Little Dublin

Photo by Jeanne RiceThis I know: every person who writes about restaurants—even the most persnickety snob—harbors a deep and abiding love for some form of cheesy, greasy, non-gourmet, critically irrelevant food.

My own affection is for pub grub, an appetite cultivated in college when I would hang out at Hennessey's Tavern in Seal Beach trying to scam free beer from a waitress friend. Eventually I'd get hungry, and I began to develop a hankering for Hennessey's British- and Irish-tinged fare.

Years have passed, bringing changes to the Seal Beach pub scene. With the Irisher bar and Hennessey's Tavern, Main Street in Seal Beach always had a bit of an Irish feel to it, but with the addition of O'Malley's on Main two years ago, the battle for the blarney is heating up.

It's an irony of urban planning that O'Malley's opened in Hennessey's old location. According to my sources, a lease dispute drove Hennessey's from the site, and to spite the old landlord, it reopened in a new place directly across from the new O'Malley's, setting off an emerald turf war Michael Collins would have respected. But when it comes to drawing pints of Guinness, it's a merry war indeed.

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And, frankly, O'Malley's doesn't seem all that different from its cross-street rival: long wooden bar, lots of beer, and a menu packed with standard pub food. They're not reinventing the concept.

But O'Malley's (and Hennessey's, for that matter) has what few places in Orange County do—a real neighborhood feel. Around 7 each night, sandal-clad locals schlep in for a pint, a bite, a little talk and a game on the tube.

Real pub food is more than buffalo wings, potato skins and thick burgers with steak fries. It hearkens back to the slapdash cuisine of Ireland and England, with cured meats, sausages, dinner pastries, and hearty stews and soups. Think brown food, and you'll get an idea of what to expect. O'Malley's, which serves all three major food groups—breakfast, lunch and dinner—covers all the bases here, with nachos, quesadillas and chicken wings on one side and Irish sausage rolls, corned beef, and bangers and mash on the other.

For more filling fare, a menu of house specialties is offered after 5 p.m., including such meaty favorites as meat loaf, pork chops, St. Louis-style spare ribs, and a very California-style tri-trip dinner with stuffing and roast potatoes on the side.

But on a recent visit, a friend and I roared to the heart of pub fare, British-style, by ordering the fish and chips and the shepherd's pie. I tossed down a couple of pints of Bass to even things out.

Before that, we thought, a starter of American potato skins and Irish sausage rolls would get us going. O'Malley's skins are a great, greasy batch of starch and cheese topped with bacon, scallions and sour cream. In one word, perfect; in two, vein-clogging. The sausage rolls come in a flaky dough wrapped around a fatty sausage. O'Malley's says they are "to die for," which doesn't so much describe the sausage rolls themselves as the Coleman's Original English mustard in which you're supposed to dip them. There's enough horseradish in this mustard to blowtorch your sinus cavity, let alone destroy whatever flavor the sausage rolls have. With this mustard, as Elmer Fudd might say, be vewy, vewy careful.

The entrées, however, reaffirmed my love of pub grub. The fish and chips features a full filet of flaky halibut lightly breaded with fine British vinegar and a tart tartar sauce on the side. The tartar sauce also makes a fine dip for the excellent, crisp pub fries.

Shepherd's pie is basically lamb stew with peas and carrots in hearty brown gravy, topped with variations of a pastry shell or mashed potatoes. O'Malley's version comes with a slag heap of tasty mashed potatoes on top that utterly hides the stew from the light (and oxygen) of day. But do dig through this pile, for treasures abound. The stew is rich with large chunks of lamb, and the hearty gravy is full enough to warm the chilliest of foggy seaside eves.

Though I'm a complete fool for good British-Irish pub food, I don't eat in places like O'Malley's that much, not when there are new places to sample. But like Hemingway's clean, well-lighted place, it's good to know that O'Malley's exists on a place like Main Street, Seal Beach, where the ale always flows and the hot corned-beef sandwiches are piled high, regardless of what side of the street you're on.

O'Malley's on Main, located at 140 Main St., Seal Beach, is open daily, 7 a.m.-1:30 a.m. (562) 430-0631. Full bar. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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