I found my way to the Volunteer state and its largest city of Nashville to check out hockey in the mid-South and some really great eats. 

As I travel across America, it’s not often I find myself watching hockey live.  It’s a great sport, one that I have a tremendous respect for.  The players are hard-working, physical and very humble, quotable athletes.  It just so happened on my trip that the Predators of the NHL were in town hosting the lowly Edmonton Oilers. 

Bridgestone Arena sits in the heart of the city and serves as the home to the Preds.  A very spartan like building, it was built back in the late 90’s and was about half full on the evening.  But as we know, I’m wasn’t here to check out the game, but sample what’s good to eat and I have to tell you I was surprised at what I found.

In addition to the regular stadium ‘fare’ the Arena serves, the people at Bridgestone have some very unique offerings to keep fans from being hungry.  I was lucky enough to get a 1st class tour from Tom Gallo, the General Manager for Sports Service who runs the food & beverage operations here.

A native of Boston, Gallo directed me to some pretty interesting places where fans can get their grub on.  What was most interesting about all the different stands was the fact that Food Network has a booth where fans can chow down on some really great offerings.

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The Food Network people were really great to work with,’ said Gallo.  “They got together with our test kitchen chefs and put together a really great menu.’  And it really is.  There are two of these booths in the building.  One on the 1st level and a 2nd stand in the club section. 

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My 1st selection was a Ricotta Herb Meatball Hero served over sautéed spinach and a side of red cabbage slaw.  Folks, I have to say I fell in love from the 1st bite.  ‘We buy local pork and make the meatballs on site,’ offered Gallo.  ‘Its all done fresh and you can taste it in the food.’  Bursting with flavor, the bread and spinach compliment the meatball and sauce in what was a great meal for $9.  This next item is one I have not seen before in a stadium or arena.

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You don’t think Mac & Cheese when it comes to sports.  Hot dogs, burgers, nachos are the standard.  But Food Network has taken this classic American comfort food and turned the volume up past 10 with a Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese that his hot, tasty and nothing short on flavor.  The cheddar cheese has great bite and the bread crumb topping is actually mixed with blue cheese and baked on to give it another level of flavor.  The chicken is tender and not dry in the least.  “It’s cold inside the hockey arena,’ Gallo said.  “Fans can get something hot like this and it warms you up fast while watching the game.”  The Mac sells for $8. 

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The sandwich above was another home run at the Food Network stand, retailing for $9 is a Short Rib Sandwich that was nothing short on taste.  Braised on site, the meat is cubed and very tasty.  “We don’t trim much of the fat off the meat,’ Gallo quipped ‘And I’m not disappointed about it actually.’  Good point as the fat doesn’t take away from the overall flavor the sandwich offers.  Covered in shredded cheddar and onion crisps, it’s another option fans have to sample when hitting this very unique stand. 

As is the case in most cities, there is usually some sort of ‘local’ food that the natives can gobble up keep happy. 

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What the Primanti sandwich is to Pittsburgh and the cheese steak is to Philadelphia, ‘Hot Chicken’ is a Nashville staple.  Normally served in ‘shacks’ found all over the city, the chicken is usually bone-in but at Bridgestone Arena, they go with a boneless chicken strip that is first coated in a wet marinade, then dredged lightly in flower, deep-fried and then hit with a seasoning after a dip in the hot oil.  Served over a slice of white bread, it had big taste and won me over quickly.  With fries, it $8.50 and worth every red cent.

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Hunt Brothers Pizza is based in Nashville and has made its first venture into the sports arena market for the 1st time in the company’s history.  Normally found in gas stations through the mid west, (6,500 locations) Hunt Brothers doesn’t excite you at first.  I’ve seen their pizza in gas stations across Ohio & Kentucky and have never actually eaten it.  When you first bite into the slice, the crust holds up well.  The sauce isn’t too sweet and the pepperoni is quite spicy and will only set you back $5.25 for a slice.

Now if you have followed this blog, you know that I enjoy a good hot dog while at a game.  This next item takes that experience to a completely different level.

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Known as ‘The Enforcer’ and priced at $10, this is no ordinary hot dog folks.  Bring an appetite if you order this one.  And a friend to help eat it because it goes beyond the normal hot dog experience. 

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Its only served on the lower level of the arena and there are only about 25-30 made per game.  It’s an all-beef dog wrapped in bacon, covered in cole slaw and set over a bed of baked beans.  If that weren’t enough, it’s also blanketed in pulled pork and topped with a tangy BBQ sauce.   I can’t begin to tell you how great this tastes.  You would think with so much going on,  sensory overload sets in, but the dog has great flavor and will fill you up fast. 

For the most part, when I go somewhere I’m not sampling the club sections, but Mr. Gallo was kind enough to give me the 10 cent tour.  One the 2nd level of Bridgestone Arena is a place called the “All Inclusive Zone” 

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The ticket will set you back $128, but it is overlooking the ice in the Nashville Predators attack twice end.  The All-Inclusive Zone includes all you can eat and drink (including draft beer, wine, soda and water) with food that is anything but ordinary.  Levy Restaurants manages the club area and Mark Lloyd is the Executive Chef in charge.  He told me the food changes from game to game and that they work with local vendors to bring in fresh produce, meats and others products.  The sweets table below is one good example of that.

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‘We work with a number of area minority based companies and offer them a chance to get their product out in front of a new audience,’ said Lloyd.  “One of the ones I like is Nashville Chocolate, who does a ‘Death by Chocolate’ that I love.”

Levy also runs The Patron Platinum Club inside Bridgestone Arena and is found in the Club section. 

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It is unique in that for each event, Lloyd plans a different menu.  For this particular evening, patrons could sample from four distinct items including Roasted Garlic Top Round and Grilled Garlic Chicken from their ‘Farm to Fork’ menu.  There was an Asian Table, Seafood and a Barbecue station.

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‘We want to hit you with that WOW factor when you come in,’ Lloyd told me.  “We use food as a visual to get you ready to eat.’  And it works, as these stands offer not just a refined atmosphere, but an escape from the norm. 

Overall, my time at Bridgestone Arena was well spent.  Despite the Oliers handing the host Predators a 4-0 loss, I can honestly say it was an experience that I won’t soon forget and if you come down this way, bring an appetite because there is more to choose from than you might expect. 

John Phillips is a weekend talk show host and sports update anchor for Sports Radio 93.7 The Fan and the creator of ‘Food & Games.’  To see where JP’s been and where he’s going, check out his blog at www.foodandgamestv.ning.com 

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