Rations for the Sporting Life

Ricky O's, Ahwatukee Palms Plaza, 4855 East Warner, Phoenix, 893-6525. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Come football season, I'm a stranger in a strange land, a man without a country, a king without his castle.

That's because my football viewing habits rouse my all-female household to unladylike levels of derision and contempt. I couldn't get more grief if I were watching Pat Summerall and John Madden broadcasting the Christians-Lions play-by-play from the Colosseum:

"The Christians appear to be outmanned today, John. They just don't have the weapons to deal with the Lions' potent running attack. Persecutions have depleted their bench, and they got banged up pretty bad last week in that overtime win against the Pagans. It looks like it may be a long afternoon for the God Squad."

"Pat, I spoke with Coach Peter Paul during warm-ups. He knows the Monotheists will have a hard time handling the Lions' quick-strike offense and swarming team defense. But he's hopeful that special teams and divine intercession will keep the Lions off balance. And don't overlook the Christians' heart. These players are used to adversity and just won't quit. They're always going to give 110 percent."

It's not easy following three games simultaneously, furiously working the remote, calculating my up-to-the-minute standing in several office pools, keeping track of the point spread and making sure I don't run out of cold beer. My efforts aren't made any easier by my unsupportive family, which inexplicably fails to see that watching 14 hours of football on Saturday and Sunday does indeed qualify as "doing something on the weekends."

Invariably, I reach a point where I can no longer put up with their sneering comments. "Football is for morons," chants my wife, each time she passes the couch where I'm stretched out. My daughters, like a disapproving Greek chorus, nod their heads in estrogen-fueled agreement. How can a man relax?

So I'm forced to seek refuge outside the home. Guys like me flock to sports bars for the same reason that other guys flock to Judy Garland-impersonator shows: I'm with my own kind, and no one there is likely to scoff at my choice of amusement.

But I'm fussy about where I do my football viewing. Of course, plenty of television screens and icy brewskis are required. But the food needs to have something going for it as well. For me, it's not enough to beat the spread. I want to eat the spread, too.

Ricky O's occupies the spot that used to house another sports bar, Shannon Alexander's. There are so many television screens here that the place looks like CNN headquarters. No matter where you sit--at the sprawling bar or in the dining area--you'll never have to swivel your head to catch the action. Management also thoughtfully labels the screens with the games they're showing. This way, fans interested in the Green Bay-Minnesota match-up don't find themselves with a close-up view of the Jets-Dolphins game.

The place attracts an eclectic mix of folks. Families, dating couples and hard-core football fans all seem comfortable here.

Sports-bar fare tends to follow a predictable course: The only thing most sports-bar "chefs" do is shake out a prebattered edible from a 50-pound bag and drop it in a vat of boiling oil. But Ricky O's kitchen doesn't shrink from culinary challenges.

You can tell from the appetizers. Sure, you can find the usual potato skins, chicken fingers and deep-fried veggies. But you can also follow your team while nibbling curried chicken skewers, tender grilled white meat accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce, and a nifty cucumber-tomato salad freshened with mint. The bubbling spinach-artichoke dip also fires on all cylinders, served with crisp, cheese-flavored pita chips.

Full meals come with soup or salad. How many sports bars have you been to that serve cream of artichoke soup? Ricky O's does, and it's good.

You have to salute a sports bar brave enough to put filet mignon on the menu. I'm happy to report that, in this instance, Ricky O's reach doesn't exceed its grasp. Covered with sauteed mushrooms and a somewhat thin brandy cream sauce, the beef hit all the right carnivore buttons. Excellent grilled veggies and tasty herbed rice complete the platter.

If your team is losing, the grilled pork loin may assuage your disappointment. You get two medallions, paired with a zippy apple-mint salsa and pleasing roasted potatoes. Baby-back ribs, however, aren't in the same porcine league. The meat's chewier than you'd find at the best rib houses, and the nondescript barbecue sauce won't create any memories, either. The first-rate side of creamy garlic mashed potatoes, however, is a plus.

Burgers are a key sports-bar element, and Ricky O's models have nothing to be ashamed of. The Steeler burger brings six ounces of juicy beef on a kaiser roll, teamed with mushrooms, bacon and cheese. Don't bother forking out an extra four bits for onion rings, though. They're not worth it.

And keep away from the barbecued-beef sandwich. Mine tasted so "off" that I had to toss it. At least the French fries were hot.

Ricky O's offers a mixed lot of desserts, all fashioned by outsiders. The flavorless New York cheesecake has nothing going for it except calories. You're much better off calling an audible for the Oreo mud pie, a huge wedge of coffee ice cream laced with chocolate and fudge on a cookie crust.

