Heavenly Grease 

It'll never be mistaken for haute cuisine, but the fare at Molly O'Ryans will leave you satisfied

Full confession:

I was sort of swindled into reviewing Molly O'Ryans, an unassuming make-your-own-fun drinking hole hidden away on a gas-station-and-pawn-shop stretch of Olive Boulevard.

Some Loop friends of mine happened upon the place one early-winter night (it reopened for business back in the fall after being taken over by new management), and they swore up and down that its pub fare was really, really top-notch. So I agreed to check it out, thinking I was in for an O'Generically Named McIrish Bar experience with a full-on menu -- finger food, for sure, but also soups, an entrée or two, desserts -- much like McGurk's in Soulard or at least a Houlihan's.

Molly's is not a McGurk's or a Houlihan's, not even close. The word "restaurant" should not be printed within three paragraphs of its name. It's got a jukebox, a pool table, an electronic dart board and one of those trivia computers. A metal pail is rigged like a dumbwaiter for upstairs patrons too lazy to come down for more drinks. Condiment bottles are housed on the tables in Miller Lite six-pack holders.

The light switch in the ladies' room is decorated with a plastic novelty plate of a naked himbo, such that if you want to turn the light on or off you must submit to touching a little plastic penis. The men's room is decorated with a Britney Spears calendar. Dare to ask what's for dessert, and you will probably be told either "beer" or something like "I'm sure the Amoco next door sells Snickers bars."

Wednesday night is Ladies' Night.

Molly O'Ryans is a bar.

But it is a bar where, if you feel like having food, there's food. Likewise, owner Barry Lewis -- also the head bartender, the waiter and probably the bookkeeper and janitor -- is not a chef so much as a guy who happens to have access to a grill and a deep-fryer. Then again, I've long believed that the world's greatest cook is not necessarily Alain Ducasse or Emeril Lagasse or some other four-star froufrou French-trained culinary mastermind; the world's greatest cook is someone who, when you're hungry, is nearby and will make you something. And Barry fulfills those criteria flawlessly.

Although Molly's single-column laminated menu mostly features what I like to call "the brown food group" -- which is just a different way of saying "fried stuff" -- in a few cases, the selection is actually far from pedestrian. Plenty of the items do just fine: the cheese sticks, the wings, the grilled-chicken salad.

But then come the surprise and delight that register on newcomers' faces when they learn that Molly's forgoes French fries for Tater Tots -- and register once more when they take the first bite. These spud-balls are perfectly crisped, with hot and moist centers, and they will get you wondering why there aren't more Tater Tots in the world, why Tater Tots have never transcended their lowly school-cafeteria reputation, why somebody isn't lobbying the potato industry right now for more Tater Tots, more Tater Tots! (Barry will tell you that he put them on the menu because he hails from whatever town is the "Home of the Tater Tot" or the "Tater Tot Capital of the World." Don't believe him.)

The chicken-tender salad is another gastronomic oddity, one that reeks of white-trashiness -- "hoosier salad," I overheard somebody call it. Lo and behold, it's damn good (as are the chicken-tender sandwich and the plain old chicken tenders), with a gravelly crust on the tenders (that's a good thing) and plenty of gristle-free white meat inside.

Barry loves to say of his veggie burger, "I could pass my veggie burger for a hamburger if I had to." He's right. Blindfolded, I don't know whether I could tell the difference. Fully dress that baby with lettuce, tomato and onion (and, of course, furnish it with a side of Tater Tots), and you've got yourself a full meal. Plus, the patty is downright huge, outsizing the bun by so much that it's laughable. If anything, Barry may want to figure out how to draw as much pride from his inferior real-meat burgers, which tasted a little off to me on both of my visits. (I suspect he's working with ground beef that's got a high fat content.)

The other disheartening misstep in Molly's menu is the grilled cheese sandwich, which can be ordered on regular white bread or Texas toast: not enough cheese (is there even such a thing as enough cheese?) and not so much grilled as toasted, leaving the cheese in the middle mostly unmelted and the bread more white than the appropriate yellow-brown.

Speaking of cheese, I have never seen it used -- in its shredded version, mind you -- with such devil-may-care abandon as it is used at Molly's. Shredded cheddar is everywhere, as if somebody accidentally tore open a bag of it in the kitchen and it exploded all over the place like so much wandering confetti. It's in the salads, it's what turns hamburgers into cheeseburgers and it's what separates the Tater Tots from the cheese Tots. It's wonderful, adding bite and heft to the salads and gluttonous joy to the Tots.

Barry makes a good waiter. He's adept at recommending foods that fit your mood and portions that match your hunger level -- although you'd think that, as both cook and server, he'd know how to, say, describe his honey-mustard dressing more articulately than "It's like a vinaigrette-looking thingie." Fast with the one-liners and easygoing to a fault (I think I still owe him a roll of quarters from that time I got a little crazy with the trivia machine), he's the best thing about Molly's.

But the highest praise for Molly's is this: It's the sort of place that people fight over who gets to say he or she discovered it first, that feels like hanging out in a buddy's basement, that circles of friends come to dub "our bar."

I'm sorry -- "our bar that serves food."

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