Pubs’ business is sure to increase now that the Stanley Cup and the NBA finals are underway. If you count yourself a TV sports fan, you might as well ensure being well fed while you watch.
I’m happy to visit one of the Hennessey’s Taverns any time for the cheerful ambience and surprisingly good food. There are eight Southland locations, including three in Orange County: Laguna Beach, Dana Point and downtown Seal Beach. The last, hard by a cutesy gift shop and a T.J. Cinnamon’s bakery, is the one I frequent.
The long, narrow room is divided into a bar and dining area. Both sides are crowded with rough wooden tables, ersatz Tiffany lamps and shiny beer signs.
By the way, Hennessey’s may have an Irish pub theme, but most often the music on the soundtrack is ‘70s Motown. If it’s the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem you’re wanting, bring your Discman.
The food isn’t quite ethnic either, so don’t be dazzled by all those eye-catching shamrocks on the menu. It is of a high general standard, though. The kitchen uses fresh meats, cuts its potatoes by hand, squeezes the juices to order and makes the soups from scratch daily.
I’ve made several visits at breakfast. Despite a wealth of breakfast places in downtown Seal Beach, Hennessey’s is the only one I know that serves fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice. (For the edification of doubters, fruit is piled up on the bar every morning by the time the doors open at 7.) Those resigned to unpasteurized juices dispensed from plastic bottles need fret no more. This is sweet, pulpy, natural-tasting juice.
My vote for Hennessey’s best breakfast dish goes to granola French toast, thick slices of egg bread with a nutty granola crust. Equally indulgent is Hennessey’s Benedict, essentially the classic eggs Benedict with corned beef substituted for Canadian bacon.
Come for lunch and the big seller is the hot corned-beef sandwich. The meat could be steamed longer and the rye bread is doughier and less heavily seeded than what you would get in a Jewish deli, but the upside is that the corned beef comes hand-sliced in asymmetrical slabs, the perfect foil for whole-seed or Dijon mustard.
Turkey BLTA is a French roll stuffed with thinly sliced turkey breast, lettuce, tomato, avocado (somewhat overripe the day I tried it) and salty bacon. My prime rib sandwich, ordered from the daily specials board, was filled with juicy, extra-tender meat and came with a side of creamed horseradish. Among the exemplary burgers, the best is probably the mushroom burger, a beefy quarter-pound-plus patty topped with fresh mushrooms sauteed in butter, wine and garlic.
The soups are pretty good. One day there was a mild, meaty chili, full of ground beef and kidney beans but distinctly lacking in cumin or other spices. Another day I had a chunky tomato vegetable soup, celery-based, that looked and tasted homemade.
This place fills up in the evening, when most of the customers fill up on appetizers and salads. The cross-cultural Irish nachos are large slabs of fried potatoes, skin on, smothered with Jack and cheddar cheeses, bacon bits, sour cream and guacamole. The potatoes are terrific and the portion is gargantuan. Simpler (but no smaller) are the cheese fries, a long basket of French fries in a gooey cheese melt.
The Buffalo-style chicken wings, accompanied by celery sticks and a cool ranch dressing, are crisp, zesty and delicious, though they serve only the drummette portion, so you don’t get the wing tip with all its little sweet bits close to the bone. The best salad is Southern fried chicken salad--tossed greens, a pile of sweet corn, ranch dressing and about half a pound of delicately breaded, deep-fried white meat tenders.
The entree list is limited. You can always get corned beef and cabbage, a hearty portion of thick sliced corned beef on a quarter of a head of cabbage, flanked by boiled potatoes and blanched carrots. Unfortunately, it’s disappointing. The components seem to be steamed separately in plain water, which may mean quick work for the kitchen, but it makes for a bland plate of food.
The nightly specials are better. Come Tuesdays for pepper chicken (two chicken breasts sauteed in a rich brandy cream and peppercorn sauce), Wednesdays for a dense, delicious meatloaf, served with mashed potatoes, gravy and corn. Most nights there is grilled fish too. The best choice, when available, is mahi mahi--two sweet, fresh chunks, nicely blackened.
There are no desserts at Hennessey’s Tavern, but at least there’s a wealth of good beverages, such as the exemplary Irish coffee, made with Bushmill’s and whipped cream. On tap you can get a light, frothy Sam Adams Summer Ale or a creamier Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. And there’s a good selection of wines by the glass, all under $6.
Hennessey’s Tavern is moderately priced: appetizers, $1.50-$6; soups and salads, $2.50-$7.25; sandwiches, $4.75-$6.25; dinner specials, $5.95-$11.95.
* Hennessey’s Tavern, 140 Main St., Seal Beach. (562) 598-4419. 7 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. All major cards. (Also locations in Laguna Beach and Dana Point.)