When you think of a traditional Irish pub, you probably think of a dingy, yet cozy, hole in the wall with old wooden rafters stained by years of cigarette smoke and creaky, Guinness-stained floors. Dugan's is not that pub.
Little Rock's newest Irish pub, at the corner of 3rd and Rock streets in the River Market, is sleek and polished but inviting, with a fireplace and plush leather chairs. The atmosphere, at least on the night we decided to duck in, is lively. Customers filled barstools that line the big L-shaped, and well-equipped, bar in the front and a smattering of tables were filled with people genuinely happy to be sharing a pint at the end of a long work day.
There's patio seating if the weather holds and if you want to watch the game — whichever one that might be — there are plenty of TVs hung throughout the dining room (but not so many as to be bothersome).
Dugan's is more than just a place to go drown your sorrows or celebrate good fortune: You can also get some pretty decent grub. Practically starving, and not wanting to limit ourselves to just one appetizer, we chose the Dugan Sampler ($8.95), a combination of mozzarella sticks, chicken strips and fried mushrooms served with marinara, ranch and honey mustard. This was a solid decision. When they say cheese sticks, they mean logs. Two hulking masses of mozzarella, each about the size of a stick of butter, sat covered in a flaky, golden-brown batter. They were oozy, crispy and great. The chicken strips, fried in a similar beer-batter, were some of the best we've had, rivaling other River Market locales like Sticky Fingerz and Underground. Made from big pieces of white meat, you could tell these guys were battered in the back, not pre-fried and frozen. The mushrooms tasted about like fried mushrooms do. That is to say, pretty good but nothing spectacular. For the money, this is definitely a starter that will stick to your ribs.
Dugan's dinner menu has some traditional Irish favorites, like corned beef and cabbage ($6.25), shepherd's pie ($8.95) and beef stew ($6.25). We decided to go with the bangers and mash ($8.95), sausage and mashed potatoes covered with onions and brown gravy. We were impressed. It's definitely a heavy dish, served up in a big brown pile, but the sausage packs a lot of flavor and is complemented well by the gravy and taters. After our behemoth of an appetizer, we could only get through about one third of our entree, but the leftovers made a nice lunch the next day.
Our companion, whose time in the British Isles left him a bit of a fish and chips connoisseur, thought he would give Dugan's version of the old stand-by (at $8.95) a try. The verdict? Good, but not the best. We stole a bite or two. Served in a basket with fries, the two Hot Pocket-sized cod filets are flaky and filling. We found the dish to be better than what you'll find at Khalil's but not quite as good as the filets from The House. The fries, a little smaller than potato wedges, were a real winner.
On a subsequent lunch trip we gave the burger ($6.95) a shot. It's good and holds its own with others in the area. Served on a homemade bun, the meat was cooked perfectly and well-seasoned. Our companion tried the spicy chicken strips ($6.25). Hand-breaded just like the starter, they were liberally spiced but with a sweet undercurrent, almost reminiscent of General Tso's sauce — more sweet-and-sour than buffalo.
For dessert, we tried the lemon tart ($5.50). We'll chalk this dessert's failings up to a bad night. The lemon custard was good, tangy and just sweet enough. The crust, however, was too thin. A neighboring table, whose advice we ignored, had ordered up the bread pudding and found it very tasty. Next time, we'll know better. Dugan's also offers up a daily special prepared by the Brown Sugar Bakeshop.
Where before Irish fare was only served up at a couple of Little Rock establishments, the past year has seen three new pubs come along in Khalil's, Hibernia and Dugan's. The latter, if only for the congenial atmosphere and great-tasting heft of its fried food, deserves consideration as one of the best in the lot.
403 East 3rd St.
The mozzarella sticks are a must here. They're huge and beautifully fried, as are the chicken strips. If you're in a big party, go ahead and split a fish and chips for an appetizer, there's plenty to go around.
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen open until 12 a.m.), Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.