My mother, ever the inquisitive student of world culture, once shamed me by asking an Irish friend how, exactly, it was possible there were tomatoes available in gloomy, sunless Ireland. I was studying in Dublin at the time; the friend she asked was my new boyfriend. Choking back laughter and trying desperately not to offend this Yankee horticultural ignoramus, he politely replied, "Greenhouses, ma'am," before turning to me and muttering under his breath, "Do you think I should let her know that we have the wheel here, as well?"
It was mortifying, and a reflection of how little most Americans know about Ireland. We know its jigging leprechauns and its whiskey-soaked dens of freckle-faced debauchery. We aren't as familiar with its real culture—the one that's a harmony of centuries of localized traditions while at the same time ravenously open to imports. And at the center of it all is the pub, the foremost gathering place in any community; a place to meet up for a Coke or a cocktail, after a long day at work or before an even longer night at the clubs.
Most stateside versions of Irish pubs fail to capture the social essence of pub life. They typically feign the charm of Celtic life with tired corned beef and cabbage specials and a continuous soundtrack of The 129 Greatest Irish Drinking Songs, EVER! Americans seeking a taste of imported Irish culture would often be better served by going to their favorite local coffeehouse with their friends and ordering rounds of Irish cream coffees. Still, for those craving a tall, perfectly pulled pint of Guinness and a hearty serving of beef stew, a visit to Molly Bloom's Irish Bar and Restaurant in San Clemente is like a small vacation.
Just off the 5 freeway and wedged into a strip of San Clemente's finest barbershops, liquor stores and motels, Molly Bloom's is, with its drab exterior and small, dimly lit placard, wholly unassuming and easy to miss; I drove right past it. Inside, the chorus of greetings from Diarmuid, the restaurant's owner, and Fergal, his younger bartending brother, create a cozy social atmosphere well worth an unprotected U-turn.
Cut in half by a two-way fireplace—the bar on the left and the dining area on the right—Molly Bloom's interior has the standard Irish pub features: low lighting, Guinness posters and bricks. Lots of bricks. Both bar and restaurant offer sizeable menus featuring traditional Irish dishes such as fish and chips, and bangers, beans and mash (a surprisingly tasty combination of sausages, baked beans and mashed potatoes).
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The shepherd's pie, a mixture of ground beef, vegetables and gravy buried beneath a top layer of baked mashed potatoes, is a popular choice and rightfully so: it's capable of satisfying carbohydrate cravings that you never even knew existed. However, protein packers need not fret, because with prime rib, filet mignon and salmon available from the restaurant menu, Molly Bloom's is entirely Atkins-friendly. For lighter appetites, the menus also offer a full Irish breakfast, served any time, that includes eggs, Irish bacon and sausages, and both black and white pudding.
But it's the presence of curried dishes that sets Molly Bloom's apart from other stateside pubs. An adopted Irish delicacy of sorts—a vestige of its uneasy relationship with the British Empire—curried chicken is featured on the restaurant menu while curry chips (french fries drenched in curry sauce, an absolute must-try) are available at the bar.
Visit Molly Bloom's on a very empty stomach. Chances are that Diarmuid and Fergal will convince you to start with a pint of Guinness—a meal in itself—and if you're like me, and find it simply impossible to have a Guinness without an appetizer (their non-Irish but incredibly tasty artichokes are a fantastic choice), then you'll have a hard time finishing your delicious meal if you're not deliriously hungry. Don't forget to save room for a Bailey's and coffee dessert.
Molly Bloom's Irish Bar and Restaurant, located at 2391 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 218-0120, is open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $20-$60, excluding beverages; beer, wine; All major credit cards accepted. www.mollyblooms-sanclemente.com.