So you're off to your favorite Southern California Adventure Park and you just ate the last of the cheese Goldfish crackers you smuggled in at the bottom of your backpack. What's a hungry park-goer to do?
You could grab a quick snack, like some popcorn, ice cream bars, giant turkey legs (with only a slight risk of stabbing your mouth on a bone), or pretzels shaped like iconic cartoon characters – all yummy choices, but hardly a meal.
So when it does come down to some serious food, many theme park-goers are railroaded into some basic options: hot dogs, chips, soda. And that's not to say that park food isn't good: Disneyland's red corn dog card at the end of Main Street U.S.A. Is famous for its massive corn dogs, and people rave about Magic Mountain's funnel cake. But not everyone wants hot dogs, chips and soda. Is it so wrong to want good, quality food at a theme park? And, might we add, not have to take out a second mortgage for a meal? (I'm looking at you, Blue Bayou and Carthay Circle.)
Ask Axel Dirolf that question, and he's likely to give you an emphatic “no” – along with a hearty smile. “People told us, 'Theme park food is expensive,” said Dirolf, Executive Chef of SeaWorld San Diego. “And sometimes it can be. But while we may not be able to adjust that, what we can work on is the quantity and the quality of the food we serve.”
So when I had the chance to see what all the hubbub was about from the kitchens of SeaWorld, I went down to San Diego wondering what they could possibly do that wasn't just more of the same park fare.
The pleasantly-surprising answer is: quite a bit, actually.
Since Chef Dirolf's start with SeaWorld San Diego, the new executive chef and his team has been making a firm push towards quality food within the aquatic-themed park, be it as a sit-down meal or as a bite to go – without breaking the bank. With a focus on pride in creation, the new creations coming from the San Diego park rest heavily on two tenets that course through all of Dirolf's dishes: that fresh tastes better, and that customization creates connections with food.
Upon settling in San Diego after a career that has taken Dirolf from Germany to Switzerland to the Middle East and many places in between, he realized that California cuisine requires different standards that other culinary scenes. “The California consumer is one of the most educated when it comes to healthy eating and eco-smart eating,” said Dirolf on our tour. “It's one of the things that they really appreciate most.”
To that end, Dirolf has personally overseen changes in the purchases SeaWorld makes, from sustainable seafood practices, to purchasing locally-grown organic produce, to even utilizing more eco-friendly plasticware for use in all SeaWorld's eateries. Also, focus has gone out to ensure that there are healthy options at every meal. The french fries and sodas that were once a staple are still there, but now they're alongside prominently-placed bottled waters, crisp salads, and tasty fruit cups.
Dirolf embraces the change in attitude toward healthy cuisine in the park. “One of the biggest pieces of feedback we heard was that there wasn't enough healthy options in theme parks, so we focused on providing those,” he said as we walked a line full of fresh, crisp Caesar salads. “In fact, all our kids' meals are now paired with fresh fruit instead of fries.”
Our first stop was one of Dirolf's newest gems, the Seaport Marketplace. Totally overhauled, the sit-down eatery features gourmet-style hamburgers in one of six varieties or the create-your-own-burger option.
A little backstory for my readers: I love hamburgers. Love them. LOVE them. Probably one of my most favorite foods in the entire world. In fact, one of my first widely-circulated writings was a Yelp review I wrote of Holsteins, the burger joint inside the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. So when Chef Dirolf mentioned gourmet burgers, I was quite excited... and quite skeptical. How could SeaWorld possibly have something so good that it could match the quality of Holsteins, or Fukuburger, or even Grind Burger?
The answer is not “yes.” The answer is “Yes, and can even put some of these gourmet burger houses to shame.”
The Seaport Marketplace may have a New England feel about the physical space, but everything else is uniquely Californian. The meat (pun intended) of the menu is its six gourmet-crafted hamburgers, ranging from the basic Just Pure burger, to the crispy goodness of bacon in the Bacon & Bacon burger, to the spicy kick of the Bold & Spicy burger's signature Srirachi Jalapeño Chutney. Following their eco-savvy mindset, plus Dirolf's maxim that fresh tastes better, Seaport Marketplace uses only natural Angus beef, raised hormone-free with no antibiotics.
