There are restaurants I review because everyone is talking about them, and there are restaurants I review because almost no one has heard of them, and there are — rarely — restaurants I review because even when I'm sitting in them, eating their food, I'm still not quite convinced they actually exist.
But no matter how many times I pinched myself, certain that it was all a hallucination, a byproduct of a night spent eating expired guacamole while watching Van Halen's "Right Now" music video on an endless loop, Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill really is there — in Maryland Heights, to be exact, just inside the main entrance of Harrah's St. Louis Casino & Hotel.
The Sammy of Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill is St. Louis favorite Sammy Hagar: the Red Rocker; the man who either a) saved Van Halen from (at best) irrelevance and (at worst) extinction after David Lee Roth split or b) condemned a once-kickass band to more than a decade of glossy AOR hell; the man who can't drive 55; the man who proves that even with a singing voice like you gargle with carbolic acid, you can become a rock icon 'cos that's what dreams are made of.
Hagar is a businessman as well as a bona fide rock star: He founded Cabo Wabo Cantina, transforming a sleepy Mexican fishing village into a spring-break thongfest, and followed that with Cabo Wabo tequila, two more Cabo Wabo Cantina locations and now Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill. Sammy's isn't so much a totally new venture as a sort of Cabo Wabo Cantina Express. (Tellingly, the two other Sammy's, one now open and one planned, are located in airports in Honolulu and Las Vegas.) The menu is brief, and while most of the dishes reflect a Mexican-beachfront aesthetic, the restaurant itself is all about Sammy.
You enter through the bar into the single dining room, a space at least twice as long as it is wide, with high ceilings and — surprisingly, for a casino — natural light. There are flat-screen TV sets everywhere; some show live sports, others a rotation of still photos of Hagar in concert, alone and with celebrities (including Michael Bolton), still others a muted loop of the live concert DVD Hagar shot in St. Louis in 2006. The sound system plays a mix of rock from the past four decades. Roughly every fifth song is a Hagar tune.
"This is my favorite," a server said as she passed my table while "Good Enough" was getting a spin. "Because it mentions me!"
"Hey, waitress!" Hagar bellowed moments later. "You got any specials here tonight?"
No, but the "Big Kahuna Fired-Up Chili" is pretty good. The kitchen fancies it up with crisscrossing swirls of chipotle and "lime blanco" sauces, and it's served in a big, sleek, asymmetrical bowl, but this is simply good old-fashioned American chili, rich with coarse-ground beef and given a little more kick than usual thanks to habanero chiles.
A note from Hagar inside the menu declares that the selection is "the result of recipes and advice I've received from some of my favorite friends, the celebrated chefs I've met in my travels across America." That may very well be true, but most of the menu follows the template of the chili, with commonplace dishes given a veneer of originality.
"Crispy Pescado Mahi Mahi" is, as the menu states, "the island version of fish and chips!" The battered and fried mahi mahi was crisp on the outside, and the fish retained its dense, almost meaty, texture, but ultimately fried fish is fried fish. A spicy ancho chile sauce added some bite, but the jicama promised on the menu was nowhere in sight, and a side of Mexican slaw was toothachingly cold, as if plucked right from the back of the fridge. The chips were tortilla chips, served with pico de gallo and an "avocado cream" sauce much more unctuous (and nowhere near as pleasant) as actual guacamole. Which is especially odd, as Sammy's serves a decent guacamole as an appetizer.
The mahi mahi is one of four entrées. Another is a serving of two thick quesadillas cut into wedges, some of which are branded with the restaurant's logo: "Sammy's" inscribed inside a guitar pick. Aside from cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, these are filled with black beans, chopped red and green onion, and a chipotle aioli. You can add pork, chicken, shrimp, lobster or portobello mushrooms.
I opted for the lobster, because according to the menu, it's Hagar's favorite. The wedges are topped with the aforementioned avocado cream as well as an insipid black-bean sauce; the usual fixings — guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream as well as roasted-corn salsa — are served on the side. The lobster meat is shredded very fine — it's almost invisible, really. For all the accessories, these are quesadillas, nothing more, nothing less.
"Kanaha Cheddar Jack Bacon Melt" is a long name for a decent bacon cheeseburger undermined by the fact that you can order it only medium-well or well-done. Or so says the menu. My server urged me to order it medium, which I happily did, but the burger that arrived was on the well end of medium-well. The thick French fries are seasoned with sage and whole garlic cloves — a nice touch that would have worked better had the fries been served piping hot rather than just above lukewarm.
The fries are also available, with cheese or cheese and chili, as an appetizer, as are very thickly sliced onion rings with "traditional Mexican spices." I don't know which spices Mexicans traditionally enjoy on fried onion rings, but these spices tasted like straight-up chili powder. If you must have some strange Mexican-American hybrid, try the chicken wings with the lime-chile sauce. The wings are breaded and fried, and the sauce provides a tart-hot counterpoint.
The menu is more miss than hit, but I have to keep the long knife sheathed: According to its menu, Sammy Hagar will donate his share of the restaurant's profits to local charities.
Still, even if you accept the food for what it is, the restaurant just isn't very rock & roll. Watch a few minutes of the St. Louis concert video: You're liable to see Hagar shooting streamers into the crowd, leading fans in a conga line or drinking a Waborita (a margarita made with Cabo Wabo tequila, natch, and a touch of blue curaçao) while dancing with bikini-ed babes. You can order the Waborita at Sammy's, but otherwise you could be at any faceless chain restaurant anywhere in the country.
Then again, you can Hagarize your experience at Sammy's if you start by stocking up on merchandise at the gift shop next door. I have to give the man credit: He might have a rough time carrying a tune, but he's backed by one hell of a brand.