It wasn't too long ago that Frankie Carabetta was set to operate a McKinney Avenue sports bar with his name on it. That was when Tracie Barthlow, owner of Bridges Gourmet Coffee, was his business partner. But a bitter rift and a lawsuit forced an end to that partnership.
Now Carabetta operates the McKinney Avenue Tavern just down the street from Barthlow's Frankie's Sports Bar & Grill, and this fast talking "Italian guy from Queens" is competing fiercely with himself. He doesn't seem to relish the irony. Maybe that's good. "We just want to be a true sports bar," he shoots. "We strive to be the best sports bar on this block."
Words don't get minced in Carabetta's mouth. The tavern where he now resides, the MAT as it's called, is a handsome gallery of televisions with a huge 10-foot projection-screen TV as its centerpiece. During the day, most of the tubes broadcast ESPN. But the top screens in each column of televisions flanking the 10-footer broadcast CNBC stock quotes. Scorekeeping is not only limited to balls, pucks and padded fists it seems. Broadcast on most of the MAT's TVs on a recent Tuesday afternoon is a sports version of Court TV or L.A. Law. It's called Sports in Court, or something like that, and it's a show that only a sports bar honcho who's been a defendant in a sports bar partnership suit could love.
The sound is off, so it's hard to figure out what's going on. But it looks like some sports trading card company is suing a kid over trading card rights or appearances or something. Another scene involves some knee-jerk windup lefty who is harassing Nike Chief Executive Officer Philip Knight during a business lunch over worker pay in Indonesia. Still another segment chronicles a product liability suit filed against Riddel, the maker of football helmets.
But the food arrived before I could figure out if Philip Knight got kickboxed or if the trading card kid got busted for selling illegal Lawrence-Taylor-in-a-muumuu linebacker cards. The first arrival was a basket of fried cheese, golden brown sticks caked in a light, bland batter with a robust marinara for dipping. This is steady, reliable sports grub without any culinary fringe elements that might distract you from the instant replays.
That's why the Indonesian salad flirts dangerously with those froufrou sensibilities that could trigger a sports bar brawl, though its coarseness rescues it. The salad is a limp, flat array of greens, mushrooms, slivers of bell pepper and carrot drubbed with a near-cloying peanut dressing. On top of this is spread a striated arrangement of moist chicken strips treated with an "Asian five spice" that tended to taste more like grill grit. Girdling the foliage was a couple of crisp wonton planks and two delicious rolls. This salad was no flamboyant lunge for the palate, but it was clean, solid and bulky, and it had no browning lettuce or bugs or slimy mushroom slices, a resounding success in the eyes of the average sports bar.
The MAT is a clean, handsome space with lots of wood paneling and stone and faux corroded-steel accents. The bar is raised, as is a carpeted dining space. There's a pool table and a couple of electronic games that keep all of the lighted beer signs company with their incessant flickering. The main floor is tiled, which makes it hard to drag the chairs in and out from the tables.
Situated in the space that was once Chelsea Corner, the MAT is a partnership between Carabetta and Ed and Michael Ruibal, operators of Landscape Systems of Texas. They plan to add still more TVs before football season, including a large-screen television that can be viewed from the patio. The MAT will also open at 10 a.m. on weekends during football season and serve breakfast and drinks from a Bloody Mary bar.
Virtually everything here is straightforward and no-nonsense. Tacos, for example, are stripped down to the bare minimum: clean, hearty, no frills. Available in both beef and chicken versions, the tacos are served as a trio of soft-shell bundles jammed together near a briskly green clump of guacamole and a berm of pico de gallo. Inside the chicken tacos are just a scattering of diced chicken and a smear of queso. They're fairly good, but nothing special.
In a risky departure from the typical sports bar fare, the MAT offers homemade lobster ravioli. The tender supple pillows lie in a drenching of smooth Alfredo sauce. The briny sweet lobster flavor was forward and clean, not drubbed into the background with fillers and other detritus.
In perhaps a tiny slap at Frankie's, which serves upscale fare, Carabetta insists he doesn't want to wobble at all from a bare-bones sports bar concept with an indulgence in culinary sophistication. "I see all these menus with all of this stuff, and I think, 'Why don't we just serve burgers and chicken club sandwiches?'" he says. "I mean, why get into everything?" So far, it seems one of Carabetta's greatest talents is steering clear of McKinney Avenue potholes.