Restaurant News & Reviews

It’s still early, but Golden 1 Center’s food impresses

A pork sandwich from Porchetta House represents one of the best food items inside Golden 1 Center, The Bee’s Carla Meyer writes.
A pork sandwich from Porchetta House represents one of the best food items inside Golden 1 Center, The Bee’s Carla Meyer writes. Special to The Bee

Golden 1 Center is so striking, in its light-filled open design and general newness, that it encourages a sense, as one first enters it, that dreams can come true.

If the long-delayed plans for a new Sacramento Kings arena can be realized in such spectacular fashion, then the Kings surely can make the playoffs this season. And perhaps a pair of fans who come to watch them do it can eat and drink at the arena for less than $40. And those fans can enjoy “local eats” at stands that match the experience of eating at the local restaurants whose names they carry.

After touring the concession stands during the Kings’ first home preseason game last week, that first dream, at least, remained alive: Sacramento trounced Israel’s Maccabi Haifa by 39 points.

As for the price part, the free market has not collapsed just because the presidential race got weird. Golden 1 Center prices are in the “high middle” range for sports arenas, said Michael Tuohy, Golden 1’s head chef, and on par with what they were at the Kings’ old home, Sleep Train Arena. In other words, Golden 1 Center charges $13 for Coors Light, $10 for a quarter of a pizza and $12-$14 for burgers.

The biggest distinctions between new and old arena food are status- rather than price-based. Golden 1 Center is aiming high in terms of food quality, following Sacramento’s “farm-to-fork” creed and drawing as many ingredients as possible from within a 150-mile range. Its stalls are not anonymous hot-dog huts but brand extensions of Paragary’s, Selland’s, Mulvaney’s, Star Ginger and other popular local restaurants that have licensed their names and recipes to concessions giant Legends Hospitality.

But as we discovered during our 3 1/2 -hour Golden 1 food survey – encompassing the main and upper concourses but not fancier offerings at the floor and suite levels – eating pizza and burgers from a high-volume, limited-menu Cafe Bernardo or Selland’s stall operated by Legends does not come close to the experience of a made-to-order meal ordered off a large menu at the mother restaurant.

Yet there are enough glimmers of those mother restaurants, in flavor and freshness, for one to be able to deem Golden 1 Center’s food, even at this early stage, as several steps above what was served at Sleep Train. Here’s a rundown of our tour:

We enter the arena at 5:30 p.m., just as Kings fans are starting to trickle in. We hit Selland’s Market-Cafe first, because it’s so close to the entrance and because Tuohy had told us earlier that pizza from Selland’s and Paragary’s were top sellers at previous arena events. Fans attending two concerts by famous vegetarian Paul McCartney had preferred margherita to pepperoni. The preference reversed at the WWE “No Mercy” wrestling event.

The Selland’s crew adopts a friendly, 15-on-1 offense as we approach, with most members of the large but currently unoccupied counter staff making meaningful, “pick me” eye contact. We order slices of margherita and pepperoni. The size (a quarter of a 16-inch pizza) makes the slice a bit unwieldy. But the flavor is there. Especially with the margherita, which offers a mix of herbaceous (fresh basil in this case) and tomato-cheese tangy so characteristic of Selland’s.

Wanting a full fan experience, we order a $15 “souvenir beer” – a Blue Moon Belgian White in a clear plastic Kings cup. Scorching evenings at the outdoor amphitheater in Wheatland had taught us to accent Blue Moon with a slice of orange. But Selland’s does not carry orange slices, a woman at the counter informs us, her regret genuine.

Next we hit Cafe Bernardo Burgers & Shakes, for a $14 bacon habanero burger. Though the patty is slimmer than what we have had at other Bernardos, the meat holds a similar, and welcome, peppery taste. The sandwich comes with more smoky bacon than one expects to get at an arena, and noticeably fresh lettuce and tomato.

Near the condiment station, at the edge of the main concourse, we spot the dapper figure of Randy Paragary, looking out onto the court and seating areas below. Though not precisely the king of all he surveys, Paragary has more of his brands on Golden 1 stands than any other local restaurateur – two Bernardos, two Paragary’s pizza places and a Centro street-taco spot.

Paragary says he and corporate executive chef Kurt Spataro have come to every arena event so far, tweaking ingredients and fine-tuning the preparation process. Centro started with the staff adding salsa to tacos, but that process proved too time-consuming. Now there’s a salsa bar that also includes cilantro, chopped onion and cotija cheese.

