Oh, Danny Boy
Two sunny-side-up eggs are the center of a glorious breakfast mandala. Radiating outward from the innocent whites and yellows is a dark and glistening circle of things meaty and fried. There are thick red rashers of Irish bacon, shiny golden sausage links, two slices of black blood pudding and two more of white pork pudding. Fried tomatoes and mushrooms respond to the need to eat vegetables at every meal, and three fat slices of toasted and generously buttered Irish soda bread sit ready for the mop-up. The Glenroe Farmhouse breakfast is a lot to eat early in the morning. Luckily, the Irish pub called Slainte doesn't open until 11 a.m.
Slainte is pronounced "SLAWN-cha" in Gaelic, and it means "to your health," the barmaid Anne Hinds says. "Would you like some "aitchpea sauce' with your fry?" she asks me with a brogue. I have no idea what she's talking about. It takes me a minute to remember that a breakfast like this is called a fry in Ireland, and that natives often eat it with ketchup. I make her repeat the words "aitchpea sauce" three times before giving up. I ask her to bring some just to figure out what it is. It turns out to be HP Sauce.
"Where are you from?" I ask her.
"County Down," she says.
"Northeast of Belfast."
"So are you Orange or Green?" I ask.
Anne looks at me as if I have inquired about her virginity. "Have you ever been to Ireland?" she asks.
"Yes," I answer.
"Well, then, you didn't learn much," she says with an edge to her voice.
"Nobody would ever ask such a question in Ireland. What does it matter?" She stomps off in a huff.
I sit with a hangdog expression for a few minutes, feeling like I have made a terrible mistake. But the truth is that since I have traveled in only the south of Ireland, I would never have had occasion to ask the dumb question. I explain this to the barmaid when she comes back by my table. I also tell her that my father's mother was Orange and my father's father was Green, which makes it terribly difficult for me to decide which terrorist organization to join. Then she laughs, and I'm off the hook.
"Have you ever seen a pub like this in Ireland?" I ask her.
"There are some like this," she says diplomatically.
Slainte is practically empty at lunchtime, despite huge signs outside advertising a lunch special. Which is understandable. It's a dark and beery-smelling pub, and when you poke your head in the door, it's hard to believe the food is any good. But this is the third time I've eaten at Slainte, and I've been knocked out by the quality of the cooking every time.
Slainte was designed by the Irish Pub Company of Dublin, which, true to its name, has built 350 such establishments in 40 countries all over the world. The company's technique is to design and assemble the whole pub in Ireland, then ship it to its destination and install it. Even the chairs, signs and bric-a-brac are imported. Slainte cost $1.2 million to construct. The Irish Pub Company was also responsible for a place in Austin called Fado, which was the first of these Irish pub replicas I visited. From the little Gaelic post office in front of Fado to the comfy book-lined poet's nook in back, the whole thing reeked of Epcot Center. I hated it on sight.
I sip my tea-bag tea, which is served in an awful glass coffee cup with a Bailey's Irish Cream logo on it. The shelves above the nook where I'm sitting boast imported Irish books, which lean on imported Irish crockery. I try to pull the glass door open to see which Irish writers wrote the Irish books, but the doors are nailed shut. These books obviously aren't the kind you read. They are the kind that designers arrange carefully in a display case so that they look like somebody has been reading them. I can't believe they have imported all these worthless Irish cream-cracker boxes and empty bottles, but they forgot to send along a proper Irish teapot and a couple of decent teacups.
Yes, the food is great -- it's the whole faux Irish pub thing that's hard to take. Yet every time I work up a little indignation about Slainte, something happens to change my mind.
The first time I visited Slainte was late at night after a baseball game at Enron. It was quite a scene. The place was packed, and there was some sort of street person/ entertainer annoying everyone at the bar. Somehow, I found an empty stool and ordered Murphy's amber-battered fish and chips, and a pint of half-and-half (Harp and Guinness). The entrée featured one big piece of fish, impressively battered and fried perfectly without an apparent speck of grease. Regardless of its inauthenticity -- everybody knows fish and chips in an Irish pub are supposed to be inedibly greasy -- the fish was excellent, and so were the fries.
As I wolfed my supper, I was thinking about how clueless the customers were; a bunch were drinking bourbon and Cokes or white wine. The rest seemed to be asking for frozen margaritas. Obviously nobody really got the concept here. Or, on second thought, maybe frozen margaritas were just the thing to drink at an Irish pub in Houston. They are sort of green.
My cynical train of thought was derailed by a young man with a dark complexion who sat down beside me. I guessed he might be Indian. But when he turned his head and I considered the hawkish curve of his nose, I wondered if he might not be South American. Finally I struck up a conversation with him. His name was Raj Shah, and he had just moved here from Chicago to work on a software project, he said. I asked him why a young Indian software guru would choose to hang out in an Irish pub.
