By Frank Sabatini Jr.
My spouse’s birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day and I’ll be damned if I take another chance cooking him corned beef for the occasion. For two years in a row, they’ve yielded gross amounts of incorrigible fat. This time around, he gets homemade lasagna with a green candle in the middle.
Though in the week leading up to the celebration, we sated our corned beef desires over brunch at McGregor’s Grill & Ale House, which opened a stone’s throw away from Qualcomm Stadium, 20 years ago.
The kitchen serves the brined beef with cabbage every March 17, but also offers it seven days a week in half-pound sandwiches and as hash from 10 a.m.–2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. It’s sourced from the lauded Tarantino’s in San Diego.
McGregor’s is first and foremost a sports bar that happens to offer a decent selection of burgers, sandwiches, tacos and other pub grub. Hence, its lack of table service can evade first-time customers once they settle into their chairs or high-top stools in any of three large seating areas.
Food must be ordered and picked up at the bar, which is misleading because the place feels very much like a full-service restaurant amid billiard tables, flat screens and laminated menus placed at the tables.
An arrow hanging over one end of the main bar marks the spot to place the food orders. But there is no other signage indicating this is how it’s done and customers might feel neglected at first until a drink server swings by to explain the system.
Managing partner Ian Linekin assures the staff does its best to greet customers and explain the process to them, adding that when the bar first opened the food menu contained only four or five items. Since the choices expanded, he said discussions have been held about installing a sign at the entrance stating more clearly how to order the meals. Based on our initial confusion and that of fellow customers I witnessed — it would be a wise decision.
Fortunately there was no food line during the quiet time we visited and only a few peeps were ahead of me when returning one late afternoon a couple days later.
We shared two dishes, the half-pound corned beef sandwich on buttery, grilled rye, and the corned beef hash crowned with two gorgeously poached eggs. In both cases the spiced meat was much to our liking, free of gristle and sliced appropriately thin.
The sandwich featured a layer of melted Swiss cheese and deli mustard on the side. We converted it into a Reuben of sorts by piling in some of the fresh, semi-sweet coleslaw served alongside and then fetching from the bar a plastic cup of Thousand Island dressing.
Much like the corned beef sandwiches at Milton’s and D.Z. Akin’s (when paying for extra-lean meat), our choppers glided effortlessly through the sandwich’s interior.
From the short brunch menu, which includes “hair o’ the swine” carnitas with eggs and red sauce, and the extra-hearty “Murphy’s spuds” mixed with ham, bacon, cheese, avocado and sour cream, we chose with sober heads the “hangover hash.”
Here, the lean corned beef was coarsely chipped and strewn with sautéed onions, tender potatoes and slightly undercooked green bell peppers. The poached eggs on top sported uncommonly large yolks, adding extra richness to everything below them.
Lamb stew in Guinness gravy was in the offing on the specials board, as well as a calamari club sandwich and street tacos. But we came hell-bent for the protein that was introduced to New Yorkers in the mid-1800s by Irish immigrants, and ended our meal with a fat slice of minty, creamy grasshopper pie.
Amid the scent of Guinness and other beer (served in true pints) that endures inside of McGregor’s, hubby opted for a bourbon-infused cocktail ($9) with basil and muddled strawberries.
Though boozy, we felt the price was a bit high for its size, which we estimated measured about four or five ounces.
When dropping in for a weekday lunch, I discovered some of the best fish tacos in Mission Valley — beer-battered pollock and grilled mahi.
Purchased a la carte, the former was draped in addicting “white sauce” that I later learned is house-made ranch dressing. The fish in both tacos was flakey and substantial.
McGregor’s is a favored haunt among Chargers and Aztec football fans. Fronted by an elongated front patio, this non-consumer of sports can easily pass visiting on game days.
But when a certain birthday comes around, or I start hankering for solid bar food, the low-key hours inside these established confines are comfortably appealing.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.