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Rookie Moves

Alberta Substation's Rocky First Quarter

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AS A SPORTS BAR, Alberta Substation is great: Massive TVs and projection screens on every wall face scores of clean, spacious booths, raised tables, and comfortable barstools. The beautiful mirrored wall of liquor—six shelves, 20-some-feet high—is a smartly stocked library, and mixed well by the staff. Taps gleam, glassware glows, and a soaring ceiling gives the interior the masculine feel of an old bank. The framed jerseys of disgraced heroes—Canseco, Rose, Simpson—hang in humorous silent commentary, and on game day, throngs of fans fill the room with a brotherhood of cheers and back slapping. The friendly staff is fast and thorough, even at peak capacity. On that score, it works.

It is also a restaurant, though, with a big and somewhat ambitious menu. The former Siam Society space has a full kitchen, and a team of cooks turning out bar standards like burgers, grilled sandwiches, protein-heavy salads, and an 11-item weekend brunch. Unfortunately, on nearly every count the food falls short of standard, or even acceptable. Sure, it's a bar first, and what kind of serious person critiques bar food? Well, I do, because it costs a lot of money. Dinner for three here ranged from $60-80 with a round of drinks and a 20 percent tip, and in a town where that's about 10 percent of someone's rent, the mediocrity you get in return is enough to get your blood up.

First, the good. Silly as this might sound, Station Big Mac ($11.25), which is a large-scale rendition of the "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun" jingle, was the only completely successful item we tried. A double-decker burger is tricky; with correctly sized patties and a good bun, this ate well and cleanly, proving the universal appeal of the Big Mac's flavor combination. The house cocktails are also better crafted than one might expect in a room with televised images of people named Lardarius* loping around. The "North Side" (tequila, grapefruit juice, Angostura bitters, lemon juice, club soda, $7) was tightly balanced and refreshing; the trickier Double Agent (Medoyeff vodka, Aviation gin, Cocchi Americano, dry vermouth, $9) was silken.

After that, the downhill slide into I'd-like-to-see-the-chef-eat-this begins where the menu does.

Rancid sesame oil has a distinct and dominating flavor, and it essentially defined the tri-tip Korean tacos ($4.75). The nachos ($5.50 for the happy-hour version), mysteriously served without the advertised sour cream and guacamole (read: the expensive parts), were a pile of lifeless salsa, black olives, and canned jalapeños atop dried-out cheese. A delicate-sounding curiosity, the watermelon and feta salad ($6.25), was slabs of watermelon and feta propped up in tepee form around a mound of arugula that had been rinsed with a nearly flavorless rice wine vinaigrette. An extremely thick batter coats all deep-fried items, which, while attractive, does have the unfortunate effect of lining the mouth and belly with an oleaginous slick. Even the fish in the fish 'n' chips ($12.50), which was two decent cod filets, was difficult for two to finish.

The rye for the Reuben sandwich ($10.75) had been burned, so the cook had turned the blackened side of the bread inward to hide it. Toast is expensive—I can understand this. However, it made the sandwich a total loss, and technically carcinogenic. Similarly acrid was the open-faced smoked pork chop sandwich ($11.50), a thick, juicy, smoked boneless chop under a rich brown demi-glace-type mushroom and peppercorn sauce. It looked promising enough, but the incredible saltiness of the sauce burned the tongue and scared the heart, and a generous dose of whole, unchewable peppercorns was a bizarre surprise. The grill marks were so black and bitter as to call into question the condition of the grill itself.

A brunch menu provides weekend issues. The "breakfast potatoes" in the corned beef hash with ancho hollandaise ($10.50) were, suspiciously, deep-fried. The cubed corned beef and peppers may have been as well, judging by the puddle of oil beneath it all. Now in detective mode, I counted 10 chunks of meat in the mountain of starch, seven of which were pure fat. Over it all was spooned an "ancho hollandaise" so broken, I didn't even know it was meant to be an emulsion until I re-read the menu. It was stained butter-water that tasted distantly of spice.

It seems pointless to go on running up the score. The picture is as clear as the HD units on the walls: Have dinner somewhere else before catching the game.

Alberta Substation is open Monday-Friday, 4 pm-late, weekends 9 am-late.

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* Lardarius Webb (Baltimore Ravens) almost surpasses Terdell "Say That Out Loud" Sands as my favoritely named NFL player. Almost.

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