A week-long soft opening is the way to go when you want to draw in the crowds, at least that's what State & Allen Lounge owners Jonathan Calabrese and Anthony Winkler bet on -- and won -- with their the new Texas-themed sports bar, The Nodding Donkey. At the corner of Thomas Avenue and Allen Street in Uptown, the bar, named after an oil well pump jack, has officially raised its garage doors and is already a popular spot with locals as well as with those looking for a place to belly up for affordable drinks and Texas grub.
I stopped by shortly after the bar opened for the day this week. Several men sat around the center bar bragging about the Rangers while chowing on the jalapeño-topped queso. A few couples enjoyed the weather on the wrap-around patio. To say it's a relaxing spot for a mid-afternoon bite and brew is like saying Texas Tea is a colloquialism for oil.
The shiny corrugated metal and wood interior with hokey, sometimes novel Texas and beer memorabilia (a sign reading "We Don't Call 911" with a pistol under it) and reclaimed brick certainly gives The Nodding Donkey a West Texas oil worker's dusty watering hole feel, albeit an upscale one. The centerpiece of the Nodding Donkey isn't any of that, nor is it the small rear dining room, the six taps that include Shiner Bock and Fireman's #4. And it isn't the simple menu that springs from the Permian Basin, as it were. No, that's all thematic consistency, something expected from this group of veteran restaurateurs that includes Bradley Dickens and Joseph Hickey. What shines here is the herd of flat-screen TVs and the promised big-as-a-barn-door 3-D TV with six pair of glasses. The latter might be the most novel of all things at the Nodding Donkey, but the owners are marketing it as a Texas Sports Bar and Saloon. What's more Texas than excessiveness and braggadocio? Still, that won't keep me from stopping by The Nodding Donkey to watch my New York Mets play the Rangers next June on that 3-D behemoth.
On the day I visited, the Phillies and Giants were duking it out during an afternoon playoff game. The bartender kindly waited until the commercials to chat with me. About opening night, she said, "we had just gotten our inspection. The Rangers happened to be playing that night. So, we opened. It was packed!" (And it would be just as crowded later than night when I returned with some friends.) But not that afternoon. That afternoon, I leisurely snacked on an appetizer of bacon-wrapped, Oaxaca cheese-stuffed smoked jalapeños with a "red ranch" dipping sauce that had more in common with Thousand Island dressing than ranch and the BBQ brisket grilled cheese sandwich that came with a bowl of Ballard beans.
The bacon was tough and chewy and could have stood a few more minutes of cooking in order to have avoided the tug o' war played by my teeth and fingers. It detracted much from the pleasant conflagration set by the peppers' heat, only mildly tempered by the soft white cheese inside the jalapeños. The $2 Fireman's #4, served in a 16-ounce Mason jar, was a better salve.
The BBQ brisket grilled cheese was far superior. The slices of Texas toast held back the creamy and candy-sweet meat with the help of the cheddar, which regardless of its minor presence had a smoky flavor that brought a smile to my face as the Giants scored again. Nothing came spilling out of my sandwich. The bread didn't disintegrate. The contents were well prepared. The grilled cheese at The Nodding Donkey is what a sandwich should be. The same cannot be said of the side of beans. Alternately mushy and crunchy, the beans hinted the kitchen must have been playing with texture. While a new establishment's chef and kitchen staff should have fun in the weeks after opening an establishment, hopefully, they'll work out the kinks in the Ballard beans.
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The rest of the menu reads like a tweaked history of Texas cuisine. There are create-your-own tacos and enchiladas (with the option of smoked turkey), your choice of tortilla, sauces (mole!) and sides -- one of them being the unfortunate Ballard beans. There is a burger on challah, a smoked-meat combo platter and bacon-wrapped Kobe hot dog smothered in chili, chipotle mayo, pickled jalapeños, red onions and cheddar.
My only beef with this place is that when I called to confirm what was in the side of beans that accompany the BBQ brisket grilled cheese, the gentleman who answered said they don't sell beans, promptly hanging up on me while I was in mid-sentence. That's not the hospitality I received while I was at the bar.
Nevertheless, Nodding Donkey is off to an admirable start. Next June's Mets-Rangers meeting can't come soon enough.
The Nodding Donkey Texas Sports Saloon 2900 Thomas Ave, 214-239-1990