Saturday, January 31, 2009

Update: McNally's Happy Hour

BooooHaaaa!  Turns out all the good things at McNally's have recently become a little better.  Remember in my McNally's post below how I said if there is a happy hour at NcNally's I've never found it?  Well seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.   I found it.

There is a happy hour at McNally's.  Turns out, it's two-fers from 3 to 6 pm on weeknights.  That's a good deal.  Two.  Count them.  Two pints of Guinness for 5 U.S. Dollars.  

Got to love capitalism.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Day Special: D.C. Food

It's a pretty neat day in the good old USA. Even if you were not an Obama supporter during the election cycle, you have to admit, it's a pretty momentous day in our history to see an African-American take the oath of the highest elected office of the land. Sorta makes the times when people have said this was possible seem like those people knew what they were talking about. The Secret Fork wishes the best of luck to our new President, his cabinet, Congress, and all the rest of our elected officials. They are going to need it.

Meanwhile, back to the food. And, in honor of the inauguration of a new President and the peaceful exchange of power, let's talk about places to eat and drink inside the Beltway.

Washington D.C. is a wonderful town. It is probably the smallest "World City" we have here in the United States. No kidding. The place just is not that big. Granted, you probably don't want to try to actually walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol- which would be about like walking from the Sioux Falls Regional Airport to, say, Hy Vee at 37th Street. Nevertheless, it's a relatively small place, especially if you are relying on shoe leather and a Metro pass,both of which can get you all over. Really. I mean, where else can you stand in front of buildings pictured on the money in your pocket while on your way to a museum to see the aircraft flown by the Wright Brothers or the only Leonardo DaVinci painting in the United States?

D.C. is a damned good food town. Think about it. Anyplace where major hob-nobbing takes place, there has to be really good food and drink served to people who are not concerned with cost. You'll figure this concept out by the time you make a hotel reservation. Cheap this town is not.

Anyway, there are great places to eat and drink in D.C. Let's start with drinking and this has a lot to do with art. One of the greatest museums to visit in D.C. is the National Portrait Gallery. It's near Chinatown- more like China block- but right there. The building is the Old Patent Office. The art in this museum is PHENOMENAL. You can see old Trumbull paintings of Washington- those are on the front of the money. You can view furniture that the Keno brothers would kill each other to appraise and you can see other magnificent paintings and sculpture and all sorts of pieces that will just make the hours you spend in the place melt away. Forget the International Spy Museum across the street- you can see most of that on a Discovery Channel special. Best thing about the National Portrait Gallery: it's like going into a national museum pre-9/11. No kidding. No lines. No metal detectors. Let the people who want to see the Spirit of St. Louis and the extremely faded original Declaration of Independence stand in line with all the 8th graders from the State of Alabama. Other hint- the lines at the National Art Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, are not too bad, either, and there is a ton of cool stuff to see there, too.

So, after you spend several hours in the National Portrait Gallery, if you are anything like me, you are going to be very thirsty. Granted, chain joints are not the Fork's thing, but the closest watering hole to the museum is a Gordon Biersch brewery right across 9th Street. Have a couple of those ice cold babies. Sit at the bar and visit with people. It's a blast. They always have some sort of special, seasonal beer on tap and I have never had a bad beer there. Heck, one time when I was there, they were having a keg tapping party for the newest seasonal beer. That was pretty fun.

Here's a bonus tip. There are at least another 2 cool venues within stumbling distance of Gordon Biersch: (1) Fado Irish Pub is at something like 7th and H- not too shabby for a pint and (2) Capital City Brewing Company- New York and 11th- good beer.

Near Capital City is a steak house called Bobby Van's Grill at 12th and New York. I was there for a group dinner once. It was okay and that's about the most I can say for it. The place was so loud, you could barely hear yourself think and the steaks were nothing to write home about. The stand-out dish was the side order of hash browned potatoes that came in their own little cast iron skillet. Almost enough to make you want to dine vegetarian in the place, but not quite.

Back to Irish pubs for a minute. One of the coolest ones is located about a block from Union Station on Capitol Hill- the Dubliner. Very authentic looking place. (Remember the dissertation on McNally's? Think dive bar with really dark wood.) The Dubliner has the absolutely greasiest fish and chips you can probably find. You can probably cure a hangover sitting outside in front of the Dubliner with an order of fish and chips and a few pints of Guinness. Actually, I think I did.

As far as the Fork is concerned, if there is any mandatory stop in D.C., it is a visit to Old Ebbit's Grill at about 15th and G. This is supposedly one of the oldest restaurants in D.C and is has clearly hosted many a power lunch or dinner. The mahogany wood and white marble decor certainly gives that impression. The fact it's adjacent to the Willard Hotel helps, too. The food is all good at this place, and not terribly expensive, but the star attraction is that appetizer menu. One word. Oysters.

