Thursday, October 21, 2010
In this age of foodie-mania – where pig heart, foie gras and soft-boiled quail eggs reign – we tend to forget about the simple foods we will always love. Like good old French fries. I’m not talking about those gastropub fries drizzled with truffle oil or fried in duck fat; I’m talking straight-up, no-nonsense East-Coast-boardwalk fries. And the fresh-cut chips ($4) at Flanagan’s Irish-American pub may be some of the best French fries in the Golden State. On the outside they’re crunchy and lightly salty; on the inside, the smooth potato taste dominates.
Owners Joe and Lucian Opitz take French fries very seriously. In fact, 10 years ago the couple made a splash selling their fresh-cut fries from a small booth at the Laguna Seca Raceway.
Joe, a Maryland transplant, credits his childhood summers on the Atlantic beach for his French fry inspiration. The process begins with a batch of California-grown Russet potatoes, cut into strips (skin included) and blanched in oil (Joe says he’ll eventually switch to peanut oil, which is how they do it in Ocean City, Md.) before they’re fried. The chips are then left to cool and fried again to order.
Another gem Joe brought from Maryland is a crab-cake recipe passed on to him by his uncles, who are both chefs at Baltimore staple Phillips Seafood. Flanagan’s lil’ crab balls ($8) consist of five miniature hush-puppy-like nuggets filled with Asia-imported crabmeat (the same used at Phillips), served with homemade tarter sauce and slaw. Joe’s take on the ubiquitous Eastern Seaboards classic works well as a scaled-down size of the traditional version: The crispy, outer shell envelopes the creamy and tender crab morsels with a nurturing grip.
Along with the can’t-eat-just-one chips and made-with-love crab cakes, the other reasons to get happy about the 4-month-year-old Carmel pub is that it’s open until 2am every night of the week – the only pub of its kind in the immediate vicinity open beyond the midnight hour. Everything on the menu is served until 11pm, but there is a late-night menu served until closing.
“If I can fry it, I can make it,” Joe says of the dishes are included on the late-night menu.
The pub’s late hours are made possible in a sleepy district in part because of its array of entertainment offerings. The first thing you notice upon entering the second-story space – which once housed Sherlock Holmes, Big Dog and most recently, Bentley’s – is its rustic, wood-paneled walls reminiscent of an old ski lodge. The second thing is the games housed under its vaulted ceiling: a pool table, darts, a digital jukebox, three televisions, a multi-choice video game console and pair of liar’s dice cups sitting on the bar.
On my first visit I choose something standard to complement the killer French fries: a hot dog. The all-beef, half-pound dog ($7 with fresh-cut chips) is a 9-inch meat stick courtesy of Bay Area outfit Saag’s. The well-endowed wiener – “gotta make sure you have a 9-inch,” Joe says – comes on a toasted bun accompanied by chopped tomatoes, onions and relish. It is simple but tasty, just like the fries.
I wash down the all-American meal with a taste of South America. The caipirinha ($7), a Brazilian cocktail made with cachaça (a sugar cane-based, rum-like spirit), sugar and lime, hits like a more exotic, stronger margarita. Lucian, a native of Brazil, mixes this one divinely.
My friend starts with the Buffalo wings ($7) and a pint of Guinness ($6). The bleu cheese, trickled over the wings, cuts the spiciness of the sauce. For his main course, he gets Flanagan’s fish ‘n’ chips ($14). The pieces of cod are deep fried in beer batter and served with the fresh-cut chips. This pub fave is tasteless; it just doesn’t do it for either of us, especially at that price. But the dog puts a big smile on my face and warms me up for a couple hours of photo match and video poker.
Happy hours are always uplifting, and the Carmel pub offers one six days a week: 4-6:30pm Monday through Friday and 10am-6:30pm for the NFL Sunday Ticket. It’s $2 off eight draft beer selections, $1 off 19 bottled beers, $1 off liquor, $2 off more than 20 wine selections by the glass, and $2 off all appetizers.
Joe recently let me preview Flanagan’s newly expanded menu, which he says will go in effect within the next couple weeks. Like the fish ‘n’ chips, the menu can use a slight boost. Some of the new items include a buffalo chicken sandwich ($9), a boneless chicken tender smothered in homemade sauce with a bleu cheese dressing, and a traditional shepherd’s pie ($11).
The menu may be growing larger, but the plan remains the same: Keep it simple and continue to make those kick-ass fries. New York Times columnist Russell Baker once wrote, “[French fries] are a furry-textured substance with the taste of plastic wood.” Baker obviously never had Joe’s fresh-cut chips.