The Best Play in the NBA: The Portland Trail Blazers Moda Center Scores for Food
“The role games play in human experience is part of what makes us distinct as a species,” according to the anthropologist Orin Starn. He cites Roger Caillois, the French sociologist and author of Man, Play, and Games, who argues that play is a formative element of development: “Tell me what you play and I’ll tell you who you are,” Caillois writes.
As any avid cook knows, Caillois is ripping off perhaps the most famous adage in food literature. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the nineteenth-century French lawyer and gastronome, wrote it in The Physiology of Taste: “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” As someone interested in both play and food — and especially in their connections — when I heard that the recent re-haul of Portland’s Rose Garden, now called the Moda Center, is responsible for what may be the best food not only in the NBA but in professional sports right now, I had to check it out.
News about the much-improved quality of the fan food in Portland began circulating among some sports reporters I know (Hi, Truehoop.com) during the 2013-14 season, when the arena’s executives changed hands and the team acquired a new sponsor in insurance company Moda Health, who beat out Nike and Adidas for the contract. (The locally based company was initially founded as a provider of dental insurance and called the Oregon Dental Society; imagine that as an arena name for a hot second.)
Ditching its partnership with Ovations Food Services (which runs concessions for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Central Florida Zoo, among other venues), Moda execs accepted the bid of the more upscale conglomerate Levy Restaurants, the Chicago-based concern that owns several high-end eating places including Wolfgang Puck Grand Café in Walt Disney World Resort, and also handles food vendors for NASCAR’s Charlotte Motor Speedway and Jay-Z’s Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In true Portlandia spirit, the new partnership brought along a directive: Moda’s execs are plugged into Portland’s local food culture, and they wanted to bring what they called “authentically Portland” flavors into the arena —with Portland being the land that started the nationwide food truck boom, produces some of the best craft beers in the world, and has just legalized marijuana. Why not raise the bar on the standard-issue, overpriced, and anemic hotdogs; Michelobs; and stale popcorn?
For an NBA franchise, the Blazers are about middle-age. The NBA was founded in 1946 when two existent leagues, the Basketball Association of America and the National League, combined forces; two teams from that era still play in the cities where they were founded (the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks). The Blazers were born in 1970 and won their only national championship in 1977, and the most famous alums are Bill Walton and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Today’s hotshot is Damian Lillard, the fierce and super-fun-to-watch point guard. This year the team, which was supposed to finish last in its division, is in playoff contention — and who doesn’t love an overachiever’s story? Currently approaching postseason play, the joint is jumping. As you approach the Moda’s main entrance, on the right is a huge poster of Lillard letting you know whose house you’re about to walk into, and on the left is Dr. Jack’s, Moda’s proprietary sports bar that’s only open during its events — Blazers games, of course, but also things like Justin Bieber’s second concert of his new tour (which occurred the night after I was there to see the Blazers crush the Orlando Magic, but this article is not really about sports).
Dr. Jack’s is named after Jack Ramsay — coach of the Blazers team that won it all back in the day and also a longtime game announcer — and was opened in 2014 as part of the Moda’s new food initiative. It’s an appropriately slick-looking place that still maintains its rugged Portland flair thanks to a long wraparound blond wood bar, the industrial feel of exposed ductwork, and wooden picnic tables scattered around the dining room. There are too many televisions to count from which to watch the game. Some fans got so comfortable chowing down on sliders (the house version has grass-fed beef topped with a nice mini-slab of pork belly) and “pbj” flatbread pizzas (topped with pineapple, bacon, and thin jalapeño slices) that I saw tickets poking out of their pockets after the game had started — they were simply content to watch from the Jumbotrons and chow down in here instead. And also content to enjoy the liquid gold flowing out of the 12 taps of local beers; of the ones I tried, I loved the salted caramel stout from Breakside, a six-year-old Portland brewery whose flagship IPA won a gold medal a couple of years ago at the Great American Beer Festival. A seasonal specialty available only in February and March, it is brewed in collaboration with the local ice cream shop Salt & Straw (more on them in a moment). I expected something very sweet and dessert-like, but instead I got a full-bodied, coffee-roasty stout that was rich and smooth, just the thing for a rainy, dreary night like the one I was having — and come to the think of it, like the ones most Portlanders have every night.
