The Zamboni machine was smoothing down the ice, ThunderBug was working the kinks out of his antennae and up in one of the club sections a small group was previewing the important stuff for Thursday night's Tampa Bay Lightning season opener at the Tampa Bay Times Forum — this year's new arena food.
Executive chef Rich Mathis and team brought out an array of new options, some from new vendors, some additions to existing kiosks. The most fragrant was a Sea Dog Brewing blueberry wheat, one of 14 beer options at the new World of Beer concession. WOB will offer four familiar domestic beers, 10 craft (including hometown favorite Cigar City Jai Alai), six canned options and five premium 25-ounce bottlings. As the Tampa Bay area has come to be synonymous with craft beer, it's a savvy move to showcase the local product over those biggies from Milwaukee or St. Louis.
To go with the new suds, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Delaware North Companies Sportservice welcome Danny Hernandez's Holy Hog BBQ to the Bud Light Party Deck. With two other locations in South Tampa, Holy Hog will offer Texas-style brisket and pulled pork sandwiches, barbecued sausage manwiches (tasty, but not sure what makes them masculine beyond being smothered with beer-braised onions and peppers) and "holy hattrick" sliders.
Hernandez is a master at brisket, so it was no surprise that the brisket sandwich, as well as the pulled pork, provided a satisfying balance of smoke, heat and juiciness, paired with a ramekin of spunky coleslaw. The meats are offered as a trio sampler ($13.50). Although the tasters didn't get a preview, jalapeno mac and cheese and corn fritters sound like inventive additions as well.
In Section 123 on the promenade level, Irish standby Four Green Fields is a newcomer at the Times Forum, offering its signature beer-battered cod riding atop a large portion of fries ($12.25), a solid option that doesn't stray too far from what you'd taste at the Platt Street original.
The only head-scratcher in the tasting was a new option from existing concession Newks: a pile of waffle-cut fries drizzled with a creamy crab sauce (what they called a remoulade) and melted cheese ($8.50). The sog will roll in before you get back to your seats with these. Newks did have a winner, though, with a passel of sweet, crunchy coconut shrimp served atop more waffle fries and paired with a ramekin of sweet-and-sour sauce ($12.25).
And in the how-could-this-be-a-bad-idea category, Dock Side Dogs on the promenade level near Section 109 wins big time for this year's addition: the hog-tied dog, wrapped in bacon with melted cheese and onion frizzles ($7.50). It was true to that old axiom: Bacon does make everything better.
Mathis enumerated the new options in the expensive seats, things like a trio of egg mousse au naturel with truffle, Mote Marine sturgeon caviar and warm-water lobster, and listed an array of gluten-free options (including a gluten-free beer; who knew?) for the growing segment of the population that tries to avoid gluten. The fancy seats can keep their duck confit if we get the bacon dog and the manwiches.