If you think you don't like oysters, and by that I mean raw oysters, served on the half shell with minimal accompaniments, you either (1) have never actually had fresh oysters (you Christmas Eve Oyster Stew lovers know who you are) or (2) had them in some joint on or within a block of Bourbon Street and spent half the next morning yakking your guts out. (Which had more to do with the 4 Hurricanes, 9 beers (only 3 three-fers), the sazerac, hand grenade, and shot in a test tube offered by a stripper who looked like she might have been 17, than it did with the oysters. Seriously.) Old Ebbit prides itself on its oyster offerings. I've never been there when they have had less that 6 different types, which are usually a good mix of East Coast and West Coast oysters. We're talking good, cold water oysters here. Come to think of it, I've never seen the warm water Louisiana Gulf Coast oysters on the offering at Old Ebbit. Some of the oysters are very small. Others are huge. Try the mignonette sauce- scallions and red wine vinegar- on those babies, and leave the cocktail sauce in the cup. Well, okay, try a little of the cocktail sauce on one oyster, but make sure you put most of the horseradish sauce in it to get that super wasabi, sinus clearing experience.

When you get there, the place is going to be packed. Can't get a table? Screw it. Go to the bar. No bar stool? Screw it. Stand. Order a dozen oysters and wash them down with at least two Yuengling Lager beers. I once stood for at least an hour and a half after walking all over town and downed a couple dozen oysters and several pints of Yuengling. Sitting would have been nice, but the oysters made up for it. Betcha order at least another half dozen. Phenomenal. You wouldn't dream of having these oysters fried on a Po Boy Sandwich. They are just too good.

Old Ebbitt Grill on Urbanspoon
If you play your cards right, it will be dark when you leave Old Ebbit's. Give a homeless guy right outside the door a couple of bucks and then start walking in a westerly direction. That big building across the street is the Treasury (back of the ten dollar bill). The street running in front of the Treasury is Pennsylvania Avenue. It's blocked to traffic now, so you can stroll down the middle of it and stop and gaze at the White House (back of the twenty dollar bill). Way cool. As an added bonus, the next building to the west is the Old Executive Office Building, which is absolutely beautiful. Blair House is right there, too. If you can stand a few more blocks of walking, go north west up Pennsylvania Avenue and stop to admire the fountains outside the World Bank building.

Back to Chinatown, where there is a Spanish place called LaTasca. Good Sangria. Great sangria actually- order a whole pitcher of the stuff. Sangria is the wine equivalent of fraternity party punch. It's really good. Can't beat that. It goes wonderfully with several orders of tapas- little plates of food. Tapas means "tops" and literally refers to little plates once employed by bars in Spain to sit on top of glasses of sherry or drinks to keep the flies out. Eventually, the bar owners started serving a few bites of food on those little plates. This isn't like making a dinner of appetizers at a TGI Fridays. The food is much better (think a couple deviled eggs topped with blue crab or Serrano ham with a little lavender honey and fresh rosemary) and the portions are much smaller. You'll want to order at least three plates per person and will want to mix up hot and cold choices.

You'll get good sushi in D.C. too. I managed to have myself a $60.00 lunch (just me, thanks) at Sake Club on Connecticut Ave- kind of near Woodley Park and the National Zoo. A Midwesterner has never seen so much sake. Have the sampler- which will include sake fermented with fish. Very nice. Also, have whatever fish is the special, especially if it is the sea urchin. You'll feel like Andrew Zimmern shooting your own episode of Bizarre Foods.

Sake Club on Urbanspoon

There is decent sushi around Dupont Circle, too. Try Uni A Sushi Place on P Street. The Secret Salad Fork and I found this place with the Secret Teaspoon when we were in D.C a few years ago. It's REALLY easy to get yourself a little disoriented when ascending to Dupont Circle from the Metro stop. The escalator itself is about a quarter mile long. We probably walked 2/3 of the way around the circle the wrong way, took a self-guided tour of some of the embassies in the area and then finally asked somebody at the Westin if there was a decent sushi place in the neighborhood and got directed to Uni. You can generally trust recommendations from people in the service industries. It was good.

One of the neat things about Uni is that it is within a stone's throw of the Brickskeller. The Brickskeller is an absolute dive, but they have great onion rings and about 1000 different beers on the menu. No kidding. I have had a bottle of Carib beer in two places on the planet: St. Thomas, USVI and the Brickskeller. (Incidentally, that Carib tasted better on Coki Beach than it did in D.C., but I don't hold that against Brickskeller.) It's a fun place to go and once you're in the place, you can only imagine that every Congressional staffer and intern has been in the place, because they have.)

