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I don't think it counts as an early bird special, but a recent special drew me in: After 4 p.m. Thursday, the Fairway restaurant has been offering a "complimentary 5- to 6-ounce cold-water lobster tail or five jumbo shrimp with the purchase of a steak entrée." Nice, but I ended up picking a cheaper offering one night: a trio of sliders. Among them was a mini veggie burger, a tasty black-bean-and-chickpea patty that was overloaded with slaw called "ranch-style greens." I also liked the cute little hot dog smothered in Chicago-style neon-green relish, but the star of the plate was a small pot-roast sandwich. The fried onions on top were extraneous; it was delicious by itself.
Houlihan's has always been a price-conscious chain, and the manager of the Fairway spot says a new menu is in the works. "More upscale," he says. I hope upscale doesn't mean more expensive. The one constant in the long identity crisis at Houlihan's is that prices have remained accessible. There aren't many restaurants where your dad can get a good meatloaf dinner, with Yukon Gold mashers and vegetables, for $12 or you can buy your date a small — but not too small — dish of excellent macaroni and cheese for $6.25.
As it was even in the Old Place days, the menu is a likable hodgepodge of familiar bar food (burgers, salads, fried starters) and the unexpected. Some of the old standbys are still damn good. The French onion soup, under a thick blanket of provolone, is practically meaty. Sure, gruyere would be nicer (I'd even take the gouda used for the "farmhouse club" sandwich), but I don't write the recipes here. And I'm sure everyone likes provolone better, right?
"Our stuffed mushroom caps have been a signature item here since 1972," bragged our waiter, who probably thinks that dinosaurs roamed the Earth that year. I have to be in the right mood to tackle one of these frighteningly large fungi — we're talking a mushroom with 'roid rage — stuffed with cream cheese, battered and deep-fried. You can make an economical meal of them, if not a very healthy one. (For the record, the only mushroom caps on the menu back then were stuffed with escargot. What were we all thinking?)
Houlihan's has usually had some vegetarian options, perhaps owing to the recovering hippies in its original customer base. (Back then, the granola types protested wars, not Wall Street.) Plenty of the 99-percenters would order the wild-mushroom enchiladas. They're one of the best things on the menu, with smoky and earthy mushrooms under melted queso fresco. (So much nicer than the greasy provolone. Do you really like provolone better?)