Next time you’re at a Flyers or Sixers game, try the seaweed. Followed closely by sushi, frozen yogurt and roast pork, wakame salad is the best dish at the Wells Fargo Center — at least according to a group of top Philly chefs.
Dining options around the South Philly sports complex are better than ever, with Marc Vetri’s Lo Spiedo adding to the bars and grilles in Xfinity Live, but in a city as steeped in good food as Philadelphia, it’s fair to have high hopes for in-stadium choices as well. During a recent Flyers game, Billy Penn examined the concessions through the eyes of some local food pros.
Our hockey-fan panel of food experts consisted of:
- Joe Cicala, chef at Le Virtu, chef-partner at Brigantessa and onetime AHL hockey player
- Jonathan Adams (aka Jonny Mac), co-owner Rival Bros. Coffee, Pub & Kitchen alum and lifelong Flyers fan
- Damien Pileggi, co-owner Rival Bros. Coffee and diehard lifelong Flyers fan
- Nick Macri, chef at Border Springs Farm in Reading Terminal Market, Southwark alum and native of Canada (‘nuff said)
After stopping to meet Peter DeCarl, the Aramark executive chef for the Wells Fargo Center, the group was dropped off on the club level to start the night.
Broad Street Bistro
At the top of the escalators leading to box seats is a mini food court. The chefs deemed the standalone cheesesteak station “rustic,” with its cast-iron buckets of Whiz propped up on cinder blocks, but opted instead for two alternate choices: Cheesesteak Poppers With Pomodorino Sauce and Roast Pork Sandwich.
“I’m not drunk enough yet to enjoy these poppers,” said Cicala, biting in and getting a shot of hot oil straight up his nose.
“But they are better than Scott Schroeder’s cheesesteak spring rolls,” Macri pointed out, as heads nodded all around.
Roast pork fared much better, getting props for its seeded roll, the sharpness of the broccoli rabe and the juiciness of the meat. “This was $12? I’d pay $14,” Adams offered. “And they’re selling 24 ounces of beer for $11. So you’ve basically got two beers and a sandwich for $23. That’s a better deal than Restaurant Week!”
“How about we put the poppers inside the sandwich for a new version of the Philly Taco?” suggested Pileggi. “Flavor country!”
Heading downstairs to the main concourse, it became apparent a real Philly Taco was actually an option, since Lorenzo’s and Sons Pizza offers those iconic ginormous slices right across from a Campo’s cheesesteak stand.
The chefs skipped that option, and instead discovered the surprise gem of the night.
Without any inkling of a brand name or logo, a tiny sushi station was tucked into the edge of a concession console. “We have to go there, right?” asked Adams, and everyone watched in relative amazement as a kimono-and-Flyers-cap-wearing sushi chef sliced pristine fish and expertly rolled Spicy Tuna Maki to order.
“Second year at this stand,” he answered in accented English when asked about his experience. “But catering chef before.”
Adams added a side of Wakame Salad — “Yes, the seaweed,” he explained to the cashier — and the chefs brandished their chopsticks and dug in. Every scrap disappeared.
“This seaweed salad is GOOD,” said Cicala, between mouthfuls.
“Healthier living through stadium sushi!” crowed Adams.
“We should throw all our food voucher cards at him and say ‘Omakase!’” suggested Macri.
“He’d bring out a shinguard full of sashimi and it would be heaven,” agreed Cicala. Even Pileggi, who’d only tried sushi once or twice before in his life, enjoyed the dishes.
Macri mustered some Canadian intuition: “Calling it now, this is going to be the sleeper hit of the night.”
Big Baby’s BBQ
At the beginning of the evening, the chefs had a chance to meet some Flyers alumni, including Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, so when they saw a sandwich called The Hammer at this newcomer stand, they had to try it.
Piled onto a seeded roll was chopped pork, smoked sausage and BBQ sauce, which Adams carefully topped with the coleslaw that came on the side.
“That’s a bit scary,” said Macri, as Adams attempted to cut the overflowing roll into equal pieces with nothing but a plastic knife.
“I’ve got this,” Adams responded. “I’m gonna write a viral blog post, ‘How to split The Hammer four ways.’”
Pieces doled out, everyone agreed that for all the promising BBQ ingredients, the sandwich didn’t taste like much. “If this sandwich was good, it would’ve been excellent,” Adams observed, to a round of guffaws.
An accompanying dish of Baby’s Nachos had more going for it, with chopped chicken enhanced by pickles — “Hey, it’s BBQ!” — and a sauce the chefs decided was probably an equal mix of Cheez Whiz and bean purée. “This is pure Matt Levin,” someone offered, recalling the former Adsum and Square Peg chef’s mashups.
Cure Insurance Club
A beer break was in order, so the group headed to the large sports bar area on the 11th Street side of the concourse. The “world’s largest arena club” (per the Wells Fargo website) makes it easy to pick a good brew, with a selection of craft beer complementing the standard Bud Light type taps.
“A bar sponsored by a car insurance company,” mused one of the chefs as they walked back toward the concessions. “Hmmmmm.”
Broad Street Carvery
Next up was a roast meat specialist. It looked promising, with brick walls, corrugated metal paneling and exposed ductwork across the ceiling, but ended up being a letdown.
The Porchetta Sandwich was deemed “aggressively seasoned,” with the mini bits of pork getting lost under salt and herbs. Slices of turkey in the Smoked Turkey Sandwich were overly dry, something the chefs suggested could have been alleviated by following “Wawa hoagie rules.”
“The avocado and tomato should be on top of the meat, not lost below it, ” Adams said.
Dryness wasn’t an issue with the Braciole Sandwich, but “there’s no reason this should be called braciole,” Cicala threw down, deeming the top-split bratwurst-like sausage holding a long hot pepper and a few shreds of short rib not worthy of its Italian name.
On the upside, each sandwich came with a generous helping of salt-and-pepper potato chips — the expensive-tasting kind. “I bet these are ‘Dirty’ brand,” Macri guessed.
Polish Water Ice
Mouths still stinging from the long hots, it was time for some dessert. Though it’s popular at the Jersey Shore, none of the chefs had ever heard of this brand of water ice, and so decided to try all four flavors.
“Both Cherry and Blue Raspberry are just screaming for vodka,” noted Adams, while Cicala didn’t mind slurping them up on their own. “Owww, brain freeze!”
“The Mango and Watermelon taste more real,” observed Macri. “Well, not real, but more like you expect the candy flavors to be.”
Just before concessions closed, the group caught sight of this free-standing frozen yogurt station, and Adams and Pileggi gave the stand-owner a hug. Gozen used to have a food truck, and they’d shared a commissary area with Rival Bros.
Cicala took the friendship as a good omen, and began loading a self-serve waffle bowl with Salted Caramel and Cake Batter yogurt, which he topped with crushed candy bars.
“A bit monochromatic, but really great,” he said, trying a spoonful, and the entire cohort soon agreed.
Post-fro-yo, the gang put their heads together for an overall appraisal.
Macri was given props for his early pick of the sushi stand for best in show, with everyone agreeing the seaweed salad was even better than the maki roll, and that the roast pork was a definite third.
“Wait, we liked sushi and frozen yogurt — that’s so not sports,” someone realized.
Another chef shouted: “Cold beer and seaweed — go Flyers!”