On Mill Avenue, so many businesses have come and gone in recent years that an Irish pub nearly two decades old now seems like a veteran of that street’s fast-changing landscape of dining and nightlife. Of course, 20 years or so is nothing compared to the age of many pubs actually located in Ireland, and it’s also a short time compared to the age of the historic Andre building, where the pub in question, Rula Bula, occupies two side-by-side storefronts just a block south of the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station in the heart of Downtown Tempe.
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 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.
Many traditional pubs are made of myriad small rooms that may have been added incrementally to the original structure over the years. Contemporary building codes make this difficult in Tempe, so Rula Bula suggests 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 and even the bar itself were imported from Ireland. The Andre building’s original use as a saddlery is also reflected in the decor.
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, as well American craft brews such as Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. 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.
The food menu is by no means 100% authentic Irish; avocado toast, for example, is not part of the pub tradition, but at least it’s green. 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 the usual condiments, Heinz ketchup and malt vinegar, adorn every table. A combination of both fried fish and shrimp with chips is also available.
Lighter seafood options include steamed mussels in a sauce of white wine and cream with baguette on the side and grilled rosemary salmon. In a nod to a decidedly non-Irish heritage grain, quinoa plays the role of side dish to the salmon. The role was previously filled by boiled red potatoes. Quinoa also appears in a seemingly ubiquitous salad with kale. Of course, contemporary restaurants in Dublin have shown plenty of interest in so-called “superfoods,” so the choice isn’t really alien to Ireland, even if it’s outside the realm of traditional pub food.
After some forays into contemporary foods, the menu returns to pub traditions from Ireland and the British Isles. The menu includes bangers and mash, a dish of sausage and potatoes; boxty, a sort of folded potato pancake encasing a meat filling; 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. Corned beef, lean and sliced thin, is featured on a platter of its own or as the filling between slices of rye on the sandwich section of the menu. Both a straightforward corned beef sandwich and a Reuben coexist there with burgers, a chicken sandwich, and a meatless Ploughman’s Veggie Sandwich. These are all accompanied by a side dish, ranging from spicy shoestring fries to Brussels sprouts with apples to a daily vegetable.
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. There are also late night and Sunday brunch menus. As expected, the former is a subset of the standard menu, while the latter adds some choices not found during the week. Pubs are generally thought of as old institutions, and in one of the oldest buildings in Tempe, two decades of operation seems to have anchored Rula Bula in an environment where so many trends and businesses arrive and depart after only a few years.
401 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station