There’s something magical about an Irish pub, even here in the U.S. where the original concept and purpose of a real village public house is largely meaningless thanks to our consumer culture and drive-by habits. But still, no matter who thinks their nation does the pub the best, Americans associate cozy drinking with the Emerald Isle. And not-so-cozy drinking, if St. Patrick’s Day is any indication.
The James Joyce Irish Pub has taken over the former home of the (for many) much-missed Mema’s Alaskan Tacos, in a lovely little clay-shingled Ybor building with a small patio. Owner Ryan Gougeon, however, was not content to settle on mere Ybor history for a setting.
Now, instead of loud music reverberating off earthy tiles, deep-fried tacos and rowdy, late-night patrons with the munchies, this little brick building has a lived-in and downright homey atmosphere that evokes all the tropes and stereotypes associated with old-timey Irish pubs. Wood floors and multiple faux-fireplaces. Chandeliers and a bookcase stocked with honor-system reads. Wood paneling that’s more 1870s than 1970s.
Of course, quaint and pretty isn’t enough these days, so Gougeon added a few more modern touches to his pub re-launch, starting with an astounding 50 taps pouring a mix of imports, American craft brews, and a variety of mass-market beers, the handles lined up across the back of the bar and illuminated with spotlights to maximize the majesty of such serious choice. It’s a public house, sort of, so you can down pints of Bud Light or Blue Moon if that’s your bag, while sitting alongside beer geeks sipping Terrapin Rye or Hopsecutioner.
Admittedly, the selection isn’t terribly deep or unusual, but with so many to choose from it almost doesn’t matter — everyone will find one or a dozen beers they want to drink.
Outside, the pub has more of an Ybor vibe, the patio glowing with the light of neon signs, the customers more raucous in the muggy Florida air. Less cozy, but more genuine than the interior of the place — more of a real Florida pub atmosphere, maybe.
With the new venue and the amped atmosphere, Gougeon also imported an Irish chef to create and cook a new pub menu, although the man has been limited to testing and training since March, until the pub was able to start serving food last week. A bit early for a review, maybe, but the James Joyce kitchen put out some surprisingly tasty fare in its early days.
Like mussels in a broth of butter and garlic fortified by just enough Guinness to stain the shells a milky chocolate color and impart a welcome touch of bitterness to brighten the bivalves. It seems a gimmick, but it works wonders, adding interest to a dish that has become almost anonymous in its ubiquity.
Same with the pub’s Guinness beef stew, the gravy given the same treatment as the mussel broth, with stout refreshing the palate in the face of an otherwise rich sauce and adding a nutty depth to the whole dish. It helps that the meat is fork-tender and perfect, although the veggies could have used a little extra cooking before being added to the mix.
The pub’s shepherd’s pie is well made, with just a touch of vinegar to lighten the blanket of cheese and mashed potatoes on top, and a massive lamb shank falls apart at the first touch and works even better with that Guinness gravy than the beef did.
There are also less-Irish offerings, like prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella, typical breaded calamari, chicken wings and, oddly enough, fried clams. If you’re veering away from the Irish specialties, however, best to stick with the pub’s burgers. They are uniformly big (over half a pound), well-seasoned and grilled until crusty, good enough naked on a bun but with plenty of Guinness-infused toppings or Jameson-laced barbecue sauce if you want more liquor in your food.
Speaking of Jameson’s, along with the impressive beer selection, Gougeon has assembled a prodigious array of Irish whiskey — 30 selections or so — in all its triple-distilled amber glory.
The pub has a 50 Tap Challenge — sample all the beers available in less than 30 days and you’ll get a soccer, uhm, sorry, football jersey — but not a 30 Whiskey Challenge.
Try them both at the same time and you’d have a hell of a month, especially if the food continues to live up to the promise of its early days.