I arrived about 45 minutes before kickoff for the home opener against the Dallas Cowboys, unaware that Texas had colonized FedEx Field. I had not seen so many loud Dallas outfits in one place since the last time I wandered into Neiman Marcus. After the visitors dismantled the Redksins, one Cowboys fan defiantly hoisted a sign that suggested FedEx was the team’s second home. My initial knee-jerk thought: You can have it.
Eating at the stadium is an exercise in patience, fortitude and compromise. It started, for me, with a visit to the latest outpost of Fieri’s budding fast-casual chain, which he launched with Robert Earl, the founder of Planet Hollywood. The lines get long at Chicken Guy, and they move with the speed of an aging running back with two bad knees.
When I got to the counter, I quickly grasped one of the problems: The folks who handle the registers are not employees of Chicken Guy. They work for Levy Restaurants, the company that manages the concessions at FedEx Field. The counterworkers’ knowledge of Fieri’s operation, at least for the first game of the season, was erratic at best. I repeated three times which of Fieri’s 22 sauces I wanted with my tenders, a request that sent the employee on a long, distressing search to determine if they were actually in stock. I feared to look over my shoulder at those waiting in line, lest I encounter more murderous looks than a duck during hunting season.
By necessity, the menu is more limited than those at the chain’s two full-fledged locations, including the one at Disney Springs at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. You’re limited to either tenders or a chicken sandwich, both fried. There are no salad bowls, no frozen treats, no Mac Daddy Mac ’N’ Cheese, and no sandwich preparations other than the CG Classic with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and the requisite “special sauce.” Too many options would further bog down an operation that, essentially, has three-plus hours to serve hundreds of customers, every one of whom has paid to watch a football game, not stand in line. (Well, except for me.)
Washington’s own bumbling Dr. Evil — that’s Daniel Snyder to you — shared the costs to trick out the space for this Chicken Guy enterprise, including, presumably, the pressure fryers that Fieri uses to prepare his birds. The team wouldn’t say how much it shelled out to take fans to Flavortown, but Chris Bloyer, senior vice president of operations and guest experience, told me, “It was not a little bit. It was a lotta bit.”
What did the Redskins get for their whole lotta love for Guy Fieri? For one thing, the team got to hitch its faded star to the hottest dining trend of the summer and, presumably, the fall: the nation’s ongoing obsession with mass-produced fried chicken, served fast, cheap and tasty. No one could have predicted the collective mania that would take root in the United States when Popeyes introduced its fried chicken sandwich, let alone the fights the item would inspire or the copycats. The Redskins can’t tie their own shoelaces on the field, but they can catch lightning in a bottle when it comes to food trends. Maybe Bloyer should start drafting players, too?
Fieri has had a rare perch from which to watch fried chicken move from Southern staple to national fixation. He’s apparently swiped, however unconscious, techniques and approaches he’s witnessed while filming “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” the Food Network’s sloppy kiss to mom-and-pop restaurants across the land. Fieri’s antibiotic-free, hand-pounded tenders are marinated in pickle brine, lemon juice and buttermilk before they hit the pressure fryers, a preparation that checks off all the right boxes: old-timey dish, customization via food TV celebrity, speedy fryer technique and an awareness that this bird won’t contribute to superbugs that will, ultimately, kill us all.
I should stop here and make a confession: I like Fieri. I don’t look at the character he plays on Triple D — a guy whose sensibilities read like an awkward mash-up of punk rock, ’80s-era action movies and monster truck shows — and immediately think, what a putz. I look at the results: The Fieri Effect has done more for neighborhood restaurants than all the critics in the country, combined. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, right under the flames of his bowling shirt. There’s more to admire here than dismiss as meathead vanity.
Which brings me to Donkey Sauce, the most mocked condiment on the continent. Has anyone actually tried this aioli? It’s delicious. I tasted roasted garlic, mayo and lemon juice. Then I Googled the recipe to learn it includes Worcestershire sauce, that umami delivery system. It makes for a fine dip for Fieri’s tenders, even when the latter are lukewarm and have lost their edge. Those strips of bird were even better with one of Fieri’s “hot ’n’ spicy” sauces, particularly the peri-peri, which blazed a trail right through the chicken’s herbed coating.
My classic chicken sandwich was a 10-car pileup on the highway. The shredded lettuce had melded into the special sauce to create a kind of lumpy condiment gravy, which dripped from every available crease in the sandwich. Grease also dripped from the chicken, an apparent victim of fryer oil that had dropped below the ideal temperature. The cheddar cheese had congealed into something like looked like melted Tupperware. The thing was a total mess, and I still ate more than I intended. I should mention that, three bites in, I started to drink more water than a racehorse.
My main question is this: Why would Fieri subject his food to the perils of stadium concessions? His chicken not only suffers at the hands of people with little buy-in on the product, but it’s available only to those who can afford the price of a professional football game. For a guy devoted to the everyday diner, Fieri has essentially placed Chicken Guy within the gated community of FedEx Field. (He also has a deal with Levi’s Stadium in the San Francisco Bay area.) This contradiction, I’m afraid, is what really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
If you go
1600 FedEx Way, Landover, Md., redskins.com .
Hours: Game day.
Nearest Metro: Morgan Boulevard, with about a mile walk to the stadium.
Prices: $11 to $16 for tenders and fries or the classic chicken sandwich.