Nothing bellows “PLAY BALL!” like a spicy tuna roll. At least that’s the case at Stella’s Batting Cages in southwest-suburban Lyons, where for most of its 31-year history batters at one of the 12 indoor fast- and slow-pitch machines sustained themselves with industrial-grade fast food: dogs, corned beef, burgers, fries, nachos, pizza puffs, a Reuben if you were fancy.
But then chef Robin Choi checked in and started rattling the cages. Choi is a 17-year veteran of high-end sushi bars, first in Arizona, then here, where he clocked shifts at the late Kabocha, Japonais by Morimoto, and Dokku, among others. He also spent time at Yusho and with the Boka group, and was the opening chef at Shin Thompson’s Furious Spoon.
Late last year he figured he’d put down some roots, so he and his girlfriend, Randa Shin, formerly the general manager at Furious Spoon, went all in on Stella’s, whose owners were retiring and selling the business to Choi’s parents, who in turn were retiring from their three-decade-old dry-cleaning business down the street.
“‘I’m 38,’ I thought. ‘I’ve led a cook’s life,'” Choi says. “‘How long am I gonna have to pay my dues? I have two kids to support.’ It was about time I did something for myself.” But he wasn’t about to embark upon a safe but unfulfilling retirement flipping burgers. For inspiration, he looked at the way major-league ballparks have begun in recent years to feed fans with increasingly higher expectations for what they put in their bodies.
His menu for the snack bar adjacent to the circular configuration of automated ball spitters riffs on the regional nouveau-signature snack foods of various major league ballparks. There’s the brat banh mi with pickled jicama and Kewpie mayo-mustard blend from Miller Park in Milwaukee. There’s the Korean fried pork belly sandwich with grilled pineapple and “Korean red pepper paste” from the home of the Philadelphia Phillies, a fried chicken waffle cone from Houston, a Cuban sandwich named for Jose Canseco, and some off-the-cob elotes named for Comiskey Park—which sounds way more appetizing than something named after Guaranteed Rate Field.
I took a swing at the Yankee Stadium Meatball Parm, described as “baseball-sized meatballs, SMASHED!, breaded then deep fried. Topped with homemade red sauce, melted mozzarella, parmesan + basil. Served on a toasted bun.”
You can easily try to fungo that ball toward the stands, but its size belies its quality. While it’s the previous owner’s recipe, it has a texturally smooth and delicate beef matrix that almost reminds me of a classical fine paté, something only a chef with chops could pull off. It’s a clever, kick-ass sandwich, combining the savory red gravy, the gooey melted mozz, and the crispy fried breading of a proper Parm in a handheld delivery system.
At first the regulars didn’t take to the newfangled grub. “In the beginning I got a lot of pushback. People were like ‘What’s a banh mi? Why would you do that to a brat?'” But Choi stood his ground, adding two menu items almost as a provocation: the California and spicy tuna rolls. “It had a purpose,” he says. “It was there to freak people out.” It certainly got their attention; Choi says his most loyal customers always go for the sushi.
You still can get the old-school snacks: the burgers, nachos, soft pretzels, an Italian-beef-and-sausage combo, and eventually folks came around to the new stuff. “I don’t want to disrespect the area, but it’s kind of a black hole for food,” he says. “There’s really not much going on. But once the word got out people were like, ‘Thank you so much for doing something new.'”
I know what you’re thinking. But while sushi at the batting cages seems only slightly less dubious than sushi from the gas station, it’s my job to eat. So I opted for the tuna, rolled to order into a tightly jacketed cylinder of firm, fresh flesh and rice that makes the idea of eating raw fish at a snack bar not seem wildly ill-advised.
I rewarded my bravery with a vanilla-chocolate soft-serve sundae in a White Sox batting helmet. As the sounds of ball meeting aluminum pinged over the picnic tables, I realized that one can achieve peak summer at Stella’s Batting Cages.
Stella’s Batting Cages 3903 Joliet Ave, Lyons, 708-447-0405