Back to Dupont Circle, where we went to Heritage India. I think. Been a few years, and like I said earlier, Dupont Circle can be a little disorienting. This is the first place I ever had lamb vindaloo. I was very excited to order it. The waiter, who had a flawless native Indian accent remarked, "Sir, that dish is extremely spicy." I said, "Looking forward to it." Famous last words. Without a doubt, some of the hottest food I have ever voluntarily put in my mouth. No kidding. Heavenly. It was awesome.

D.C. is a great town. Go. See the monuments and take time to read them. Go to Arlington National Cemetery- that's a life changing visit. Walk as much as your feet will allow and then push on to the next Metro stop anyway. Go to art museums. Eat oysters. Drink beer. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Sioux Falls Drinking Scene: McNally's

Mc Nally's Irish Pub on Urbanspoon
Let's get right to the point, McNally's is a great place with few drawbacks. The location is particularly "suburban" at the current time. Western Avenue turns to gravel within a mile or so of its intersection with 69th Street. Nevertheless, the place is actually kind of centrally located between the East and West sides. Moreover, it's worth the short drive.

In no particular order, here is what I think is really good about McNally's:

No kids allowed. If my memory serves me correctly, McNally's is the first bar/restaurant/pub in town to allow only persons over 21 on the premises. They are dead serious about that, too. It's been a while since I've seen it occur, but the staff is quick to point that out to people who do not heed the notice on the door and bring the kids in for a burger. I really like this. Despite the fact that the Secret Teaspoon has been with me in a few bars, particularly when she was younger, establishments that predominantly serve adult beverages are not places for kids. If I want to sit around and see how much Guinness I can drink while regaling my pals with stories, I shouldn't have to worry that I just inadvertently taught some body's five year old kid sitting behind me a new word that rhymes with "duck."

Some other places could benefit from this policy. I was at the Attic last week for a couple of post-super-stressful job beers. I made note of a couple of kids that appeared to be high-school age, and on the younger side of high-school age, at that. They had come in to have some sodas and play some pool. I am not so sure the good folks at the Attic want to be become the local after-school hangout. This isn't an issue at McNally's.

Video Lottery is out of sight. I am pretty conservative when it comes to video lottery. Or is personal responsibility for one's own decisions a liberal tenet now? Whatever. My point is: I don't give a rip who plays video lottery, why they play it, if they should play it, etc. I probably don't stick 40 bucks in video lottery machines in a year. It's fun to throw a few bucks in every now and again to try to win enough to buy another beer, but that's about it. Nevertheless, I don't necessarily like to see the machines and I sure don't want to hear the freaking things. At McNally's, the video lottery machines are in an entirely different room. Heck, they are practically in their own bar. If you enjoy playing the games, it's actually a nice area and there is always a friendly attendant on staff to provide change, cash out tickets, and take care of drink orders.

The decor is great. I've never been to Ireland, so I can only look at pictures or watch television to see authentic Irish pubs. I have been to plenty of "Irish pubs" in the good old USA, though. Most of the Irish bars I have been to have been dive bars (not necessarily a bad thing) that just happen to have better furniture and a fireplace somewhere. I think the folks who designed the place did a great job of incorporating what seem to be authentic features of a real Irish pub, like the very nice bar and back bar, the little private rooms, the fireplace, and the dart alley. I've heard some people carp about the concrete floors stamped and colored to look like wood. I think it's a great idea- it looks nice, has to be easier to maintain, and probably helps the acoustics. The copper crown moulding is gorgeous. I am a foodie, not an interior decorator, but I find myself very intrigued when the lighting is just right in the bar and the copper moulding is lit.

The food. McNally's has really good food. I've never had a bad meal there. Ever. This is a testament to using good ingredients and not trying to go overboard. If you are ever at the far end of the bar, near the window to the kitchen, look back there. It's not that big. Actually, it's a pretty small space. The place isn't equipped to run out multi course meals. This isn't "bar food" either. There is no fryolator in the kitchen, so no cheese balls, fried mushrooms, chislic, chicken wings, fries, onion rings, cheese sticks, or chicken gizzards will be found on the menu.

McNally's makes great burgers. It's hard to miss when you are using the good CAB ground beef from Look's and using phenomenally good buns that have perfect texture for a burger of that quality. The sliders are also good. Hint: On Saturdays during Notre Dame games, the O'Dwyer's burger is only 5 bucks. (That's a full size version of the sliders- regular size patty topped with pepper jack cheese, grilled onions and bread and butter pickles.) I am not so sure that burger is on the menu, so it's a special burger at a special price.

The mussels are to die for. Frankly, I am yet to find another place in town where I will order them. The green-lipped black beauties at McNally's are cooked in a broth of Guinness, garlic and parsley and served with two really nice slices of grilled French bread.

