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Hungry Hombre 

Step up to the plate at Albert Pujols' new restaurant.

On a page halfway through the menu at Pujols 5 Westport Grill — after the appetizers, salads large and small, soups, pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and a few entrées, but before the pasta, ribs, even more appetizers, seafood, steaks and dessert — there are "Albert & Dee Dee's Favorites."

What do the Cards slugger and his wife like to eat? Chicken. There are chicken flautas, chicken wings, arroz con pollo and applewood-smoked chicken. Filling out the brief list are a grilled pork chop in a pineapple glaze and, for dessert, crème brûlée.

I was grateful for the guidance. On my first visit to Pujols 5, I'd sat at the bar and ordered a cup of chili and a burger, in part because I thought these a decent test for the kitchen, in part because I was flummoxed by how many choices I had. I hadn't noticed "Albert & Dee Dee's Favorites."

The "White Bean Chili" needed more heat — and more heat. It was served to me at room temperature and quickly cooled. Both the Spanish chorizo in it and the dollop of "spiced jalapeño cream" atop it were mild to the point of irrelevance. The only flavor was run-of-the-mill chili powder. Besides, of course, the temperature issue, the flaw was the chorizo. An ingredient of the gods, to be sure, here it had been crumbled or chopped into granules of nothingness.

The burger was better than the chili but didn't distinguish itself from the burgers at every other bar-and-grill in town. I tried the "Burger Blue": crumbled blue cheese, applewood-smoked bacon and a tangy barbecue sauce splashed with bourbon. These extras were all fine, the barbecue sauce especially so, but the burger was just OK, juicy and nicely charred, but not very flavorful. I'd ordered it medium, but it was medium-well leaning toward well-done. The menu states, "All burgers are cooked medium or well done." An ambiguous claim, I think.

So I left that first visit unimpressed, worried that Pujols 5 was going to be another quick-buck "celebrity-owned" restaurant.

I should have just turned the menu page.

The chicken flautas (chicken rolled inside a tortilla, then fried until crisp) were good, though I wanted more zip from the pico de gallo and guacamole that accompanied them. The fresh-made guacamole tasted mostly of avocado.

The chicken wings, on the other hand, were outstanding. These will grab your attention even before you eat one: They're served whole. And I don't just mean the drumettes and middle joints are attached to each other. I mean you even get the wingtips. The tips don't have much meat, of course, but each morsel of crisped skin is a guilty pleasure. Pujols' favorite wings aren't Buffalo-style (though those are available). These wings are dusted with jerk seasoning, grilled and served with a pineapple-and-jalapeño chutney that's sweet enough not to be too hot and hot enough not to be too sweet.

Arroz con pollo isn't impressive on the plate. In truth, it's downright quaint: on one side, chicken in sauce; on the other, Mexican-style rice. But it was one of the more satisfying dishes I've had recently. It tasted homemade: Any restaurant tricks that went into it blended seamlessly into the peppery, slightly sweet sauce. I didn't have to think about it, just enjoy.

I wanted to work my way through the rest of "Albert & Dee Dee's Favorites." But as I said, there were all those other categories I had to consider. That's the dilemma sports-celebrity restaurants — and their patrons — face. It's an illusion: "Famous Athlete loves steaks. You love steaks. Come have a steak at Famous Athlete's Steaks." When the illusion works — as it does, say, at Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood — you get a restaurant that's reliably good, occasionally very good and always fun. But safe. When it doesn't work, it feels like a cynical cash-grab.

Pujols 5 co-owner Pat Hanon Sr., whose Hanon Management Group has owned several area restaurants (including Patrick's, whose location at Westport Plaza Pujols 5 has taken over), and executive chef Greg Maggi, who mostly recently ran the kitchen at the Zodiac Room at Neiman-Marcus in Plaza Frontenac, seem to be aiming for the Mike Shannon's model, though it feels more like a bar-and-grill with ambitions than a steak house proper.

Maggi does offer a few higher-end dishes: pan-seared scallops atop a white-truffle risotto; grilled ahi tuna with a sun-dried tomato and kalamata olive relish. The latter relied too heavily on the saltiness of the olives, which drowned the lighter, fresher flavors of the rare tuna. Additionally, it was too much of a good thing: You can only eat so much nearly rare tuna.

But for the most part Maggi takes safe, satisfying bar-and-grill food and presents it well, and sometimes, as in the case of Albert & Dee Dee's favorite chicken wings, with an enjoyable twist. One of the best dishes I tried was a barbecue-chicken pizza. I don't particularly like barbecue-chicken pizza; the sauce is usually too sweet, the meat dry, the cheese an afterthought. But here the sauce was the same excellent bourbon barbecue sauce that came with my burger, the chunks of chicken were large and tender, and big slices of fresh red onion provided a punch of flavor.

Steaks include a New York strip, tenderloin and bone-in rib eye, but I was more intrigued by the flatiron steak. This is a relatively "new" cut of beef, taken from the shoulder. Much like the hanger steak a few years back, it has gained some cachet among chefs and foodies for its reputed balance of tenderness and beefy flavor. And at $14.95 for a ten-ounce hunk o' meat, the flatiron is almost half the price of the other steaks on the menu. The one I was served wasn't exceptionally tender or flavorful, but it was a decent steak, given the price. It was topped with a dab of garlic-herb butter and sautéed onion slices — the menu had promised caramelized onions, and these were barely translucent — but what it really needed was a little more salt and pepper in its crust, which as it stood provided more texture than flavor, a problem when a steak has this much surface area.

You might say Pujols 5 itself needs more seasoning. The servers were friendly but seemed swamped, even on a relatively slow Sunday afternoon. They have a lot of territory to cover: the main dining room, the "Sports Grill" (the bar, a few dozen tables and numerous flat-screen TVs) and three separate areas for groups and private parties. The metal-accented design looks slick but feels cold, especially when there's no game on. On my first visit, with the TVs by the bar showing a FOX News Channel roundtable discussion (including, oddly, New York Knicks great Walt Frazier), ESPNews and an ESPN program about people who have the same name as famous athletes, it felt like an airport lounge.

The requisite Albert Pujols memorabilia is confined mostly to a glass display case that marks one side of the main dining room. Hanging on walls throughout the restaurant are poster-size photos of Pujols and his teammates, which are swapped out on a regular basis. Over the course of my visits, one spot went from a beautiful shot of Yadier Molina watching his National League Championship Series-winning home run travel through the rain to the Cards celebrating en masse to a shot of Pujols lying flat on his back in the infield dirt, presumably after making a nice defensive play.

These photos are the key to the entire operation, a constant reminder that this is Pujols 5, not one more anonymous bar-and-grill. Really, the most accurate review of the place came from a little boy who wandered past my table one afternoon. He looked around at the posters and the banks of TVs, shook his head and said, simply, "Wow."

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