Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

Lisa the bartender carefully pours a Guinness — not just a drink but also a key ingredient in the few authentic Irish dishes you'll find on Rosie's menu.
Erik Guzowski

I'm so full of Rosie McCaffrey's beef stew, dunked in great quantities with thick, soft biscotti-like soda bread, that I'm suddenly having a hard time seeing straight. But the waitress assures me that I'm okay; it's just the local phantom playing tricks again.

It happened after that last bite of braised beef, as I struggled to finish the massive, marvelous portion. "It's a big plate," the waitress warned me when she set down that oversize bowl, brimming to its edges with tender, pull-apart beef, skin-on red potatoes, carrots, peas and onions with rich Guinness broth. And it followed a dinner-plate-size garden salad drowning in tangy ranch plus a fresh soft roll with butter. Just as I finished, the room suddenly grew dim, and I thought, I've done it. I've finally eaten myself blind.

But the waitress is insisting that the descending darkness is because of something supernatural at work in the restaurant's electrical system. "It's a ghost," she whispers. "I swear we have a spirit here that plays with the lights and the CD player." The sprite has been wandering wild since the Celtic cafe opened this spring, she confides.

I know better. It's only one o'clock, barely a late lunch, and I can see through the dark wood-framed windows that it's summer-bright outside. This fogginess consuming me is partly the gangly electrical system of a new restaurant, but mostly the ravages of contentment that come from filling my belly with that fine, deep muck of savory stew.

Besides, I've been to authentic Irish pubs before, and have heard enough ghostly yarns to have my doubts. I actually stood in line once to perch atop a commode in a historic off-continent European watering hole, lured in by the pub's promise that the toilet is haunted. The specter, so the story goes, gets its revenge — or its kicks — from the bowl, by blowing up the skirts of female patrons. There was no gust for me, just the questionable novelty of drinking one of the most expensive, tourist-priced Guinness beers I've ever had.

If there are any spirits haunting Rosie McCaffrey's, I wonder just how content they are, caroming around in a building that for a long time housed a Good Egg restaurant, in a neighborhood that long ago gave up its urban dreams to car dealerships, Toys "R" Us, a few Denny's, and way too much never-ending street traffic to make coming here on purpose a pleasure.

Rosie's is the latest incarnation by Séamus McCaffrey, who 18 years ago brought a taste of Ireland to the Valley with the opening of the Dubliner Irish Pub and Restaurant in northeast Phoenix. After selling that shop, he opened his eponymous cafe at Central Avenue and Adams. Now he's passed that on to a new owner, and introduced this pub named after his wife. Portions are generous — trying to polish off just a few more forkfuls of that hearty stew has my vision clouding again.

Unhappily, though, after a couple of visits, I'm wondering if a Celtic spirit just might be here to protest. My beloved stew aside, too little of this menu is actually Irish, and periodically, the dishes that are Irish haven't spent proper time with the stove.

McCaffrey has spent considerable dollars sprucing up the place, at least, decking the two-story property in a multitude of beer- and whiskey-logo mirrors, fake stone, green plaid booths, and a huge bar with Jaegermeister on tap. There's still some work to be done, though: Who decided to place a picnic table directly in front of the entry, situate the music stage right in the foyer so my companion almost goes face-first tripping over it, and put such huge ornate bases on the booths that the only way to sit comfortably is with our legs tucked underneath us?

If McCaffrey's ghost is grumbling, it's probably because while the place looks Emerald Isle enough, the new landlord brings us a menu that's surprisingly American.

"Paddy O'Melt?" my dining companion sputters, grinning at the pun despite his scoffing tone. "Séamus O'Sandwich (turkey or roast beef with lettuce, tomato and mayo)? Finnegan's Filly Steak (cheese steak sandwich)?" He was craving chicken and dumplings, and the closest thing Rosie's has is tri-mustard chicken, grilled breast topped with mushrooms and onions in a creamy mustard sauce.

It feels silly to be listening to gorgeous Celtic CD music (live acts perform Fridays and Saturdays) while chewing on spinach artichoke dip with tortilla chips, baked soft pretzels, chef salad, club sandwiches, quesadillas, a chicken Santa Fe sandwich or a bacon cheeseburger. As much as I like this place, there's something depressing about going to an Irish pub and finding such a limited selection of ethnic dishes. Topping potato skins with corned beef, and soaking chicken wings in Harp is a start, but it's still just bar food.

So where are the more adventurous things, like those found at Tempe's terrific Rula Bula — the traditional oysters, smoked salmon, Guinness and beef in pastry crust, or even the chicken pot pie and steak-and-mushroom pie from McCaffrey's original restaurant? I expect more risk here — after all, when McCaffrey first opened the Dubliner, he struggled to track down a distributor to sell him Guinness and Harp; the stuff wasn't even heard of in Arizona.

After my companion's and my first visit, we've already ravaged the best Irish items on the menu: my stew, his cup of soup and his fish 'n' chips. The stew wins because it's perfect. The Mad Paddy's potato soup does, too, because it's so soothing, thick, salty and smoky with bacon. The fish is a hit because it's so substantial and skillful, bringing a half-pound of flaky cod fillets nestled in Harp beer batter, expertly fried to airy gold and partnered with smooth-flavored coleslaw, a mountain of crisp steak fries, fresh lemon slices and a ramekin of pickle-pleasing tartar sauce plus, of course, malted vinegar.

On a subsequent visit, another buddy claims the shepherd's pie, me the Guinness-braised boxty. And that's all Séamus wrote. Other than corned beef and cabbage (a well-crafted dish with carrots, potatoes and soda bread), a corned beef and cabbage boxty, and a wolftone boxty (tender chicken chunks, peppers and mushrooms in a lush white wine cream sauce), those are really the only Celtic-flavored items on the 30-dish menu.

During this trip, I score really well; my companion not so much. Boxty dishes are grilled potato pancakes stuffed with a variety of fillings, and at Rosie's, they're remarkable. Two huge crisp-skinned, fluffy-gutted moist pancakes can barely get their edges around a heap of beer-marinated steak chunks. And there's more: The meal comes with a platter of mixed vegetables, Irish soda bread and soup or salad. I've gone with the soup, a highly pleasing Tullamore tomato Florentine, the aromatic broth bobbing with shell pasta, zucchini, carrot and celery. It's true that the steak requires more chewing effort than I prefer, but the plate is also priced at less than $10.

With the shepherd's pie, McCaffrey's cranky ghost reappears. There's barely a shadow of ground beef under the enormous serving of Cheddar-topped mashed potatoes, tasty but timid and undercooked — the dish arrives lukewarm and stocked with verging-on-raw carrots, peas and potato. The gravy interior is good, but we need a whole lot more of it.

A finale of Granny McDonnell's apple dumpling isn't helped by the oven, either. The plate looks appealing, with large pastry bundles sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar, surrounded by dollops of whipped cream drizzled with cinnamon sauce and chopped walnuts. Yet the apple inside remains virtually frozen. Our waitress offers to take it back, but we've lost interest.

"Why do I always get to come on the meals that don't work out?" my companion is grumbling as he pokes at the ruins of his shepherd's pie. I've been bragging to him about how wonderful that first visit's stew was. "I feel like I've got mashed potatoes up to my eyeballs," he groans.

Sounds like he's coming down with the same food-induced fogginess that I suffered from earlier. Ghost or no ghost, it's clear to see that while Rosie's looks Irish, the menu's too tame and tiny to generate much excitement. I'll say it: The pub needs more spirit to make it come alive.

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Rosie McCaffrey's Irish Pub

906 E. Camelback Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85014


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