Guinness is probably rivaled only by U2 as Ireland’s most popular export. Sales of the dark brew have declined somewhat in the beer’s home country, but they seem to be growing in the United States, due in part of a campaign by the brewer to disseminate the “Irish Pub Concept” on this side of the Atlantic. Since 2000, Downtown Tempe has been home to one of these Guinness-centric pubs on Mill Avenue, just a block south of the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station. There, Rula Bula occupies two side-by-side storefronts in the historic Andre Building, which was originally a saddlery.
|fish and shrimps combo with chips|
The dining room is in the space labeled “Boxty Restaurant,” but all customers should enter through the door under the yellow Rula Bula sign, regardless of whether the bar or the restaurant is the intended destination. Bike racks are located at several locations along Mill Avenue on the same block as the restaurant. Behind the pub, there’s a lively patio tends where happy hour and late night crowds gather since it’s the only place where smoking is permitted. This outdoor part of the restaurant is not always family friendly, but children are welcomed inside with their own menu.
The interior of the restaurant is indeed more sedate and has a more authentic feel. Many traditional pubs are made of myriad small rooms that may have been added on over the years. Contemporary building codes make this difficult in Tempe, so Rula Bula attempts to suggest an authentic pub atmosphere with a big room designed to look like several smaller rooms. Variations in flooring, as well as partitions of wood and stained glass, break up the interior space. The furniture is imported from Ireland, and Irish music, both traditional and contemporary, is heard over the speakers.
The bar features a variety of Irish and other beers on tap. Of course, Guinness takes center stage, and is available both on its own and also as a component in hybrids like black-and-tans. The draft selections include other favorites like Harp and Strongbow cider. Behind the bar, the pints are poured with the back-and-forth motions on the tap needed to create the right head on the beer. As alternatives to beer, there are nearly two dozen whiskeys, single malt scotches of both Speyside and Islands origins, and a reasonably good wine selection.
|shepherd’s pie with apples and brussels sprouts|
The food menu is by no means 100% authentic Irish; quesadillas, for example, are not part of the pub tradition, even Rula Bula names its version after Captain Jon Riley of Mexican-American War fame. Nevertheless, the majority of menu items bear at least some resemblance to traditional pub food. That means fish and chips, available in both lunch and dinner portions, above all else. The fried fish is moist but not overly greasy, the chips are round rather than French fries, and of course the usual condiments, Heinz ketchup and malt vinegar, adorn every table.
Other dishes from Ireland and the British isles include bangers and mash, boxty, and shepherd’s pie, available in both meat and vegetarian versions. In a concession to American tastes, however, beef is used instead of lamb in the shepherd’s pie. Lamb is available, though, in a stew that features tender chunks of the meat with root vegetables. Served with a side dish and the restaurant’s dark bread, it’s a hearty entree. Likewise, the Guinness beef in a pastry shell is another satisfying preparation in which red meat benefits from braising in a flavorful sauce.
|Guinness beef with puff pastry|
For subtler, lighter fare emphasizing seafood, look toward the section of the menu entitled “New Irish Cuisine.” This is the zone for dishes based on salmon, trout, and shrimp, along with a few red meat items. These entrees tend to feature more intricate sauces than traditional pub fare; most are served with potatoes and never depart too radically from the familiar. Many are also accompanied by a side dish, which can include interesting selections such as Brussels sprouts with apples or a daily vegetable, which has recently been a blend of squash and cherry tomatoes.
In addition to pub staples and contemporary dishes, there are daily specials such as rosemary salmon. A fillet is grilled with sprigs of fresh rosemary for an herb flavor. Parley potatoes and the vegetable of the day are the sides. There’s a daily soup as well. Creamy potato leek is exemplary of what might be featured during the week, and clam chowder is typical on Fridays. During the slower summer months, the soup of the day takes a few months off with a jocular sandwich board out front suggesting that a broth known as “whiskey” is available as a first course that day.
|half size of bread pudding|
For dessert, the bread pudding, enlivened with a sauce of Jameson’s whiskey, is a good place to start. The regular portion is big enough for two or more, but a merciful half portion is ideal for the solo diner or the lunch customer wishing to enjoy a sweet taste without an afternoon food coma. The apple crumble is an equally appealing choice, but make sure to have at least one person to share the enormous portion with and to order it with a scoop of ice cream to create contrast between the smooth, soothing vanilla and the crusty, piping hot oat-based crust.
The pub is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner with Wednesdays featuring the inevitable trivia contest that all pubs seem to offer. Fridays and Saturdays, there’s live music. Some of the acts have an Irish influence and sound; others seem more a stretch in terms of Irish authenticity, but still manage to work in an intimate pub environment. U2 probably isn’t going to play here instead of one of the big sports arenas, but other Irish exports and Irish-influenced American touches in one of Tempe’s oldest structures continue to make Rula Bula a vital part of the Mill Avenue landscape.
401 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station