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Stadium Eats: The best (and worst) food at Staples Center

This story is part of Stadium Eats, an ongoing series that explores the best (and worst) food at sports stadiums across California.

Staples Center may have opened in 1999, but it’s never lost that new-car feel. This is a fancy arena. Perhaps that’s because of the sheer number of celebrities who pass through its glass doors on a weekly basis. Maybe the center has somehow absorbed the cachet of the many famous faces who sit courtside. Whatever the reason, a concert or a game at Staples — home of the Kings, Lakers, Clippers and Sparks — feels like a special occasion.

Exhibit A: Staples Center has its own signature cocktail, which changes with the season (it will be available during the NBA/NHL 2021-22 season). The drink costs $15, is served in a proper glass and is made with top-shelf liquor. The current libation is called the California Poppy, and it’s the color of a Hawaiian sunset. The drink is a mix of Absolut Elyx, Greenbar Distillery Poppy Amaro, elderflower and pomegranate syrup. It’s topped with an orange juice floater, for the full sunset effect. It will make you feel like fleeing the concrete jungle and seeking refuge on a tropical beach somewhere. It will also get you tipsy enough to yell just a little louder for your favorite team.

What follows is a guide to the best things to eat (and drink) at the arena.

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Eat (and drink) this

Deli & Dash French dip sandwich, $16

The Deli & Dash French Dip sandwich from Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

For years, there was a stand at the Forum called the Whistle Stop that sold beef dip sandwiches. When the Lakers moved from the Forum to Staples in 1999, some fans were concerned about the fate of their favorite sandwich.

“Before Staples Center opened, fans were already requesting that we sell the beef dip,” Michael Roth, vice president of communications for AEG/Staples Center, wrote in an email. When Staples Center President Lee Zeidman, who was previously general manager at the Forum, opened the arena, he brought the beef dip sandwich with him.

You can sometimes find the sandwich at different concession stands around the arena, but it’s always at Deli & Dash. It’s a less salty version of the classic Philippe sandwich, served hot on a soft roll with a condiment-size cup of jus and a bag of chips. The meat is tender and satisfying in a way cold cuts will never be. And the sandwich is even better with a squeeze of yellow mustard.

Salt & Char nuggets, $10

The Salt and Char chicken nuggets from Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

In a blind taste test, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between these nuggets and the ones from that restaurant with the golden arches. They’re hot, crispy and shaped appropriately like blobs. These are good nuggets.

California Poppy cocktail, $15

The California Poppy cocktail from Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

The aforementioned cocktail is well balanced and aesthetically pleasing, and is light-years better than what I’m used to drinking at any game: a vodka soda served in a plastic cup with a wedge of dry lime. You can find the California Poppy at the Figueroa Bar, Harbor Bar, Golden Road Brew House, Buss Stop, Cooke’s Corner and San Manuel Club. And while we’re talking about beverages, if you’re more of a beer person, there are many varieties on tap at the Golden Road Brew House.

The Ludo Bird dark meat fried chicken sandwich from Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Anything and everything at LudoBird, $3.50-$13.50
It’s difficult for me to recommend anything at Staples other than chef Ludo Lefebvre’s fried chicken. It’s not that the other offerings are subpar. It’s just that the LudoBird stand serves excellent fried chicken that happens to be inside Staples Center. The chicken strips here are plumper than most, surrounded by a crisp, craggy crust. The chicken is seasoned liberally with salt and what tasted like dried rosemary and thyme (it’s Herbs de Provence and Maldon salt). One of the best things about LudoBird is that you have the option of ordering white or dark meat (strips are white meat; bites are dark meat). If you want a thigh in your fried chicken sandwich instead of a breast, it’s doable. White or dark, the chicken is juicy (when you tear a piece open, there is actual juice drippage). Lefebvre also is making wide-as-your-palm and thin-as-paper potato chips. They are superb on their own and even better dunked into some of the “spicy bird sauce,” a tangy, almost spicy pink aioli.

The Ludo Bird chicken bites from Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Not this

Salt & Char double cheeseburger, $13

The Salt and Char double cheeeburger from Staples Center.
The Salt and Char double cheeseburger from the Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Why do most restaurants call versions of Thousand Island dressing “special sauce” or “burger sauce” or simply “pink sauce?” Why not call it what it is? The “secret sauce” on the double cheeseburger at the Salt & Char stand is definitely a form of Thousand Island dressing. The only problem? There isn’t nearly enough of it!

At first glance, the burger looks as if it came straight out of a high school cafeteria: There’s a slightly mangled bun, two dry meat patties and two squares of not-quite-melted, off-center American cheese. A lot of extra sauce would help but wouldn’t save it.

The Outtake chef's sushi sampler from Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Outtakes chef’s sushi sampler, $34.75
I am not someone who eats grocery store sushi (if we’re talking Japanese market sushi, that’s in another category and delicious). There’s something about getting my sushi in a plastic container from a deli case — an arm’s length from a package of everything-bagel chips and sliced Jarlsberg cheese — that ruins it for me. And when sushi sits, even for a few minutes after the fish is sliced and draped over the seasoned rice, it starts to get cold and hard.

The same principle goes for sports arena sushi. If this sounds appealing to you, there are actual sushi chefs making maki and nigiri at the Outtakes grab-and-go stand. If you go this route, try to grab a container as close as you can to when the chef tops it with a plastic lid. The sushi isn’t bad, but by the time you get back to your seat, it has turned into grocery store sushi. The rice is hard; the fish is rubbery. You might want to get sushi at one of the many bars in Little Tokyo before the game instead.

Dave’s Doghouse mac and cheese dog, $10.50

The Dave's Doghouse mac n cheese dog from Staples Center.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Carbs on carbs can be a tricky textural situation. Mac and cheese on a pizza? Blasphemy. Mac and cheese on a hot dog? The allure is debatable.

The hot dogs at Dave’s Doghouse were dreamed up by Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin. The concept is to take an average stadium offering and elevate it. Instead of a crumbly hot dog bun, Citrin uses split, buttered brioche rolls meant to hold chunks of lobster. Did I mention the buttery part? After the first bite, your hands will be slick with grease. This is not a knock, just a warning to grab the appropriate number of napkins. A sausage in this gourmet bun is quite enjoyable. Top it with mac and cheese and chopped bacon, and it’s gone from gourmet to gimmick. Next time, I’ll order the dog and stick with mustard.


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