BALLAD OF THE SOD CAFE

Ireland's Black Rose breaks no new culinary ground. But it does deliver Irish dishes superior to ordinary pub food, and at prices that won't turn you green. S‚amus McCaffrey's Irish Pub and Restaurant, 18 West Monroe, Phoenix, 253-6081. Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ireland's Black Rose calls itself a restaurant and pub. Downtown's S‚amus McCaffrey's calls itself a pub and restaurant. You don't have to be a trained semiotician to figure out which place emphasizes food, and which emphasizes drink.

Located in the San Carlos hotel, the place has the right Irish-pub ambiance. You'll hear thick Irish brogues at the bar, and inhale thick secondhand smoke everywhere. Walls are festooned with signs touting Irish spirits: Harp lager, Guinness stout, Irish Mist and Jameson Irish Whisky. Judging from the busy bar, this subliminal advertising seems to work quite effectively.

The woodsy dining area, paralleling the long bar, features green, Formica-topped tables, cloth napkins--a nice touch--and friendly waitresses who greet you like a regular by the second visit. You can see the televisions in the bar, always tuned in to a sports event, from just about anywhere.

The small pub menu--the same at lunch and dinner--offers fare that Oliver Cromwell's conquering army would have run into 300 years ago. Fish and chips, Irish stew and meat sandwiches are the principal attractions, although there's a bacon cheeseburger and chicken or tuna salad for the terminally unadventurous. No soups, no appetizers. Just main-dish grub with a pint, iced tea, soda pop or coffee.

While hardly worth an invasion, the food is good enough to attract a fair-sized office lunchtime crowd.

The Irish stew is the clear winner. Made with beef, not the traditional lamb, it's a bowlful of tender meat. Chunks of carrot, potato and peas swim alongside in a gravy rich enough to scoop up with a spoon. But you won't have to, because the stew comes with a couple of thick slices of homemade soda bread, perfect for dipping. It's a good way to have a hearty lunch without feeling the immediate need to curl up for an afternoon nap. I'm usually pretty leery of fish and chips, a pub dish that often carries as much oil as the Exxon Valdez. While S‚amus McCaffrey's version is unlikely to meet Pritikin diet guidelines, its two large, crisply battered pieces of cod have no greasy taste or texture. But watch out for the chips. You get a pile of starchy, underdone, commercial-tasting fries that will make you think that the Irish facility with the potato is just a myth. Most barroom sandwiches don't aspire beyond the merely edible. But the meat-loaf sandwich here is first-rate, because it's not treated like just another form of hamburger. The thick slab comes with an appealing charred top, and the meat is flecked with flavorful bits of pickle. There's no mushy bun, either, but a grilled kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato and onion.

The corned-beef sandwich, though, lives down to pub-food standards. Some tired-looking meat comes slathered with half-melted Swiss cheese on rubbery rye. The unappetizing quality is enhanced by a thick layer of mayonnaise that looks like it was applied with a trowel.

All the dishes are accompanied by coleslaw, potato salad or macaroni salad that would have remained untouched even at the height of the Irish potato famine.

Downtown Phoenix is not the most promising location to offer a "wee bit of Ireland." But S‚amus McCaffrey's is not a bad choice at all for a wee bit of lunch.

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