To be honest, it’s a little difficult to decide whether this is a food review, a hockey game report, or a look at the ongoing issues at Seattle’s new arena. Bear with me, it was a fun, if difficult, hockey game. There was some testing of the batch cocktails.
In the year since Climate Pledge Arena opened, I have been to the arena almost a dozen times for events large and small. It is a comfortable facility, and a very convenient bus ride from my house. I like the place a lot. The teams are pretty good too, with one tenant making the playoffs and the other… well… we’re happy to have hockey.
As such, I jumped at the chance when The Urbanist got invited to the media preview for the Arena’s new food and drink menu. It could have been hot dogs, frankly, and I would haven happily rolled on down. But they promised a new array of carefully curated cuisines that reflected a commitment to fresh and local. I was not disappointed. Next media day, I’m going to need an assistant because oof.
Tester Tested Testing Tests
Food at Climate Pledge Arena is managed by The Climate Collective, a collaboration between the Arena and food vendor Delaware North. Behind Executive Chef Molly DeMers, the group has auspicious goals that align with the climate conscious perspective of the arena. Sourcing 75% of the food within 300 miles of Seattle and reducing plastic are at the top of the list.
Billed as the “Next Wave of The Climate Collective” the tasting preview offered bites that were in the image of arena food, but taken a step further. DeMers said this was deliberate. “We’re stripping people’s perception of what arena food is.” Almost always, the tastes delivered.
We started at the grand opening of Molly D’s burgers, namesake of the chef and a replacement for the Lil’ Woody’s on the first floor. Serving grab-and-go smash burgers, the layout is familiar to anyone that did the hand-wavy thing at an Arena concession last year. Buzz in with a card or your registered mark of the devil, grab your food, and exit. The burgers themselves are solid artery cloggers, served single or double or with some pickles and greens as a “royal”.
The group of journalists, food bloggers, and me were welcomed onto the suite level and escorted to the north end Mount Baker Hall to see the rest of the food lineup. A long table at the entrance was laid out with samples for photographing. Featured were Sugo sushi, Dough Joy donuts, and both chicken and bananas foster wrapped in bubble waffles.
The tasting went EXTREMELY well, if a little overwhelming. The geniuses at Impossible Burgers introduced a bratwurst that it would make any carnivore rethink all their choices. Piled with onions and peppers, it hits all the right flavors and textures. The Arena’s pizzas have gone square, an interestingly useful choice for arena food that seems obvious when considered. The crusts are a bit heftier and stacked with salumi or seasonal vegetables.
There was a streak of healthier food alternatives. The grain bowls topped with salmon and greens were tasty and satisfying. A new stand called Sugo provided hand rolls and poke. Both were heavy with well seasoned tuna on a respectably sized (not just filler) bed of rice. Unfortunately, Sugo is only available in the private suite clubs.
With some complaints coming about the price of beers, there were changes made to the Arena’s beverage program. First, the price of Miller Light through the arena will be reduced and there there will be locations selling a lower priced craft beer of the game. Second, the batch cocktails that are available on tap have been reformulated with juice from long time Seattle shop Scotty’s Juice. Not that they were trying to put thumbs on the judgment scales, but the tasting did have testers of the cocktails right at the front of the room.
On the snack end, there were little bags of Goofyfoot pretzels. Covered in a key lime salt, the little treats are kind of stunning. The light pretzel gets a burst of sweet then a tang of citrus in each bite. It’s an opposite sensation of dipping fries in a Frosty. I debated whether I liked them and then – POOF – the whole bag disappeared. Also featured were bags of Seacharrones, very crunchy seaweed-based stand-ins for pork rinds of all things. They got the texture right and were eminently eatable and full of meaty umami. But without a coating of regret, they didn’t fully replicate the full drunken-late-night-gas-station-run sensation of their meat based counterparts.
One complaint, and this is my universal comment to burger and sandwich makers everywhere. Toast the rolls. Whether it’s for the sausage or the burgers or whatever, bread with crunchy edges is a) awesome and b) stands up to all the fixings that are being piled on. Grease soaked bread is also tasty, but it’s ~even better~ toasted. The only exception is a stand-alone hot dog cart who steams their buns. Every restaurant in the city should take note.
Hockey Night in Queen Anne
Of course, there’s a catch. How much of this new menu trickles into every corner of the Arena? There might be poke for the folks in the suites, but will the hoi polloi get cold pretzels and closed stands?
