Restaurant review: Ulster Sports Club
96-98 High Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 0771
We live in post-ironic times, and the Ulster Sports Club is a classic illustration of this. Take an out-of-date, outmoded working man's club whose lounge bar sports a stage with Phoenix Nights gold frayed curtain backdrop, and put a couple of beards and piercings behind the bar which is now stocked with cans of micro-brewed pale ales, and there's your post-modern venue, ready to serve the giddy, insatiable and fashion-conscious youth of Ireland.
While generation Z finds this incredibly exciting - USC looks and feels like a 1971 film set - older people are oddly reassured by the familiarity of it. So, boomers win as well.
I loved the place even before David Holmes played there last week and, more importantly, before Gary Quinn was brought into the club's little galley.
The wider office worker population of central Belfast will be very familiar with Gary Quinn, whose Taquitos trailer is regularly parked along Donegall Quay close to the Big Fish.
Here he serves a selection of tacos, nachos, tostadas and other Mexican delights to an adoring fan base whose repeat business levels must be among the most consistent in Belfast.
In a stroke of genius, Ulster Sports Club owner Bill Wolsey has persuaded Gary to spend his evenings on Monday to Saturday serving the Mexican menu in the lounge bar. Twelve of us went along for a taste last week and were all enamorados.
The relatively recent pale ale trend has a distinctive North American twang and its marriage to quality Mexican food is as effortlessly brilliant as Muscadet with mussels, tea and toast or port and stilton. Pale, white and red ales include Beavertown Neck Oil, Gamma Ray, Cute Hoor, Yardsman, Life & Death, Joker, Juice Springsteen and many more.
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The menu is simple. Chef Quinn keeps it thus so he can focus on making his own corn bread; slow-roasting his pork, beef, lamb and chicken; and working sensitively around his shrimp ceviche.
He does not put a foot wrong. The dark, almost musty flavour of the corn bread is as evocative as that which I had in the legendary Cosme in the Flatiron district of Manhattan a couple of years back.
Chef Quinn gets the authenticity from his own experience in Miami where he cooked at a high level for a year.
During this time he picked up some very good habits, and the proof is literally in the eating.
The taco choices include crispy chicken, BBQ beef, BBQ lamb, fish and vegan. We tried them all and could not for the life of us choose a favourite. They were lush, generous, full of flavours and soft, luxurious textures - and at three for a tenner, very good value.
Nachos are not like anything you've seen before. The puffed, crisp corn triangles were brittle and withstood the onslaught of masses of sauce featuring all the salsas, guacamole and chilli, all fabulously hot and entertaining.
Tostadas with shrimp ceviche are not to be missed. The crispy tortilla base is overloaded with tangy, citrusy shrimp whose texture is firm and cool and enhanced by jalapenos and tomatoes. Refried beans have a depth of flavour yet lightness of texture which makes them hard not to devour.
The overwhelming impression is that we are all squatting in this crumbling, former temple to machismo and that at any minute the PSNI are going to ram through the doors, followed by a body of old men reclaiming their rightful place at the bar drinking pints of Double Diamond and sergeants of Red Heart Guinness.
So, when a group of loud grown men out for the pre-Christmas dinner drinks start playing darts and the banter gets too boisterous for the gentler millennials, quiet words are spoken by bar staff and peace is quickly restored.
Management here is key and it is the best I've seen in action. There's the irony and we're all grateful for it.
Tacos x 3 £10
Nachos BBQ beef£8
Beavertown Neck Oil Pale ale£5.50