They say there's no place like home. But on game day, guys like me feel much more at home at Ricky O's.

Jet Lag Lounge, 7908 East Chaparral, Scottsdale, 941-9144. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

A windowless bunker tucked away in the far corner of a Safeway shopping center, Jet Lag Lounge looks, from the outside, like the kind of place it would take some courage to enter.

Don't be deterred. It's a friendly neighborhood spot that dishes out some pretty fair pub grub and all the football action.

Actually, you don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy this place. Art lovers ought to stop in, too. That's because the walls are covered with some of this town's most eye-catching murals. If I didn't know better, I'd swear they'd been commissioned by the WPA during the New Deal. These colorful scenes of old Scottsdale give the Jet Lag Lounge real character.

This place markets itself as a meeting spot for Nebraska Cornhusker and Minnesota Viking fans. Don't look for rowdy. Almost nobody here has been carded since the Carter administration. And not too many patrons seem overly concerned about the surgeon general's warning about the danger of tobacco.

The food reflects the sports bar's Middle America fan base. Most every recipe here begins, "Heat the oil." The beers, too, reflect a certain Midwestern conservatism. There are no boutique microbrews, no exotic suds from faraway lands and no brews on tap. About a dozen familiar bottled beers--icy, icy cold--will slake your thirst through four quarters.

If you're here to munch, the chicken wings offer simple, uncomplicated, oily pleasure. So does the huge pile of breaded and fried zucchini. But steer clear of the $4 onion rings, freezer-bag specimens that don't even get back to the line of scrimmage.

As you might expect, the main dishes don't push the culinary envelope. Midwesterners will feel right at home digging into the massive breaded pork patty, placed atop a slice of toast and smothered with gravy. It's paired with the lumpiest mashed potatoes west of the Mississippi. The fresh, grilled walleyed pike will bring a smile to the lips of displaced Minnesotans. And I'd come here for the baby-back ribs even if the only sports event on television were an ESPN tractor pull. These meat-laden bones are excellent, smoky and tender. But they come with awful mixed veggies, the kind your mother made you eat.

The filet mignon needs to be reconsidered--the kitchen is out of its element here. And somebody goofed big-time on the burger. I ordered it medium, but what I got looked like steak tartare. Attention, line cooks: Nobody eats rare burgers anymore.

Desserts aren't usually a sports-bar highlight, but Jet Lag's are an exception. They're made in-house, and worth the splurge. German chocolate cake is outstanding, and the pumpkin bread rolled with cream cheese is even better.

Do you miss the Minnesota Vikings, walleyed pike and secondhand smoke? Then Jet Lag Lounge is where you should be hanging out.

Arena Sports Grill, 6245 East Bell, Scottsdale, 948-0008. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.

I liked the food at Arena Sports Grill. I enjoyed the large microbrew and around-the-world beer selection. But the service pace here is so frenetic--someone is asking if you want more food or beer every 30 seconds--that it's hard to get into the flow of the game. The staff should be tested for methamphetamines.

Too bad, too, because someone in this kitchen knows how to cook. Naturally, there are the familiar fried munchies: mushrooms, zucchini, mozzarella sticks. But they're crisp and right out of the fryer. The nachos platter, meanwhile, is first-rate, heaped with beans, cheese, onions, tomatoes and jalapenos.

The culinary talent is evident in the pollo fundido. If you've ever dreamed of playing defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, this mouth-watering baby will bulk you up. It's an enormous fried burro, loaded with chicken and mild chiles, then topped with a green sauce, sour cream and an acre of melted cheese. Penne pasta is also well-fashioned, aided by grilled chicken and a whiskey cream sauce. Smothered chicken is another effective poultry dish, a sauteed breast lined with cheese and coated with tomatoes, onions, peppers and red chiles, served over rice.

The hefty Philly cheesesteak sandwich is all it should be, thin-sliced beef, grilled onions and cheese. The steak sandwich, seasoned with garlic and pepper, gets high marks for tenderness and lack of gristle. And the half-pound burger should see you through to halftime, especially if you top it, as I did, with onions, grilled peppers and feta cheese.

All Arena Sports Grill has to do now is just take a deep breath and settle down. Sometimes you just have to stop and let the folks smell the pigskin.

Ricky O's:
Curried chicken skewers
Steeler burger
Filet mignon

Jet Lag Lounge:
Chicken wings
Ribs (full rack)
Pumpkin-bread roll

Arena Sports Grill:
Nachos (small)
Three-topping burger
Pollo fundido


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