I wasn't impressed the first time I ate at Pub Thirty-Two, and it wasn't our server's fault. In fact, he did everything he could to make everything sound impressive. When I said I wanted the Sriracha wings as a starter, he launched into a near-two-minute soliloquy on how they're soaked in duck fat.
"You mean they're cooked in it, like confit?" I asked.
No, he said, they're kept in duck fat before cooking so the meat just falls off the bone. And when he served the wings, he pointed out that the blue cheese dipping sauce was made with cheese from Ireland. He was right on both points: The meat did peel off as easily as a Post-It Note, and the dressing was indeed chunky with crumbled cheese.
But as I ate them, they tasted like every other hot wing I've eaten at every airport sports bar from here to Logan. The sauce might have been less stinging than those that employ Frank's hot sauce, and there was some residual richness from the duck fat that I wouldn't have detected if he hadn't mentioned it, but what I noticed most was the lack of fresh-from-the-fryer crispness. And if I have only one expectation for all things calling themselves hot wings, it's that they should always be crispy.
I liked the pork meatballs we ordered as a second appetizer better than the wings. The warmth of Middle Eastern spices pervaded each of the four golf-ball-sized meat orbs that sat on an oblong plate splashed with tomato jam and sprinkled with dry ricotta. The spices gave the pork an unexpectedly funky but welcome gaminess that made me wish I had some Persian rice, lemon and sumac with which to temper it.
Then there was the fried chicken main course that followed. The nearly boneless, nearly flavorless chicken was pre-drenched in bacon gravy, the green beans below it limp, and the cheese sauce for the mac and cheese that formed the base of the plating almost as thin as soup. And because it was all served together, with everything stacked atop one another in a wet, gravy-soaked pile, I couldn't sort out what was good from what was sludge.
I made a second visit the following evening. It was a Friday night, and the dining room, romantically lit by dim bulbs, was now bustling. Musicians strummed a guitar and warbled a song next to a bar that held people transfixed by a game on the television. Next to us were two couples in their sixties–Mission Viejo's best. The wives drank wine, the husbands beer. At another table, a husband and wife and their two young sons picked at the cheese platter.
Our server smiled when he recognized me. I asked him about the grilled hanger steak. It's good, he said, but the better choice was the special of the night: the Colorado Angus steak. Then he went on as he did the day before with the wings. He mentioned something about how the cows grazed in the same fields as wagyu cattle, how tender it was, and how when he worked at Morton's, a steak of this quality would go for $70. Here, he said, it's just $35.
Because I waited for too long a beat before deciding, he grinned and added, "If you don't like it, I'll pay for it." But even without the guarantee, I knew I wanted it. A woman at the table to the right of me was already devouring hers, and every time she put a piece of the meat in her mouth, her eyes rolled to the back of her head–no joke!
In the meantime, we grazed on the Little Gem Lettuce & Radicchio, which had sliced pears perched atop lily pads of lettuce sprinkled with crumbled goat cheese and shards of almond praline–a salad we picked up with our fingers. It was more fun to consume than any other salad I've eaten in the past year. Then came the excellent fish and chips: delicate black cod encased in an enduringly crunchy but gossamer-thin batter served with a hill of house-made fries nearly identical to those at In-N-Out.
Finally, the Colorado Angus arrived: three hunks of meat perfectly seared to a crunchy, blackened crust, but pink throughout, on top of perfectly seasoned creamed potatoes, pearl onions and roasted wild mushrooms so crisp they could cut glass. This, I said to my date, was the best steak I've had in years. A pleasure to slice and a thrill to chew, it had a beefy pureness absent of sinew that was also so well-cooked and -rested it didn't bleed out on the plate. After I mopped the plate clean of its pan sauce, I realized that, for once, our waiter's hyperbolic descriptions weren't nearly hyperbolic enough. I hope they put it on the regular menu in perpetuity.
Pub Thirty-Two, 23962 Alicia Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 716-0687; www.pubthirtytwo.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.