The Bulldog perfectly captures that edible cultural dissonance. For a buck fifty, you can get a pita with a side of cilantro chutney to go with your proper Imperial pint of Boddington's or Murphy's-over-Bass black-and-tan. The chips are cut fresh every morning and blanched before being fried like frites. The samosas are hand-formed, stuffed with chunky mashed potatoes and spices, served with tamarind chutney. Eating a plate of English baked beans hunched up in one of the booths along the wall, one fist wrapped around a can of Guinness while a line of soccer fans mutely watches Portugal kick a ball around on the big flat-screens, is like living my own little scene from Sid & Nancy.
One Friday night, I roll in for the meal that most defined my weekends in the Irish and Italian neighborhoods of my youth: the fish fry. In New York, Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Boston -- pretty much anywhere in the industrial Northeast -- a boy can still be sent straight to hell for eating a cheeseburger or a nice, fat steak on a Friday. In all the old Catholic strongholds in all these old cities, the slick, greasy smell of fish fry is everywhere on Friday nights, like the perfume of devotion, as inescapable as God's sight. It's always cod or haddock, jacketed in a batter thick enough to stop a bullet.
But when I moved out west, suddenly the fish fries disappeared. On those weekends when I felt like doing right by the Pope (which wasn't very often, and the impulse never lasted longer than it took me to fill my belly), I had to work to find even a poor imitation. Over the years, I've eaten a lot of bad fish -- and some pieces that were just awful. But there's nothing wrong with the Bulldog's fish fry. A single order is huge: four fat pieces of pure white cod in puffy, crisp, greasy and golden-brown shells of Guinness batter mounted atop a mountain of fries and served with God's trinity of approved accoutrements: lemon, malt vinegar and tartar sauce. The smell alone is enough to take me home, and the weight sufficient to remind me why everyone who spends their life as a devout Mick-Catholic where I grew up dies bell-shaped and young.
On Saturday nights, the bar does good business and the kitchen gets a nice hit. Sunday nights are quiet, but perfect for eating. Weeknights, the place is populated by regulars and pub-crawlers and friends of the house who, once hooked on the food, return as if compelled.
And after a few meals at the Bulldog, I get it. I understand how someone might crave to the point of distraction the delicately spicy and almost sweet chappli kebobs -- minced and hand-formed meat cooked like a Pakistani hamburger patty -- or the tender, seared breasts of Peshawari chicken spiced with ginger and garlic and served over basmati rice, or the chicken masala made with crushed cumin seeds (Cortez's idea) to give it a deep, spicy kick. But the aloo gosht salin -- potatoes, tomatoes and lamb in a thick brown curry as savory as the air in a spice market -- is the one that keeps me up at night, the one I think of when I'm eating somewhere else and having something not as good.
The shepherd's pie is a sop for those who miss the old British cuisine -- a mess of beef and veggies drowned in gravy, topped with a daunting superstructure of mashed potatoes and served with a side of boiled peas and carrots -- and the bangers are excellent. But the "pub balls" (fried macaroni and cheese) are nasty, the chipotle mayo on the "Danny Boy fish sandwich" a sour note of Irish/ Southwestern fusion, and the green chile and quesadillas as anachronistic as a Timex in a gladiator movie. "There's a bit of fusion going on over there," James admits.
The Bulldog has two happy hours, just because one is never enough. There are ten import beers on tap, lunch specials every day. At 7 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the TVs are all tuned to English Premier League soccer, and the bartenders will slide over chits for two free drafts with the purchase of a proper English breakfast: two eggs runny, rashers of bacon, bangers, a fat slice of fried tomato, baked beans and black (meaning blood) pudding. It's a great breakfast, and two pints of lager are just about what you need to put it all down. Switch to whiskey after that and you're in for a long day, in the perfect place to spend it. There are certainly worse spots to wash out at the end of the night than in one of those famous booths; folks have been doing it for more than a century. And remember: No matter what you get up to, there's always that fish fry to square you with Jesus before Sunday.