The Scots have left the historic Alhambra building in downtown Redwood City and the Irish have moved in.
Martins West Gastropub served its last fried haggis this past summer, pulling up stakes after a decade in the beautiful 1896 building. Local lore says gunslinger Wyatt Earp once tossed back drinks here while his wife sang and danced in the Alhambra's upstairs playhouse. But the Wild West long ago gave way to wild rents and endless construction on ever-gentrifying Main Street. As they closed the books on their gastropub, Martins West's owners cited labor shortages, rising costs and other familiar challenges for the region's family-owned restaurants.
Nevertheless, Erik Barry, owner of Mountain View's St. Stephen's Green and native of County Wexford, saw an opportunity. He lured back to the Bay Area his former St. Stephen's Green general manager (also from County Wexford), inherited much of the Martins West staff and set about establishing the only Irish pub in downtown Redwood City.
Like most right-thinking people, I love Irish pubs. They pretty much capture in one warm and convivial place all that's good and right in the world: community, humor, good drink and soulful music. And in this case some pretty tasty food as well. Alhambra Irish House follows in the gastropub tradition of its predecessor. (The term "gastropub" was coined in England about 25 years ago, denoting a public house that showcases food well above the quality of typical pub grub.)
The Alhambra's exposed brick walls, wide plank floors and long, redwood bar harken back to the building's 1890s saloon days. The soaring ceiling, TV screens and loud music (modern pop stuff, not traditional Irish music) create buzz -- a little too much for my liking. I prefer not having to shout over my pint, but there's no denying it is a lively place, especially for the after-work crowd.
Four months into operations, the Irish House still looks a lot like Martins West. They're slowly moving toward a more Irish-themed décor and vibe. Renovations, extended hours, more tap beers and live music are all in the works. General manager Des Whelan said that the upgrades likely will roll out slowly over the course of several months given the building's historic status and attendant need for city approvals.
So, while the Irish House hasn't yet achieved full Irish-ifcation, Barry and Whelan are leveraging their St. Stephen's Green experience to make a fine contribution to the craic in Redwood City. They host team trivia contests on Tuesday evenings and happy hour runs from 4:30-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Meals start with fresh, grainy soda bread, served with pats of Kerrygold butter. The recipe is Whelan's and he should be famous from here to Dublin for it. Sweetened with honey, this dense-but-moist version of Ireland's iconic bread has no baking soda-bitterness to it. It is almost like cake. A bruschetta-style appetizer on the happy hour menu ($8) was another winner: crusty bread toasted with sweet heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a garlicky almond pesto.
Of course they offer shepherd's pie ($18), a comforting but otherwise unremarkable bowl of ground lamb and beef, peas and gravy topped with mashed potatoes. The fish and chips ($22) showcased an impressive slab of Icelandic haddock -- darn near the size of a leprechaun's surfboard, I'd say. The fish was a touch too greasy, but it was flaky and substantial, and the chips were crispy and piping hot.
The succulent, if slightly messy, Alhambra burger ($17) was topped with Irish cheddar, caramelized onion, heirloom tomatoes, pickles, arugula and paprika aioli. The accompanying side of fries was enough for two. I'm not sure what possessed me to order mushroom and pea tagliatelle ($17) in an Irish pub, but it was perhaps my favorite dish, a generous bowl of pasta and fresh peas made decadent with cream, shallots and Irish whiskey.
Candied bacon ($7) from the bar snacks portion of the menu sounded naughty and intriguing, described as being glazed with Irish whiskey and maple syrup. The four slices of bacon we received tasted only slightly sweet, not all that different from standard-issue breakfast fare. The house-made salt and vinegar potato chips ($6) proved the better choice for a bar snack.
The menu currently showcases 14 draft beers ($8-$9), including the classics you'd expect -- Guinness, Harp and Smithwicks -- and a nice selection of lesser known Irish and West Coast brews. Expect the on-tap selection to grow markedly in the coming months.
In addition to several whiskey flights ($17-$21), each one showcasing three whiskeys or bourbons, there's also a solid cocktail menu. I recommend the Irish Mule ($12), made with Tullamore D.E.W, a triple blended and very smooth whiskey, ginger beer and a squeeze of lime. It happens to be the only cocktail that gets the half-off treatment at happy hour. Ask for light ice.
An Irish pub absolutely must have friendly and convivial service and for the most part, the Irish House is delivering on that front. A meal at the bar on a Friday evening was enhanced by friendly chit-chat with the folks behind the bar, all of whom seemed genuinely excited by what is in store for Wyatt Earp's old hangout.
Alhambra Irish House
831 Main St., Redwood City
Monday-Thursday 4:30-11:30 p.m. (Kitchen closes at 9 p.m.) Friday-Saturday 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Kitchen open 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.)
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: No
Alcohol: Full bar
Noise level: Loud