1760 Camino del Rio North, Mission Valley
In America, everybody is Irish one day a year. Planning for St. Patrick's Day, I headed for what I thought was a new Irish pub. Well, bother and begorrah, I was wrong on both counts. You probably knew it all along, and you're laughing at me right now. Bennigan's has been around for about 30 years, and as for Irish, it only dusts off its shamrocks and leprechauns on March 17. At its annual St. Paddy's Day party, the restaurant serves corned beef and cabbage until 6 p.m., then shuts down, reopening an hour later for an adults-only bash with keg stations, specials on green beer and shots, and a DJ (cover charge $5).
Housed in a stand-alone building at the edge of a Mission Valley mall, across the east parking lot from Robinson's-May, Bennigan's is not, however, a stand-alone restaurant. Purportedly founded by a real Mr. Bennigan, an Irish immigrant, it's come a long way since he dished up Mrs. Bennigan's stew. The restaurant is just one of the chains run by international Metromedia Restaurant Group (founded in 1976 and headquartered in beautiful Plano, Texas) that includes Ponderosa Steakhouse, Bonanza Steakhouse, Steak and Ale, and (the lone genuine stand-alone), Plano Tavern. The corporation has over 1000 franchises worldwide. You can find a Bennigan's in more than 300 locations, including Qatar, Bahrain, Korea, Panama -- you name it. None are up and running in Ireland yet, but one is on the way.
What Bennigan's turns out to be is a "theme restaurant," to the tune of "Kiss Us, We're Irish." The pretend-Old Sod pub is cluttered with old-timey decor -- a red wooden wagon (home to a houseplant) hanging from the ceiling, walls covered with antique soap ads and funny signs, ships' gear, tools, acoustic instruments, and more. It's quaintitude in plenitude. But video bingo and trivia games line the ring of tables surrounding the cozy bar. The Saturday afternoon of my visit, the crowd ran mainly to folks in their twenties and early thirties, some with rug rats in tow. Irish pop played in the background -- I thought I heard Sinead O'Connor, U2, and The Cranberries wailing behind the ambient din.
The bill of fare claims to be Irish-American but begins with an anthology of international snack foods -- a buffalo wing here, a quesadilla there, a satay stick yonder. You can eat regular burgers, bunless low-carb burgers, double-burgers, veggie Boca burgers. Or Caribbean crabcakes or Cajun salmon (ethnicized by dustings of spice blends). You can bulk up on pasta Alfredo or head to the "Health Club" menu section for low-everything grilled chicken breasts. Many dishes are dubbed with Irish-sounding names ("Turkey O'Toole," "Rice O'Reilly," "Kilkenny's Country Chicken Salad"). But make no mistake, there is not one specifically Irish dish on the whole multi-page menu. Except for March 17, corned beef is confined to a Reuben sandwich. (And forget about Ireland-Irish dishes like loin bacon and cabbage, black pudding and mash, Mulligan stew, boxty, bubble and squeak, cottage pie, Irish breakfast, etc.) It's easy to imagine the formula applied amusingly to other nationalities -- for instance (to use my own), instead of the "Sláinte!" signs on the wall, they could substitute "L'Chaim!", name the place "Tevye's," dub their double-cheeseburger a "Goldberger Burger," and serve up "the Rabbi's Rib-Eye."
That said, the food was mainly okay. While we pored over the menu, we nibbled on that Celtic classic, tortilla chips and salsa. The paper-thin restaurant-style chips were stale. The salsa had a nice jalapeño kick, but you could taste the sugar of its ketchuplike base. An order of "Irish haystack" brought a dinner plate mounded high with slivered red onions "frizzled" in a light batter, accompanied by ranch-dressing dip. Tasty -- but you'd need six more mouths to help you with them if you wanted to eat anything else. In fact, all the dishes are so generous that almost everyone walks out with a giant bag labeled "Bennigan's On The Go." The bags aren't just for takeout dinners, they're doggie bags for Irish wolfhounds.
Living on an island, the Irish eat lots of fish, and the closest approximation to Irish food here can be found on the seafood menu. Fish and chips are available, but we upgraded to the "Classic Seafood Platter." Our favorite item was "Tavern Shrimp" (also available as an entrée), prawns enclosed in a bread-crumb batter light enough to hint of a soda leavening. The battered fish fillets (presumably the same as in the fish and chips) are high-quality cod, breaded and fried to a perfect gold, leaving the centers moist. They reminded me of Van De Kamp's frozen fillets back in the days when that company offered real cod. A deviled crabcake with much bread filler is redolent of mustard, with a little cayenne and/or minced red chilies. The flavor of the crab shreds gets lost, but at least it's a change from the standard cakes. The platter includes unsalted skin-on fries (delicious with a splash of malt vinegar) and a jalapeño tartar sauce that tastes bottled but improves with a squeeze of the lemon wedge. Rounding out this array is a soggy coleslaw in need of CPR: "Drain the dressing, I'm drowning!" it seems to say.
"Riley's Rib-Eye" is a boneless steak marinated in a sweet soy-ginger sauce, which also serves as gravy. (Evidently Riley has been to Indonesia.) Rib-eye is my favorite cut, but this was tough, with little flavor. What it did have was sinew and fat -- gobs of fat. (The remains were much improved the next night, when I trimmed the meat of fat, then threw the leftover lean into the food processor. Minced and mixed with store-bought salsa, it made a terrific taco filling -- and now tasted like good steak.) This entrée comes with a huge dinner roll with honey butter, a house salad or Caesar salad, and two sides. The ample house salad features crunchy iceberg and romaine, cuke slices, a tomato wedge, red onions, and herbed croutons -- altogether satisfactory. Garlic mashed potatoes are moist and homey, streaked with pieces of skin. Cinnamon apples are nearly crisp fruit slices in a viscous syrup studded with raisins. This dish arrived as fruited napalm; the apple flavor developed once the mixture had cooled. We sampled an extra side of pulpy old green beans, picked past their peak. I guess that's an encouraging indication that Bennigan's uses fresh, locally purchased produce, not frozen veggies from corporate HQ.