"Pub House" is more difficult to fathom. The phrase is short for public house — but then so is "pub" by itself. I suppose Market Pub House rolls off the tongue more smoothly than Market Pub does. The point is moot, though, because if by "pub" we mean the word's cozy British or Irish connotation, there is nothing publike about Market Pub House, save for the presence of beer. The restaurant is a single large room with a generic dining room on one side and a generic bar on the other. There are a few arcade games in one corner and a flat-screen TV monitor nearly everywhere you turn.
The Market Pub House's website describes the restaurant as featuring "multinational fresh food offerings in a publike atmosphere." To be fair, this isn't entirely disingenuous. The menu includes both potstickers and tacos. The potstickers (gyoza on the menu) are a two-bite snack, lightly seasoned ground pork wrapped in thin dough. Unlike the potstickers at many Chinese or Japanese restaurants, which are pan-fried on one side and then steamed until finished, these are seared so that each side has a crisp texture.
The tacos are more Tex-Mex than Mex-Mex. Your choice of beef, chicken or pork is served atop a spread of melted cheddar cheese inside a soft flour tortilla, along with roasted poblano peppers. These come three to an order, with pico de gallo, sour cream and shredded lettuce on the side. I opted for the beef, which is sliced paper-thin. Even with the cheese and the peppers, the flavor was straightforward. Both the chopped tomato in the pico de gallo and the shredded lettuce were unappealingly pale.
For the most part, the menu follows the standard bar-and-grill template: burgers, sandwiches and a greatest-hits lineup of appetizers (nachos, fried calamari, crab rangoon). The restaurant is proud of the fact that no dish costs more than $7. This is misleading: Sides are à la carte. At lunch you can pair one selection from a list of burgers and sandwiches with a side, for $8. At dinner, though, if you want fries with your burger, you will pay $3 extra. The total price isn't unreasonable, of course. Just misleading.
Of those sides, the sweet-potato fries are a standout: crisp, a touch sweet, a touch salty. The crunchy exterior of the onion rings, however, gives way to an unpleasant mush. For a guilty pleasure, I recommend the nacho macaroni and cheese: elbow noodles in a very creamy, mildly spicy cheese sauce further sparked by jalapeños.
Market Pub House touts its burgers as a "specialty." These, the menu claims, are hand-formed patties made from ground beef that has never been frozen. An admirable practice, but the results are merely average, the flavor not distinctive, the texture not juicy enough to do much more than satisfy an everyday craving. Besides a basic burger, the wide variety of "Chef's Specialty Burgers" includes the "Smokehouse," a patty topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, a fried onion ring and then slathered in a bland barbecue sauce, more sweet than tangy or spicy. The "Cajun" burger receives a more assertive seasoning and benefits from a sprinkling of chopped green onion. Not once over several visits was the kitchen able to turn out my order at the requested medium temperature, a fundamental flaw for a restaurant that banks on its burgers.
The pulled-pork sandwich brings a generous pile of pig. Its flavor is a decent balance of sweet and smoky, but the meat isn't anywhere near as tender as good (let alone great) barbecue should be. The pastrami sandwich is likewise overstuffed, certainly more meat than two slices of rye bread can contain. The pastrami isn't sliced but chopped or pulled into chunks. This can lead to some tougher bites, but in large part (pun intended!) the meat is good, the sandwich a success.
Chicken wings are available as mild, hot and "stupid hot." I opted for stupidity and was let down. The heat, though definite, was no greater than ordinary hot wings elsewhere and offset by the sauce's strong vinegar tang.
The "stupid hot" designation is symptomatic of the menu's sense of humor. The muffaletta sandwich, for example, is called a "muff." While I'm the last person qualified to judge someone else's bad humor, let's just say certain jokes already feel dated in our meme-a-minute culture. The fried calamari are called "Da Kraken," a reference to a briefly infamous scene in this year's Clash of the Titans remake, while the club sandwich is referred to as (wait for it...) the "Glee" club.
The silly names and generic menu all point toward a restaurant that's trying to compete with the ever-encroaching empire of T.G.I. Friday's, Applebee's and other national chains. In today's economic climate, I can hardly fault such a strategy. As I mentioned when I reviewed Racanelli's Cucina ("Cucina Confidential," Aug. 27, 2009), such appeals to a broader public are becoming increasingly common in the gentrifying Delmar Loop. Yet I can't help but feel a little saddened and bothered by this trend: I write this the same week that Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar, a Delmar Loop institution and a seminal part of St. Louis restaurant history, has closed its doors.
Market Pub House is neither a market nor a pub nor a house. It is the future of the Delmar Loop, and it is here, now.