The Angry Penguin Tavern, 41 Broad St, Waterford, 237-2829. Serving 1-Midnight Tue-Sat, 3-8 Sun. D, MC, V.
Cuisine: pub fare
Entrée price range: $4.25 (grilled cheese) to $14 (fish and chips)
Ambiance: English pub
After fighting bumper-to-bumper Waterford traffic—it doesn’t take much in that town—it was a joy to find a parking space in front of the tavern and a relief to get inside, where I was counting on a stein of good beer to numb the accumulated travails.
But I was greeted by the odd sight of a couple-dozen chairs arranged in a wide oval where the tables should have been, as if a coven of some kind were due to assemble. “Musicians,” the server explained. “They meet here every Tuesday to play and sing songs. Old songs. They’ll be here for the rest of October.”
Then they convene at another hospitable establishment, and then another—until sometime in winter, when they’ll be back at the Angry Penguin for another four weeks. It’s a group that outgrew their living-room beginnings, but it’s not to be confused with those who assemble for the monthly Pub Sing at the tavern.
And to complete the portrait of oddness, the radio played classical music during my visit. “That’s what I like,” the server cheerfully explained, and soon revealed herself to be Sandi Wagner, owner of the place with her chef-husband Brian. He’d been cooking in places like Albany’s Ginger Man and the Calloway Grill before deciding to settle in a place of his own, and it was the former owner of Malt River Brewing—another place where Brian worked—now a realtor, who led the couple to the former Kielty’s on Waterford’s Broad Street.
It’s a pleasant, comfortable space with a roomy bar and (when the musicians aren’t anticipated) lots of table space. A cold-weather fireplace livens the ambiance, something I remember from a review visit a decade ago. The Wagners have been running the tavern for nearly five years, and Sandi tells me that the regulars term it the area’s best-kept secret. “They don’t want it to be discovered,” she says. “But I have to tell you, it wouldn’t hurt.”
So, although the regulars may hate me, I’m happy to steer you here. It’s a bar for grown-ups, which means it’s family-friendly. And Brian’s skill in the kitchen puts the fare many cuts above what you find in the chains and dives.
Appetizers include the classics: stuffed potato skins ($6), chicken tenders ($7.25) and wings ($8.25), but I like the sound of angry nachos ($8) with its promise of much cheese, homemade potato chips ($5) and the one I selected, spicy tavern pickles ($7), about which more shortly.
Sandwiches are staples here, from a simple grilled cheese ($4.25) or BLT ($6) to a deli sandwich with turkey, ham or corned beef (meats prepared in-house, $7.50), to a bunch of half-pound burgers starting at $6.75 for the unadorned version to a cheeseburger with fries for $9.25.
Fries are available as an appetizer for $4, a side dish for $2.25, and, although they’re not hand-cut, Sandi assured me that what they serve is the result of a considered search for what they like best.
This I confirmed with what accompanied my order of fish and chips. The menu lists it as “market priced,” which was $14 the day of my visit. The menu also notes that it was “voted ‘best of’ in the Capital District,” which accolade didn’t come from me.
Now it does. The way Brian prepares it introduced me to a new concept for appreciating this dish. The batter is fried to give a crisp outer shell, and then, as you plunge into the hot cod viscera, there’s an almost undetectable transition from batter to cod. The batter softens within to a moist breadiness. The cod takes over. You almost forget there’s a ramekin of tartar sauce with which to anoint the confection. But the slab o’ cod is huge and unwieldy, still struggling not to be caught on the hooks of your tines. Man vs. fish always should be a struggle. Keeps us in place in the natural order of things. The side of slaw suits the dish; it’s fraught with large fronds of cabbage in a tart, pleasant dressing.
The phenomenon of batter-to-filling kineticism is echoed in the fried pickle spears, which I was insane to order at the same meal, and even more insane to consume. The pickles are brined in spiciness, so they’re hot in both culinary senses of the term. It’s properly a for-the-table appetizer, especially when there’s beer to consume.
We also sampled another of the hot sandwiches, another personal favorite: the Reuben ($8.50), which is full to bursting with house-made corned beef, the meat slices parted like a fleshy Red Sea to let the sauerkraut pass through, finished, of course, with Russian dressing, a delightful sogginess creeping into the rye bread as the sandwich taunts you to finish it.
I had to leave before the entertainment began, but I’m looking forward to joining in on a future visit. This gives me time to work up my repertory. Hope to see you there.