Bulls and Blackhawks fans might need a life preserver this year or they might drown in the sea of pixels from the United Center’s giant new scoreboard dangling from the ceiling. That’s literally the biggest change to the arena as hockey and basketball returns to the Near West Side. UC officials also made a food and beverage trade, switching out Big Star’s tacos with globally-inspired tacos from Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat).
When United Center brass made the Izard announcement in July, a few Chicago chefs began chatting about the business behind the move. Jonathon Zaragoza’s family runs Birrieria Zaragoza, the beloved taqueria in Archer Heights near Midway International Airport. A Mexican-American, he ignited a conversation about cultural appropriation, questioning why the United Center couldn’t offer the business opportunity to build a taco brand to someone of Mexican descent. Some of the conversation became heated with chefs like Cameron Grant of Logan Square Italian restaurant Osteria Langhe praising Izard’s work ethic and objecting to Zaragoza’s argument. Izard is a Top Chef and Iron Chef champion who’s building an empire of restaurants. An LA location of Girl & the Goat is also on its way.
Minority representation can be a hotly-debated topic. Zaragoza wanted to let the previous discussion stand on its own and said he didn’t want to be quoted for this story. Boka Restaurant Group — Izard’s restaurant partner — has nothing to do with the United Center venture. It’s part of Izard’s This Little Goat enterprise, a company that sells sauces and spice mixes in varieties like “Hong Kong” (“savory notes of soy with a pop of ginger, garlic, and spicy chilies”) and “Yucatán” (“bright citrus meets savory garlic onion and chilies”). The sauces are inspired by Izard’s travels and fans can buy them at the arena.
Fans will find Izard’s tacos different from Big Star’s which used corn tortillas. This Little Goat uses Mission soft flour tortillas. One United Center staffer pointed out that flour tortillas stay fresher longer. There are four taco varieties: Asian short rib (Hong Kong aioli, green papaya slaw), pulled pork (Yucatán marinade, cabbage slaw, pickled red onion, queso fresco), spicy chicken (Korean aioli, cabbage slaw, queso fresco), and veggie (Cuban-spiced onions, red bell peppers, poblanos, squash, shiitakes, pickled Fresno peppers, crispy onions, Korean aioli). It’ll also offer goat empanadas and masa chips with avocado dip.
Izard’s not the first chef to sell sauces at the United Center. Charlie McKenna, the chef/owner of Lillie’s Q in Bucktown, is going into his fifth season at the United Center. He said he’s talked to Izard about her venture and feels her product line, in terms of growth, is where Lillie’s Q barbecue sauces were five years ago.
“She’s using this to get in front of people, which is obviously great,” McKenna said of Izard. “The more people that you can touch, I think the more people that will buy your stuff.”
The United Center waves goodbye to Sweet Baby Ray’s at section 119 and has replaced it with McKenna’s new concept called Fatback. It features brisket sandwiches, hot links, muffulettas, and more.
Big Star and Publican, two restaurants from One Off Hospitality Group, are gone. Links Taproom, the craft beer bar and sausage slingers from Wicker Park, has new space on the main and club levels, plus two locations on the 300 level. They’re serving a bratwurst topped with red cabbage kraut, spicy brown mustards, and chives.
Star pastry chef Mindy Segal is also new to the arena. The chef behind Mindy’s HotChocolate in Bucktown is bringing her cookies and hot chocolate to the club level, and Honey Butter Fried Chicken has bigger signage this year on the main concourse and unveiled a new sandwich with fried chicken strips, spicy honey mayo, and kimchi from chef de cuisine Cam Waron.
Another bit of news comes from Queenie’s Supper Club, the restaurant inside the arena operated in collaboration with Heisler Hospitality (Bad Hunter, Pub Royale). It was a tough season for the restaurant with rocky reviews. They’ve hired veteran Chicago chef Jason Paskewitz to overhaul the menu. Paskewitz was known for his French food at the Blanchard in Lincoln Park and has worked at several restaurants since it closed last year.
The Blackhawks start its regular season home schedule October 10. The Bulls home schedule starts October 26. Stay tuned for a more comprehensive update to the United Center’s dining options.