Two years ago I attended the NBA All Star Game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was likely a once in a lifetime opportunity and I can't think of anywhere better to see my first and likely only mid-season exhibition game. Because I wanted to soak in as much of the atmosphere at MSG as possible, I elected to enter the arena when it first opened so I could be there for absolutely every minute of the event. Doing so meant I was resigned to eating in the building before the game.
My expectations for my Sunday night meal was some overpriced hot dog or pretzel or maybe a basket of less than tasty chicken tenders with fries or something like that. What I ended up eating was a lot different: some beef short rib tacos at a stand owned by famed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. When I got back from New York I wrote about my experience in this blog and suggested Verizon Center follow suit, maybe getting local celebrity chef and fellow Wizards season ticket holder José Andrés to open a joint of his own somewhere on the concourse of 601 F Street.
Fast forward to last fall and I'm wandering the 100 level at Verizon Center and along the 6th Street side of the building (which is honestly like the back of the building and probably the dead-est part of the main level) when I stumble upon exactly what I wished for: a José Andrés food stand called Beefsteak based on his five branch chain of mostly vegetarian restaurants of the same name. Finally. Some good food at Verizon Center at, relatively speaking, an affordable price. Way better than settling for a wiener or pretzel or some Papa John's or Dunkin' Donuts.
Based on the intel that I gathered from sniffing around the internet and the east side of Verizon Center, Andrés' new restaurant seemed to be a pop-up type of food stand as part of an Aramark (the food and drink monopoly at VC and many other arenas in the U.S.) initiative called Launch Test Kitchen. The Launch concept is designed to get better quality food in sports arenas by engaging local chefs to bring their cuisine to the arena or ballpark. As I argued in 2015, Andrés was the perfect fit for the Wizards and Monumental Sports on this one.
Now, you can question the wisdom of bringing a mostly meatless restaurant to an environment where most fans demand quick cooked meat on buns with fried sides but I was excited just the same. I made it my mission to eat one of each type of dish on the menu and blog about what I thought about each one. I got through the Beefsteak Tomato Burger and the Frida Kale Bowl on my first two trips. I found the "burger" both super tasty and filling (the Andrés branded potato chips it came with were amazing too) at a super affordable $6.50 price. But after sampling the under seasoned bowl of kale, sweet potatoes and other veg (including sinfully swapping out grape tomatoes for the advertised cherry tomatoes), I was ready to stop my sampling and stick with the tomato sammy.
That's when I got tripped up.
When I returned for a second 'mater sandwich, Beefsteak was gone, replaced by Pepe, José's indoor version of his Spanish sandwich making food truck. You are killing me, here! I finally find some food I love at Verizon Center and you guys take it away? But on the bright side, here's a whole new menu of grub to discover. Yes, I'll miss the tomato sammich on that gorgeous bun with the remoulade but here's a list of seemingly more arena-friendly sandwiches to take its place.
I started over, determined to get through all seven dishes. Spanish Grilled Cheese? Check. Good, not great. Love the sweetness of the membrillo (quince paste) against the tangy goat cheese but ultimately needed less bread and more cheese. Pollo Frito? Check. Greasy, greasy, greasy. Great looking sandwich but never want one again. Jamón Serrano y Queso Manchego? Check. Took me right back to the streets of Madrid from my visit in 2014; awesome! Frito Pie? Check. Perfect fried egg and sweet paprika-y pork chili but the salty Fritos ultimately won out making the dish a loss for me. Spanish Style Pulled Pork? Also check. Best sandwich I've had at Verizon Center ever; well cooked and seasoned pork but they have to strain the dried chiles a little better.
Five down, two to go.
But then it happened again. They switched the restaurant, this time to Oyamel, the Verizon Center version of José's Mexican joint just down 7th Street from the phone booth. Again, you are killing me!! I got two sandwiches I really love in the ham and cheese and pulled pork and now I have to start all over with just two more left on the full menu?
Now don't get me wrong here, I love that José's in Verizon Center. I think we need to do everything that we can to keep this quality of food in the building. And I will, by the way. I'm coming here every chance I get. But you are seriously messing with my blogging, dude. I wanted one of each dish!
So my new deal with Oyamel is to eat what I like and not skip around and I'm certainly not trying to eat the whole menu because I know I'll be like Sisyphus pushing that rock uphill. In the couple of weeks that this new stand has been live, I've had the Torta Cochinita (compared to the stuff I had in Mexico just one week prior I'm not getting this again) and the ham and cheese quesadilla (officially the Divorciados de Jamón y Queso). I think the quesadilla is amazing. It's smoky and cheesy and salty and warm and chewy and the salsas add roasted and tangy flavors. I might branch out but honestly, I think I've got a winner at $8 per serving here. Can't ask for much more out of stadium food.
The Launch Test Kitchen line frequently has what I'll call handlers near the line - people stationed near the stand to guide people through their experience. I'm sold already. I don't need any guidance. The title of this post is totally tongue in cheek. I'm glad this restaurant, no matter what it's called and what it serves, is in Verizon Center. I'll take the tomato burger or ham and cheese sandwich or pulled pork or quesadilla over anything else at VC. Keep it coming.
I understand there may be one more change based on comments from the "handlers". Bring it on! But I'm done trying to sample everything. That's a fool's errand at this point. Thank you Aramark and José Andrés for this. I'm looking forward to years of eating quality food before Wizards games. But please, settle it down and pick a theme. I can't keep up with all the change.
To the rest of my fellow fans and Wizards season ticket holders, please stop buying generic fast food and make your way over to Oyamel or whatever it's called when you get there. Show some love for local food rather than mediocre national chains or generic stadium fare. If you're disappointed with the results, you can blame me and then go back to what you normally eat. We've got a good thing going on the east side of Verizon Center. Let's make it worthwhile for everyone to keep it going.
|At $8 per serving, I'll take this quesadilla over anything else at Verizon Center.|