At that salsa bar – the Neiman-Marcus of arena condiment stands – there’s another ingredient in play: anxiety. Though people are polite enough in switching positions with strangers to get nearer to the red salsa or cheese, everyone seems hurried, as if they think this unexpected bounty will be snatched away.

The salsa bar options and earthy-spicy meat in Centro’s three-carne-asada-taco plate make it seem like a steal at $10. The street tacos at El Rey, just down K Street from the arena, cost $3.75-$4.75 apiece. But El Rey’s tacos seem overpriced, so that might not be the right comparison. And I might be getting swept up into a kind of arena-groupthink inspired by the bonhomie surrounding me.

Sacramento Kings offer media a glimpse and taste of menu items that are locally and carefully sourced but still taste, in essence, like arena food.

Sacramentans Adara Munoz and Megan O’Connor, both 26, for example, do not seem to mind that the carafe of the usually modestly priced Bogle chardonnay they’re carrying – from the Raley’s stall, which pours full bottles into carafes – costs $42.

“We love Bogle, the local vineyard, being here” in the arena, Munoz said of the Clarksburg winery. Munoz also appreciates the “huge variety” of food at Golden 1. At Sleep Train, “you kind of just got chicken tenders or hot dogs,” she said.

Whereas the same items repeated at most stands at Sleep Train, Golden 1 offers 82 distinct menu items, Tuohy said. They include a well-executed $12 chicken banh mi, its French roll crunchy and its marinated vegetables crisp, at the Star Ginger stand. Star Ginger’s Mai Pham is an old hand at the franchise thing, having opened offshoots of her Alhambra Boulevard spot on college campuses, and it shows.

Steve Reed, 37, of Sacramento and Phil Goldman, 70, of Portland, Ore., line up at Star Ginger for beers. Reed seems a bit taken aback at first that craft and domestic beers both sell for $13. Both men eventually shrug off the costs as part of the arena experience. “It’s like being at the airport,” Goldman said of his pricey Coors Light.

He is here because his son-in-law – Reed’s brother – has season tickets.

“Portland has a nice (NBA) arena, but this one blows the socks off it,” Goldman says of Golden 1. “Just the view, when you walk in, and the openness – it’s fantastic.”

Pork for the win

That view entices us away from our food tour at moments, like one just before the Kings take the court for their first basketball game in the new arena. We watch and listen as Leah Tysse, who has been introduced as a cancer survivor, sings the national anthem. Tysse hitting a high note inspires a whoop of “Get it!” from behind us. The whooper is a guy resting most of his weight on a cane.

The moment is poignant. But there’s no crying in a basketball food-stall crawl unless precipitated by chopped onions. We already have turned back toward the concourse when Tysse “takes a knee” in support of social justice.

We try Porchetta House, a rotisserie spot named after a specialty of Tuohy, former chef at Sacramento’s Grange and LowBrau. The porchetta sandwich marries tender, expertly seasoned pork roast from Chico’s Rancho Llano Seco with a substantial yet airy bun and is as good as anything we ever have tried at any sports venue.

The $12 “carnitas nachos” and $13 “loaded bacon cheese dog” served at another in-house spot, El Jefe, disappoint. The nachos feature Petaluma Creamery cheese and chunky, very fresh guacamole, but lack snap. The dog, covered in the same rich yet bland-tasting cheese sauce, makes a mess of your face when you bite into it.

Now on the upper concourse level, we move on to the Sierra Nevada Madhouse. Excuse me – Draught House. Though it is sardine-packed and mostly standing room only, people seem really happy there. Perhaps if I shaved 20 years off my age, such activities would make sense.

The Sierra Nevada crowd stands between us and the Mulvaney’s station just beyond it, so we take the long way around. The extra effort to get to Mulvaney’s pays off with a non-bargain but hearty and crisp $13 Fieldwork IPA and the unqualified bargain of our tour: $8 fries covered in deeply flavored red chili featuring fatty chunks of Llano Seco pork.

It was a fitting cap to a night that never required us to make that other kind of concession so common to eating at sports venues. The one in which you settle for an arena hot dog or pizza slice because you lacked the time to grab a bite elsewhere before a game. Golden 1 Center is a legitimate dinner option.

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