Reliant Stadium has already hosted a few preseason games this summer, but Sunday will be the first time the Texans play at home this season. Attendees of this game can expect rowdy fans, hot temperatures and great local food.
Yes, great food. Local chefs. At a football stadium.
Gone are the days when your only option at stadium concessions was lukewarm hot dogs and nachos with fluorescent cheese pumped out onto stale corn chips. And though Bud Light is still a favorite of sports fans everywhere, it's no longer your only means of getting booze into your bloodstream.
The Daily Meal recently named Reliant Stadium the third-best stadium in the country for craft beer, and this season it will welcome Chris Shepherd and a mini Underbelly, as well as Bernie's Burger Bus, to the concession lineup.
We spoke to Aramark's general manager for Reliant, Joel Nash, who caught us up on the culinary developments at the stadium.
Nash says that bringing craft beer to Reliant has been increasingly important to him, as craft brews attract larger and more devoted followings. Reliant features a craft beer bar on the club level that will carry eight different beers, rotated on a seasonal basis, including Karbach and Saint Arnold.
"We thought we should capitalize on the growth of the craft beer market," Nash says. "A lot of folks are really happy about it because they can find their beer here now."
Nash explains that on both the club level and the main concourse, the concession areas are designed to mirror one another across the stadium. When designing the concession stands and figuring out where they should be located, Nash said, a priority was making sure that fans would not have to wander around the entire stadium in search of their beer and food choices. Nash wants to make sure that people never have to stray too far from their seats and miss any action on the field.
On the main concourse level, the 50-yard line is marked by brew houses, which carry more than a dozen varieties of bottled and tap beer, including imports like Stella Artois, Negra Modelo and Newcastle Brown Ale. There's also a new fruity beer called Red's Apple Ale, which is similar to a hard cider, and Pine Belt Pale Ale, ideal for gluten-free folks who want to enjoy a brew or two.
One of Nash's favorite recent additions to the stadium's lineup is "brewery fresh" Bud Light and Budweiser, which has a dedicated serving area that can hold ten kegs at a time.
"On Saturday, the brewers pull beer out of the brew tanks, put it in the keg and bring the kegs here, and then we serve it the following day," Nash explains. "That's been a cool concept, to have day-fresh beer."
If beer isn't your thing, Reliant is offering some food that will change the way you think about concession-stand grub. Underbelly's Chris Shepherd, a longtime Texans season ticket holder and badass tailgater, has opened two mini Underbelly stands on either side of the club level. The stands cook up some of Underbelly's most popular dishes, including a roasted pork belly sandwich served in a bao bun with a little bit of hoisin sauce and quick-pickled cucumbers and bratwurst on a pretzel bun. Underbelly favorite Korean braised goat and dumplings is already on the radar of a Korean reporter, who is apparently visiting the stadium soon to do a story about the fact that people can now get Korean food at a national stadium.
The best thing about Underbelly's foray into concessions is that the prices have remained very similar to what one might pay at the restaurant. A bottle of water will still set you back $4.25, but you can get a serving of braised goat and dumplings for only $13.75. Sure beats concession stand pizza.
Unlike Underbelly, which is available only to people with club tickets, Bernie's Burger Bus has set up shop in the main concourse concession area in between Aramark brands.
"We couldn't bring the bus in here, obviously, so we built a kitchen for Justin [Turner, the chef] here," Nash explains. "Justin and his crew have full cooking capabilities and a menu with three different burgers, french fries and their homemade ketchup. It's literally just like getting the burgers out of his bus." Only there's no bus, which is still a little sad, if logistically impossible.
Bernie's has already been flinging burgers for a few preseason games, and so far the reception has been great.
"It's been a huge success," Nash says. "People love it. Everything's still made to order. He's still back there preparing the orders as they're placed, and the prices remain competitive to the food truck prices."
Though the rest of Aramark's concessions and partners don't have the local flair of Underbelly or Bernie's, Nash says they do their best to maintain high quality and make delicious food, even at a stadium. Maui Wowi offers fresh-fruit smoothies for those looking for healthier concession options, as well as boozy smoothies for those who want to pretend they're being healthy while getting tipsy. Quiznos sells sandwiches and salads, providing a rare bit of green among the sea of junk food. Nash tells us the stadium has also welcomed Bavarian soft pretzels recently (YUM), in addition to more Grady Speer's barbecue and carving stations than ever. 'Cause it wouldn't be football in Texas without barbecue.
What's in store next at Reliant? Nash says they're waiting to see how the new additions do this year, but he's definitely interested in continuing to bring local businesses into the stadium.
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"I don't know if you'd call it a trend, but stadiums are trying to bring in that local flavor, because that's what the fans are looking for, and it adds that great variety to the concessions," Nash says. "Food and beverage is something that I think is so linked to NFL events and any sport event. And if you don't have great food or beverage products, it does diminish it a little bit."
While Nash acknowledges that better food in the stands doesn't translate to a better performance on the field, he does note that the Texans love Bernie's Burger Bus. He also says that no matter how the football team does, the concession team tries to be a hit with the crowd.
"I tell my employees all the time that we don't control what happens on the field," Nash explains. "We're not football players. What we control is the experience the fans have when they come and visit us at our food and beverage outlets. Just like the Texans want to be the best on the playing field, we want to be the best at what we do."
Sounds like they're on the right track. We're already one of the top beer stadiums in the country, and if we keep adding local flavor to Reliant, our food reputation ought to be top-notch, too. 'Cause really, what could be better than cheering on the home team over a foaming pint of Karbach and a steaming bowl of goat and dumplings?