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¡Delicioso! Latino cuisine shines at Yankee Stadium

NEW YORK -- The influence of Latinos in the United States has changed more than the baseball being played in the majors. It's changed the food being sold at major league stadiums, too.

This has been clearly evident during the final seasons at the House That Ruth Built, where fans can enjoy Latino cuisine at one of the concession stands nestled within Yankee Stadium.

For two years, the stand has offered delicacies such as empanadas (meat turnovers), yellow plantains, alcapurrias (deep-fried, meat-stuffed patties made of grated plantains), rice and beans, Caribbean chicken stew, grilled pork, Cuban-style sandwiches and other Latin-American fare.

Its popularity has grown so rapidly that plans for the new Yankee Stadium opening next year call for increasing to three the number of such concession areas.

Latin food giant Goya is behind the effort to spice up the fare at Yankee Stadium.

Goya is the biggest Hispanic food company in the U.S. The company, which employs over 3,000 people and sells over 1,500 different products, is based in Secaucus, N.J., a 45-minute drive from the Bronx.

Goya is one of the Yankees' sponsors. But the company was not content with simply buying advertising and placing promotional signs in the ballpark.

"Selling food within Yankee Stadium will help us put our products in front of a new audience," said Rafael Toro, manager of public relations for Goya. "Eighty percent of the people who visit our stand are not Latinos. The food is a bridge to our culture and to our products for those fans."

To ensure that the Latin fare sold at the ballpark is authentic and tasty, Goya contracted a Bronx-based caterer to prepare the food and manage the venue.

They secured the services of Daniel Garcia, a 46-year-old entrepreneur who owns a catering and banquet business minutes from the Stadium.

For Garcia, being able to share his passion for his culture and its food with so many people is a dream come true.

"This is something big, not only for my company, but also for the community. We're serving Latin-American food in the home stadium of the most famous franchise in the world," said García.

The Bronx has always been a stronghold of New York's Latino community. It is the only borough in the Big Apple that boasts a majority of Hispanic inhabitants (51.3 percent), and it has the highest number of residents of Puerto Rican descent of any place on the U.S. mainland. More than 300,000 of the 1.3 million people in the Bronx are Boricuas (the indigenous name for descendants of the U.S. island-territory in the Caribbean).

The Latin food concession stand at Yankee Stadium -- which closes out its long Major League Baseball tenure after the Yankees' series with the Baltimore Orioles this weekend -- is named "Salsa on the Go."

"Salsa is music, salsa is dance and salsa is food," explained Garcia, a native of the Bronx whose parents migrated to New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. "It also means spirit. The Latino spirit is what gives flavor to our music, our dances, and our foods."

In June of this year, The New York Times ranked Garcia's Cuban sandwich as the best food option for fans to enjoy at Yankee Stadium. That thumbs-up was featured in an article in which the newspaper described the best and worst food options at every major league stadium.

For Goya, the Yankee Stadium experiment has been so successful that they've opened another Latin food venue at Minute Maid Park, the home of the Houston Astros. Moreover, the company has increased its sponsorship of Latino heritage nights at various stadiums. For example, on Sept. 12, Latino Family Night in Philadelphia, Goya sponsored the selling of Latino food during the Phillies game against the Brewers.

Preparing Latino food at baseball parks isn't simple. Goya's venues take into account the culinary differences among the various Latino ethnic groups in the cities where the ballparks are located.

"We sell the Cuban sandwich in Houston, but the stewed chicken is in a chipotle sauce [a sauce with small dried and smoked jalapeño peppers], and we sell black beans instead of the Caribbean red kidney beans," Toro explained.

Fans aren't the only ones who enjoy Latin food at Yankee Stadium. The players also partake, albeit in a more private setting.

"There's Latin food here sometimes," said Bobby Abreu, the Yankees right fielder from Venezuela. "They give us things that remind us of our home cooking. They give us a good variety of food here. Chinese food, Japanese food, American and Latin food; a bit of everything."

The food players eat is supplied to the clubhouses by various local restaurants. The multiculturalism of today's major league rosters calls for diversity in the daily menu.

The new Yankee Stadium, however, will make it easier for the clubhouse staff to satisfy the players' taste buds. The home clubhouse in the new ballpark will have a larger kitchen, and the visitors clubhouse will finally get a kitchen of its own.

"The visiting teams don't get as much variety in what they eat. Their clubhouse does not lend itself to that," said Jose Peña, one of the cooks in the Press Dining Room at Yankee Stadium.

Peña is Dominican, but he does not get to cook Latin food for the journalists who work at the Stadium.

"It's a fixed menu, mostly Italian food," explained Peña, who had considered retiring after this season but might return to work at the new stadium as a cook in one of the new clubhouses.

The rising number of Latinos in the U.S., in combination with changes in tastes in the American diet, should boost the popularity of Latin food in major league ballparks to new levels. In May, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that one of every four children in the country age five or less is of Hispanic descent.

It wasn't that long ago that hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack made room for Italian pizza and Tex-Mex nachos as steady menu items at every stadium in the game.

If what is happening in New York and Houston is an indication, other great food items are on their way to join them.

The future of Major League Baseball looks delicioso.

Will González has more than 15 years experience covering baseball and writes for Al Dia, a Spanish-language weekly in Philadelphia. He posts a weekly column for ESPNdeportes.com.