The best and worst food at Capital One Arena

The best and worst food at Capital One Arena


As the saying goes, the show must go on. Or, in the case of Capital One Arena, the games, concerts and monster truck shows must go on, regardless of the announced plans to move the Washington Wizards and Capitals to a proposed new site in Alexandria, with all the amenities and taxpayer-funded facilities that a billionaire owner could want.

Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Ted Leonsis, founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, parent company of the Caps and Wizards, announced a nonbinding agreement to move the teams to the Potomac Yard neighborhood in Alexandria by 2028. But that’s still four long years away, and there are many obstacles to overcome before that becomes a reality.

In the meantime, despite the crime and the ongoing aftershocks of the pandemic on the streets around Cap One Arena, the only thing for certain is that the Capitals and Wizards still have games to play, which means that fans still have stomachs to fill. Which means that I still have a job to do: give you a sense of what’s worth eating in an arena where a burger and fries will cost you $24.99 at one notable stand.

But first, a word of caution: If you’re attending an event other than a Capitals or Wizards game, you won’t have access to the stands licensed by some of the most popular restaurants in the D.C.-Baltimore region, including Chiko, Federalist Pig, Bun Papa and Stuggy’s. In other words, if you’re going to a Nicki Minaj concert or a Georgetown basketball game, you might find yourself forced to feast on the generic fare at District Grill, Federal Favorites or some other stand crafted by Aramark, the concessionaire for the arena.

And now, on with the show …

The bulgogi loaded tots at Chiko: Served in a branded box, the tots themselves are standard-issue stuff, though that’s no diss in my little corner of the world. When hot and crispy, tots are manufactured junk food at its finest. Chefs Danny Lee and Scott Drewno, the masterminds behind Chiko, have put a Korean twist on their loaded tots ($15.79). They layer soy-marinated beef, kimchi cheese and scallions over those spud cylinders. Their dish isn’t finger food, exactly, but it is everything you want in arena fare: rich, over the top and completely slammable. You can safely skip their garlic sticky ribs ($15.99), which I found fatty, overly sauced and an utter mess to eat.

Chiko is located in Section 106.

The cheese and pepperoni pizzas from Tonari: It’s not easy to find these pies. They’re part of a shop dubbed the eXchange, located on the 200 level, where you can buy snacks, beer, canned cocktails, and these surprisingly elegant pan pizzas from the Daikaya Group, the same company responsible for Bantam King and the Sapporo-style ramen shops Daikaya and Haikan. Tonari is Daikaya’s first foray into wafu cuisine, or Japanese-style Italian cooking. Unlike at its restaurant on Sixth Street NW, Tonari only sells two pies ($23.99 each) at Cap One, both built with Hokkaido flour imported from Sapporo, Japan, then baked fresh in a TurboChef oven. The crust is the selling point — light, ethereal and airy, though delightfully crackly around the edges. It’s as if tempura batter and focaccia dough moved to Detroit and had a baby. It’s the best pizza you’ll find at any sports complex in our region.

Tonari is located inside the eXchange in Section 214.

The Old Bay wings at DMV Wings: My expectations for this stand were lower than the Wizards’ standing in the Eastern Conference. Its generic name was the first warning sign. So was the box of Tysons fully cooked “chicken wing sections” that sat on the counter. After I ordered the Old Bay wings ($16.99), I watched the counterman pluck the specimens from a warming unit. I had no idea how long they had been sitting there. But from the first bite, I was sold. The wings were warm; the skin provided that essential crackle, so inexplicably satisfying. Unlike their barbecue or Buffalo cousins, which come slathered in sauce, these wings were merely sprinkled with the celebrated seasoning, delivering that unmistakable mix of heat, sweetness and celery. This is bar food that has made a successful transition to the big time.

DMV Wings is located in Section 119.

The signature cheeseburger with fries at Swizzler: My affection for Swizzler is well-documented, whether at its shop on First Street SE or at its outposts at FedEx Field and Nationals Park. Swizzler co-founders Jesse Konig and Ben Johnson have clearly figured out how to translate their burger experience into sports stadiums and arenas, no small feat given the logistical and technical issues that vendors can encounter when moving into a corporate food-service environment. Their signature cheeseburger ($24.99 with fries) is outrageously priced, but your return on investment is high: The flavor of the grass-fed burger is almost too refined for the hyperkinetic setting of Cap One Arena, where you’re never given a moment’s peace to stop and smell the burger.

Swizzler is located in Sections 120 and 413.

The poutine fries at Bun Papa: I’ve always found much to admire about Bun Papa, a pandemic-era survival kit put together by the folks at the Bread & Water Company, which had built an impressive wholesale network before covid blew it up in 2020. You can’t go wrong with just about anything here, but one dish stands out among all others at Cap One: the Papa poutine fries ($13.99). Now, you may wonder, as I did, why poutine fries are even a thing at a D.C. sports arena. Is it because of all the Canadian teams that make their way to our hockey rink? I gave up contemplating the question after my first forkful: I simply reveled in the generous mess of waffle fries sprinkled with ground beef, squeaky cheese curds, onion straws, gravy and, just to make you feel better about yourself, green onions. If this is food to prepare you for winter hibernation, I’m all in.

Bun Papa is located in Section 216.

