NBA City. The name alone gives me chills. What other restaurant could encapsulate sadness so well? Who goes on vacation and says, “You know what I’d like to do today? I’d like to go get American-style food in a sports bar restaurant that focuses primarily on basketball.”
I know I am making NBA City sound like hell, but the truth is most of my misconceptions about NBA City were completely wrong. Well, that is stretching it a bit. The dining experience was slightly sad due to crowd levels and I still don’t understand the concept of a NBA themed restaurant, but NBA City was actually slightly good with the exception of those two issues. The DIS Universal team (myself, JeniLynn Knopp and Ryno Clavin) recently dined at NBA City to give it a chance before it ends its 16-year run at Universal CityWalk on August 16, 2015 and for the most part we were all relatively impressed. When we first brought up the idea of dining at NBA City, the group was extremely hesitant in giving it a shot. As we walked through CityWalk and made our first eye-contact with the awful 33-foot NBA “Logoman” statue, I considered changing our game plan to a new restaurant. We pushed on though, mostly because there was a ton of mystery about what was actually inside the doors of NBA City. Inside we found what could best be described as a mess. Whether you’re designing a web site or a restaurant, you can never underestimate the importance of avoiding clutter. NBA City did not take this advice and decided to pack an overwhelming large basketball gift shop into a tiny space on one half of the restaurant lobby and arcade games and an awful green screen photo experience occupied the space on the other side. The host/hostess podium is probably about ten feet from the entrance, so when we walked in and walked up to the podium our group assumed that we would be noticed. Instead, we were ignored until I had an awkward showdown with one of three team members standing at their podium. Eventually the rude hostess acknowledged us by asking our group number and proceeded to let us know there would be a 10 – 15 minute wait. There were maybe only ten occupied tables in the entire restaurant. Both JeniLynn and I have worked in a restaurant before and know that sometimes waits can develop if there are not enough servers or cooks to handle the crowd. However, we were at the restaurant during the start of a normal dinner service and the restaurant should’ve been adequately staffed. Even after being seated, I still couldn’t fathom why we needed to wait at all, but I quickly lost interest of those thoughts after being perplexed by the price tags on the memorabilia hanging around the restaurant. Nothing like a going out of business sale happening all around to pump you up for dinner.
Fortunately, this is where the negative experience became very positive. Our server, Jon, came up to the table with a smile and friendly demeanor, turning everything around from the first word out of his mouth. Before asking for our drink orders or wondering if we had any questions, he asked us if we had any food allergies he needed to be aware of and if we were participating in any special programs like the Movie & Meal Deal. This is something I haven’t encountered often at Universal and was extremely refreshing, and scored Jon a few more points.
For our appetizer, we decided to go with the NBA “4 on 4” appetizer combo to get a varied selection of their appetizers. On the menu, the NBA “3 on 3” appetizer is highlighted and priced at $15.99, but for a few dollars more you can make it a “4 on 4” and add on one more starter or even a “5 on 5” and add on two more starters. The “3 on 3” includes Grilled Chicken Quesadilla, Parmesan Chicken Tenders and Wings Your Way. Our “4 on 4” included Southwest Shrimp and Chorizo Egg Rolls. Our group had significantly different opinions about all of the appetizers in the combo. JL enjoyed the Grilled Chicken Quesadilla whereas Ryno and I felt they tasted very plain and were overly cheesy with barely any chicken. The Grilled Chicken Quesadilla was served with a spicy tomato salsa, but it seemed more or less to be marinara sauce. The Parmesan Chicken Tenders didn’t sound exciting, but they actually weren’t half bad. At the end of the day, they were just normal chicken tenders with a slightly cheesy taste to them, but the Asian honey mustard sauce they were served with made up for the middle-of-the-road flavor.
We ordered the signature oak-smoked Wings Your Way with a Homemade Ginger Teriyaki Sauce that was out of this world. The chicken wings were packed with meat, cooked perfectly and made even better with the sauce. Jon even brought an extra sauce to the table for us, which was used and appreciated. The disappointing part of the “4 on 4” was actually the Southwest Shrimp and Chorizo Egg Rolls. To me, these were the only appetizer I was actually interested in. My first egg roll was devoured quickly with barley any savoring. Initially, I thought they were great, as did Ryno, but the egg rolls seemed to lack a lot of spicy flavors that should’ve been present during the second serving. The Chorizo cream sauce served alongside the egg rolls was excellent.
