The phrase “Irish pub” can mean a lot of things in America. On one hand, I’ve partied at an Irish Pub in Chicago with candlelit hideaway booths and jovial live music that made me think I’d been whisked away to the Emerald Isle herself.
On the other hand, I’ve bowled and eaten buffalo chicken pizzas at Flaherty’s in Arden Hills. Flaherty’s prints leprechauns on pizza boxes, staples a clover up here and there, and fries up functional fish and chips. I like Flaherty’s, love Flaherty’s, but it’s about as Irish as the bingo hall on the other side of its parking lot.
Somewhere in the middle is Half Time Rec. Its four-tone blocky structure looks straight out of Minecraft, but hey — it was good enough for Max Goldman and John Gustafson, Jr. There are a lot of things that haven’t changed since its portrayal of Slippery’s Bar: You can still slink inside and get your $2.50 Grain Belt, and the men’s room door isn’t quite busted-up enough to replace. If you were last in there 20 years ago, some pieces of The Rec are still in there.
Yet, they’ve modernized in all the right ways. And the food! Everyone has been raving about the food! It’s Irish, but with a spin. Chef Jack Riebel and the Smack Shack boys assembled a powerhouse of a menu with killer fish and chips, one of the Twin Cities’ best burgers, and a mac-n-cheese sauce that haunts.
The Basics: The Rec stands watch on the corner of Front Ave. and Energy Park Dr. in St. Paul. More information can be found on their website. They were recently named Best Dive Bar by Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine, and their fries were touted in a Thrillist Top Ten.
The floor is plenty littered with pull tabs and kernels, but a sort of … I don’t know, cleanliness? … seeps out from where Riebel’s crew is making the grub. The Rec’s modern, sleek logo is freshly-painted on the back wall; one of those newfangled Internet juke machines pumps out auto-tunes between Journey tracks; and Plexiglas signage glows eerily crack-free. There’s a fine line between between keeping the people you’ve sauced up for years and alluring the young money, but Half Time Rec seems to be doing it nicely.
With apprehension, I ordered the beer cheese mac. With chicken, it was $11. Even as the words rolled off my tongue, nightmarish visions of molecular chicken bits in a thimble-sized serving crept into my head. I distracted myself with one of those $2.50 Premium pints. This same pint put me out $7 at a Friday’s a bit back, not that I’m still bitter about that or anything.
The prep time was in line with the 10-15 minutes advertised by my bartender. When it was slid before me, I saw right away why it’s $11.
This isn’t some puffed-up pricing larceny. No, it’s $11 because they serve it to you in a bathtub.
TIP: Order with caution if you’re not into popcorn or peas.
After scooping out everything that made the dish Irish, I dug in. The cheese was dairy cocaine. By that I mean, a) it’s addicting; and b) I would absolutely pile a three-foot mound of the stuff on top of my desk like Tony Montana in Scarface. It had zip. Nothing invasive, just zip. The noodles were soft but not soggy. It could have used more cheese, but that’s true about everything; and they don’t skimp on the meat. Very satisfying boat full of carbs.
I went back a second time and continued my Finnish Irishness by ordering the cheeseburger everyone’s likening to a Big Mac.
There isn’t much to say here. Think of a Big Mac, but bigger and better. That’s the Paddy Burger. If you fall for a Big Mac once in a while, you’re going to fall hard for this. If you hate Big Macs, you’re still going to love it. It bites smooth, hits every flavor note perfectly, and you’ll need like four napkins to get the sauce off your hands afterwards (or you could take the easy way out and just wash them).
They’re taking it to the Twin Cities Burger Battle this year, where I’d anticipate they’ll go head-to-head with reigning champion B-52 — who, of course, does bun-gutter as well as anyone.
UPDATE: They won!
Even if you’re not hungry, Half Time has plenty of merit. I just throw myself together for a night at The Rec. I need places like those, okay? I don’t need another one of those yuppity blank stare diners I keep confusing for one another. The Rec was a must-hit beforehand, but the Paddy food launched it well into the “If I could only drink at one bar for the rest of my life” echelon.
Maybe it’s only Irish a few days a year. Maybe it won’t take you back to ye olde Dublin, but you’re in Minnesota. In Minnesota, we like noodle mountains and big oozy burgers. We like to get in without dressing fancy, we like to kick pull tabs out from under our feet, and we love taking home half our meal. In those respects, Half Time Rec is the perfect Irish bar.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Changes were made 8-Nov, some minor grammatical cleaning and a less clunky headline.