Many know it as the most famous Irish bar in St. Paul. Built in the '30s, "The Rec" enjoys a storied history as the sort of blue-collar watering hole frequented by the kinds of dudes you do not want to mess with after a hard day's work.
Steve Mars, who owns the bar with his brother Scott, says it's the kind of place that people think they need to get up nerve to walk inside of.
"But then when they finally do, they can't believe how warm and welcoming it is here. I hear it all the time."
We can vouch for that. While the regulars posted up at the bar look like they've been coming there so long they're part of the fixtures, the almost all-female bar and service staff could not have been more welcoming or pleasant.
Pool table, meat raffle, pull tabs. Check, check, check.
But then there's the little matter of chef Jack Riebel working the stoves in the brand new state-of-the-art kitchen that the Mars brothers removed the back wall of the bar in order to install. Historically, the place only served Heggie's pizza and free popcorn. "We don't want people making a bad association about our kitchen because we're a dive bar," Steve says.
"I kept the popcorn," says Reibel. "I didn't want to get strung up." But the Mars brothers say adding food was the only way they could really improve the bar that's already pretty spot-on in every other aspect.
In a move a la the 1029, where Josh Thoma started slinging lobster rolls out of the back of the dive bar and called it Smack Shack, Riebel and Thoma's restaurant group is leasing the kitchen space (the business contract is actually more complicated, but that's the gist) in a symbiotic relationship for all parties.
Riebel actually grew up in the Como neighborhood where the bar is situated and he seems perfectly poised in this no-pretense institution -- everyone coming through the door has a kind word for him and vice-versa.
He says he envisioned a very cool, very Irish, very un-fussy menu, and took inspiration from the chip houses that tend to be situated on the same block as pubs are in Ireland. So the menu is anchored by an impeccable fish and chips program (choose cod, walleye, or shrimp) with a side of mushy peas and spicy three-pickle tartar.
"We serve the mushy peas with the fish and chips-- otherwise no one would order them and they're awesome," says Riebel.
He's right. They're bright green and fresh with mint, and it's tragic they have to bear the traditional mushy label.
Naturally, there's a corned beef sandwich. There's also a reconfigured Reuben, which may seem like an Irish sandwich, but Riebel reminds us that it's actually an American concoction, so he's stuffed his into a jalapeno popper that's coated in rye batter and served with "Paddy sauce." They're impossibly light and could easily be served in one of his upcoming finer-dining spots.
Paddy Shack is angling for best burger in the city -- and you're hearing it here first -- it might just be the best new burger of the year. The Paddy Burger has cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, and Paddy Sauce. Ring any bells? He doesn't want to get sued, so don't call it a Big Mac.
And if you want to go big -- really big -- order the Half-Time Burger, a double patty with three slices of thick-sliced toast. It's all grass-fed Minnesota beef, and he can't say what's in the secret sauce, or it wouldn't be, you know.
You'll also find a Boxty on the menu -- kind of a griddled potato pancake -- so integral to the Irish man's diet it inspired this limerick:
"Boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan; if you can't make boxty, you'll never get a man."
If you're not full yet, how about a bacon-wrapped deep-fried hot dog? The Rec's got six of 'em, including the County Cork, piled with beer cheese mac, mustard, and popcorn.
Or maybe a Dublin Lawyer, a lobster roll enriched with whiskey, butter, and cream?
The formidable quantities of butter and cream in this food is all authentic Kerrygold Irish dairy (you'll see their cow-grazing stamp on the menu), and if you've gained weight just reading this, remember that The Rec has a couple of calorie-burning options in the form of bocce ball and live music on weekends.
And if all that exercise makes you thirsty, order an Irish Margarita -- Bushmill whiskey, triple sec, and Harp -- or opt for what Riebel believes is the finest Guinness pour in the city.
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