For new-look arena cuisine, the puck stops here
By Andy Clurfeld
Photography by Daryl Stone
It is 90 minutes before game time and Devils’ fans are bellying up to the bars at the Arena enveloped within the uber downtown space that is Prudential Center. There are bars here that are bars, as in taverns where alcoholic beverages are dispensed, but the swarmed-upon bars within The Rock are feeding bars.
You don’t know from these feeding bars if you haven’t been to an event at Prudential in recent months, Bubbie.
Newark and its Devils now not only have the Rolls Royce of National Hockey League homes, but dozens of eateries so close to the ice that you can make it from your seat to your taco (or sushi or pulled pork sandwich or spinach-artichoke flatbread pie) in less time than it’d take for you to make it from the lounge chair in your man cave to the kitchen fridge.
Many of those eateries now have some famous names attached to them, and we don’t mean Nathan’s and Rita’s (though they are well represented): New Jersey native David Burke, who made a name for himself by tweaking the familiar with potent accents (“pastrami” smoked salmon; “angry” lobster with fiery spices) and daring to poke fun at formality by serving serious ingredients in “lollipop” fashion, is there with two eateries and Mike Isabella, darling of the TV food contest circuit, is on hand with two of his own.
There are concessions not merely doling out hot dogs and mass-produced brews, but eateries serving dishes near and dear to the hearts of anyone who knows Joisey’s most beloved foods: Boardwalk, Jersey Diner, Ironbound.
What turned out to be my favorite Prudential feeding bar is called Ironbound, where the folks behind the counter cooked up a spicy linguica sandwich and a side of sweet plantain fries worthy of Ferry Street.
That warmed my heart.
We made it to eight of the dining bars in the course of a victorious night for the Devils, focusing on the newer dining establishments that opened just last fall. Hours at the concessions are geared to events at The Rock: When the Devils are playing, when there’s a concert or other major event under that very big top, these eateries are open. When The Rock’s dark, they are dark, too.
Click to enlarge
If you hop online to any of the consumer-driven restaurant reviewing Web sites, you’ll be able to read scores of complaints about the prices at these Arena eateries. Prices are high. A bottle of water is $5; a typical sub sandwich is $12. A sushi roll is $15; a taco is $12. This isn’t happiness for a parent taking a couple of kids to an event that begs a before, or after, or during meal, for sure.
Another concern about the whole Arena feeding deal is that many dishes are prepared in advance and kept warm under lamps or other sources of heat. You may get a sub that’s soggy and mushy, its flavors diluted by secondary steam cooking; the care that’s gone into the concept is washed away. This is the way of concessions everywhere that have high demand for food within common 10-minute stretches: How do you make it work when thousands of hungry patrons descend upon you at the same time?
That said, if you think that all ballparks, concert halls, arenas and the like have to offer those same hungry patrons are ’dogs in buns and fries by the cord, the sheer variety of edibles here will impress.
It’s a melting pot, a global groaning table.
At Burke’s Bacon Bar, there’s a piled-high reuben, kraut streaming out, that will keep your belly content through overtime or encores. The pork barbecue sandwich at BBB’s, as it’s called, is neither sweet nor too vinegary-tart, while the “crack” snacks—bacon-flavored chips—are a nifty side. Peanut Bacon Brittle, anyone? That’s a David Burke food-ism that might beat out plain peanuts.
Sushi rolls are a tough translation at a concession, though I admired the thought that went into crafting the concepts for a pair of themed rolls: The Devils Roll mingles salmon, avocado, cukes and tuna with a spicy mayo-based sauce, while the Fire House Roll focuses on tuna, shrimp and egg. The mushiness of the rice is something the cooks might want to address.
The first Isabella eatery we stopped at has bread-based classics, some with a twist: Indeed, Mike G’s Sandwich sports a thoughtful melange of roasted cauliflower, peppers, onions and, for color, strands of skinny scallions. The sporty Disco Fries come “dirty,” with a blast of tomato, cheese and spices. A teen’s dream.
David Burke’s Angry Taco pushes the envelope in concession concept and turns out crispy corn tortilla tacos chunked with well-seasoned beef and feisty corn on the cob slathered with the smoky notes of chipotle mayonnaise and mild cojita cheese. I’d get two of these and hand them to a pair of kids in a heartbeat. The Angry Chicken Taco Salad Bowl has a slew of meritorious ingredients, from good chicken and shredded cheese to veggies and lettuces, but the greens are served extremely cold, numbing out the flavors.
G’s Pizza, another Isabella invention here, is a modern take on the standard tomato pie factory. In fact, the basic American Pie isn’t a classic round, but is flush with gooey melted cheese and tomato sauce, and the spinach-artichoke flatbread a flourish of greenery. You gotta love a guy who grins at convention and makes a guilty pleasure of a pie tilt toward something with nutritional value.
At Tony Baloney’s, where the mood is old Atlantic City, there are subs galore. Fresh from the success with the spinach-artichoke pie, I chose a Lucy the ’Shroom Sub. This is one of those foods the folks behind the scenes need to re-think, for the mushrooms literally melted into the roll, rendering everything inside indistinguishable. It’s a sandwich that can’t tolerate too much time in a warmer.
Judging by the sheer numbers of open cartons of mac-and-cheese I saw folks carrying around, the Giving Table is one popular source for this all-American favorite. It comes with fat macaroni and a surfeit of cheese. We also wolfed down Giving Table’s banana-chocolate pudding, with its layer of crumbled cookies providing crunch.
We walk past the Ironbound concession, home of our favored linguica and sweet plantains, and wave to the folks who cooked us up such a good sandwich and fries. We stop at Rita’s, after all, the kids clamoring for ices to take into the frigid winter night. What the heck? We’ve been fed and fortified, our tummies stretched. As kids, we never knew more than hot dogs as a game day feeding. Let today’s kids remember their night of United Nations’ smorgasbord-style soup-to-nuts – or Burke’s-to-Rita’s – dining as the Devils dominated the ice.