As if great beer weren't reward enough, you can earn prizes for sampling local craft beverages
We visited the new Cregeen's Irish Pub in North Little Rock after intensive home work – a 10-day trip to the Emerald Isle.
The new place in the steadily reviving Argenta neighborhood gets an A for its effort to recreate the real Irish experience.
The menu is remarkably similar to those we encountered in Ireland. (Believe it or not, Buffalo wings and quesadillas are familiar pub grub on the old sod.) The thicket of draft beer taps – 30 of them – include multiple stouts, hard cider, red ale and, sure, American lager. But Budweiser is popular in Ireland, too. They pour stout right, producing a mellow pint with the customary creamy head, thick enough to support your initials down to the bottom of the glass. Irish brews come in 20-ounce glasses.
The pub has a corner door at Washington and Main, anchoring a new building that will include spiffy condos upstairs. It's an urban development welcome in more ways than one. Some Air Force pilot buddies combined to open Cregeen's and they did it right. They hired an Irish company to build the fittings from scratch and install them. They've got professional managers on board and a staff that was surprisingly capable for the rush that filled the place the day Cregeen's threw open its doors.
The Irish pub replica is a familiar sight worldwide, from Paris to Bangkok, but it fills a niche empty here since an arsonist destroyed a fine English-style pub in the old Terminal Hotel.
Cregeen's – the Irish name supposedly translates to Little Rock – is bigger than most Irish pubs, with a huge open floor in the middle, but typical “snugs” have been constructed in several corners, plus a separate dining room, for those who'd like a little insulation from the mid-court noise. Cregeen's IS noisy. Sound ricochets off unsoftened walls and wood paneling. It also is too bright for my taste. The typical Irish pub is a dark place, the glow of a peat fire sometimes brighter than the electrical lighting. Cregeen's, too, has a much higher ceiling than you'll find in Ireland, where the low ceilings hold heat against the wet chill outside. If we have any quibble with Cregeen's, it's the TV sound stage ambience of bright lights and open spaces. We were told, though, that the generally bare walls are due for more bric-a-brac – beer and distillery geegaws we'd guess – and that should cozy the place some.
Still, it's a slick setting. And the beer is great. Cregeen's also offers the deepest selection of Irish whiskey we've ever seen in the U.S., including the pricey Midleton, which sells for about $125 a bottle in Ireland and goes for $25 a shot here. We could do without gimmicky Irish specialty drinks – Erin Go Braless, for example – but these things are standard bar fare everywhere nowadays.
The food was generous, hot and typical of what you'd find in Ireland. The Irish-style dishes stood out. Guinness beef stew — moated with good, lumpy mashed potatoes — was rich and hot. Shepherd's pie, a mildly spiced ground meat mixture baked in a casserole with a layer of mashed spuds on top, was big enough for two.
Fish and chips? You bet. The thick filet of moist, mild fish was lightly battered and crisply fried, as were the accompanying fries. The plate includes cole slaw and tartar sauce. There's nothing wrong with the portion, but it doesn't compare with the giant slabs of fried fish that typically cover the platter in the average Irish pub.
We were underwhelmed by Cregeen's version of “boxty farthing,” or the Irish take on hash browned potatoes. There's onion and other seasoning in the mix of these potato pancakes, which are formed into discs, griddled and served with sour cream as pickup food. I'd have liked bigger discs and crisper frying.
Given our luck with everything else, we had higher hopes for the Rueben sandwich. It was OK, but whether it was from a lack of Russian dressing or cheese, it just didn't seem drippy and rich enough. It's made on a loaf swirled with pumpernickel, though, and the thin-sliced corned beef was stacked reasonably high. A wrap featuring grilled chicken left a companion feeling a little flat, too. Too greasy, she thought, though we don't think grease is a disqualification for our pub food.
Another replica of something we enjoyed in Ireland was a beautiful steak salad – greens, tomatoes, blue cheese, walnuts and thin slices of tender steak, cooked perfectly rare, with a good vinaigrette. Here's a dish you can enjoy without fear of cramping your ale-swilling.
The menu is huge. Soups include clam chowder. There are salads topped with chicken and salmon. There are many sandwiches, including burgers. Other Irish specialties include bangers and mash and corned beef and cabbage, plus grilled salmon and tuna. We ate twice and were so full both times that dessert was out of the question, but they include cheesecake, bread and butter pudding with whiskey sauce and s'more pie. Prices are cheap. Most everything, particularly at lunch, is $10 or less, though steaks and grilled fish will cost more on the dinner menu.
There are sidewalk tables for good weather and for smokers. Bless Cregeen's, there's no smoking inside. They welcome family groups, because we saw plenty of kids chowing down on early evening visits. Live Irish music, the occasion arm-wrestling match, darts and other entertainment add a bit more frivolity later in the evening.
You have to admire an independent operation that made the necessary investment in building, staff and menu and was ready to hit the ground running. The pipes are calling you to Cregeen's.
Cregeen's Irish Pub
North Little Rock
The Guinness is poured right. Murphy's Stout, too, along with dozens more beers, ales and cider. Go Irish when you eat – the stew is a popular choice – but American-style pub nibbles are familiar and competently prepared.
11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Mon.-Sat. They are seeking a Sunday alcohol sales permit and will open at 11 a.m. when it is approved.
Moderate. Credit cards. Full (and we do mean full) bar.