Dr. Jack’s is a better stadium restaurant than most, but it’s not cheap, and it doesn’t have anything you can take with you to your seats as you watch Lillard and his crew (shout-out to the two Duke players on it, Mason Plumlee and Gerald Henderson — but again, this is not about sports). I wanted to know what there was to eat inside. Part of Levy’s brilliance was installing a young go-getter of a chef named Jessica Helms, who has just the right mix of badass (lip ring, prominent tattoos) and credentials (two-time CIA graduate, she attended programs on both coasts — one for cuisine, and one for pastry). Helms got her start cooking in the national park service at Yosemite. From there she found her way to the St. Louis Cardinals, and then gradually made her way to bigger markets, landing a job as chef for the Seattle Seahawks — another team owned, like the Blazers, by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. Helms is a bundle of energy who talks — and walks, because she’s often running all around that arena to the restaurants she oversees — a mile a minute. Her vibe is both “hip mom” (she has a three-year-old son) and “one-of-the-guys” all at once, and she wanted to show me the way Levy has both partnered with local businesses to bring in Portland dining favorites and also establish its own branded venues within the Moda.
First up: Fowl Language, a chicken finger-and-fries stand, which is a Levy property and not an outside restaurant. Helms says she insists on sourcing local chicken and having her cooks soak each piece overnight in buttermilk, then hand-bread it before frying. A nice touch: You can opt for a basket of white meat tenders or dark meat tenders, or a mix. They’re good as hell, cleanly fried, and crispy — and for $11 a basket, which is what you’d spend in any other sports arena for this, a superior version of the product.
But I didn’t come here for chicken fingers from a restaurant group. Sizzle Pie and Killer Burger are two of Portland’s favorite guilty pleasures, and in another score for Levy, both are in the Moda. At the Sizzle stand, there’s a nice bar and a menu full of the pizzas that made their name as the city’s late-night nosh of choice — Sizzle’s claim to fame is that it is open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends — and serves 35 varieties of pizza available by the slice, half-pie, and whole pie (and the option I like best, the “6 pack of slices” for $35, which is not only stadium-friendly because you get a box to bring back to your seat, but also food-lover-friendly because you get the opportunity to taste a few different offerings). The veggie slice I had was loaded with bite-sized roasted cauliflower florets, artichoke hearts, and black olives. The crust was chewy-crunchy, the toppings were fresh, and the pizza didn’t look like the cheese was either about to slide off or had congealed into Jell-O like it does in many sporting facilities.
In this city, there have to be vegan and gluten-free options, and they are here, but I didn’t try them because I don’t hate myself enough to eat gluten-free pizza. Suffice it to say that a hearty slice for $6-8 from Sizzle certainly scratches the pizza-sports itch.
What I like even more about chef Jessica is that even though she doesn’t manage the local food outlets like Sizzle that Levy brought in to please its customers, she doesn’t feel like her own outlets compete with them. She says she wants the overall fan experience of the food to be excellent and to include the things her fans want, and I believe her, especially when she practically shoved me over to the Killer Burger stand. “You have got to try this, it’s sick!” she enthused. Killer is a local mini chain that has been around since 2010 and insists on serving its burgers its own way; they don’t care what you like, you’re getting it how they want to give it to you. All burgers are 1/3 pound and all contain bacon in addition to other toppings, and no substitutions are allowed. You can’t “hold the” anything. Like many people and most food writers, I like a burger my own way: with guacamole on it, but not if the guacamole has tomatoes in it, and not if it can’t be perfectly medium-rare, and not if the bun is too large or too toasted, and not if it has Swiss cheese, and definitely not if there’s ketchup. I did not want to do it their way.
I had no choice because here was Jessica, shoving something called a “PB Pickle Bacon Burger” at me. Toppings were natural crunchy peanut butter, bread and butter pickle slices, mayonnaise, house-made hickory barbecue sauce, grilled onions, and (of course) bacon. This is not the burger of my dreams, but I knew Killer had won Portland’s “best burger” award from just about every form of media that bestows such things, I liked their “customer is not always right” anti-capitalist attitude, and Jessica was standing there grinning and clapping in delight — so I went for it. Verdict: Killer Burger’s PB Pickle Bacon Burger is one of the few foods on earth that defy my ability to describe; it is a truly weird thing, a mélange of mushy, crunchy, salty, and sweet. Even the pickles and even the combo of mayo-peanut-butter-barbecue sauce did not bother me because the whole is singular. I saw grown men licking waxed paper wrappers after polishing off these burgers. Jessica confides that although Mr. Allen does not always indulge in the stadium’s offerings (often he gets takeout from his favorite upscale restaurants), he is indeed a particular fan of Killer Burger.
