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.