Up until last week, I had only eaten at Mahall's 20 Lanes during pop-up events, so I was curious to see what their regular menu had to offer. What culinary adventure can you expect from a bowling alley, after all, besides some peanuts or a pretzel that has been sitting in a rotating hot box for somewhere between a week and a month?
A delightful one, it turns out. At least at Mahall's.
It was last summer when I first heard about the change in ownership at venerable bowling alley on Madison. I was excited -- talk was that the new owners were going to revamp the two-story operation, add a music venue and feature restaurant pop-ups on a regular basis in addition to their own fare.
One of those early pop-ups featured Momocho, whose small plates made for a fantastic pairing with the retro atmosphere that oozed comfortable cool. Mahall's was clearly on the right path.
Although most of the furniture in the music hall and throughout the various rooms and bars hearkens back to the happy '50s, there are layers from the previous decades. Stylistic remnants of the '40s and '20s also left their mark on the walls. The beautiful original tin ceiling from the 20s was exposed when they removed the dropped ceiling. And the walls now reveal some beautiful hand-painted oriental art that may have gone unnoticed if not for the diligent work of Kelly Flamos, one of the four owners -- a group comprised of herself, her husband Colin McEwen, her sister Emily Pavlik and her husband Joe.
Kelly attempted to strip off the layers of paint and paper in the hopes of exposing brick or wood. Instead, her hours of work uncovered oriental designs that were hand-painted on the walls by one of the Mahall sons.
Originally, the kitchen, counter area (yep, you put in your food order at the counter and they bring it to your table) and bar areas were used as a series of shops. The kitchen itself was a barbershop.
But enough about the décor. This week, I wanted to see just what sort of grub was coming from the back now that it's onions and potatoes beig chopped instead of hair.
Emily Pavlick overseas the food operation. The nutritionist and New York City transplant has high standards for what's being delivered to hungry bowlers. One can't generally hold a bowling alley to the same standards as a restaurant, but in this case you could. Emily insists on using organic, farm-fresh produce and meat whenever possible. She's also limited her ever-changing menu to cut down on the food waste that a more extensive menu would inevitably entail. Her plan is to make sure they deliver quality vs. quantity.
"We don't have food in our freezer," she says. "We use our freezer for ice."
I was not aware of this edict before digging in during my first visit -- I purposely avoided the pretzel, assuming it was frozen and reheated, then plopped down next to some yellow mustard. When I did order it, however, what came to the table was a deliciously browned, hand-rolled, scratch-made pretzel from an original Bavarian recipe, complemented by two house-made mustards: hot and honey. It was absolutely scrumptious -- and not to be compared to the familiar kiosk twists from the local mall. Seriously, I'm considering a strict pretzel diet where I eat one of their pretzels at each meal (washed down with some great ale, of course).
A glance and a bite at other options cheekily categorized as "Other Stuff" on the menu reveals Mahall's intentions of taking bowling alley snacks to a new level. The Beijing vinegar peanuts – seriously, what's a set of legit lanes without peanuts? – sport Szechuan pepper and star anise, seriously addictive accompaniments to the rich and acidic goobers.
As we put in our order on our second visit, our eyes fell upon the chicken nachos listed on the blackboard, which were special in every sense of the word. The chicken is free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free, and responsibly raised on a small farm in Pennsylvania, and purchased from TJ's Butcher Block & Deli in Lakewood. It's the only kind of chicken Pavlick will allow in her kitchen. Heady stuff when you consider she's vegan. Now that you know where the chicken comes from, we move along from the Portlandia moment to the secondary players on the dish -- jalapeños, cheese and sour cream. (The portions are entirely generous and perfect for sharing.)
We also ordered their three-piece chicken meal; I used the excuse that I had forgotten to photograph the dish on our first visit, which was only an excuse to have it a second time. They get the crispy and crunchy down right on the breading, and slaw or cornbread arrives on the side.
The Portobello mushroom burger was also flavorful enough to order twice. They aren't kidding when they say "fried cheesy 'shroom patty" on their menu -- it's pure breaded deep-fried mushroom decadence.
We also tried a trio of tacos: fish, vegan and American bean. The fish was served on a soft taco shell with house-made chipotle mayo, slaw and avocado. The vegan was also on a soft shell and served with beans, slaw and avocado. They serve their American bean on a hard shell with cheese, lettuce and a fresh, tasty pico de gallo. Of the three, the fish was the only one I had an issue with -- it was a bit too fishy for my liking and generally I love fish and seafood.
The addition of the Mexican standbys to the menu -- the nachos and tacos -- is a direct result of the nearby Mexican grocery store, La Plaza.
As I mentioned before, Emily is also responsible for the creation of the bar menu. One of the nights we were there, the bar staff was busily squeezing fresh juices for their cocktails. No bottled mixes here.
The creatively conceived drink menu changes about every two weeks. Their biggest sellers are The Beatnik, White Russian and Gold Rush. The Beatnik and Gold Rush are both made with Bulleit Rye.
My selections were most pleasing to the palate. The "Planter's Punch," made with Appleton rum, house-made grenadine, lemon and lime, was inspired by a trip Emily took to Jamaica. It certainly makes one yearn for a warm tropical island breeze. The "Pin" satisfied my longing for two of my favorite flavors in a cocktail: lemon and elderberry. It's made with vodka, St. Germain, lemon and soda. About thirty bottled beers, a half dozen canned options, and two drafts offer plenty of variety in the beer department.
With a nod to the old, a foot forward into the new, and everything to satisfy your recreational, musical, booze and gastronomical needs, Mahall's makes it entirely tempting to never leave once you walk through the front door.
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