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April 29, 2009

Take on the fakes

When you want to get international in Louisville, who copies cool … and who fakes like a concession stand at Epcot Center?

An English girl’s take on an English Pub

If home is where the heart is, to an English person, the pub is where the soul lives. From the age of 14 — the legal age when it’s safe to enter — pubs form a part of your psyche and happiness like no other place. Hearts are healed and broken, arguments fought and won. With a warm beer in your hand, a few packets of Salt and Vinegar crisps on the table in front of you, and a grumpy landlord delivering urgent football scores on the hour, heaven is recovered. Stress slips away into a comfortable tavern-induced contentment. I know: I’m an English girl who has been soothed by pubs across England for nearly 20 years. When I left England for a new life in the U.S. four years ago, leaving behind the pubs was nearly as tough as leaving behind my friends.

Could they exist in America?

You see, we’ve been up to this pub culture thing for more than 800 years now (for fact freaks out there, the first pub recorded in 1189 A.D. was Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham), so we take it very, very seriously.

The same can be said of The Pub, the fabulously fake interpretation at Fourth Street Live. But maybe that is the problem: The interpretation is taken so seriously that it all feels a little too, well, perfect.

A truly proper English pub has a sticky floor from spilled beer, a dartboard (usually accompanied by blunt and therefore useless darts) and an owner who is half hardcore gangster, half failed stand-up comic. The “barmaids,” as we call the servers (well, it’s an improvement on wenches, let’s agree on that), usually wear too much makeup and deliver your drinks with a frown that deters you from asking any more favors. And this is the beauty of it: It’s real, rude and once you’re accepted, you become part of the furniture. There is no pretense of glamour or sophistication. Just good, honest pub grub, great conversation and strong bitter.

The biggest problem with The Pub is that it’s far too slick and friendly. The Louisville versions of barmaids are young, pretty things wearing tight T-shirts and mini-kilts (perhaps they were going for a Hooters-cum-Royalty type thing). Real British barmaids are usually about 85 years old, married to their fifth husband and drowning in lavender cologne.

The menu is another issue. An Anglophile will be pleased to see fish ’n’ chips and shepherd’s pie, but will be unable to comprehend why fancy things such as parmesan breadcrumbs and mozzarella have been added to the recipes. Clearly it makes it taste better, but taste isn’t something that has ever troubled us Brits. Google “Pickled Onion Monster Munch” to catch my drift. I was massively confused by the addition of sliders to the menu, as that word has a whole different connotation in the U.K. — and not one you’d want to think about while eating.

A cute gimmick is an Anglo-to-Yank dictionary in the back of the menu. The translations were correct, but if a Louisvillian ever felt the need to cross the pond to dear, old Blighty and unleash his new vocab, he may risk sounding like Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins.” It was all a bit too “cor blimey, guv’nor,” and we don’t really talk like that anymore. Except in Guy Ritchie movies.

A welcome addition to any true English public house is a ghost: preferably friendly, but with just enough of a back-story to keep drinkers entertained and alert during midnight lock-ins. All landlords want to acquire a supernatural presence, even if its origins are doubtful. The staff at my local back in London, for example, likes to tell patrons that Henry VIII lingers around — despite it having been quite out of the way for Good King Harry to go for a quick snifter in the 16th century. I did once catch a glimpse of a shadowy figure by the ladies’ loos, however, so who knows?

I just can’t imagine a spirit hanging around The Pub for too long, let alone centuries. It’s all too new and carefully planned. There’s no damp, dusty smells or crackling log fires. No slamming doors and soothsayer hags sitting in nooks, nursing pints of Tetley’s. Of course, all these admissions actually make The Pub a more hygienic, pleasant and — dare I say it — American-friendly kind of place. But sadly, as a true Brit, I don’t think it’ll become a regular haunt for me while I’m residing in Kentucky. I’ll embrace your culture of bourbon bars and BBQ instead.

The Irishman takes on the Irish bar

From a long line of Dubliners, Robert Chilton, a 33-year-old writer, likes a fine alcoholic beverage so much, he would be a professional drinker were it not for his day job. It’s not just the liquid he consumes, but the atmosphere of where he’s drinking.

So could The Irish Rover on Frankfort Avenue pass muster with a man so Irish his mother was born on St. Patrick’s Day and is called Patricia?

“Walking into The Irish Rover didn’t exactly make me feel like I had been teleported to Ireland, but it felt pretty authentic,” he says. “The mini coat of arms shields on the wall were an unusual touch, and quite charming. The Guinness was creamy and flavorful, although it felt a little cold. In fact, the bar as a whole was kind of chilly. Turning the air con dial up to the ‘arctic’ setting does not promote a feeling of a cozy Irish pub, where wise old men with beards discuss the topics of the day while huddled over a pint of the black stuff.”

But the fine pouring of a creamy pint of the black-and-white stuff — complete with shamrock motif placed in the foam — is enough for Rob to consider it suitably authentic for an American Irish bar. The beef stew and limerick ham was tasty enough to promote homesickness and a warm tummy. And for it to become his Louisville local?

“The lyrics of the famous old song, And it’s no, nay, never, no nay never no more, will I play the Wild Rover, no never no more — do not apply to the chance of my returning to this place. More like, Yes, yeah, maybe, yes yeah maybe OK, will I play in the Irish Rover, yes, maybe, OK.”

The Mexican and the Margarita

Receptionist Consuelo Nicole Anaya, 27, explains away Louisville’s obsession with El Mundo on Frankfort — and the growing number of Mexican bars and restaurants springing up all over the city, particularly in the south and southeast parts — by talking about fun. In these hard times, we all need to indulge in (reasonably priced) guilty pleasures, right?

“The Latin culture is not concerned with the caloric intake of a meal, but rather the taste and amount of love that goes into preparing that meal,” she says. “Whenever families and friends get together there is always good fun and great food. That’s why Americans love Mexican places so much.”

No restaurant in Louisville could beat real home cooking, but the absence of culinary skills forces Anaya to sample the scene. “Honestly, my favorite food has always been my grandmother’s tamales — no one makes them better than she does. But we only get those once a year, at Christmas, so if I’m eating out, I usually get the Chicken Mole (pronounced MO-Lay), which is spicy without being overwhelming.”

El Mundo spices stuff up just enough for Americans — and extra spicy sauce can always be added.

While researching this piece among a bunch of foodies, I kept hearing the same thing: Margaritas are for college girls on bachelorette nights, not true Mexicans. Are the food snobs right about this?

“The margarita thing is kind of true and kind of not,” she says. “Yes, it is more of tourist thing, but I enjoy a good margarita every now and then, too. Neat tequila is fun and it’s a tradition to have tequila shots at all my family weddings … but it tends to get me in trouble. On a normal night out I stick to Mexican beer — never that Corona thing! I usually have Tecate or Negra Modelo.”

Both are sold in abundance at El Mundo, although a quick survey of friends reveals it’s the margaritas that keep them coming back.

So can a Frankfort Avenue fiesta even begin to recreate the wonderful atmosphere of summertime in Mexico?

“It’s been a very long time since I have been back to Mexico, but I clearly remember the last time I was there,” Anaya says. “My family and I went to visit my great-great grandfather on his ranch. Everything about it was just so beautiful and simple. He had a huge orchard and lots of animals. They didn’t have fancy things or high-speed anything, but they were happy.”

As happy as most Louisvillians when they’re finally seated on the patio at El Mundo on $3 Margarita Wednesdays and Thursdays, I imagine.