How far can foodie culture extend its tentacles? One place we didn't see it going was your dad's bar. No, your grandpa's bar. The place where you can smell the brown liquor from the sidewalk, where the cig-bucket overfloweth on the curbside, where the pool table felt is worn to a shiny patina, and maybe the occasional scuffle has broken out over who really won the Porterhouses in the meat raffle.
We don't mean to say it's rough, but it's a working man's bar for sure, one where a much-needed libation is the order of the day along with whatever game is playing, and well, another round. Maybe a Heggie's Pizza to provide a platform for low-balls to dance upon like drunken fairies. In this place where, if you said to a guy: "Would you like a side of pomme frites with your burger?" you might get a look, and then bang-zoom — right in the kisser.
But here it is, Half Time Rec, Como's beloved neighborhood dive bar, beloved by you, beloved by three or so generations before you, especially if those generations were Irish. Big-deal chef Jack Riebel, who himself grew up in the neighborhood, is running the show at Paddy Shack, a sort of restaurant within the bar. To be clear, this is still working man's fare, it's just that a chef with one of the deftest hands in town is executing it, and the proof is in the levity of the shepherd's pie.
The cuisine of the U.K. hasn't generally been revered for being, well, good. The French, the Italians, and the Spaniards are the godfathers of cuisine thanks to hundreds of years of attention to the matter of gastronomy. But aside from Britain's world-famous dishes like fish and chips and a thousand ways to treat a potato — well, let's just say we'll pass on the black pudding and mutton.
Still, if one is inclined to drink like a pro, she must learn to put down the all-important base. Enter a thousand ways to treat a potato. With meats. It's noble fare, but ascetic, by and for the salt of the earth.
Then along comes the Midas touch of Riebel — he of the Dakota, of Butcher and the Boar, and the upcoming fine-dining Lexington and Forum. He leaves no potato leaden, no pea mushy, no coddle uncoddled.
Riebel's never done bar food before, and it seems he's having a hell of a time, hollering shout-outs to virtually all who enter. But then, he tells us he doesn't really like bar food: too greasy. He knows that taking a chef's approach to pub grub is a challenge — very time-consuming for one thing — but he knew he had to do something different in order to make people stand up and take notice of this food, in this neighborhood. Plus, the brothers who own the bar, Steve and Scott Mars, ripped the back wall of the bar off in order to install this state-of-the-art kitchen for him, so, yeah, the pressure is on.
As we take delivery of our cuisine — sorry, but that's what it must be called — we receive glances, comments, and guttural sounds of general approval from all around. Two dudes who had been previously debating the shittacular Vikings season turn to discuss the merits of the slaw with us. Dude number one: "I usually hate slaw. But this is a vinaigrette slaw, so it's great."
Dude number two: "Plus, this sandwich is perfect."
This perfect sandwich being the corned beef, served on two thick slabs of Caraway rye (the Irish way) pressed together with horseradish mayo, the aforementioned malt-vinegar slaw, and some Kerrygold cheddar. It skirts the line between authenticity, with house-cured brisket and healthy doses of rye, and bar sandwich heft — melty and crisp-toasted, something to seize with both hands and muscle down with a Guinness.
So he's mastered the national sandwich of Ireland, but this is America, dammit, so you know what that means: burger. Most chefs in town revere the burger (what good cook or eater does not?). But there are a couple of a certain age who were raised during a time when a fast-food burger was synonymous with dinner, chefs whose working mothers weren't setting out hot dinners each night. No, their '70s moms were piling them up in the back of the grocery-getter and hauling ass through the drive-through. Before you bust out your violins, remember that this was a time before fast food was so thoroughly vile, before it had become such a throwaway product. There was something almost wholesome about a '70s drive-through burger — really — and this is exactly, exactly that burger: lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions, and special sauce. One bite, and you're back in the station wagon.
The fish and chips (choose cod, walleye, even shrimp) are best in class, so you can forget about all the rest. Riebel gets the shatter-crisp exterior by combining two flours, beer, soda water, and yeast; the last three ingredients create a rise, or an "effervescence," contributing magnificent levity. His chef-de-cuisine Billy Ring is an actual certified food scientist, and he concocts a batter that eats light and crisp as a candy shell, while the fish steams gently within, yielding a tender, almost iridescent filet. Putting French fries next these beauties would have been a cop-out. Instead, Riebel wanted to re-interpret yet honor true Irish tradition, so his are potato wedges — baked, steamed, and only then fried and sprinkled liberally with sea salt.
Shepherd's and curry pies are historically straightforward, yet ingenious ways of dealing with leftovers. Fold last night's curry or stew inside of pastry, or pour it into a casserole under a blanket of mashers, and bang! Dinner anew. But even these standbys get the alchemist's touch at Paddy Shack. Curry isn't the traditional glop of gravy thickened with flour and seasoned with curry powder — oh no, no, no. Instead Riebel has cooked green apple and fresh pineapple in chicken stock, reduced it with curry, and then folded it into a dauphinoise potato — whipped and then lightened even more with egg white. Its brilliant fruitiness lives right at home within the airy potato pillow, but yellow curry adds earthy complexity, a foil to all the daintiness.
There are so many more discoveries on the menu, such as the streaky-bacon-wrapped quarter-pound Rec Dogs, deep fried and then piled ridiculously with things like mac and cheese and popcorn or scrambled eggs and cheese; the Irish boxty, another of the thousand ways to treat a potato that's an inspired take on a loaded baker; or the mushy peas Riebel's revived to make green as a Shamrock and fresh and minty as a stick of Doublemint. They make pea lovers out of long-time haters.
A chef walks into a bar and says to a guy: "Sir, would you like some dauphinoise potatoes?" The guy gives him a look and he says: "Mister, just gimme a shepherd's pie." And all was well.
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