For our entrees, I ordered the Chicken Bleu Cheese Pasta, JL ordered the Oak Smoked Baby Back Ribs, and Ryno ordered the Grilled Mahi Mahi Sandwich. The three main courses were priced at $15.99, $22.99, and $12.99, respectively. The Chicken Bleu Cheese Pasta stuck out to me on the menu almost instantly. I usually try to avoid ordering pasta at restaurants, because I always have the attitude that I can make pasta easily at home so why order it when I’m out. However, I love Bleu cheese and typically will order an item if it incorporates it heavily into the ingredients. Oak-grilled chicken is sautéed with garlic, mushrooms and fresh spinach, tossed in a rich creamy Bleu cheese sauce, topped with diced tomatoes and Blue cheese crumbles. When served, I half expected it to taste like Chicken Alfredo with Bleu cheese, but after one bite it was clear that it was just Blue cheese heaven sauce with some pasta and chicken that tasted like it was pre-packaged. I know that is a lot of positivity and negativity in one sentence, but believe me – this was a good dish and blew away my expectations, but I could never recommend this to someone who doesn’t like Bleu cheese. The Oak Smoked Baby Back Ribs were described to me as being good, but not great. JL appeared to enjoy the flavor and thought they were decently meaty, but overall she didn’t seem impressed and admitted that she’s had better ribs. Just by appearance they didn’t look mind-blowing by any means. The ribs were served with coleslaw and a heaping helping of crispy fries that JL also didn’t find overly impressive. The Grilled Mahi Mahi Sandwich was a fresh filet with Cajun seasoning, but Ryno struggled to find a lot of the spicy, Cajun flavoring that he was looking forward to. He was struggling between choosing the Grilled Mahi Mahi or the Black Bean and Corn Burger and ultimately wished that he would’ve went for the burger. Like JL, the fries that came with his meal did absolutely nothing for him.
So, we all felt the food so far was decent, but not great. However, our final opinions were essentially formed based on the outstanding dessert that we were fortunate enough to enjoy. We had a few ideas about what we would try, but settled on the 3 Point Carrot Cake and the Towering Cheesecake based on Jon’s recommendations. He informed us that all of the desserts were made in house with the exception of the lava cake from The Chocolate Bomb and after one bite of each dessert it was clear as day. The 3 Point Carrot Cake, priced at $7.99, is one of the biggest desserts you could ever order at a restaurant. The made from scratch cake, with real carrots and not just a crappy batter, is essentially 1/6th of a full cake served on a plate covered in crème anglaise. The 3 Point Carrot Cake was easily one of the best carrot cakes I’ve ever tasted and the ratio of cake to cream cheese frosting was perfect. However, this is not a challenge to tackle alone and we walked away saying that the portion size was good for a group of 4-5. However, the winner for desserts goes to the Towering Cheesecake. Don’t let the $9.99 price tag scare you. The Towering Cheesecake is comprised of four towers of the fluffiest, lightest cheesecake served inside a cinnamon sugar fried pastry along with vanilla ice cream in a cinnamon tortilla basked on a plate of crème anglaise. There are not enough words to describe the levels of fantastic that is the Towering Cheesecake. Everything about this dessert worked and it worked well. If NBA City has to close then so be it, but there needs to be an online petition to save this cheesecake dessert for the rest of the world. I consider myself privileged to have tried this magnificent creation. If only I would’ve thought to work off those calories at the mostly abandoned half court shooting experience outside of the restaurant… Overall, NBA City had its major flaws, but at the end of the day it wasn’t a terrible experience. The dessert was the winner of the meal, but the entrees and appetizers weren’t bad at all. It definitely had that bar food feel to it, but I would even rate it a couple steps up from the average bar meal. Our server was incredible, despite the shortcomings of other staff members, and deserves to be working at a fine dining experience instead of shoveling plates of food out to basketball fans and those who just got tired of trying to decide where else to eat. The emptiness did make the restaurant feel gloomy, especially considering the 2-story seating design, but the lack of people did make it clear that the restaurant wasn’t dirty, but also wasn’t kept up in comparison to a lot of other Universal restaurants. Let’s not even go down the road that it felt like a flashback to the mid-90s, which isn’t a compliment since it opened with CityWalk in 1999. Would we eat at NBA City again if it wasn’t leaving CityWalk for greener fields over at Walt Disney World? Probably; definitely for dessert. That being said, it is time for NBA City to go. It doesn’t fit in with the CityWalk Universal has created with recent renovations. The menu is EXTREMELY overpriced for the quality and portion sizes – something that Universal has rectified with restaurants like VIVO and Antojitos by offering great tasting food at reasonable prices. Walt Disney World continues to raise prices, even for subpar food, but people seem to pay for it there and may adopt the new NBA Experience coming to Disney Springs with open arms. However, it will probably be awful.
NBA City closes August 16, so you have just a week left to get in and get some Towering Cheesecake, or if you’re reading this from the future then you’ll know that you didn’t miss much, with the exception of Towering Cheesecake and 3 Point Carrot Cake.
To hear more about our experience at NBA City, check out our NBA City Tribute on The DIS Unplugged: Universal Edition podcast! Credit to KingLlama for the creative title.