Food & Drink

Sports pub fare gets a tasty upgrade

Somewhere -- in Green Bay, I like to think, a city with a storied football history in a state with a long beer brewing tradition -- sits the first pub that ever hung a TV set over the bar and called itself a sports pub. The idea caught on, needless to say, and the sports pub has since grown to be one of America's most popular restaurant categories. In the Triangle, the genre has gotten so competitive that no new sports pub would dare open without at least a dozen microbrews and imports on tap and twice that number of flat panel TV screens. The food has improved, too, though the selection still doesn't often venture beyond traditional pub fare.

Tobacco Road raises the culinary ante. Owners Alex, Brian and Rommie Amra, who also own Amra's bar just up the street, don't even call their new venture a sports pub. They bill it as a "Sports Café," signifying -- as the restaurant's Web site puts it -- their "unwavering ... insistence that as much emphasis be placed on the menu as what's on the wall-to-wall television screens."

To that end, the Amra brothers hired chef Juan Esparza, whose resume includes a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and work in several local kitchens, including that of Ashley Christensen at Poole's Downtown Diner. Esparza rises to the challenge with an ambitiously varied offering that covers the spectrum from Vietnamese-inflected shrimp lettuce wrap to tagliatelle with mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, peas and country ham in a chipotle cream sauce. Traditional pub fare gets the chef treatment, too, in the form of house-made sauces for the wings, half-pound ground chuck burgers, dry-rubbed baby back ribs, and corn dogs with a homemade corn and jalapeño batter.

More often than not, Esparza's high aim is backed up by solid execution. Duck confit flautas, crunchy corn tortillas rolled around juicy shreds of meat, are an excellent companion for any of Tobacco Road's 20 draft beers. A Southern-accented starter featuring a lemony black-eyed pea hummus and aged cheddar pimento cheese comes close to the mark, too. My only quibble is that the pimento cheese is so dense that this Carolina boy is tempted to ask for Duke's mayo to loosen it up and add moisture.

But I can't fault the chunky, freshly made guacamole, which could hold its own in the best Mexican restaurants and is served in a generous, shareable portion with warm tortilla chips for a bargain $6.95.

Among the dozen or so sandwiches, the Tar Heel Ram Wrap -- a sesame-spangled flatbread folded around succulent shreds of pulled leg of lamb and served with a side of minty couscous -- is a winner. So is the Sloppy Joe, which lives up to its name with an elbow-dripping filling of ground beef, peppers and onions in a garlic tomato sauce.

A handful of Esparza's most ambitious (and expensive) entree offerings have already fallen victim to the recession. There's still plenty to choose from on the revised list, though, with options ranging from a half rack of ribs for $7.95 to steak frites at $15.95. Fish tacos are a mixed bag, the filling of grilled mahi succulent but the thick shell dry and chewy. On the other hand, the hanger steak in the steak frites is exceptionally tender, and the garlicky skin-on fries addictively crisp.

Tobacco Road lives up to its sports café billing in a number of other ways, too. The dining room decor is far more restrained than the sports pub norm, its chief decoration being a series of tastefully framed prints of famous athletic venues. Seating in the bar includes seven recliners, each with its own control for a 42-inch plasma screen.

Then there's the trendy location on Glenwood South. Sitting on the patio, watching all the passers-by, you almost feel as if you're dining at a fashionable sidewalk café. Unless, that is, you want to turn the other way and watch a game on one of the TVs mounted on the restaurant's exterior wall. Come fall, you might even catch a Packers game.

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