We tried the new food lineup at Pru Center. The verdict: They finally got it right

From the Ripper (a Jersey dog) to the Honey Hen (a specialty chicken sandwich) to new burgers and pizza, the Rock has finally upgraded its food game

Here’s the deal with the Jersey Ripper — or, what was dubbed Wednesday afternoon as the new item you have to try on your next visit to the Prudential Center.

The creation, an all-beef hot dog topped with grilled peppers and onions, a Jersey jerk relish and a secret slaw, wasn’t the first combination that creator Aron Zaks tried. Or even the second.

“There must have been 25 different combinations,” he said. “This is where we landed. And people are loving it.”

Indeed. At an event held to showcase the new menu items available at the Prudential Center in time for the New Jersey Devils’ season-opener on Thursday night, the Jersey Ripper was the unofficial winner of the offerings produced by Levy, the Devils’ new hospitality partner.

At least, it was for me.

A sample-size version of the Jersey Ripper.

The good news: There were multiple winners.

Zaks said the Honey Hen, a crispy fried chicken breast with hot honey butter and cheddar cheese on a toasted brioche bun, has been getting rave reviews.

“People love that it’s fresh,” Zaks said. “And they love the honey.”

Eric Strauss, the ROI-NJ senior managing editor who is a Devils season ticket holder, favored the Hand Breaded Chicken Tenders — and, as the father of two young kids, he’s certainly had his share of chicken tenders.

“The breading was soft and the chicken was tender,” Strauss said.

There’s a reason for all this.

The Prudential Center didn’t bring in Levy just to bring in new food — it brought in Levy to produce premium food. The chicken offerings are an example why.

Too tasty to toss

The New Jersey Devils’ players weren’t on hand to try out the new Levy food offerings Wednesday — but maybe they should have been.

Chicken tenders, front and center.

After all, just last season, forward Erik Haula got a laugh from fans when he lamented getting hit by a chicken finger thrown from the crowd during a particularly controversial game.

The Prudential Center’s new chicken tenders unveiled Wednesday offered a tasty, flavorful hand breading (with “super-secret seasoned flour”). Chef Aron Zaks said the team is planning to cook up 1,000 pounds a day of the popular treats.

Firsthand testing found them to be much more moist than last year’s version, maybe thanks to the 24-hour jalapeno buttermilk brining.

Whether they’re as aerodynamic remains to be seen.

Another Devils forward with a vested interest in the new cuisine might be Curtis Lazar, who (in)famously took a bite out of a hamburger thrown on the ice some years back when the Ottawa Senators were celebrating goalie — and future Devil — Andrew Hammond, the “Hamburglar.”

For him and anyone else craving a Pat LaFrieda beef patty, there were samples of two offerings Wednesday: the Rock’s Smash Burger and the Traffic Jam Burger. The Smash Burger includes American cheese, bread & butter pickles and a Rock sauce, while the Traffic Jam features that most Jersey of cuisines, Taylor ham (that’s what the menu called it, don’t @ me), plus a deep fried mac-n-cheese “puck” and hot pepper bacon jam.

— Eric Strauss

Zaks said the Pru Center has a “chicken team” — a group of 8-10 folks who marinate and prepare 1,000 pounds of chicken every day. That’s freshness. And it shows in the product.

“The Devils and the Prudential Center have a commitment to fresh, quality products,” Zaks said. “And they give us the tools to do that. In this business, that’s all we ask for.”

All customers ask for is flavor. There’s plenty of that. Even the cocktail sauce with the popcorn shrimp brought a kick.

Zaks, who grew up in Old Bridge and still lives in Middlesex County, said it was all about bringing the Jersey flair.

The Rock’s Smash Burger comes on a toasted Calandra’s Bakery bun.

The Ripper was created in the spirit of the state’s best-known hot dog stand, Rutt’s Hut.

And the Traffic Jam Burger, the one that includes a hot pepper bacon jam, a slice of fried Taylor ham and a mac-n-cheese puck (yes, that’s what they are calling it) is as Jersey as it gets.

“We wanted the new items to reflect the state,” Zaks said. “We’re in Jersey. It should feel that way.”

Of course, nothing is more Jersey than pizza.

There’s a new take on that, too — one that scored well with Bob Hanlon, the founder of Bob’s Pizza Tour (that’s right, he gets paid to take people on tours of pizza joints). See BobsPizzaTour.com for more info.

Hanlon, who works mainly out of New York City and Baltimore, said he had to give the new offering in his home state a try.

“The pizza at the Rock is much improved from last year,” he said. “Plus, there are tons of other good eats.”

Zaks said he’s just getting started.

Levy was just brought in July 1. Turning this menu around was a masterful effort by Zaks — who is eager for more.

There is potential for more signature items — or single-event items designed for a specific audience. Zaks, for instance, is eager to get working on items that could be available for the two dozen or so Latin shows the Pru Center does a year.

ROI-NJ’s Eric Strauss, left, and Tom Bergeron try out the new cuisine.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “The amazing thing about working for Levy and the Prudential Center is we just come up with an idea — and they say, ‘Go for it.’”

After that, it just a matter of perfecting it. And, if it takes two dozen attempts, so be it. After all, that’s how Zaks came up with the Ripper. It was more than worth the effort.

A look at the new signature menu items:

  • Disco Fries French Fries: Fresh mozzarella, brown gravy, parsley (stand 1)
  • Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders: Jumbo fresh chicken tenders, 24-hour jalapeño buttermilk brine, super-secret seasoned flour (stands 16 and 130)
  • The Honey Hen: Crispy fried chicken breast, hot honey, cheddar cheese, Chef Asia’s honey butter, toasted brioche bun (stands 16 and 130)
  • The Jersey Ripper: Foot-long deep-fried all beef hot dog, secret slaw, grilled peppers & onions, Jersey jerk relish, hot dog bun (stand 126)
  • The Rock’s Smash Burger: Double Pat LaFrieda beef patty, American cheese, bread & butter pickles, Rock’s sauce, toasted Calandra’s Bakery bun (stands 12 and 111)
  • Traffic Jam Burger: Pat La Frieda beef patty, hot pepper bacon jam, crispy Taylor ham, deep fried mac-n-cheese puck, toasted bakery bun (stands 12 and 111)
  • Classic Cheese Pizza: Artisanal hand-stretched dough, homemade sauce, whole milk mozzarella (stands 16 and 130)
  • Popcorn Shrimp: Fried shrimp, Boardwalk style (stand 126)
  • Popcorn for the People: Gourmet popcorn in specialty flavors, Cookies and Cream, Caramel and Cheese (portable near stand 4)
  • Greek Salad: Iceberg and mixed green blend, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, Greek vinaigrette (stand 1)

The Prudential Center also is introducing two new signature cocktails:

  • Heater: Hijole tequila, grapefruit, jalapeno and club soda (Hijole Bar near Section 6)
  • Remy Ginger: Remy 1738, ginger beer and lime (Rock Whiskey Bar at Stand 16)

Reynolds on podcast 

Prudential Center and New Jersey Devils President Jake Reynolds joined ROI-NJ’s Tom Bergeron on the Delta Dental First Impressions podcast. Click here to listen.