffed with pimento cheese and brisket, wrapped in bacon, and glazed in barbecue sauce. Prince will serve a gyro, hummus, and a baklava ice cream sandwich. Hurtado and Kobty each spent part of Wednesday scouting the Arlington Eats space near Section 101. They plan to come back a day before their respective turns in the ballpark to fine-tune their prep.
For now, this is a concessions alternative far more than a revolution. Arlington Eats has no vendors announced past May 15, and the current plan is for participating restaurants to only occupy the space on Friday night and weekend games or “select events” such as Hurtado working the first two home games of the season on a Monday and Tuesday. And on the days when they are serving, the local restaurants represent a sliver of the concession space. The concessions we know and love—or tolerate—will always hold the most turf. Accordingly, Kobty says, “The goal is to give them our best item and give them a good time and just be part of the game-day atmosphere and experience.”
Which is still something neither he nor Hurtado figured they’d do one year after that afternoon in the bleachers: a Food Network darling and a Texas Monthly Top 50 barbecue joint teaming with an acclaimed Cajun spot to reshape what concessions can be in Arlington. Making the city they love just a little bit better.
But Kobty knew Prince would get there one day. We’re just going to keep working, he told his father that afternoon. The payoff never tasted so sweet.