By Mark Hasty
GREEN BAY, Wisc. — The Green Bay Packers have more than 80,000 names on their waiting list for season tickets. If ever there was a football team that could get away with concession stands that sold nothing but cold hot dogs and instant coffee made from hot tap water, it would be the Pack. What are you going to do, threaten to cancel your season tickets unless they upgrade the food?
The Packers do care intensely about the fan experience at Lambeau, however. It’s a point of civic pride for the NFL’s only publicly-owned team. The people of Green Bay pride themselves not only on the Packers but on the overall quality of life in Titletown — and they have good reason to be proud.
The food served at Lambeau Field reflects this pride. It’s Leo Dominguez’s job to ensure that every Packer fan, from the luxury suite denizens to the average Joe or Jane in the bleachers, can find something good to eat at Lambeau. Dominguez, Levy Restaurants’ executive chef at Lambeau, oversees a staff of 50 chefs and cooks along with untold servers and support personnel. He and his staff feed not only the fans but the media, the stadium staff, the players and the coaches.
Lambeau Field is a major Wisconsin tourist attraction. With the season ticket wait estimated at more than 900 years, there are a great many Packer fans who have come to accept they will never see a game inside Lambeau. They come anyway, year round, to shop in the Packers Pro Shop, take the stadium tour, visit the Packers Hall of Fame, or just have their pictures taken by the statues of Vince Lombardi and Earl “Curly” Lambeau. Many of them also stop for a beer and a bite at Curly’s Pub, a year-round restaurant and sports bar located inside Lambeau.
Chef Dominguez and I sat down inside Curly’s Pub last week to discuss what goes in to making sure the Packers and their fans get fed. His enthusiasm for his job is palpable and contagious. He described some of the new products offered at Lambeau’s concession stands this year, including a Frickle Burger (a burger topped with cream cheese and deep fried pickle slices) and the Titletown Pile-Up. When Dominguez first mentioned the latter, I envisioned some of that “tall food” that has been trendy in recent years. I was wrong. The Titletown Pile-Up is six minature Johnsonville bratwursts dipped in corn dog batter, deep fried, then skewered and served on a bed of fried cheese curds. That’s Wisconsin for you.
Lambeau is the only NFL stadium that sells more brats than hot dogs, and that shouldn’t surprise you. Dominguez also told me pizza is one of the more popular items at the concession stands though, when he showed me the inside of a typical concession stand, he tapped the handle of a beer tap and said, “Of course, this is our biggest seller.” That’s also Wisconsin for you.
Dominguez also took me on a tour of the club level seating, where the team has recently begun offering in-seat food service. Servers take patrons’ orders and bring the food back, nicely avoiding the lines at the stands. The Packers offer premium food for the club-level patrons, including made-to-order chicken wings with a variety of sauces, international foods, and a rotating menu of regional specialties based on the visiting team’s home city. “New Orleans” — Green Bay’s opening week opponent — “was real easy,” Dominguez joked.
“Minnesota is probably a bit harder,” I offered. (I spent seven years in Minnesota, three of them in the Twin Cities, and never did feel like I found much good to eat.)
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Minnesota and Denver are a little bit tougher.” For what it’s worth, Dominguez was the executive chef at Denver’s Pepsi Center before taking the Lambeau Field job. If he says it’s tough to find foods that say “Denver,” you may safely assume he knows what he’s talking about. You can only eat so many omelettes, after all.
Nothing says Wisconsin quite like a bratwurst, of course, and Dominguez says he had to learn how to fix brats the way Packer fans like them. He told me the brats at Lambeau are grilled first, then simmered in beer and onions. “I learned people in Wisconsin like the brats a little charred on the outside,” he said. This is true. Maybe even beyond true. I’ve manned the grill for at least one charitable brat fry a year for the last nine years. We get people who specifically ask for their brats burnt.
Dominguez also took me inside one of Lambeau’s luxury boxes and described the challenges involved in keeping those high-paying customers satisfied. “They have a menu to choose from and a deadline every week,” he told me. “They might say, ‘Okay, I want brats, I want popcorn, I want sodas, and I want 24 Coronas.’ ” Dominguez and his staff will fill their requests. That sounds reasonable until you find out Lambeau has 176 luxury boxes. If you gave me a staff of 500 I doubt I could get that right.
Still, as persnickety as luxury box holders can be (for the record, Dominguez didn’t complain about them at all; the man must have the patience of a van-load of saints), the team itself has some very specific requests as well. Dominguez works with a Packers nutrition specialist and the team’s strength and conditioning coach to ensure the players get proper nutrition not just on game days but during training camp, minicamps and OTAs. “We try to serve ‘clean’ foods,” he told me. “No marinades, minimal seasonings, stuff like that.” Players have multiple food choices at all meals. When I asked him if the players had any favorites, he gave a surprising answer. “We go through a staggering amount of fresh fruit: bananas, pineapples, and such.” The Packers offer a smoothie station at all meals, which probably explains it. Dominguez also mentioned sushi was a recent, popular addition to the training table and the team has also developed an organic menu.
He didn’t challenge my description of his task as “impossibly diverse.” How could it be otherwise when he has to serve upwards of 70,000 people on game days? Still, it’s one thing to set out food for that many folks. It’s something else entirely to do it well. Just how is the food at Lambeau, anyway?
