Go Team Flavor
Cheeseburger bao, anyone? Modern sports stadium fare has come a long way from hot dogs and beer
Chinatown. The Arts District. Even Water Street. Those are some of the names that pop up when you think of local foodie hotspots. But don’t forget about these: T-Mobile Arena. Allegiant Stadium. Even Las Vegas Ballpark.
With the spate of pro leagues and shiny new arenas emerging in the valley in the past few years, Las Vegas has a serious case of sports fever — and, apparently, an appetite for something beyond the usual stadium fast-food experience. These days, sports venue concessions are serving up fancy sandwiches, craft cocktails, and head-turning desserts.
“This is Las Vegas,” says Eric Koehler, executive chef for Levy Restaurants, which manages the menus at T-Mobile Arena, Allegiant Stadium (right), and Las Vegas Ballpark. “People expect other things from you.”
The Vegas ethos can take some credit, but fan food has quietly been getting more bougie for years, a trend powered by factors as various as binge-worthy cooking shows, Instagram foodie culture, and the craft beer explosion. Nowadays, thanks in part to Koehler, you can enjoy a “Holy Roller” sushi roll at a Raiders game, a refreshing frosé at Las Vegas Ballpark, and decadent desserts while rooting for the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena.
“Once you start adding sports teams in, everybody still has that expectation — ‘Wow, I’m in Las Vegas,’” Koehler says. “It’s gotta be elevated, the food’s gotta be fantastic. The normal things that work in neighborhood restaurants don’t function in quite the same way here.”
Previously a corporate chef for MGM Resorts, Koehler found that the transition from the Strip to sports venues wasn’t as jarring as you might think. You might say he helped “Strip-ify” sports venue food from the concession booth to the special-event menu. For instance, during NHL All-Star weekend, Koehler presented A-5 Wagyu Benedicts and surf and turf as specialty menu items. He’s particularly proud of the menu he presented during the Connor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier UFC fight last summer, which featured a “Dublin Calling” section riffing on Irish standards and a “French Quarter” section with twists on Bayou classics.
Gary LaMorte, founder of Honest Hospitality, the team of chefs that cooks for the Las Vegas Raiders, says the elevation of such fare goes beyond big venues. Airports, movie theaters, even bookshop cafes have improved their offerings. “Culinary expectations are increasing across the board everywhere,” he says. “What people are finding is that with these captive audiences, if they do a better job (with food), there’s better revenue.”
Of course, there are nuances to this upscaling of fan food. It still should be fundamentally easy — and fundamentally fun — to eat. Inspired by his travels in Asia, Marc Marrone, chef partner at Nice Hospitality, devised the Royale with Cheese, a cheeseburger bao, served at his Graffiti Bao outlet in T-Mobile Arena. “A burger is great conceptually, but a pain in the ass to eat while you’re watching the game,” he says. “The cheeseburger bao bun is compact, hand-held, quick, and ready to go.” He adds, “For a long time, a lot of chefs looked down on stadium food. I looked at it as a fun challenge.” Achievement unlocked: Customers like his bao so much, it inspired Marrone to open another Graffiti Bao in the southwest valley.
And when it comes to sports venue fare, if the food is theme-friendly, all the better. You might not expect the famous cakes of Freed’s to be a stadium staple, but at T-Mobile Arena and Allegiant, guests can indulge their sweet tooth on cheer-friendly items such as Chip Chiller ice cream sandwiches, cookie boxes, cannolis, and, an arena exclusive, freshly made donuts. Freed’s Managing Partner Max Jacobson-Fried is as surprised by the evolution of stadium food as anybody.
“I always imagined that when we showed up, there would be a hot dog guy, a hamburger guy, a nachos guy — all the stuff you would buy through a distributor,” he says. Freed’s contributed to the reinvention of stadium food with a clever tribute to the Golden Knights. “We took chocolate cake and layered it with Bavarian creme and covered it in chocolate like a ding dong,” Jacobson-Fried says. “A puck cake.”
Finally, with food programs like this, there must be a beverage program to match. That’s where Tony Abou-Ganim, aka “The Modern Mixologist,” comes in. Abou-Ganim is no stranger for expansive, venue-spanning cocktail programs; he was the brain behind the cocktail program at Bellagio when the resort opened.
“A fresh, from-scratch margarita or Atomic Fizz with fresh prickly pear — those didn’t exist in a lot of large restaurants, much less an arena environment,” he says. For his part, Abou-Ganim wanted to do more than just throw together a mixology menu with a few fancy-sounding drinks; he wanted to play with themes and reinforce a sense of place. “The goal when we opened T-Mobile was to create a drink that would have a legacy of T-Mobile Arena, not for any specific event or team, but that it would be the drink that when you go to T-Mobile Arena,” he says. That drink is the Atomic Fizz, made with aperol orange liqueur, Grey Goose Le Citron vodka, sparkling water, fresh prickly pear puree, fresh Hamilton lemon juice, and agave nectar. The colors reflect those of the T-Mobile brand; prickly pear is a plant synonymous with the Southwest; finally, “atomic” brings to mind the history of nuclear testing in Nevada.
So, the next time you’re getting hungry at the big game, know that there’s much more on the menu than lukewarm nachos and limp hot dogs. After all, as a Las Vegan, you deserve it. “We’re a city of hospitality,” Marrone says. “Hospitality people are always looking for something good, something unique.” Φ