Green Around the Grills

Arizona Roadhouse & Brewery, 1120 East Apache, Tempe, 929-9940. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.

Aye, laddie, may your leprechauns always be green; may your sainted mother find a four-leaf shillelagh; and may the Blarney Stone kiss ye back.

I don't know what it is about St. Patrick's Day that makes me want to talk like Barry Fitzgerald on acid and put an "O'" before my last name. Even though no one would ever mistake Arizona for the Emerald Isle, most of the Valley seems to get caught up in Irish fever, too. Next Tuesday, a lot of folks are going to be in a festive mood: They'll wear green underwear, pin dopey "Kiss me, I'm Irish" buttons on their shirts and consume enormous quantities of alcohol.

I don't think this is what Saint Patrick had in mind when he came to Ireland from France in A.D. 431. Over the years, he baptized more than 100,000 heathens and built 300 churches. Legend has it that he charmed the snakes out of the country. And by using the three-leaf shamrock to illustrate the mystery of the Trinity, he turned it into the national symbol.

Why fifth-century Christian good works in Ireland are celebrated in 20th-century America by an all-day drinking orgy is another mystery. But not too many people care about puzzling out the solution. The only mystery they want solved is: Where's a good place to get your Irish up on St. Patrick's Day?

One potential fun spot is Arizona Roadhouse & Brewery, a spanking new Tempe brew pub that opened just after Christmas. It's neatly designed, airy, bright, with lots of wood touches. The energetic bar area is where it's all happening: televisions, live music, mingling. But this is where the smoking is, too. If you want to eat and drink in a nonsmoking area, you'll be exiled to the front rooms, Arizona Roadhouse & Brewery's Siberia, where you can watch cars pull in and out of the parking lot. If the weather is nice, the pleasant patio out back makes a better alternative.

The St. Patrick's Day crowd will probably have its attention focused on the gleaming stainless-steel and copper tanks sitting behind glass in a climate-controlled room just inside the entrance. This is where the brewmaster crafts his five draft suds.

The dunkelweizen is outstanding, a dark, German-style wheat beer with a hint of cloves that's crisp and refreshing. Hefeweizen, a somewhat lighter wheat beer, is almost as good. The oatmeal stout is another winner, creamy and filling. I'm less impressed with Roadhouse Red and Roadhouse Light, neither of which seems to me to pack much flavor.

There are also six made-elsewhere draft brews on tap (among them, Guinness Stout and Harp Lager are both Irish) and about 40 bottled varieties from around the world.

The brew pub's operators have also had the good sense to pay attention to what comes out of the kitchen. The food here is surprisingly good, miles better than the greasy, prefab pub grub that most taverns inflict on their patrons.

Take the appetizers. How many pubs put together an antipasto? More important, how many pubs put together an antipasto that tastes like it could have come from an Italian restaurant? This one does, generously heaped with meats, cheeses, tuna, hard-boiled egg, roasted veggies, greenery and olives, all tossed with a pleasant vinaigrette. Cajun Beef Crazy Fingers sound like something horrible poured out of a 50-pound warehouse drum and dropped into a vat of oil. But they're not. These are tasty morsels of tender beef, lightly rolled with mild Cajun seasonings and cooled by a peppercorn ranch dressing. If you do like deep-fried munchies with your beer, the onion rings are also competently done, fresh, crunchy and not too heavy on the batter.

The main dishes are generally impressive. At the $12.95 high end, you can find filet mignon, a menu option that doesn't immediately come to mind when you're thinking bar dishes. Yes, it's a small piece of beef, but the quality is there. Cedar plank salmon isn't typical tavern fare, either. It's a salmon fillet cooked on a smoldering cedar board, which imparts a sweet woodsy aroma that may remind you of a storage closet.

The more familiar pub-grub suspects will also make you want to stay with another dunkelweizen. Pizza shows promise, if the basic version--mozzarella, tomato sauce and fresh basil--is any indication. A bonus: The pizza is large enough to share. The big, juicy hamburger is also right on target, and it's served with all the fixings on a kaiser roll instead of a mushy bun. The "Beer-B-Que" ribs aren't in the same class with this town's best models--the meat isn't tender enough. But the rich barbecue sauce almost makes up for it.

The side dishes further demonstrate that this brew pub isn't just going through the food motions. I like the crisp, thick-cut steak fries, sprinkled with cheese. Mashed potatoes taste like Mom's. And isn't it nice that somebody thought to perk up the grilled veggies with a bit of bacon?

