Chef brings best of MLB cuisine to Lyons
New owner of Stella’s in second year at popular site
By Steve Metsch
Baseball fans can tour concession stands of the major leagues without ever leaving Lyons.
Robin Choi, who in late February celebrated one year of owning Stella’s, 3903 Joliet Ave., the batting cages and restaurant near the historic Hoffman Tower, wanted to make dining there a memorable experience.
So, he decided to offer the best of what is offered at concession stands around Major League Baseball.
“I wanted to streamline it a bit and call it ‘the away menu,’ which is ballpark food from around the country,” Choi, of Brookfield, said. “I wanted to ease into it. I didn’t want to freak them out. So I started around the nation, making food people want to eat.”
You can still find hot dogs, hamburgers, Italian sausage, corned beef, nachos, and other old favorites on the menu, but there are some surprises on his “away menu.”
For example, from Houston, there’s fried chicken in a waffle cone.
How about The Canseco, a Cuban sandwich dubbed “the juiciest” in a nod to Jose Canseco’s using “juice” or steroids?
From Yankee Stadium, a meatball parmesan sandwich that includes the recipe from Stella’s previous owner. “It’s the size of a baseball and I decided to bread and fry the meatball. People love it. It’s one of my best sellers,” Choi said.
There’s a softshell crab sandwich from Baltimore.
And there’s a cheesesteak sandwich from Philadelphia, but there’s a twist with fried salami, grilled onions and grilled tomato added to the recipe.
Prices are a fan-friendly $6 to $7.50.
“People like the away menu. It definitely turns some heads. They love the concept tied into baseball. Some are working their way down the list. Every two months or so, I add one and take one off (the menu),” Choi said.
Sushi rolls have been popular, too. “New York and Los Angeles both have sushi in the ballparks. We thought it would be something to throw in, a spicy tuna roll and an California roll,” Choi said.
Business, as expected, has been sort of quiet in December and January, but it will pick up soon as leagues are drafted from Little League baseball to recreation department softball leagues. Everybody, Choi said, seems to get the itch to work on their hitting and the batting cages are very popular.
“The Cubs winning (the World Series) definitely gave us a big boost with more people coming around, and, hopefully, down through the years, more kids playing baseball which means more kids in our batting cages,” Choi said.
Stella’s, it turns out, has quite the reputation.
Lyons Mayor Christopher Getty said that when he talks about his community to down state residents, some have no idea where the village is. Mention Stella’s, Getty said, and their eyes light up.
“It’s a good location,” Choi said, “a good presence to have here. The Riverside folks consider us as much a part of their town as do the Lyons folks.”
There were no guarantees for Choi and girlfriend Randa Shin when they bought Stella’s from the Matson family, which had started Stella’s 29 years earlier. As a “tip of the cap,” the back of Stella’s T-shirts resembles a baseball jersey with “Matson 29.”
A chef for 17 years, Choi had decided it was time to become an owner and bought Stella’s, which had been the market for several years.
“Cooking is what I do. I love it. But you are constantly paying your dues. Even when I was getting proper chef positions, it’s barely a living wage. It’s high demand an everything I was making a lot of people rich, but you’re never going to be rich unless you are an owner,” Choi said.
Not that he’s wealthy, but things are “going pretty good.”
The pro shop is still at Stella’s. “We carry the top-of-the-line stuff that’s most in demand. We’re selective. It’s the stuff everybody wants,” he said.
If you want to work on your batting, be it softball or baseball, there are nine cages which can be set at seven different speeds. The cages are open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Employee Juan Rosales, of Cicero, recalled coming to Stella’s as a kid to work on his hitting.
“I thought, ‘Man, I wish I could be here more.’ Now I’m here seven days a week for two years,” Rosales said.
“It’s definitely a staple in the community. We get a lot of people who come in with their kids and tell us, ‘I used to come in here with my Dad,’ “ Rosales said. “When you think of Lyons, you think of the quarry and you think of Stella’s.”
Choi is thinking of the upcoming baseball season.
“With the WBC, the World Baseball Classic, happening this spring, I hope to go a little international, ballpark food from around the world. I’m doing some research on that,” Choi said.
Choi, who loves baseball, was a catcher and played through his freshman year of high school.