The coma that the burger has put me in does not stop Jessica, who continues to march us through the arena in search of good food. “It’s all about embracing Portland in here!” she exclaims. As if things couldn’t get weirder, I find myself parked in front of something called Plum Tasty, a colorful station with a bamboo counter and purple and white accents. “Now this is my baby,” Jessica smiles. It turns out that when Moda came on as the arena’s sponsor, because they are in the health insurance business they were “very specific,” as Jessica puts it, about adding in food that was very healthy with all vegan and vegetarian options. Jessica latched onto the “bowl” concept, partnered with a nutrition team from Moda, and ran with it: Plum Tasty offers build-your own bowls/salads that you can fill with ingredients like roasted beets, quinoa, freshly sliced avocado, and kale slaw with tahini dressing. You can top your concoction with a protein such as tofu rubbed with sesame oil and chile flakes, or rare grilled flank steak, or you can visit the grab-n-go fridge for a take-away salad. Although I knew that a “health food cart” was on site, I didn’t believe anyone visited it. I was wrong. The game had started but there was a line 13 people strong and plenty of buzz around the cart. My food was delicious and I would eat it again — nine bucks for what amounts to a really delicious salad, plus I didn’t have to ruin my waistline. If this is a taste of a healthy future not just for the players of sports, but for the fans too, it’s really the opposite of terrible — it’s just kind of weird that it shares a space with that angina — I mean, killer — burger.
Striking a balance between junk food and virtue is Hook Line, which, like Fowl Language, is Levy’s own stand. And this one’s not for chicken tenders, but for their good friends, fish and chips. There are also oysters. “Everyone, and I mean everyone, told me this wouldn’t work,” Jessica said of serving raw oysters in a stadium concession stand, “but the fans love having fresh oysters.” A half-dozen fresh, well-chilled West Coast oysters with a bracing mignonette will run you $15. You may feel like one of those partygoers who come to judge the food on Top Chef as you walk around with some disarmingly elegant food on a plastic plate, but you won’t care because you’re eating really fresh oysters in a stadium. A giant basket of beer-battered Pacific cod with good fries fulfills a different fantasy, and I’m not sure that I’ve had such a fresh version of this pub classic anywhere. One of the virtues of fried fish is that it can be made with previously frozen fish, but Jessica’s not having it; not here on the coast where there’s great access to the fresh cod for not a lot more money. “I overheard a fan once say he’d been to the original outside restaurant of Hook Line,” she said, laughing. That’s impossible, of course, because Hook Line exists only in the Moda; there is no “original outside location.”
One of the advantages of doing an overhaul of a stadium’s hospitality is the chance to build a new generation of customers. And I mean that literally: The Moda Center has designed a “Kid City” that is an interactive play space for children where they can shoot hoops at a pop-a-shot (for free, no less), get airbrushed “tattoos,” and eat at their own restaurant, called Yeti’s (cryptozoology, the study of rare and hidden creatures that have not been proven to exist, such as Bigfoot, the Lochness Monster, and yetis, is a thing in Portland). Here you can find “totchos” (tater tot nachos, another Portland thing; my favorite version is at the Oaks Bottom Public House in southeast Portland, but these are certainly serviceable), PB&J and grilled cheese sandwiches made on freshly grilled waffle-ironed waffles (delicious), and giant root beer floats (nothing wrong with that, either). There are many restaurants in the non-sports “real world” that don’t have menus for small people that are this good. Yes, the kids’ meals are $12 a pop, but they come with drinks and sides and they’re legitimately tasty.
What’s a basketball game without a hot dog? All the hot dogs at Moda come from Zenner’s Sausage Company, which has been a fixture in Portland since 1927 for franks, brats, and smoked hams. There is a proprietary Blazers dog for you, too. Jessica says she took a couple of her sous chefs with her to Zenner’s to make a stadium dog. “Of course everyone was saying to just add more bacon,” she recalled. The Blazin’ Sausage indeed has both bacon and Cheddar in its mix (guessing here that the Moda is not counting on many fans keeping kosher), and an incredible snap when you bite into it. On the club level, you can even find the hotdog condiment bar of your dreams: kimchi, 1000 Island dressing, and pineapple chunks are garnishes on it, in addition to all the usual suspects.
And what’s a basketball game without ice cream? Salt & Straw is the local favorite and has been crowned best in the city by everyone from the local media to Andrew Zimmern to the Wall Street Journal. Owner Kim Malek is a something of a celebrity; she has said that she wanted to open an ice cream shop because she wanted to have a place where people in a neighborhood could come and hang out — a modest goal, especially considering the exotic flavors like strawberry honey balsamic and pineapple honey Aperol. The five options at the Moda are more tried-and-true — chocolate gooey brownie, coffee & bourbon, snickerdoodle — but they are excellent, as $7 scoops of ice cream should be. The line here wraps around the whole center during halftime, and Salt & Straw is in fact the only concession that stays open 30 minutes after the games end.
To set expectations appropriately, there is still Coors Light in this arena. You can still buy bags of cotton candy that may or may not be stale. Some people come to sporting events for precisely those things, and those people will not feel alienated. However, the fact that the Moda Center has the best food in the NBA is no longer questionable; no one can touch it right now. Whether it can be beaten in the future is the challenge. Good to end with a sports metaphor, no? #Winning.