Allen Pierleoni / apierleoni @sacbee.com

The fish 'n' chips at the Boxing Donkey in Old Town Roseville are top notch, one of several solid menu items.

Counter Culture: A tasty slice o' Ireland in Old Town Roseville

Published: Friday, Mar. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 33TICKET

"Party hearty" is the mantra on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, when green beer flows and everyone is Irish for at least one day.

To get a jump on the 1,300-plus revelers expected on St. Pat's Day at the Boxing Donkey in Old Town Roseville, three lunch pals and I GPS'd our way there.

Let's say right now that the place serves 18 draft beers and 20-plus brands of Irish whiskey and Scotch.

On St. Pat's Day, the Donkey will open at 6 a.m. for corned beef hash breakfast, said general manager Joe Tucey by phone Monday. Lunch-dinner items will be served from 10 a.m. "until we run out" – probably by 11 p.m. On the menu: corned beef colcannon (a mix of corned beef, potatoes and cabbage), shepherd's pie, Irish beef stew and clam chowder.

The Donkey is spacious and inviting, with walls covered in stop-and-look photos, art, knickknacks, and beer and whiskey signage. It occupies the site of the refurbished Barker Hotel, rebuilt in 1899 after a devastating fire.

It's owned by Carl and Pamela Schubert of Fair Oaks, whose daughter, Kendl Schubert, is bartender and part owner. Michael Reese and Jeff Grace do the cooking, with input from Tucey.

What about the name? Do donkeys even live in Ireland?

The Schuberts' son "played rugby in England and loved the Fighting Goat pub there," Tucey said. "When this spot became available, we decided to open an Irish pub (in November 2008). The name 'Boxing Donkey' was inspired by the name 'Fighting Goat.' "

Our group walked past the crowded bar and into the rear dining room.

Asian-influenced dishes are common in Ireland and England, we learned, as populations shift. Reflecting that was the Donkey's daily special of Thai chicken curry. We were after more domestic fare this day, though, and the menu complied ($4 to $13). Arriving quickly were Irish egg roll, clam chowder, fish 'n' chips, shepherd's pie and two wild cards – pork wings and Buffalo mac 'n' cheese.

For the Irish eggroll, corned beef, cabbage and Swiss cheese join hands in an eggroll wrap that's deep-fried and served with tangy sauce. It was respectable, but not a flavor knockout.

That punch came from the outstanding clam chowder, a recipe that includes bacon, butter, cream, clams with juice, clam base, onion, celery and Tabasco sauce. Counterintuitively, the large cubes of potato hold up well to keep the chowder from becoming just another potato soup.

"This is better than any chowder on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey," said one lunch pal.

"I would come back just for this," said another.

The question is: Why is it served only on Fridays?

The fish 'n' chips was one of the best versions we've found. Hefty pieces of wild Atlantic cod are dipped in a batter made with Guinness beer and vodka, and deep-fried. The crusty jacket was light, the non-oily fish hot and fresh-tasting.

"Outstanding," a lunch pal said, everyone nodding.

The skinny, hand-cut french fries really got us. The crunchy, well-seasoned morsels are made from Kenneback potatoes, a variety widely used to make potato chips.

Pork wings are trimmed-down shanks, with the meat on the bone. Pick them up and eat them like chicken wings. The moist pork was crispy-tender, the chipotle-honey glaze the ideal balance of heat 'n' sweet.

Shepherd's pie, often served in a ramekin, is the classic dish of lamb or beef, veggies and gravy covered with a crusty topping of mashed potatoes. Though this good-looking ground-beef version had quality ingredients and fine texture, it lacked any real sense of seasoning.

Fusilli is definitely not the pasta to use for a Buffalo mac 'n' cheese. The dish was clunky and heavy, the cheese undistinguished. The bits of crisp, spiced chicken simply did not match up with the other ingredients. Square peg in a round hole.

For centuries, the Irish have been known as storytellers. Here's one told at our table by lunch pal Richard Hellesen, a playwright and teacher who is of Irish descent:

"When I was in college in Britain, we lived across the street from a pub and up the street from a fish 'n' chips shop, which did its best business at 11:01 p.m. because the pub closed at 11 and you needed fish 'n' chips before you stumbled home. So, in my mind, a pub and great fish 'n' chips always go together."

Pass the malt vinegar, please.

BOXING DONKEY

Where: 300 Lincoln St., Old Town Roseville

Hours: Food is served 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. Breakfast is served 10 a.m.-1 p.m. weekends

Food: 3 1/2 stars

Ambience: 4 stars

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 797-3665, www.theboxingdonkey.com ee.comFor more restaurant news and reviews sacbee.com/dining

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