Cafe Reviews

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.

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Howard Seftel