Popcorn and lobster rolls rule at Smart Financial Centre
By: Ken Hoffman, Houston Chronicle
Let's take some time out to consider the biggest problem facing Greg King, executive chef at the new Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land.
Because that's the only timeout he'll get - and that's his problem.
While his counterparts at Toyota Center, NRG Stadium and Minute Maid Park get plenty of breaks in the action to restock shelves, prepare new waves of hot dogs and fries, and most important, take a deep breath … King doesn't have that luxury.
Consider Rockets games at Toyota Center. Teams get a combined 14 timeouts during a Rockets game (which is ridiculous). Plus, there are breaks after the first quarter, halftime and third quarter. Don't forget referees' reviews and promos to reveal Calvin Murphy's wardrobe selection of the night. The last two minutes of a game can take 20 minutes, most of it filled with breaks. So there's plenty of opportunity for fans to make beer and food runs without missing a James Harden Euro step layup.
Texans games at NRG Stadium are filled with team timeouts, breaks after the first quarter, halftime and third quarter and TV timeouts. The clock stops after incomplete passes, which in Houston … nah, I'm not going on a Brock Osweiler rant here. Fans have all the time they need to reload on beer and food.
Astros games at Minute Maid Park have breaks after every half-inning, pitching changes, arguments with the umpire, official reviews and hitters stepping out of the batter's box to scratch themselves. It's a wonder that fans don't leave the ballpark 5 pounds heavier than when they arrived.
Chef King has no such luck at Smart Financial Centre. His venue hosts music and standup comedy concerts almost exclusively, and when Sting or Jerry Seinfeld take the stage, they don't call for a TV timeout so fans can leave their seats and go grab a hot dog. Singers play straight through. If you got hungry, or needed a bathroom break, you risked missing Sting sing "Every Breath You Take," the prettiest song ever about a diabolical stalker.
"Our doors open at 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show, so I have one hour of crunch time to push $10,000 worth of food product across the counter," said King. "It can get pretty hectic. That's why we need highly trained people back in the kitchen and working the counters to get things done fast and accurately. It's like a chaotic symphony with a lot of moving parts."
Toyota Center doesn't offer a full menu of food when it hosts a concert. It's simple, concert fans don't eat as much as sporting-event fans. There just isn't time.
King said he prepared the Smart Financial Centre menu with his 7-8 p.m. rush hour in mind. He can take his time slow-smoking pork belly all night in back of the building, but once people start pouring into the Centre, everything must operate at warp speed. Last week, I made my first taste-testing loop around the Smart Financial Centre concession area. Like those GEICO commercials, it's what I do.
Do you want the good news or bad news first?
OK, the good news. They have lobster rolls at Smart Financial Centre! I've never seen those at a concert or comedy show.
"We make them with a lot of fresh Maine lobster and just a little mayonnaise and a little bit of love," King said.
They're really good and the real deal, none of that langostino nonsense from the drive-through or pollock fish sticks with lobster flavoring you find in supermarkets. Smart Financial Centre's lobster rolls are served on a hot dog bun (as they should be), and they're $16, so choose carefully.
King is still waiting for some equipment in his permanent kitchen to be installed. In the meantime, he's cooking like crazy in a tent behind the building.
"Our new kitchen will be top of the line. Most chefs will be envious of my Combi ovens. The kitchen has been designed to not only provide food for the concessions, but also backstage catering needs," King said.
So far, the favorite items with guests at Smart Financial Centre have been organic popcorn, potato chips tossed in duck fat, pretzels with Budweiser beer cheese dipping sauce and Beer Can Chicken Nachos.
Really, popcorn is No. 1 … at pop concerts?
"Absolutely, we're selling 500-600 boxes of popcorn a night. I have a guy who does nothing but make popcorn back in the kitchen," King said. Popcorn is $6 a box.
King has a Sliders Trio. One mini burger is made with brisket, another with Beer Can Chicken and the last with pulled pork. That's the order in which I ate them. I'm a rule-follower, people-pleaser. I actually preferred them in reverse order, though; pulled pork is the best. They're $12.
The Duck Fat Kettle Chips are over the top, $6. Beer Can Chicken Nachos are big, $11. "Most of our guests are coming here for the first time, and first impressions are everything. I have to blow their doors off so they'll want to come back and try other things," King said.
Wrapping up the good news, King is one of those obsessive chefs we all appreciate. He takes his job seriously, and you're getting real food prepared fresh with care. It's not a movie theater candy counter. King has a pretty tall mountain to climb. Smart Financial Centre can hold 6,500 guests, and feeding them all within an hour can be knuckle-wringing time. But he gets it done. So far, no riots at the popcorn stand.
Now the bad news, as promised. I asked for a hot dog. It's a Nathan's Famous all-beef hot dog, no problem there. But it came with bright yellow mustard. Unacceptable. I kept my composure, but promised/threatened an absolute fit if they don't have Gulden's Spicy Brown Mustard on my next visit. I'm a delicate flower. Let's see how much juice I still have in this town.
Continue reading here.