But diners do not have to feel limited to those six choices: the entire menu is available for customization, which brings Chef Dirolf the most joy. With a fully-customizable option, the menu bends to the will of the patron, including cheeses, sauces, and toppings. Guests can even opt for a healthier turkey patty or a vegetarian chickpea patty.
And, Chef Dirolf and his crew insist you name your awesome creation.
“I remember when we first opened up,” Dirolf said as our burgers were being freshly made, “this one kid was visiting who went to the Penguin Encounter, so when he came here, he named his burger 'I Touched My First Penguin.' So when the burger master was calling the burger, he was back here shouting, 'I touched my first penguin! I touched my first penguin!' But it gave everyone a laugh and a smile. It created that connection not only with the food, but with the people.”
And the connection is what Dirolf and his staff are constantly looking for. It was not lost on myself or my guests that when we walked in we were warmly greeted by the Seaport Marketplace crew. Big smiles, helpful faces, and genuine greetings and thanks were not just the surprise, but the norm. Crew members talked with us about our choices, and chatted about not only how our day was going, but how their day was going as well. And as our PR guide Kat reassured us, “The crew is like this all the time, even when I come in here on my off-days without my name tag.”
Feeling inspired by Chef Dirolf's stories of connections with food and with park guests, I had to try one of the customizable options, so I went with a turkey burger with lettuce, tomato, bacon and barbecue sauce, aptly named the “Discovery Burger.” My invited guests, Kristina and Salim Mitchell of San Diego, had started a vegetarian diet, so they opted for meatless chickpea patties in their burgers, named, between the two of them, the “Awww YEAH!” burger and the “That Just Happened” burger. And yes, the Burger Master did call out in an enthusiastic and bold voice that she had an “Awww YEAH! Burger ready to go!”
This got another huge smile from Chef Dirolf. Taking note of our reactions to his crew, Dirolf pointed out, “We're really trying to bring back friendliness. We don't want to be a heads-down group.” Having a not-so-great experience inside the new Flo's V-8 Cafe inside Disney California Adventure, it was heartening to see a team take pride in their work and in their service.
The burgers themselves not only lived up to the expectation, they exceeded it. Turkey meat is easy to mess up, with many places leaving a bland, tasteless patty hidden amongst sauces. Not the Seaport Marketplace. The turkey was tender and juicy, almost as if it had just been carved off a freshly cooked bird before being pressed. The bacon was crispy, but not brittle. There was no doubt the burger buns were bakery-fresh, as the juices, flavors, and sauces started to soak into them, causing a delightfully delicious mess reminiscent of the mid-'90s Carl's Jr. “If It Doesn't Get All Over The Place, It Doesn't Belong In Your Face” ad campaigns.
And here's the kicker: Any burger you can dream up, dress up, and attach a name to, your Burger Master will make happen for you for just $8.99. That's a little bit less than a Turkey Burger at T.G.I. Friday's, while championing much better quality. The cheapest turkey burger at the aforementioned Holsteins, the California Turkey burger, clocks in at $14.50.
My guests were also pleased with their selections, with Salim raving that it was “way better than those cardboard bean patties some places have.” Kristina was exceptionally pleased with the Strawberry Arugula Salad with a berry vinaigrette dressing, remarking on both the freshness of the salad and the plumpness of the strawberries.
We were also treated to some of Seaport Marketplace's beer offerings. Beer is available in select locations throughout SeaWorld San Diego to guests who are 21 years or older. Formerly owned by the Busch family of Anheuser-Busch fame, those beers were the only ones available to guests. Free from that bond, Dirolf and his team have made a point to purchase from local breweries, showcasing the growing reputation of the San Diego area as a beer town. Seaport Marketplace offers selections from Karl Strauss, Stone Brewery, and Alesmith Brewery. It was also nice to see an offering from Julian Hard Cider, for those who desire an adult beverage but aren't big beer drinkers.
Full and happy, as anyone after a good meal should be, we thought our tour was over. But Chef Dirolf and his master team would not hear of it.
“We intend to bring good food to every point in this park,” he said emphatically as we made our way to Manny Ray's.
