What to expect: The saloon-inspired Nodding Donkey, brought to us by the folks behind State & Allen Lounge, rolled up its garage-door walls last weekend with a theme in place and a menu in development. With flat-screen TVs numbering in the teens, including the area’s first public 3D TV, and a dual-level, wrap-around patio, the Donkey drew sports fans who like their beer canned and their food hearty.
The setup: From afar, the Donkey cuts a faux-rusty figure in corrugated metal. Inside the vibe is sports bar meets saloon with a woodsy, Western-themed interior and walls festooned with Shiner-themed road signs. With a litter of bar tables and a handful of shadowy booths in the back room (where the 3D TV is located), the Donkey seems to be wildly underestimating its appeal. For now, the indoor/outdoor fluidity is working in the Donkey’s favor, but the interior square footage isn’t especially generous, which leads me to wonder how this little Donkey will fare in the cooler months when the square footage will be hemmed in by walls in the down position.
On the menu: With Jonathan Calabrese in charge of the kitchen, the Donkey makes a play at distinguishing itself in the food department. The menu is only one-third launched as of today (they are still in the soft opening phase); notably missing are some of the more ballyhooed experiments such as deep-fried PB& J, but some interesting options have made the first cut. We started out with the smokey guacamole ($8.95) followed by Texas queso ($8.95),the pulled pork sandwich ($9.95), and a big ole hot dog ($7.95), which really did require the knife and fork the menu suggested.
The smoky guacamole sounded and looked delicious, although the price struck me as steep. What arrived was well-conceived – chopped avocado with fire-roasted peppers, pico de gallo, and smoked bacon – but the smokiness of the bacon overwhelmed what could have been a delightfully fresh avocado dice. The flavor and texture of the queso, which the manager told me was made with 5-year-aged cheddar, ran too close to Velveeta for my taste. But then the worm turned, so to speak, with the first bite of the pulled pork sandwich, which came with an option of Ballard beans, fruit, or salad. The slaw topping provided a welcome crunch atop the moderately sauced pork, which was run-down-your-hand-juicy in the good way. I seldom call a bun delightful, but this one was soft without being soggy. If the buns truly are homemade, as the menu states, they are a harbinger of good things in the kitchen.
The big ole hot dog deserves a paragraph of its own. Speaking as someone who is not a big hot dog fan, I would gladly convert for this all-beef mash-up. Served open-faced with a piled topping of chili, bacon, jalapeno relish, shredded cheddar, and a Thousand Island-ish sauce, the delightfully overdressed dog made an A+ addition to the meal.
Drinks: I don’t recall the last time I was served a can of beer in a bar, but the Donkey has chosen that route and dials it up with cans of all stripes from Shiner to Trout Slayer. I tend to stick to the draft options, in this case Michelob’s Shock Top Belgian White and Real Ale’s Firemans #4, both of which arrived in a Mason jar.
Who was there: During game times, expect a crush of very tall, territorial people. Generally, however, you can expect the basic Uptown crowd – couples, groups of no fewer than three straight men, the 20-something after-work crowd, and a few barflies who look like life could have been kinder to them.
Where to sit: The upper patio is nice, but is a double-edged sword – true, you avoid the cacophony of the bar but your perch places you directly above the smokers on the street-level patio.
Price: Totally affordable. Currently, the Silver Bowl salad is the most expensive item at $10.95. Everything else falls between $5.95-$9.95.
Nice detail: Despite the fact that the Donkey just opened and was full during our visit, the wait staff kept our table bussed and our glasses full. Food arrived quickly, and the management seemed to be genuinely interested in meeting the guests. During Happy Hour, which lasts until 7 pm, drafts and wells run a mere $2.
The takeaway: I wouldn’t order the guacamole or Ballard beans again, but the joy of the hot dog and the heartiness of the pulled pork ensured that I’ll be a return customer. I’m anxious to check out the full menu once it launches. That fried PB& J has my name written all over it.
Find more information about the Nodding Donkey in our restaurant directory.