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Keeping score at the Highball

Bowling alley, karaoke bar or bistro? At this Alamo outpost, it's all or ... something

Mike Sutter

The Highball was backed up to the doors at 8 p.m. on a Friday, and the crowd swelled like wet Gremlins as the hours passed. Every space was filled: the karaoke rooms, the hallway next to the eight vintage bowling lanes, the bar backing up three people deep. Even in the dining room, rings of people stood behind their seated cohorts.

Do Tim and Karrie League know how to create an instant sensation or what? The Alamo Drafthouse power couple brought the Highball fully online in late October, with eight vintage lanes of bowling, skee-ball games and warrens of karaoke rooms like something out of 'Lost in Translation.' The room is really tied together by red, black and gold tufted vinyl furniture from the swank-trash era favored by designer Joel Mozersky.

I like the arcade feel, the surrealness of it all. But it's a full-contact arena. Even when I was seated, I felt like I might lose my spot at any minute. Extra chairs were carted off one by one. Tables levitated near our heads as space was made for bigger parties. But the beleaguered staff somehow made us feel like more than just another problem to solve, even when the wait stretched past an hour and the arrival of food another hour past that.

But the reality is that the food is a second-place draw right now. The scene is king. And you will see some of the best-looking people in the city here, some hilariously overdressed for the jeans-and-jacquard-sweater crowd.

Undeterred, chef Trish Eichelberger's menu is full of comfort-food twists: Dr Pepper pork ribs, a turkey-and-dressing sandwich, lamb tips and rice, a Tuesday special of chicken and herbed dumplings.

Who wouldn't want a bison meatloaf sandwich ($10) on toasted sourdough with fries or rings? To my disappointment, it wasn't meatloaf so much as a stack of thin meat patties with the same texture as lean, dry ground beef on thin, dry toast.

The Dr Pepper ribs didn't have the depth of flavors to support their sticky hyper-sweetness. Most of the namesake pop's personality was cooked right out. But the meat peeled easily from the bone, and for a $12 appetizer, there was a dinner's worth of ribs.

We tried shrimp cakes ($10 for two) for the novelty of thinking outside the crab. The texture was nice, the chopped shrimp firm to the bite, the breading holding the affair together fine. But mostly we tasted the citrus zing and slow heat of a delicious jalapeño tartar sauce.

The food sourcing here gets star treatment on the menu: Dewberry Farms chicken, lamb from Loncito's in South Texas, vegetables from local farms. So fried chicken seemed like a good idea, even at $13 for a breast, wing, leg and thigh fried in overworked oil that gave the crust an unnatural brown-black sheen, served on mashed potatoes with sautéed zucchini. I couldn't escape the burnt flavor imparted by the oil, but the crunch of the breading and the savory softness of the meat were good textural matchups.

I worried that all my choices seemed brown and salty and dry. But during another visit, on a Wednesday night with a smaller mob, I found some sweet spots, full of flavor and color, led by a main-course veggie plate ($10) that included cucumber slices with red pepper sauce, ginger and coconut (beautiful, bright and deep all at the same time), a sauté of carrots and cabbage, grilled baby bok choy and simple braised greens with mushrooms.

We started with a scoop of chicken liver pâté ($10) with good garlic flavor, a rich and creamy texture, served with sweet berry jam to complement the richness of the meat, plus water crackers and toast points.

The Wednesday Blue Plate Special was $10 for chicken-fried pork steak with red-eye gravy, mashed potatoes and crisp green beans with yellow squash and onions. The gravy was jumping with coffee flavor, a complex roastiness that elevated the flavor of the pork, a tender chop I could cut with a fork.

A banana split is one of those something-for-everybody desserts. Underneath the riot of whipped cream and the wicked bourbon-soaked cherries on top of the Highball's $7 version, it was hard to tell what else was going on. Pineapple, ice cream and seared banana, sure, but everything else was lost in the crowd. The crust on our sweet-potato pie ($4, plus $2 for ice cream) had sheared off from the back like an Al Gore iceberg, but the filling hit the right custard-and-spice texture and flavor notes

Our waitress, a tactile dynamo with a plume of fuchsia hair, said I should take time to breathe in the aroma of my $10 cocktail called the 10 Pin. It resonated with sharp cucumber and basil notes. The taste was all licorice-herbal with smoky salt on the rim and an astringent tug from the cucumber, but at heart it was way too sweet to be taken that seriously. Local beers like Live Oak Hefeweizen are a solid deal at $3 during happy hour, which runs from 4:30 to 7 p.m. weekdays.

Which brings me to the problem of the 12-ounce pint. On that busy, full-price Friday night, our beers were pulled away from the tap the second the head reached the rim of the pint glass. We lost about four ounces in that foam. I measured when I got home. Please, beertenders everywhere, fill 'er up. I promise not to spill.

And while I'm at it, I'll promise to hold a good thought for the food side of the Highball. Because in the middle of all the instant scene-making currency and high style here, it's the part that stands to suffer the most.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

The Highball

1142 S. Lamar Blvd. 383-8309, www.thehighball.com

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Hours: 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Fridays. 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Prices: Appetizers $7.50 (fries, onion rings) to $12 (hot wings, Dr Pepper ribs). Salads $6-$6.75. Main courses $10 (veggie plate, meatloaf sandwich) to $12 (shrimp, lamb tips and rice). Weekday Blue Plate specials $10. Desserts $4-$7.

Payment: All major cards

Alcohol: 19 draft beers from $4-$5.25, including local brewers (512), Live Oak, Independence and Real Ale. A dozen more by the bottle, including 16-ounce Budweiser bowling pins. Four sparkling wines, seven whites, six reds, plus dessert wines and sake. $7-$10 by the glass, $25-$60 by the bottle. The liquor list is long and top-shelf, and the handful of $10 specialty cocktails includes a Roseberry Fizz with citrus vodka and muddled raspberries and the 10 Pin, with cucumber-infused gin, strawberries and basil.

Wheelchair access: Yes

What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value.