How American Airlines Arena is winning the food game.
American Airlines Arena has long been the site of South Florida’s top entertainment attractions, including concerts, the circus and, of course, the Miami Heat. But the waterfront venue has focused on a different element over the past few years: food! Now, AAA’s dining options are unlike any other stadium in the area or, arguably, the country.
In August 2014, AAA brought on Executive Chef Rufino Rengifo (hot off a gig as corporate executive chef of Celebrity Cruises) to expand on the food upgrades it had already set in motion. Rengifo appreciated the arena’s concept of providing more than beer and nachos, but he envisioned something even bigger. “My vision was to feature what’s happening in Miami,” he explains. “I wanted to do something that is all about the food story that is happening in the 305.”
The chef began with an overhaul of concessions, bringing in local favorites such as Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co., Pride and Joy BBQ, Chicken Ciao and Pincho Factory. The restaurants share their recipes, and the arena staff executes them after receiving on-site training at the original locations.
Patrons can choose from dishes such as hand-breaded fried chicken (with waffles and Sriracha maple syrup, if you desire) from Chicken Ciao; the three-meat patty from Pincho Factory (which won the 2015 South Beach Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash); smoked wings from Pride and Joy (cooked outside in the stadium’s on-site smoker); or an “elevated Cuban sandwich” from Little Bread (made with homemade bread, pork and mustard caviar). “We even have Indian food,” Rengifo says, explaining how one of the arena’s vendors went from serving ice cream to cooking the food of his home country after the chef encouraged him to do so.
On the 300 Level is another unique concession: Blue Moon Bar, which features dishes cooked with Blue Moon beer that perfectly pair with the brew. The must-try item is the Miami Mofongo, with smashed plantains, mojo pork and jicama slaw. The dish has become so popular, Rengifo jokes, “If we changed the Mofongo, we’d have a riot.”
The foodie revamp at Heat games goes well beyond concessions. The venue now has three full-scale restaurants, including the Dewar’s Clubhouse, Hyde and the Grey Goose Flagship Lounge. Each location offers a unique viewing and dining experience: Dewar’s provides an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet with membership; Hyde is touted as “the ultimate nightlife experience,” offering cocktails and dinner before transforming into a nightclub during the fourth quarter; and the Flagship is a VIP-only affair, reserved only for the best seat holders for each game. Rengifo upped the ante this year at the Flagship by establishing takeover partnerships with local restaurants such as Quality Meats, The Forge and Red The Steakhouse. “I wanted to be the facilitator to bring chefs in to cook with us and elevate the game,” he says.
The response to the food expansion has literally been a game changer. “Previously patrons would have eaten before coming,” Rengifo says. “But now, the food options are so diverse and everything is local, they’ll happily eat dinner here.”