Restaurant Review – Mickey McColgan’s: an Irish pub, California-style
There are people who don’t understand the deep, complex emotional relationship between an individual and their drinking establishment. It is more than a place to purchase a beverage; it is a venue for entertainment, a place to interact with a community of like-minded folks, and a connection to a tradition and culture. This is somewhat true of any neighborhood watering hole, more so with regard to sports bars, and pivotal to that apex of alcohol culture, the pub. Whether it be the restrained atmosphere of the British version or the more boisterous home of expatriate Scots and Irish, the pub has a power to charm even those who have never seen the real thing, and whose ancestors may be from the other side of the globe.
Which isn’t to say all pubs are alike; far from it, as they come in all shapes and sizes, having only a few elements in common – slightly archaic décor, preferably cluttered with cultural memorabilia, a long bar with a decent variety of tap handles, and staff who project the welcome and warmth we associate with greener lands across the sea.
The South Bay has a few places that present a traditional pub atmosphere, the newest of which, Mickey McColgan’s, opened almost five months ago. It’s a very Californian take on an Irish pub, bright, cheerful, and open to the beach breezes – the antithesis of the stuffy, smoky places of yesteryear. That’s entirely appropriate because the place was named for longtime Hermosa resident Mick McColgan, whose son Shane is the manager and part owner.
Irish pubs in Ireland don’t always play Celtic music and serve a variety of food – I was actually disappointed when I went to my first pub in Ireland and found people eating curry while listening to American bluegrass. Though curries aren’t served at McColgan’s, there are California favorites on the menu – one can get a variety of burgers as well as pastas, salads, and Auld Country favorites like bangers and mash, fish and chips, and quesadillas.
That wasn’t a misprint – they do an “Irish” quesadilla as a starter, made with corned beef, caramelized cabbage, cheddar cheese, and avocado cream. Not one element of this is actually traditionally Irish – corned beef is a Jewish dish that became very popular in the New York Irish community thanks to its resemblance to an Irish pork product called bacon loin. It is available in Ireland now only because American tourists started requesting it, though the Irish have lately taken to enjoying it themselves.
All that said, the Irish quesadilla was actually very good, corned beef tender and just a bit salty, a fine mix with sweet cabbage and melted cheese. The avocado cream was a decent substitute for guacamole – it could have used just a dash of chili to perk it up but was good on its own merits. I’d have liked a fresh salsa too – some hot sauce was offered, but salsa could have added a bit of oniony goodness to the mix.
Our other starters were a pan of caramelized Brussels sprouts with raisins, garlic, and bacon, and a large cup of beef and vegetable stew with Guinness broth. For those who have never cooked with beer, it undergoes a transformation in the stewpot – the alcohol disappears leaving behind a mild sweetness that goes well the malty, toasted grain flavors in the brew. The stew here also has tomato that accentuates that light sweetness – had I made it myself I would have added a bit more herbs and pepper for balance, but the other people at my table who tried it liked the ways that broth, carrot, and onion melded with the tender beef.
As for the Brussels sprouts, they were pure California – sweet raisins, a healthy amount of smoky bacon bits, and slight musk of truffle oil. I detected a bit of something else adding sweetness, a dash of balsamic vinegar perhaps, but couldn’t quite pin it down.
All of these starters wouldn’t go down as easy without a bit of a beverage, which the people behind the bar were quite happy to supply. They have Guinness, of course, and a variety of California craft beers, plus a decent wine selection and soft drinks. Those with a thirst for Bushmills or Power’s will have to go elsewhere, as they don’t serve hard liquor.
For main courses we had a lamb burger, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and grilled flank steak. The lamb burger was first rate, with caramelized onions, goat cheese, and arugula along with a mild garlic aioli lending varied flavors and textures. Hermosa has plenty of burger joins, but this pub can hold its own with them. It was served with fresh crisp fries that had a dash of seasoning and malt vinegar, a fine pub meal.
The shepherd’s pie wasn’t up to the same standard; the mix of ground beef with peas, carrots, and other vegetables was on the bland side. Food from the British Isles isn’t noted for assertive seasoning, which makes it more important that stews and stocks have the intense flavor from natural ingredients and judicious use of herbs. This shepherd’s pie was close to the mark but didn’t quite hit it. The flank steak was better, a bit past the medium rare that was requested but tasty with a little char from the grill. It came with sauce but didn’t need it, as it was fine on its own.
The fish and chips was the only item that was a failure, thanks to a thick fish batter that had no crispness at all. The fish was done through, so it wasn’t that it had been under-fried or cooked below temperature, but it was slightly soggy around the seafood. McColgan’s uses true cod, which can create an exceptional product, but something went wrong on this visit. When our server saw that I hadn’t finished most of it she offered a replacement entrée, which was appreciated, but our companions had to get home so I wasn’t able to try anything else then.
I have returned twice for lunch, both times getting sandwiches. The Rachel, like a Reuben but with pastrami instead of corned beef, was excellent. Coleslaw had been substituted for sauerkraut so that every bite had a pleasant crunch, and they grilled a good marble rye to make a flavorful and filling midday meal. On another visit I tried an order of three sliders and found that the beef burgers are just as fine as the lamb – their “black and blue” version (dash of blackening seasoning and blue cheese) hit the spot. Several variants on burgers and sandwiches are offered as sliders, and my other two, a mini-Reuben and a simple pub burger, were also very good. Mickey McColgan’s is often deserted at lunch, which is a shame, since they offer good meals in a pleasant environment. On one trip I had a server named Spencer who was a delight, happy to provide opinions, offer samples, and generally make customers feel welcome.
And that’s another element of the pub allure; the idea that the people who work there want customers to feel valued. The people who own this place and work here have that down on one visit a beer sampling was in progress and customers were invited to present their opinions about what should be on tap. Owner Shane McColgan is a regular and approachable presence there, engaging his patrons with thoughtful warmth. That hospitality is a big part of the pub allure, and it is alive in Hermosa.
Mickey McColgan’s is at 934 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa – parking below building, entrance just north of the door. Open daily 11 AM- midnight, children welcome, wheelchair access good from street level to restaurant. Phone 310-372-9700.