Location: 200 Federal St., North Side; 412-231-1112
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Tue.-Sat; open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Sun.-Mon., only on game days
Prices: Starters $2-8; sandwiches $7-9
Fare: Bar food
Atmosphere: Between nightclub and sports bar
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
When Mayor Sophie Masloff first promoted the idea that became PNC Park, she called it Forbes Field II, to evoke Pittsburgh's original old -- not just old-fashioned -- ballpark. But the real inspiration for the North Side diamond was Wrigley Field. Or, more to the point, Wrigleyville, the busy, buzzing neighborhood that surrounds the Friendly Confines on Chicago's North Side. The great civic hope was that a neighborhood-style stadium would conjure up a vibrant neighborhood from Three Rivers Stadium's vast dead sea of parking lots. Build it and they will come, as it were.
Seven years and one new ballpark later, one icon of Wrigleyville, anyway, has set up shop on Federal Street. Mullen's Bar & Grill -- a nominally Irish-themed venue named after an inspirational Chicago cop -- has opened its first location outside of Chicago, in the former Hi-Tops location, catty-corner from PNC Park.
In contrast to a couple other restaurants nearby, which make some pretense at swankiness, there's nothing fancy about Mullen's. TVs abound, as do servers in short shorts. We tried not to think too hard about a greeter of sorts dressed as a festive leprechaun, with red-dyed hair, green vest and beads. A couple of galvanized tubs of beer sit near the entrance, so that even a post-game rush won't delay anyone's access to a cold brew. Most tables are tall and bar-style, and the big, wide-open space gets noisy even with a mid-sized crowd.
The menu appears to have been imported directly from Wrigleyville, with an abbreviated game-day selection and a somewhat longer listing for the other 280 days of the year. Both are dominated by goes-well-with-beer standards such as wings, burgers and pizza, but there are a few distinctive offerings, most notably a Chicago Hot Italian Beef, the city's glorious contribution to the pantheon of roast-beef sandwiches.
Sadly, we didn't spot Mullen's mouthwatering waffle-cut fries with melted cheddar-jack cheese, bacon and green onions until after we'd ordered a basket of ordinary cheese fries. Happily, those "ordinary" fries were good enough that we hardly missed what we were missing. Our fries were of a type we've come to appreciate: cut a bit thicker than shoestring, but still crisp on the outside, fluffy within. The cheese was processed goop, but hey, that's what we expected. Like all our food, the fries arrived so piping hot we almost checked to see if our server was rushing our orders from the kitchen on roller skates. We appreciated this -- it meant we got to dig into the fries before the cheese sauce had a chance to turn them to soggy mush.
Our other starter was a trio of sliders, those trendy miniature sandwiches. Mullen's distinguished itself here by offering not just the usual burgers, but also pulled pork and sloppy joe. We're pleased to report that, at the scale of a 2-inch sandwich, joes aren't so sloppy, and Mullen's meat blend is pretty good, enlivened by chunks of red pepper. Jason wished for a bit more kick to balance the sweetness of the sauce, but that's a quibble. The pulled pork was too mushy, though, and the tiny burger too dry (a little cheese would have done wonders), but the nicely grilled buns made up for these flaws.
Angelique's full-size burger was juicy, however, and its thickness was manageable without being meager. The lightly toasted bun was, again, a simple touch that added greatly to the burger's textural appeal. She wished only that the kitchen had thought to use whole, instead of shredded, lettuce leaves; the shreds rained out each time she picked up the burger to take a bite.
Despite the allure of an Italian Beef, Jason chose the pot-roast sandwich, tempted in part by the promise of added caramelized onions and garlic bread. Mullen's came up empty on both counts, with soft, but not caramelized, onions, and a roll that looked crustier and flakier than it was. The meat was tender and well seasoned, but a bit dry. Either cheese or some jus borrowed from the Italian Beef might have saved this sandwich.
Mullen's also advertises "stone-baked pizzas," but ours -- grid-cut as in New England -- came with what looked like marks from a metal pan on the bottom, and the crust's texture was like French bread, fluffy and airy. Yet the sauce was simple and the cheese plentiful and scattered with dried herbs, a nice touch. Overall, this was a satisfying bar pizza, albeit not a cheap one.
Given its origins in Chicago's storied Wrigleyville, Mullen's could do more to distinguish itself from the countless Pittsburgh-based sports bars and grills that we know and (sometimes) love. Like a couple of teams that haven't seen the World Series in decades, it had moments of promise and even a couple home runs. But this season at least, it's not at the top of its game.