Friday, February 16, 2007

Sips and snails.

When I was a kid, my parents and I would go to Houlihan's on the Plaza at least once a week. The place had an Irish pub feel (as much as a sort-of chain restaurant in KC in the 80s could have) and I remember a wooden plaque that hung near the hostess stand that counted down the days 'til St. Patty's Day. So what was my favorite Houlihan's meal as a pre-pubescent child? Why, French onion soup and escargots, of course. It's hard to believe that a place like that served escargots at all, let alone that I absolutely loved them. For a while after they took them off the menu, you could still get them if you asked nicely, but eventually the servers just sort of looked at my family with pitiful faces when we asked about them. The days of Houlihan's escargots were gone forever.

The Plaza location closed down years ago, and for a long while I didn't eat at Houlihan's at all. But that all changed a few months ago when we started going to the Houlihan's up north off of I-29. The place is completely different than when I was a kid - in fact, the only thing that is the same is the name. We normally try to stay away from big chains, opting instead for smaller, local places. But Houlihan's is a locally-based business, so we make an exception.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is warm and inviting, with a fire place, lots of rock and dark woods, and a rather striking lighting arrangement over the bar. There are several tall tables and some booths in the bar area, while the restaurant side has lots of tables and booths, and a large private room for parties. The best part of the new Houlihan's, though, has to be Happy Hour.

Happy Hour at Houlihan's runs from 4pm until close Monday - Saturday, and all day on Sunday. They have lots of half-price drink specials (a Guinness costs less than an iced tea) and all of their appetizers are five bucks. We've tried just about every appetizer on the menu and have a couple of favorites. The tuna wontons are probably the best - slices of seared (read: raw) tuna with a soft wonton wrapper around the outer edge, on a plate with wasabi mayo, ginger soy dressing, and a small salad of cabbage and banana vinaigrette. Also good are the lettuce wraps (sesame chicken, crispy wonton strips, and half a head of lettuce) and the calamari (although the dipping sauce was a bit spicier than I like, so I ask for the stuff they bring out with the fried mushrooms, which is horseradish-based, but not terribly hot). Happy hour is only available in the bar area, but there usually plenty of tables and a few booths to choose from. You'll run into trouble on Friday and Saturday nights, though, so either arrive early, or plan on sitting on the restaurant side and paying full price for drinks and appetizers.

There are some great sandwiches and other entrees on the menu, too, so don't be dismayed if there isn't any bar seating. I really like the shrimp wrap, because it reminds me of the now-defunct Santa Fe Gordita from Taco Bell, which I really liked (there are many reasons why I don't eat at Taco Bell anymore, and getting rid of the only thing I liked on the menu was one of them). It's got chunks of shrimp, lettuce, corn, black beans and chili-lime sour cream dressing in a tortilla wrap. I also like the gorgonzola chicken sandwich (grilled chicken breast, sauteed spinach and red onions, and gorgonzola spread on a whole wheat bun), and I swear that they have the best fajitas anywhere. If you want something smaller, they still have French onion soup on the menu (and it's delicious) and you can get a pretty good Caesar side salad for less than $3. If you get the right server, you'll even get a tasty breadstick with the salad. Most entrees come with a choice of sides, which include a very untypical fluffy, sweet citrus couscous, pinto beans and rice with cheese and olive and feta orzo. These choices are a great alternative to the usual "chips or fries" offered by most places (you can also get chips or fries, if that's the way you swing).

We ate at Houlihan's last night. We sat in the bar, right by the fireplace, so we were cozy and toasty. I had a shrimp wrap, while Mr. Awesome had tuna tacos. He says they are very good, but liked the whitefish tacos that used to be on the menu (the menu changed about a month ago) better because the crispy coating on the whitefish gave the tacos a much-needed salty crunch that is missing from the tuna version.

Tonight we're going to Cupini's in Liberty. I didn't even know it was there until a few weeks ago when I drove through the square and saw lots of couples walking into a storefront at 6:30 in the evening. We're going with Mr. Awesome's parents, so I hope they like it!

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