That was really the disappointing thing that faced us when attending Seattle Storm games this summer. With the WNBA team playoff bound and Sue Bird’s announced retirement, the Storm averaged a league leading 10,000 fans each game. But the concessions didn’t reflect that, giving fans long lines at understaffed kiosks and most of the upper level simply closed.
So it feels only fair that a true assessment of the new menu’s success should come during a regular game, away from a media event or the pomp of opening night. And probably during the week. Helpfully, I had a ticket for just such a game. To be fair (to be fair) it was against the Vancouver Canucks, a division rival and a draw to our northern neighbors. But writing deadlines demand some compromise.
Under the pressures of a real event, the Arena’s new food program overall is good, but misses a couple of crucial points that would make it a full success.
Entering the arena, we made a direct trip to the Impossible Foods stand to appease the vegetarian in the group. The burger rated a solid thumbs up and the loaded fries were polished off with glee. They were lots of chili and fixings on tasty and well cooked curly fries. However, the Impossible bratwursts were not to be found, apparently replaced by a meatball sub.
Up in the 200s, we passed over the pizzas – which looked as square and robust as promised – and grabbed potatoes and soup. The salmon chowder kept the filler potatoes small and loaded on a couple solid pieces of actual fish. The broth was flavorful, and not the goopy mess offered by some chowder shops. Pop rocks potato was a miss. The spiral cut potato and Beecher’s cheese sauce were straight up great. But the mouth buzzing literal Pop Rocks were bacon flavored and summarily rejected by tasters as “uncomfortable and weird.”
A trip downstairs in the first intermission scored some mac and cheese and a couple steel cups of Pink Whitney Cooler cocktail. The mac and cheese was tested both with brisket and au natural. Both ranked unbelievably high, and the availability in two sizes was appreciated. At this point, we went with smalls. The reformulated cocktails are a solid improvement, with balanced flavors. The juice stands up to a considerable booziness. Last year’s cocktails bordered on astringent. This years’ have a pleasant tang without cauterizing on the way down, a change we’ll completely credit to Scotty’s Juice.
Locations for promised cheap beer were mobbed, naturally. But that seemed more because it’s cheap(er) beer and not lack of staffing. Full credit to the arena for a hiring spree that put a good number of staff at every kiosk and stand. Everything was firing on all cylinders and it made for a humming concourse.
But that was it for our food testing. The third period was irritating for all the wrong reasons, but we stayed in our seats because there really wasn’t a ton more to draw us away. There’s candy boxes and popcorn bagged in locations around, but few spots to grab cookies. The cupcakes are locked in the suites. The lack of universal ice cream is a tragedy.
Shots on Goal
While this is technically a struggling post about food, you are reading The Urbanist, so we’re going to reserve space for transit. Which is exactly the opposite of many drivers on 1st Avenue, who decided the transit lane was their personal vehicles’ space. Until every bus lane is painted AND enforced, we will consider the Arena’s and the City’s transit plans to be expensive failures.
It’s not possible to make a similar clear-cut dismissal of The Climate Collective’s lofty goals about its food program. They hit many of those goals about quality and carry through for many people in the arena.
Staffing appears strong, and we look forward to that sustaining through the hockey season and beyond. The food is a high quality, lapping what’s available at many other venues. And the menu is finding its niche, a surprising uniqueness on top of the quality. It’s not always the right direction (see bacon pop rocks) but it deserves a lot of credit for trying.
But the high promises and lofty goals don’t carry through to the little things. There’s a missing connection between some of the quirky treats and the majority of the shops around the building. Would have loved to pick up the Seacharrones at any of the stands, but they were not available. Desserts are hard to find. Let me reiterate: ice cream. Like the Kraken players fail to capitalize on rebounding pucks shot at the goal, the food program misses some really easy wins for a captive audience.
This Thursday night, the Kraken lost to the moribund Canucks by a score of 5-4. Of note, Vancouver had 18 shots on goal while Seattle had 36. Assaulting the net with double the pucks should result in a higher score. It did not. And the good guys gave up an empty net goal.
Can’t help but draw a similarity with the arena’s food. Chef DeMers and her staff are peppering the net with so many really interesting, fun, and amazing concepts. The work is there, the staff is now there, and many of the attempts land. But it will take just a step more to really capitalize on a spectacular effort.
We look forward to the same being true for the Kraken.
Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.