To find out, Dominguez offered me five selections from the menu at Curly’s Pub. The first was the Baked Macaroni and Beer Cheese (above). Now, beer cheese soup I’d certainly heard of. It’s all over the place in Wisconsin, though it’s hard to find it done well. This was the first time I’d ever heard of macaroni and cheese made with a beer cheese sauce, however.
Dominguez told me the macaroni itself is boiled in beer, then mixed with a sauce made with beer and three cheeses (cheddar, provolone and cream), topped with more cheese and baked. The sheer amount of cheese — it pulled off the plate in long, floppy strings — made me fear that the beer would be undetectable. It wasn’t. The flavor of the beer, which was obviously not low-budget swill, blended so well with the cheese that neither flavor dominated. You’d probably have to run at least a half marathon to burn off the calories from a single serving, but I suspect you would think it was worth it.
Next he offered me the Beer Cheese and Bacon Burger, a standard grilled bar burger topped with Curly’s signature beer cheese spread and two strips of bacon, served on a pretzel roll. The burger was, to my taste, perfectly done — nicely charred and seasoned on the outside, slightly pink but firm and hot inside. The cheese spread on top was simply delicious, a simple blend of little more than beer and cheese according to the chef. The combination of an already-great burger with superior cheese spread, fully crispy bacon and a great roll made this an instant addition to my list of the top five burgers I’ve ever eaten. It may even be the very best. I’d drive to Green Bay just to eat it again, and I live more than two hours away.
I also tried two brats, one a standard brat topped with kraut. Brats are tricky to cook, particularly if you do as Dominguez does and grill them from raw. They’re fatty and prone to flareups which can lead to brats burnt on the outside and still oinking in the middle. That’s why I usually precook mine in beer and onions. The postgrilling simmer is also popular, except I’ve noticed people tend to simmer them too long, leading to a brat which is dry and chewy on the inside.
No such problems with the brats at Lambeau. It was perfectly done, topped with a pile of soft, mild sauerkraut that was imbued with deep flavor. I mentioned to Dominguez how so often the kraut is an afterthought, just dumped out of a can, maybe heated up and maybe not. “You’ve done something to this, though, haven’t you?” I asked, which brought a huge smile from the chef. Even a kraut hater would probably find this kraut unobjectionable; it was just salty and sharp enough to cut the fattiness of the brat without whacking you in the nose with the aroma of fermented cabbage.
The other brat I tried was a new item called the Pigskin Pile-On. That’s a standard brat (they will also make it with a hot dog) topped with pulled pork in barbecue sauce. Dominguez told me the barbecue comes from Saz’s, a Milwaukee-area barbecue institution. I first forked up a little bite of the pork. Typically Upper Midwestern pulled pork isn’t very smoky, is frequently overcooked, and is always over-sauced. The Saz’s meat could have been smokier and I wouldn’t have minded less sauce, though at least Saz’s sauce isn’t so sweet you could serve it over ice cream. The meat, to my surprise, was not overcooked but perfectly done. Very impressive.
But still … pulled pork on a brat? It’s a strange combination and it may not be for everyone, but I liked it. I now believe chocolate syrup and edamame are the only foods I haven’t seen put on top of a brat here in the Badger State.
The two brats also came with sweet potato fries which are made from scratch in Curly’s kitchen. I’ve tried sweet potato fries before but plain ones are, well, plain, while the more creative versions typically add so much cinnamon and sugar that they cross the line from side dish to dessert. The sweet potato fries at Curly’s are lightly battered and seasoned with savory rather than sweet spices. The light hand on the seasoning enhances the natural flavor of the sweet potatoes to a most wonderful extent. They were the best sweet potato fries I’ve ever eaten.
Curly’s offers pot roast both as a dinner and as a sandwich. I tried the sandwich, served on a chewy white roll and topped with gravy and chunks of vegetables. Freshly grated horseradish comes on the side. I first tried the sandwich without it. The meat was tender but not to the point where it couldn’t be sliced. The carrots and onions added to the sandwich’s Sunday-dinner qualities, and the gravy-soaked roll was as delicious as gravy-soaked rolls are meant to be. Adding horseradish made the sandwich come alive. The horseradish was impeccably fresh. That’s important, because grated horseradish grows more pungent as it sits. This horseradish clearly had just met a grater. It had a good earthy punch but wasn’t rocket-hot.
The last thing I tried was the Rockwood Lodge Burger, an item Dominguez told me has been on Curly’s menu since it opened. Taking its name from the Packers’ first dedicated training facility, the burger is topped with cheddar cheese, sauerkraut, and a split and grilled Louisiana hot link sausage. It sounds like, and is, another strange combination, but like the Pigskin Pile-On, it works. The disparate flavors actually complement one another well, though I suspect it would taste just as good with spicy brown mustard in place of the cheese. (Such mustard is on the tables at Curly’s.)
So there you have it. I tried five things and, while I didn’t like them all equally well, I did like them all well enough to say that any sports fans who make a Titletown pilgrimage should try to eat a meal at Curly’s Pub. It would be even better still to taste Dominguez’s tasty grub the way it was meant to be eaten, in front of a roaring football game, but there are only eight home dates per year and you’re not getting tickets without a whole bunch of cash. Curly’s is open almost every day year round (though it is restricted to only ticket holders on home game days until 45 minutes after the game ends) and the least you can expect is that you’ll have a great meal inside one of the most iconic venues in American sport. Like every aspect of the Lambeau experience, the food goes far beyond what the Packers could get away with. We approve.