Southwestern Comfort

Abilene also does very well with sandwiches. One of the restaurant's best assets is a great grilled burger ($6.95)--big, meaty, and crisp-seared. Add a side of garlic mashed potatoes ($2.95) and you've got a meal to beat the ham hock out of any hangover. As for salads, the Southwestern Caesar ($4.95) is the fine, smoky one you'll recognize from Tejas, while the iceberg wedge with candied pecans and smoked-tomato buttermilk dressing ($3.95) was as good as dessert.

More ambitious dishes weren't as thrilling. Chile-seared catfish ($12.95) with roasted vegetables was greasy, the accompanying annatto rice was bright red and bone dry. I was even more displeased to find that same rice in the paella ($14.95), which also featured plenty of overcooked, underseasoned seafood. And I've reconciled myself to the fact that I'm never going to like tortillas as pizza crusts, such as the one that lurked under the smoked shrimp pizza with sweet corn, asiago, and onions ($8.95); a tortilla simply doesn't stand a chance of holding its own against rich toppings. Still, I'm delighted to know there's a place in Uptown where one can get good casual food from noon till late night. (The kitchen doesn't close until last call in the bar.) It's exactly what the neighborhood was crying out for.

I mean, how was it that there was nowhere to go in Uptown after a movie for a piece of cake and an Irish coffee ($4.25) without sucking in smoke and shouting above the din? Speaking of which, Diablo Cake ($3.95), looking positively angelic in a pool of vanilla sauce, was quite nice. (The "devil" comes in with the use of powdered ancho chiles, which are added to the chocolate cake batter; though their presence is nearly undetectable, the cake's chocolate resonance owes them something.) The sweetheart dessert, though, was pumpkin-honey flan ($3.95), a not-too-sweet custard that supplied a welcome coarse texture in contrast with the big flavors of an accompanying whiskey-cinnamon sauce. It also looked lovely, crowned with a loop-the-loop halo of caramelized sugar.

Happy hour was yet another happy shocker. I didn't think anything could persuade me to endure this ritual in Uptown again, but the proximity to the Lagoon, the high, smoke-diffusing ceilings, and the absence of head-butting drunks has lured me but good. Most drinks (including three of the margaritas) are priced at $2.75, plus there's free popcorn, and chips accompanied by Abilene's smoky homemade salsa. Or, for $2.75, there's a choice of snacks, including those lovely flautas I mentioned above, as well as smoked-chicken nachos. (Happy hour runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. to midnight weekdays; weekends it stretches from noon until 7 p.m. and from 10:30 p.m. to midnight.) Just be sure to make a hard left upon entering: The reduced prices only fly in the bar.

Now on to the problems. (Why wouldn't there be problems? With champagne, hangover. With snow, shoveling. With a president who genuinely likes and understands women, fellatio and impeachment. Why wouldn't Bar Abilene follow the pattern of life?) Perched high above Abilene's tables is a series of monitors, standard sports-bar issue, upon which old Westerns are broadcast. Or rather, all during my visits, one old Western: South of Santa Fe, starring Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes. I probably saw that film half a dozen times, and aside from the fact that I'm a bit of a film snob and think that's a disrespectful thing to do to a movie, the fact of the matter is that while you can't really see the movie, you can't really ignore it, either. The effect is to take a very nice restaurant and give it an ersatz, corporate-imagined, cheesy edge.

Double-dog ditto for the music. Bar Abilene seems to pride itself on playing a preset rock mix. I say "pride" because the volume is turned up very loud at all times, and in addition to being piped into the restaurant, the tunes are also broadcast outside, onto the blameless corner of Fremont and Lagoon. For patrons, any gap in conversation is paved over with this repeating mix of loud classic rock only vaguely Western in theme (I noted the Doobie Brothers, Bob Seger, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the Eagles), which becomes a significant and annoying part of the dining experience. For those of us who prefer not to contemplate the Doobie Brothers, the net effect is that of being trapped on a road trip in some stranger's car.

Do I sound inordinately crabby about the Doobie Brothers? It's not unusual for this time of year, you know. My new friend Roger Highfield says there's even a Swiss word for it: Weihnachtscholer, which translates as "Christmas-unhappiness." On the other hand, Highfield also points out that "pleasure is itself an antidote to the stresses of modern life," and that "modified hedonism" may well be the true path to health and happiness. In that case... Barkeep, send me a flight.

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