The good enough

Chicken sandwich at Honeymoon Chicken: The first time I tried to order this sandwich, Honeymoon had run out. It was just minutes into the third quarter of the Wizards game against the Milwaukee Bucks, whose superhuman power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was clearly a draw for Washingtonians. The Indiana Pacers, by contrast? Not so much. The lines were short, and I was able to score a chicken sandwich ($15.99) not long after walking into the arena, even if I had to inexplicably wait for minutes on end while my order sat there, lounging at the window, no expediter to pair customer with food. The wait did no favors for the sandwich. Its coating had started to harden, and its breast meat was closer to room temperature. At the same time, the slice of cheese showed no signs of melting, its four corners still intact. The pickles and slaw were applied sparingly, with no thought of balance. The sandwich was, in short, poorly constructed. And despite it all, I wolfed the thing down, a testament to the ability of the honey-dusted chicken to overcome most obstacles. (By the way, the hot-and-sticky chicken bites combo, $15.99, may be a safer bet; there are just fewer components.)

Honeymoon Chicken is located in Section 110.

Crab mac and cheese dog at Stuggy’s: I was handed my crab mac and cheese dog ($18.99) less than a minute after I ordered it, which was not a good sign. The cheesy pasta atop the beef dog was cool to the touch, and the lump crab meat was becoming tighter by the second. This dog was turning gray right before my eyes. I dutifully took a bite, and all I could think was: The thing would be terrific if it hadn’t been lounging around like a lap dog. This bite needs to be made to order, which (I get it) may be a tall task when there’s a line of hungry fans. But in my case, I walked straight to the counter unhindered. There was no reason this beauty couldn’t have been prepared fresh. The dog clearly deserves it. By the way, don’t miss the parmesan garlic fries ($9.99), a clichéd preparation that can still party like it’s 1999.

Stuggy’s is located in Section 105.

Carolina on My Mind sandwich at Federalist Pig: The Pig, as you well know, is the creation of Rob Sonderman, the pit master who basically introduced craft barbecue to Washington. As part of Steve Salis’s Catalogue brands, the Pig has multiple locations now, including a stand at Cap One. The menu is wisely limited to a pair of signature sandwiches, one with chopped brisket and the other with pulled pork, both of which travel fairly well, at least compared with, say, sliced brisket or a rack of ribs. The Carolina on My Mind sandwich ($13.59) is the better of the two options, even if it’s a diminished experience compared with the real thing at the original smokehouse in Adams Morgan. The vinegar sauce, spicy and loud, does all the heavy lifting for the pulled pork, which has lost much of its smoky edge. The fried pigskin sprinkles, which usually add a welcome crackle to the sandwich, have fossilized into something hard and tooth-rattling. I’d consider skipping that element and letting the coleslaw and vinegar suffice.

Federalist Pig is located in Section 104.

Chicken tinga quesotaco from Little Miner Taco: Not long after opening his taqueria in Brentwood, Md., co-founder Mackenzie Kitburi made the prophetic decision to add Tijuana-style birria tacos to the menu, not realizing that Americans would soon go crazy for the dish while going stir-crazy during pandemic-era lockdowns. Little Miner has a pair of stands at Cap One (tip: The one on the 400 level tends to have shorter lines), both of which offer a pared-down menu of street tacos and quesotacos. I thought the birria de res quesotacos ($6.99 each) didn’t measure up to the ones offered at Little Miner’s shops, the beef lacking its usual depth of flavor. The chicken tinga quesotacos ($6.99 each), by contrast, held up to the warming cabinet from which they were pulled, already bundled up and ready to serve. The quesotaco benefited, of course, from a dip in the accompanying consommé, which is why it’s important to make sure it’s included. The counter staff had forgotten mine, until I reminded them.

Little Miner Taco is located in Sections 107 and 432.

Anything from District Doughnut: This is a no-brainer, right? You already know that if you want a seriously good doughnut, you go to the other DD, the one with multiple locations in the District. The Cap One stands serve up only a handful of doughnuts — brown butter and old-fashioned cakes, among them — but here’s the thing to remember: Those rounds sit out for the entire game, losing their vibrancy as the minutes tick off. This is one time when you may want to eat your dessert first.

District Doughnut is located in Sections 118 and 408.

The Pat LaFrieda Cheeseburger at District Grill: A triumph of marketing over reality, this cheeseburger is named for Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, the company that countless restaurants turn to when they need a reliable supply of beef, pork and poultry. Pat LaFrieda, as you may know, also develops custom burger blends for shops, including Capital Burger on Seventh Street NW. I was thrilled to see LaFrieda’s name attached to this food-service burger. I was not thrilled to bite into one. If the District Grill is actually relying on LaFrieda beef — and I’m told the stands are — Aramark should be taken to court for workplace abuse. My patty was grilled into a dry, dense, flavorless puck. Whatever fat once existed in that grind had been sacrificed to the gods, and the gods were now angry.

District Grill is located in Sections 102, 116, 201, 417 and 432.

The window of opportunity to eat at Cap One: Almost all concessions close before a game is over, save for a single Aramark stand on each of the three levels. So, if you’re hungry, you’d better satisfy that craving before the third period of a Caps game or the fourth quarter of a Wizards game, no matter how absorbing the contest may be.


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