Divide and conquer 

Of all people, food critics are hesitant to use the word "best" often, if at all. But there I was, biting again into a tartar sauce-dipped, gorgeously fluffy beer-battered haddock that comprises the heart of McGinty's Friday night fish-and-chips special ($12.95), thinking that I couldn't recall a better rendition anywhere: the Northwest, the Northeast, Florida — hell, even Ireland and England.

And there I sat, in effin' Divide.

Hitting its one-year anniversary on Nov. 1 — and launching a new dinner menu in celebration, featuring items like pizza pot pies, smoked pork chops and Guinness-stewed beef tips — McGinty's has somewhat quietly earned a loyal following in both neighboring mountain towns and Colorado Springs. I found a 25-minute wait when I pulled up on that Friday.

I also found flavors that quickly hinted at true skill and creativity in the kitchen. Every element of that fish-and-chips plate was spot on: a rich, smoky cup of chowder; a unique cole slaw brightened by red onion and orange-y citrus notes; and thick fries with a nice firmness and crisp skin. Our Fields of Athenry salad ($8.95) sported Brie wedges, pear slices, dried cranberries and candied walnuts; we enjoyed it both with the suggested honey mustard and alluring blackberry horseradish dressings. I sipped on a light and pleasant Red McGinty ale blended specially for McGinty's by Bristol Brewing Co. (It's a 50/50 mix of Red Rocket and Mass Transit, meant to mimic the Irish style.)

Frankly, I was shocked — so surprised by the unexpected gourmet touches and flawless execution that I greatly looked forward to a follow-up phone call to learn who was in the kitchen.

Phantom menace

Turns out it's Scott Coulter, who earned high marks in early 2006 while steering Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. back on course as head chef. He left a couple years ago and was looking for work closer to home in Divide when he responded to an ad in a small community paper, placed by Tracy McGinty.

A former food and beverage manager at the now-long-defunct Rocky Mountain Greyhound Park off Nevada Avenue, McGinty had grown up around her parents' long-standing Irish pub in Buffalo, N.Y. She'd been running Killday's Coffee and Deli up the pass, off U.S. Highway 24, when better real estate with highway visibility opened up. In that space, formerly Jackie's Bar & Grill, she saw a chance to place something special in Divide — something truly worth driving for.

She and Coulter, former strangers, collaborated on the menu, and built a relationship she says "couldn't be better." As far as how it plays out on the plate, I couldn't agree more. Those fish and chips began with one of McGinty's dad's recipes, which Coulter somehow tweaked (they won't say how); when her father visited from New York, he told Coulter they were the best fish and chips he'd ever had.

With their wood oven, they wanted to do more than conventional pizzas, so they developed some with an Irish spin, like the Paddy O'Reilly ($9.95, 16 inches): corned beef and braised cabbage slivers, green onions, Swiss cheese, garlic, olive oil, black pepper and creamy horseradish. It's wonderful, with the lightly caramelized cabbage emitting a faint, salty, corned-beef-enhanced sweetness after the horseradish and pepper lightly bite your tongue through the richly seasoned dairy. To all those that strive to be different for different's sake and fail, this pizza is clear in its message: "Get fooked!"

Oh yeah, and, "Eat me."

"We made a conscious effort to be different," says McGinty. "We could have thrown burgers on the menu, but instead, we went with a meatloaf sandwich ... When you're craving a burger, you can go anywhere. We want people to crave our food and come here."

Sandwiches and surprises

I do crave a second taste and return for a sandwich sampling. The Dublin Cheese Toasty ($6.95) kicks the curds out of lesser grilled cheeses, made with Kerrygold's mildly sharp and nutty Dubliner cheese plus pepper, onion, walnuts and a loud and lovely fresh rosemary element.

The McGinty Melt ($8.95) uses the same thick "Irish buttered hearty farmhouse bread" as the Dublin, but sports layers of smoked ham, turkey and Irish bacon with oven-dried tomatoes, garlic mayonnaise and Blarney cheese, which Kerrygold describes as smooth and reminiscent of a young Gouda. I'll describe the whole package as plenty pleasing and hearty.

Lastly, the South Buffalo Roast Beef ($8.95), delivered on a Kimmelweck roll (basically a Kaiser roll topped with coarse salt flecks and caraway seeds), features wood-oven baked prime rib and horseradish with a sweet onion jus for dipping. Again, no faults.

I can't speak for breakfast items yet, but I can say that McGinty's otherwise fulfills every food reviewer's perpetual fantasy of being blown away when least expecting it, by food that beautifully nails its style while delivering subtle surprises.

McGinty's is that clichéd diamond in the rough, in this case handsomely dressed, quick and competent in service and seriously memorable for its food. I'll go ahead and use that word just this once: It's absolutely my "best" recent surprise.



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