"Homesick, I guess," he said.
Raj explained that he was born in Killarney. His family has lived in Ireland for five generations. His grandfather was in the clothing business. Raj's father was the first generation to go to college. His father is now a patent attorney, and his mother a psychiatrist back in Killarney. Our conversation doused the flames of my cynicism and put me back in my place. Who was I to judge? Raj Shah is a lot more Irish than I will ever be. And he likes Slainte just fine.
The second time I visited Slainte, there were a lot of men in kilts drinking at the bar. I ordered the Irish lamb stew, served in a hollowed-out round loaf of bread, and my dining companion, Fort Worth writer Christina Patowski, had the Shanagarry Farmhouse chicken potpie. The stew was dull. It needed a lot of mustard and thyme or some other seasonings to bring it out of its torpor. But the chicken potpie was sensational. I convinced Christina to turn it over so the top crust was on the plate and the filling ran all over. We used the buttery pieces of pastry shell to sop up the sumptuous filling of cream and tender chicken. In the process of having "a little taste," I believe I ate at least half of poor Christina's dinner. The green beans served on the side of the potpie were perfectly cooked and nicely seasoned, and the spuds weren't bad either.
Meanwhile, more guys with kilts filed into the pub. A guy in a kilt inspires one of two reactions in me: If he has no particular reason to wear the garment, I judge he's a flake. But if he has a good reason, like the kilt is part of the uniform of some Scottish regiment or marching bagpipe band, then I think he's cool. Don't ask me why I think this way; it's a very complicated guy thing.
The men in kilts at Slainte proved to be members of a group called the Loch Dhu Dancers who perform occasionally in the back room to the strains of live Celtic music. The group, which includes an equal number of men and women, is named after its favorite whiskey. They started out by following bagpipers around Renaissance festivals, dancing jigs and reels for their own amusement. Eventually they formed a troupe and learned some authentic Celtic dances. The group now includes an award-winning Irish step dancer.
The jury was still out on the cool-versus-flaky question until I discovered that the Loch Dhu Dancers were being paid for their performance. This put the kilted men clearly into the cool category. It's one thing to prance around a phony Irish pub in a kilt; it's quite another thing to get paid for it. But on the other hand, the fact that Slainte is hiring Celtic dancers brings us back to the Epcot Center problem: Would a pub in Ireland pay somebody to jig around in a kilt? I don't think so.
In the end, it seems both marvelous and stupid that every stool, barrel and dusty book in Slainte was brought over from Ireland. Marvelous, in that the dark wooden snugs, the old Guinness signs, and the empty yellow-and-black boxes of Jacob's Cream Crackers really do transport you in spirit to the auld sod. And stupid in that $1.2 million is roughly enough to build a swell bar and have change left over to buy a round of drinks for everybody at Enron Field. But hey, I didn't pay the bill.
On the subject of food, there can be little doubt that Slainte remains downtown's best-kept secret. The breakfast makes an astounding lunch. The egg yolks are a delicate dipping sauce for the sweet yet savory slices of blood pudding, the cereal-filled, pork-flavored white pudding and the wonderfully dense soda-bread toast. The Irish bacon, which resembles Canadian bacon but in long strips, is smoky and crisp. The golden fish and piping hot chips, served with a shaker bottle of malt vinegar, are delightful. The chicken potpie is the best I've ever had, and I didn't even get around to the shepherd's pie, the whiskey-barbecued Atlantic salmon salad or the steak-and-Guinness pie. Granted, the aroma of stale ale takes a little getting used to.
The trompe l'oeil doesn't fool your eyes so well at noon either. At night, Slainte's atmosphere is very impressive, but by the light of day the phoniness becomes more apparent. What looked like wood above the back bar proves to be stained concrete. And the painted ceiling stones look silly, too. But I must confess, as I sit here with my third cup of tea listening to a dirge by the Chieftains on the sound system, Slainte has caused me to confront my own faux Irishness.
Nobody in my family has lived in Ireland for a hundred years, and in that time, our ethnicity has been hopelessly romanticized. The ugly truth is that my father was out searching the bars on Friday nights trying to find his alcoholic old man before he drank the paycheck, just like Frank McCourt and so many other Irish-American kids of that era.
Maybe a phony Irish pub like Slainte is the perfect place to ponder the fantasy and reality of an Irish-American identity as well as the pride and shame that balance within it like a well-poured half-and-half. My tea is finished, and this delicious melancholy is making me thirsty. The rows of whiskey bottles are catching a gleam from the window. It's two o'clock. I should have gone back to work half an hour ago.
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