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Champions Square 

Pre-game eats at the Dome put Creole flavor in the starting lineup

The New Orleans Saints proved our city had the NFL's best team last year. This season, another team of New Orleanians is proving we have the league's best food as well.

  This team is a collection of local restaurant industry heavies who have turned the new Champions Square festival grounds just outside the Louisiana Superdome into a showcase of distinctive New Orleans flavors. From a ring of tented vending booths, they greet the Who Dat nation before each home game with hand-held feasts that put the food available inside most stadiums, including the Superdome, to shame.

  Superdome officials run the show at Champions Square, which does not require a ticket for entry. To ensure the eats would really shine, the Dome's overall food service provider, Centerplate Catering, subcontracted with local restaurateurs.

  Champions Square made its debut in August during the Saints' two exhibition home games, and I used these preseason events to test the field. People who have eaten their way through a day at Jazz Fest will recognize the format, as well as the related skill of juggling foam plates and cans of beer. At $8 or $9 each, the dishes can seem pricey. But compare the quality and even the portions you get in Champions Square with typical stadium fare and they look like better deals.

  Some of the dishes come straight from restaurant menus, including Galatoire's iconic shrimp remoulade and its thick, dark, country-style duck gumbo, which chef Brian Landry says is a new menu addition. At the adjacent booth, Acme Oyster House serves a good shrimp po-boy, though its chicken and andouille gumbo can't compare to Galatoire's version.

  Choosing between shrimp beignets or shrimp and grits at the Red Fish Grill booth, I'd pick the latter every time. It's a masterpiece in a plastic bowl, with large, lightly charred shrimp and chunky tomato sauce over dense grits. Across the square, Dickie Brennan's restaurants bring two standout sandwiches to the game — a cheese steak from his steakhouse and a barbecue shrimp po-boy from Bourbon House, each served on crisp pistolettes.

  Drago's Seafood Restaurant serves decent seafood pasta and a much more exciting spinach risotto with chopped shrimp and an essential blitz of spicy tasso. Owner Tommy Cvitanovich says he hopes to bring his restaurant's famous charbroiled oysters to the square later this season, pending progress with local oyster supplies.

  The Praline Connection serves large fillets of fried catfish beside either creamy red beans or a heap of jambalaya. But there's a better jambalaya around the corner, the brown, smoky, Cajun-style rendition from Triple B's Kajun Korner, a vendor that also has stands inside the Dome. The wings and chicken strips from the local WOW Wingery & Cafe chain are typical bar food, while the plain burgers from the Outback Steakhouse chain will probably delight some Vikings fans visiting for Thursday night's game.

  For the season-opener, Champions Square opens at 4 p.m. and closes at kickoff (7:30 p.m.). The schedule for future game days remains a work in progress, and a spokesman for the Superdome says the square will likely reopen after games sometime this season as ongoing renovation work around the facility progresses. Still, the season's four home games with noon kickoff times inevitably mean some Who Dats will be eating hearty Creole fare pretty early in the day around Champions Square. But that's fine with me. I love the taste of roux in the morning. It tastes like victory.

  For details, vendor menus and schedule updates, visit www.superdome.com.

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click to enlarge Heidi and Keith Pace enjoy a po-boy from Dickie Brennan's booth at Champions Square. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
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