Arena Food Pushes the Culinary Limits

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Mustard or ketchup, maybe some relish. For decades those were the only choices for sports fans wanting a hot dog while at a game. It was a simpler time.

    Prudential Center is now serving up five possibilities, along with its traditional Nathan's dog: a BLT hot dog (bacon-wrapped hot dog in a potato bun with shredded lettuce, plum tomatoes and chipotle mayo), an Italian hot dog (sautéed peppers and onions, potatoes, sun-dried tomato and basil aioli, on pizza bread), the Villa dog (Nathan's hot dog wrapped in pizza bread) and two choices for a Korean hot dog (one with a chicken topping, another with beef).

    It's been years since high-end fare like sushi and Shake Shack found its way to sporting events, but some fans still gravitate to sporting concession classics. With the hot dogs and other offerings, Aramark, the concessionaire at the Newark arena, is trying to satisfy those people who crave the traditional, but also long for a little more sophisticated or healthy options.

    The Pru Center is not the only place trying to keep everyone happy at a time when every sports venue seems like Iron Chef's Kitchen Stadium these days.

    Across the river at the finally fully transformed Madison Square Garden, soggy arena nachos are being transformed by La Esquina, a Garden version of the restaurant La Esquina Manhattan, which will serve a menu of nachos and sides that includes organic corn chips, cheese, red and green salsa and jalapeño, chicken or pork toppings.

    Part of the issue for the venue operators is getting those old-time fans to change their habits and even look for the other options.

    Old Tappan's Scott Lucia is a long-time Devils fan who attends many games throughout the season. He tells The Record of Woodland Park that he "usually sticks to the basics'' when it comes to arena food _ at his most recent game, he got chicken fingers and fries _ and that no one he has gone with to a game has ever veered from the old-school stuff. He likes popcorn, maybe one beer during a game. But he is also very health conscious, so he appreciates the healthy options kiosk with salads and sandwiches. When told of the new possibilities, he was intrigued.

    "I would be into all that,'' he said, noting that he likes to try new foods and lets himself take a break from being completely healthy when he attends a game.

    While diehards care most about their team winning, for casual game attendees and followers of struggling teams, the arena experience _ and its food _ have become much more important. If it's going to be a costly night out, most people will no longer settle for stale Cracker Jack, lukewarm chicken fingers and watered down beer.

    With that in mind, no food concept is too over-the-top, too sophisticated, too far from typical game fare to make it to an arena concourse these days.

    At the Prudential Center this season, Devils fans will find many new menu items to tempt them away from the hot dog or chicken fingers and fries. The new fare, such as the Korean kiosk, are meant to provide quality choices, not just a higher quantity of them.

    "You're not going to fake it in this market,'' said Pru Center executive chef Niko Marinos.

    Across the river, more high-end fare has entered Madison Square Garden.

    "I think we've succeeded in making the Garden (have) many of the best restaurants in New York City,'' MSG President and CEO Hank Ratner said in the unveiling of the remodeled arena that is home to the Rangers and Knicks.

    A walk around the Pru Center with Marinos reveals a theme of his work since coming over earlier this year from a similar position at Citi Field. He mentions taking something ``to the next level'' repeatedly.

    While Aramark makes the food decisions, the Devils' new ownership had been involved, Marinos said.

    "We've been working closely with them,'' he said. "We're really excited about the effort to make this Jersey.''

    Come to Newark, feel like you're at the boardwalk. That is their hope, at least. To that end, there are fresh lemonade carts as well as funnel cake and boardwalk fries. Once again, though, they didn't just leave it at that. There are not only regular fries and disco fries, there are the Jersey Devil fries, which are tossed with some ``secret'' spices and served with a Deviled aioli dipping sauce.

    At the Pru Center restaurant, the braised short-rib grilled cheese was a favorite in a preseason coaches and players dinner, Marinos said.

    The arena is also able to switch things up between events and offer specific items depending on the clientele, as they did for a recent Filipino concert when attendees could feast on pancit, as well as pork or chicken adobo.

    Farm-to-table is a continuing trend in food and Marinos said they are trying to source local foods and basically go farm-to-arena with their produce company working together with New Jersey and New York farms to get the freshest local produce available.

    Meanwhile in Manhattan, fans don't have to sacrifice the city's famous food experience to take in a game or concert. The legendary Jean-Georges Vongerichten now has a second restaurant in the arena. Taco will serve Jean-Georges gourmet tacos, glazed short ribs and chipotle chicken with roasted jalapeño salsa.

    These offerings join La Esquina and what had already come into the Garden during the three-year renovation, including Daily Burger, from Ridgewood's Drew Nieporent; Jeremy Marshall's Lobster Shrimp Roll by Aquagrill; and Andrew Carmellina's Sausage Boss.