Just as the Oklahoma City Thunder prepares to fine-tune and supercharge its game for the NBA playoffs, so, too, are the folks who feed the fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Two teams take on the tall task of tickling the taste buds of Thunderheads. On the first floor you'll find Center Court Grill, operated by venue management giant SMG. Executive chef Andrew Murin can't even count how many menus he's in charge of.
“That's what I do in the summer,” he said. “Count menus.”
The centerpiece of his operation is the Center Court Grill, which has a capacity of more than 250 people and opens 2½ hours before home games.
“We take reservations,” Murin said. “And they go pretty fast.”
The menu leans toward barbecue. Murin said the space was nearly occupied by Iron Starr Urban BBQ, so when SMG took on the opportunity, the upscale smokehouse concept was preserved.
At 5:30, Murin unveils a buffet at the Center Court Carvery, adjacent to the Grill. The Carvery includes a carving station with two meat options and an assortment of salads, potatoes, vegetables and breads. A carved sandwich option with one side also is available, for those looking for something quick. The buffets change nightly. The night I visited, it included roasted vegetables and mushroom risotto along with plenty of appetizing gourmet snack foods.
Across the hallway is the Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Club, which features bar food favorites, beer, cocktails and the team-color-tinged Thunderita. The Old No. 7 Club opens a half-hour before game time and closes an hour past the end of the game.
The restaurant is open throughout the game, but it clears out pretty quick at tipoff. The food is cooked in house and made from fresh ingredients.
“About 95 percent of what we serve is made from scratch on the premises,” Murin said. “And our goal is to hit 12-minute ticket times.”
That means you'll get full-service food at a pace closer to a fast-casual eatery so you don't have to worry about missing the start of the game.
Folks on the Club Level are cared for by Levy Restaurants, one of the nation's largest and most successful hospitality companies.
Levy's trademark is its dessert cart. A dessert cart for the ages, made of 100 percent teakwood, it has a built-in ice cream maker and is routinely topped with stunning desserts to fit every conceivable sugarcoated predilection.
But there's more to the table as prepared by chef Collins Idehen. His roster of fan-friendly fare includes a hot dog the size of a baseball bat, a chicken-fried sandwich for four and, in time for the playoffs, a trio of sandwiches in cone-shaped bread.
“The players are gearing up, and so are we,” Collins announced behind a smile as striking as Kevin Durant's stroke.
The conewiches come in Thunder Trail, a play on the classic Club Sandwich; Saucy Chicken, which is in the Buffalo chicken family; and Blue Pit BBQ, which is stuffed with wood-smoked barbecue.
But the best value is the chicken-fried steak sandwich for four, which includes jalapeno slaw, sliced tomatoes and a side of sausage gravy. Rather than going for a hubcap-shaped sandwich, Collins' version is a two-foot-long hoagie-style sandwich, the chicken-fried beef cutlets cut in fingers for a more fan-friendly interpretation.
“One-handed food is what we strive for,” said Joe Guthrie, Levy's director of operations at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Fans on the Club Level also will find the regular hand-carved sandwiches and Big Thunder Burger as well as made-to-order options in the Sunset Club.
Floor level and home
On floor level, Levy ramps up its Star Chefs program, inviting chefs Kurt Fleischfresser and David Henry of The Coach House, who serve gourmet items starting two hours before the game. There will be a third guy of little note who types better than he sautes, and he's a dead ringer for whose mug is attached to this story.
A couple weeks ago, that same low-rent hired hand helped chef Fleischfresser cater Thabo Sefolosha's “A Night for Africa” charity event. From a perch in the kitchen, it was easy to see these Thunder players are a hungry lot. If they treat the Rockets like the buffet table at the spectacular home of Steve and Tina Dobson, the only thing that will be left of the Rockets will be the remnants of James Harden's beard, which I can't imagine is too appetizing.
Seriously, what a cool crew of hoopsters our Thunder players are. They helped raise more than $250,000 to help South African children in need.
If you're thinking of Thundering up at the hacienda for this year's playoffs, here's a reissue of last year's Pork Thunderloin Sliders. This one took the Thunder to the NBA Finals last year but lost steam in South Beach. So gobble up this sandwich at home for the early stages, but if the Thunder makes it back to the precipice of world domination, rest assured we will have something new and voodoo-resistant for the home stretch.
Pork Thunderloin Sliders
3 pork tenderloins
¾ cup vegetable oil
3 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons fresh cracked black pepper
1 cup Carolina-style barbecue sauce (recipe follows) or your favorite bottled barbecue sauce
¼ cup sweet and spicy pork rub (recipe follows)
½ cup pineapple mop (recipe follows)
1 cup Yakitori glaze (recipe follows)
½ cup Ponzu mop (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons nanami tokorashi (Asian chili spice)
• Set two tenderloins aside on a platter. Rub the third with the sweet and spicy pork rub until well-coated. Add to the platter.
• Prepare a barbecue grill for both direct and indirect heat grilling, preferably with flame at least six inches from surface. A wood or charcoal fire with plenty of grill clearance is preferred.
• Sear the tenderloins over direct heat for 1 minute on all sides.
• Once each side has been seared, brush one with Carolina sauce, one with Ponzu mop, and the tenderloin with the sweet and spicy pork rub with a pineapple mop.
• Grill again 1 minute on each side, mopping or saucing with each turn. You'll want to repeat this process twice, which is about 8 minutes of cooking.
• The Carolina sauce will be caramelized by now and crust formed on the other two. Brush all sides again and move over indirect heat and close lid. Now use your Yakitori glaze over the tenderloin you've mopped with Ponzu. Roast an extra 10 to 15 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 155 degrees. If you don't have a lid, cover with foil.
• Remove tenderloins and let stand 5 to 10 minutes. The pork still will be cooking. If sliced too soon, the flavor-carrying juices within will be lost.
• Carve and serve on bread with slaw and extra sauce.
½ cup soybean oil or vegetable oil
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup prepared yellow mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Louisiana or Tabasco hot sauce
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Sweet and spicy
½ cup ground mild red chile such as ancho (you may substitute chile powder)
½ cup paprika
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup sea salt
3 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons ground coriander seed, toasted
2 tablespoons ground cumin seed, toasted
2 tablespoons ground tellicherry pepper, toasted
1-2 teaspoons chile de arbol or cayenne pepper
1 cup pineapple juice
½ cup apple cider vinegar
A few shakes of Louisiana-style hot sauce
A few grinds of fresh-ground black pepper
2 cups sake
2 cup soy sauce
1½ cups mirin
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup light brown sugar
1½ teaspoons grated ginger
1 teaspoon chili paste or sambal oelek, optional
1 cup soy sauce
Juice of 2 lemons
2 teaspoons sambal oelek
2 scallions, minced
1 teaspoon sesame oil
• Combine all ingredients in a glass jar and mix thoroughly. Allow to set at least 30 minutes.