Manny Ray's, located just outside the entrance to the roller coaster Manta, showcases Dirolf's idea of “pathway gourmet.” “Sometimes you don't want to take the time out of your day to sit down and eat, you know, the park is only open for certain hours,” explained Dirolf as we walked to the “Forbidden Reef” portion of the park. “And that's okay with us. Everyone should have quality food, no matter what their plans are.”
The quality found in Seaport Marketplace's burgers was evident here as well. Featuring outdoor seating, providing exceptional views of the screaming, thrill-bound faces of Manta's riders, Manny Ray's offers a number of gourmet wraps, sandwiches, and flatbread pizzas, the latter of which maintains a popularity unique to California, home to the California Pizza Kitchen and other outlets featuring the dish.
Such servings engender themselves to speedy service off of hot shelves under heat lamps, but Chef Dirolf refuses to cut corners. Pointing inside to the culinary staff preparing a variety of flatbread pizzas, the pride in his voice was as clear as Shamu's pool. “You can see clearly everyone making the food,” he boasted. “It's right there! Nothing to hide. You know for sure that you're getting fresh food every time.”
Fresh, and delicious food, too. Manny Ray's features four flatbread pizzas – a pulled pork pizza with honey hoisin barbecue sauce, a spicy barbecue jalapeño pizza, a tomato basil caprese pizza for those who want a vegetarian option, and my personal favorite, the California Cheese Steak.
Dirolf's spin on a Philly Cheese Steak, the California Cheese Steak flatbread pizza starts with a flatbread shell layered with chipotle sauce, pepper jack cheese, fresh ground beef, and flavorful pico de gallo, giving this flatbread pizza a notably Baja California twist. The pizzas were not only tasty, but could easily be folded up and transported, should a family be on their way to check out the next water show. Gourmet on the go – it's something that hasn't been tried yet in other theme parks, and something Chef Dirolf and his team clearly take pleasure in doing.
Even the usual “outdoor vending” snacks get the gourmet twist. Sure, like other adventure parks you can still find pretzels, popcorn, and ice cream bars throughout SeaWorld San Diego's snack stands, but show me another Southern California Adventure Park that offers crepes.
Chef Dirolf's newest experiment, having only been opened five days at our visit, the crepe stand located near the entrance of SeaWorld San Diego's famous SkyTower offers guests a selection of four pre-selected crepes, or, true to the Dirolf way, a totally-customizable option. Also true to the Dirolf tenets, the entire crepe making process is completely visible via a large window in the stand itself. From the preparing of the crepe to the slicing of the fresh fruit, your creation forms right before your eyes, resulting in a warm crepe, served Asian-style in a rolled-up crepe cone, ready for your taste buds' delight.
Completely full from Seaport Marketplace and Manny Ray's, I found myself unable to resist the call of the crepe, and selected a Strawberry Vanilla Crème crepe. From the first bite, the warm crepe mingled with the cool whipped crème and the juicy strawberries, creating a taste sensation that quickly shot it straight to the top of theme park snacks not just in SeaWorld San Diego, but in all of Southern California.
In fact, once our official food tour was done, my guests and I revisited both Manny Ray's and the crepe stand. Kristina enjoyed the Tomato Basil Caprese flatbread pizza the second time around, and I had to try the Kalua Pork sandwich they offered. The pork was juicy and tender, even as we had reached the end of the park's operating hours. It's as if they saved that pork specifically for me. Combined with the honey hoisin barbecue sauce, it was a great treat to end our day.
To many, food at an adventure park is an afterthought. In the decision-making process surrounding which theme park to spend your hard-earned dollar at, food is not usually a major factor. But that doesn't give parks an excuse to serve sub-par food, and on Chef Axel Dirolf's watch, that won't be happening. But Dirolf is not one to rest on his laurels. In the upcoming months, Dirolf and his team are next working on a baja grill, which will feature grilled and rotisserie chicken options with the baja flare San Diego's Mexican cuisine is known for.
After that, says Dirolf with a smile and a chuckle, there will be other projects to work on. “We want to make our offerings as good as possible,” he said as our group enjoyed our crepes. “You know, it will never be perfect. Perfect would be no fun. We're always looking for ways to make it better, but keep it trendy and popular. That's the fun part.”