Here's another special tip: Breakfast at McNally's on St. Patrick's Day is a hoot. They usually make a special egg, potato, sausage hash concoction that goes great with a Bloody Mary or a few pints of Guinness.

The Guinness is great. Guinness is really an amazing and very misunderstood beer. It's actually much lighter than people think. In terms of calories, it's probably lighter than a Miller Lite or Bud Lite. It's not blazing hot in terms of alcohol content. People assume a beer that looks like that must be double digit in terms of percentage of alcohol content. It's not. It is also not served warm.

Lots of places in town serve Guinness now. That wasn't the case quite so long ago because it takes a special system to serve it on draught. Guinness requires nitrogen to drive it, not CO2. The fresher the Guinness, the better it tastes. Because people tend to want to drink authentic Irish beer in Irish pubs, and because the secret on the "lightness" of Guinness is out, McNally's probably taps more kegs of the stuff than any other bar in town. The bartenders also understand how to pull a proper pint. There is a six-step process to pour Guinness and one of those steps is to let it settle. I am not making this up. Go look it up. A good pour makes for a better pint. Trust me.

Besides the Guinness, you also owe it to yourself to try some Brown Jug ale. Remember the beer made at the Sioux Falls Brewing Company? (God, how I miss the Midnight Star Ale.) Anyway, one of the cool bartenders at McNally's- the guy with the long hair in a pony tail- and his buddies bought that equipment and use it to crank out beer from some location on North Cliff Avenue. Besides Brown Jug, they have turned out a Belgian-style wit. Whatever they are making, though, and wherever you find it, please drink some. There isn't enough beer brewed in this town and that's an outrage. Support these guys' efforts.

Darts. If you like to throw a few darts, McNally's is a great place to do so. There are two dart boards situated in a narrow alley that has shelves along the sides where one can set a beverage while throwing. Although the alley is probably one foot too narrow, the best part is that it's out of the way, so you don't have people walking in front of you or otherwise interrupting the game, except for people who mistake the area for the hallway to the restrooms. A word of warning- be careful not to run into the wait staff who frequently walk by the area.

The people. McNally's has good, attentive employees. A few of them have been there since the opening, but, by and large, it is McNally's Staff Version 2.0. I must admit, there was a period of time this last summer when I had some serious concerns about McNally's. The Attic had recently opened on the East side and quickly picked up some excellent staff members from some other establishments, including McNally's. We would head up to McNally's on a Friday or Saturday evening to find the place relatively empty. Unfortunately, during this time period there were a lot of new faces on the staff and they didn't seem to be orienting very quickly. Let me put this in simpler terms: Un-busy bar coupled with crappy service. A real WTF (What The Fork). I am not kidding, I almost started a Death Watch List posting and McNally's was going to be on the top of the list.

McNally's Staff 2.0 has come around very well, though. One advantage of frequenting certain establishments is that regular patrons and staff get to know each other. Not sending Christmas cards get to know each other, but good enough to know what a certain customer likes and that the customer will reward good service with an appropriate gratuity. The staff is friendly, snappy, and attentive. And, the place is back to its regular, busy, weekend night status.

Live music. McNally's also does a nice job with live music. On Friday and Saturday nights there is usually a little live music. It might be piano man Dan Larson playing Girl From Ipanema or other classic lounge lizard music, or Nick Rallis and friends, or some traditional Irish music. We're not talking on-stage, clear the floor of tables to dance or rock your butt off music, but its usually good and the most important thing is that it's live. This town doesn't do enough for live music.

Few drawbacks. As mentioned waayyy up in the beginning of this post, there are a few minor drawbacks about McNally's in my humble opinion. The first is the price. McNally's is not cheap. Pints of Guinness are usually five bucks a throw. Those phenomenal burgers are closer to 10 bucks than they are to 5. So, if you plan to make a night of it by having a burger, playing some darts and enjoying 5 or 6 pints, you better plan on blowing at least 50 bucks, and that isn't going to include feeding and watering your date or buying a round for your pals. If there is a happy hour I have yet to find it. I know I have ever got the check and giggled because it seemed so low. Personally, I think the price is worth it because the place delivers, but just know it's not bargain basement drinking by a long shot.

The other drawback is the occasional smokiness of the place. Granted, McNally's has a good ventilation system installed. That good ventilation system doesn't quite get the job done, though, if the bar is on the full side and a lot of folks are lighting up. There seems to be a "sweet spot" in terms of the ventilation. If the bar isn't too full, it doesn't seem to matter how many people are smoking, the air remains pretty fresh. Other times, it's not much different than being at the Crow.

Overall, a great experience. If you haven't visited for a while, you should go.