Call it a little Irish irony that the latest visit for the beautimousburger blog was to an Irish pub — typically places of simple pleasures and pursuits — named after a character in an almost unreadbable, unapproachable novel. The location of Buck Mulligan’s — in the former Black Market space on Highland Avenue — has a lot of personal memories associated with it:
- I may or may not have introduced a best friend to a mind eraser at this location on or near his wedding eve … In fact, I may have introduced him to several
- I may or may not have gone to my first burlesque show in this building
- I may or may not have made out with some woman there … and can’t recall the woman’s name or even the name of the bar at the time (and if we’re Facebook friends and you recall this, I absolutely remember now; it was life changing … thank you so much).
The name “Buck Mulligan” comes from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Buck’s a nice lad, liking his food and drink. And he may be one of the few amiable characters in an otherwise depressing and wretched book. And there is a delicious, somewhat ironic parallel between the book and the food at this relatively new addition to the Southside of Bham..
Burgers and burger experiences are not all equal. There is a beauty to the simple presentation of a burger at a hole-in-the-wall burger joint. It’s Americana; it’s homey-ness. It’s bluegrass or shaped-note singing. It’s accessible and shared. It might be delivered in paper, or on something disposable. Simplicity, however, doesn’t guarantee goodness. And at the same time, complexity and creativity aren’t necessarily counter to a good burger experience.
As impatient creatures, we don’t always appreciate slow, or something requiring more than a quick glance to consume/understand… which is where the book and the burger meet on the same page …
Reading Ulysses was part of one of the first grad classes I took, and is one of those books that you’re supposed to read. But I think the world might be a better place if we could get an actual, legitimate account of people who have finished it — every page, and give them some long suffering reader award. Modern readers, accustomed to 140 characters, probably won’t even make it out of chapter 1 (which features Buck Mulligan). It comes from that strain of creativity that emerged in the early 20th century that embraced complexity and the shattering of old tropes (and that revelled in ironic self-reference) for it’s own sake — think Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner, Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, etc.
And the book is beautiful on multiple levels; the complexity and irony in it adds to its depth and its art. The burger at Buck Mulligans — with its Guinness sauce, spinach leaves and garlic aioli on a sweet/brioche-type bun — could make similar claims in the world of burgers.
Buck’s opened in the summer of 2015, and the food — what I’ve experienced — is well conceived and well executed. I sampled the corned beef and have been told the fish and chips are excellent. But for all its claims to Irish pub-ness (which it can legitimately claim for most of the food), it’s also not a burger joint, by any stretch. Might there be a winking, self-referential, ironic nod in a place that transacts on the homey feel of an Irish pub (with thoughts of green beer, songs and lots of beer/whiskey) and also features shaved brussel sprouts and kale on a salad? Is the idea of a night of Jameson shots and a salad liver cleanse a cocktail you’d fix for yourself?
And none of this takes away anything from Buck Mulligan’s fun ambiance and tasty food. It’s actually an admission that a place that raises the bar on pub food in Birmingham is doing it with a good natured, post-modern nudge in the ribs. So yes, an Irish pub has a really good burger that is topped with “aioli” — a burger that I would recommend (and likely enjoy again) — a complex and delicious burger. It was cooked as I asked (not MW, I live on the edge for medium). And the combo of fried onions and the Guinness sauce were a sweet and salty mix that works. With other fun touches — hints of garlic, spinach and grill scores on the bun, it’s good, better than good. It’s a very artistic presentation that is equal to the taste.
And yes, I had a lovely discussion with co-owner Michael Gordon about fries (both he and the other owner Danny Winter were present when I visited). And Buck’s hand-cuts their fries. They are shoestring size, crispy and a nice compliment.
- Burger — complex tastes mix well together … 8.75
- Fixins — not a complete surprise, and it works … 8.5
- Presentation and ambiance — it’s a pub with good Irish-themed pub food … 7
- Fries — you had me at hand-cut … 8
- Costs — moderate
I’ll go back to Buck’s. I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed a place that has a good vibe, with food more intricate than you might at first expect. But just don’t ask me to re-read Ulysses …