It's too much to expect a brew pub to hire a pastry chef. But at least the proprietors had the good sense to find a decent dessert supplier. Both the chocolate fudge cake and cheesecake are worth hanging around for.

Over the next few months, the Valley is going to be awash in new brew pubs. At least three are opening near the new ballpark. And two more--the Gordon Biersch Brewing Company and Alcatraz Brewing Company--are poised to compete with Arizona Roadhouse & Brewery in the already suds-saturated Tempe market. If your two favorite words are "on tap," every day could seem like St. Patrick's Day. It's a good time to grin and beer it.

The Blarney Stone, 4341 North 75th Street, Scottsdale, 424-7100. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, noon to 1 a.m.

According to legend, if you kiss the Blarney Stone, you'll receive the gift of smooth talk and convincing speech. If you visit The Blarney Stone in Scottsdale, however, it's not exactly clear what gifts you'll be getting.

In our rising sea of upscale brew pubs, The Blarney Stone holds fast, resisting the trend. It's a throwback to the neighborhood tavern of an earlier age.

There's no brewmaster here making his own beer. There are no microbrews on tap. There's a decent draft selection--Guinness, Bass, Harp and Newcastle go for $3.75 a pint. Bottled imports from Pilsner Urquell, Foster's, Beck's, Heineken and Corona will set you back $3.25. You can count on your favorite Bud, Miller and Coors to be in stock.

Valley old-timers (i.e., residents who've lived here more than three years) might remember when this spot housed another Irish-themed pub called Ireland's Black Rose. The Blarney Stone hasn't made too many changes. The brick accents are still here, and so are the dart board, the beer signs (including beers that The Blarney Stone doesn't carry) and the very pleasant patio. When the live music shuts down, Irish tunes are piped in. One new touch, I think: The signage on the rest rooms is in Gaelic. You have a 50-50 shot of guessing right.

What does The Blarney Stone offer that other pubs don't? It's the food, at least some of it. Although this kitchen isn't steeped in culinary artistry, you'll run across a wonderful Irish main dish that you won't find elsewhere in this town.

Of course, Scottsdale isn't exactly Dublin. So when it comes to munchies, your beers will be washing down familiar nibbles like hot, oily Buffalo wings and a basic spinach-artichoke dip with tortilla chips. Under no circumstances should you be tempted to try the bizarre "Irish potato skins." These unfortunate spuds come stuffed with minced corned beef, cabbage and cheese, a combination whose time has not yet, and may never, come. You'll also want to steer clear of the "French" onion soup, which is about as French as the Coneheads. This forgettable version consists of flavorless broth, soggy croutons and tasteless cheese.

The reason you want to eat here are the boxty dishes. These hearty platters bring a bit of the olde sod to the Sonoran Desert.

Think of boxty as a cross between a crisp potato pancake and browned mashed potatoes. The Blarney Stone fashions three belt-loosening variations. The chicken boxty is stuffed with poultry, peppers and mushrooms, along with canned peas and carrots that somehow seem exactly right. It's all bathed in a creamy white-wine sauce. Another version brings lots of stout-marinated beef in a hard-hitting burgundy sauce. There's also a corned beef and cabbage model, coated with a parsley sauce. You don't need Irish eyes to be smiling after polishing off one of these plates.

The Blarney Stone offers several other Old Country options, though they're more British than Irish. Shepherd's pie is well-crafted, with ground beef in a rich gravy underneath a browned canopy of cheese-topped mashed potatoes. The Irish stew employs beef, not the traditional lamb or mutton, and not particularly tender beef at that. There's also not much in the way of veggies--a bit of celery, one slice of carrot. Good Irish soda bread helps, but not enough. The fish and chips plate is undistinguished--both parts of this equation tasted as if they were poured out of a freezer bag.

Yes, you can get corned beef and cabbage. It's as basic, and as snoozy, as it gets: a few slices of meat, boiled potato and boiled cabbage. Sometimes simple authenticity just isn't enough.

Desserts? "Ask your server," says the menu. We did, and on each occasion she told us there weren't any.

The Blarney Stone isn't the pot of gold at the end of the Irish-pub rainbow. But with boxty and Guinness, it does conjure up a wee bit o' Ireland. A rather small, wee bit o' Ireland, perhaps, but here in County Maricopa, that's about as much as we can expect.

Arizona Roadhouse & Brewery:
Antipasto
$6.95
Pizza
6.95
Beer-B-Que ribs 8.95
Chocolate fudge cake
3.00

The Blarney Stone:
Buffalo wings (10)
$3.50
Shepherd's pie
6.25
Fish and chips
6.95
Chicken boxty
6.95

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