Many Omaha sports bars, to offer casual comfort and familiarity, turn to convention.
Think menus filled with standard wings, burgers and nachos with packaged chips and cheese accompanying nearly frozen pitchers of beer. Gigantic television sets chockablock with Tommie Frazier replica jerseys. Tables for the hungry, thirsty sports fiend needing a respite full of like-minded fanatics.
As a sports junkie who has been in their shoes, I know it can be difficult to distinguish one sports bar from another.
That's probably why on two recent visits to Saints Pub + Patio, a regional chain founded in Des Moines, I was excited to find a sports bar working to distinguish itself. The atmosphere focuses on sports but doesn't alienate the diner who isn't, and the menu features mostly successful and thoughtful takes on bar food.
The restaurant, which opened last summer, is in Midtown Crossing in the spot formerly occupied by Parliament Pub.
I stopped in with my family for a weekend lunch. There were no noteworthy sporting events on television, so there were plenty of open tables.
With more than 25 strategically placed, high-definition TVs, it was not hard to envision a packed college football Saturday. Though there's sports on the televisions, there's no sports memorabilia on the walls.
General manager Brittany O'Dell said that's a deliberate choice.
“We knew in Midtown Crossing — it's a very nice development — we'd want to be a little nicer to fit in,” O'Dell said. “Someplace where you could have a beer and watch the game, go to happy hour or bring in a date on Friday night.”
We started with the Pepper Jack bites, $6.99, Saints' take on a cheese curd, served with a homemade spicy ranch dressing. I enjoyed the light, crisp breading, which kitchen manager Mike Hullett later told me is made with panko bread crumbs, buttermilk, flour and ranch seasoning. The breading allowed the perfectly melted, spicy pepper Jack cheese to shine. A thicker breading may have overwhelmed the filling.
I ordered the crab cake burger, $10.99, with a side of sweet potato tots. The burger was huge — six ounces of the restaurant's from-scratch crab cake mixture on an oversized bun. While I appreciated the flavors of the crab meat, chipotle ranch slaw and roasted red peppers, the cake fell apart after a few bites.
Hullett told me that using so much meat makes consistency a challenge, and they are working on the right mixture.
The sweet potato tots were well-executed, hot and crisp with a soft inside. O'Dell said the tots show how the restaurant aims to be a bit more creative than a typical sports bar.
My wife and son split the barbecue chicken pizza, $12.99. The thick 14-inch pie could feed at least three adults.
Hullett said the restaurant experimented with crusts. While it is not quite Chicago-style deep dish, it is thicker than what is commonly found in Omaha, he said.
What I appreciated was the fresh, not frozen, diced chicken paired with tangy Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce and fresh cilantro on top.
Service was attentive without being intrusive on both visits, and wait times for food were in line with my expectations: about 10 minutes for appetizers and 15 to 18 minutes for entrees.
I returned for a weekday lunch with a friend and found a brisk crowd. We sampled more signature dishes: two appetizers too big to finish.
The Saints nachos, $10.99, feature a bed of waffle fries topped with pork, chicken or ground beef and a mountain of the usual toppings, including onions, jalapeńos, queso, sour cream and olives.
Nachos with waffle fries tend to become soggy under the cheese and toppings. But the thick and crispy Saints fries maintained their consistency.
“It's all about the ratio of ingredients to fries,” Hullett said.
The creamy and authentically spicy house-made queso stood out, too, instantly distinguishable from canned, processed nacho cheese.
We also tried the blue cheese chips, $5.99, a pile of russet potato chips fried in-house and topped with house-cut bacon, green onion and blue cheese crumbles and dressing.
As an enthusiast of all things blue cheese, I thought this would be my favorite dish on the menu. The chips were crispy and salty and the toppings good. But the dressing should have been warmer.
I also tried the juicy mushroom Swiss burger, $9.99. It combined a fresh, hand-pattied half pound of ground beef with sautéed mushrooms and Swiss cheese with A1 steak sauce on the side. The burger was cooked to a perfect medium. I could have eaten it without the steak sauce, though it contrasted nicely with the buttery mushrooms and sharp Swiss cheese.
The unexpected highlight of an overall good meal: my companion's fish tacos, $10.99. Hullett said the soft and spicy blackened tilapia tacos are popular. The fresh corn salsa and citrus aioli kept the dish lighter than anything else we sampled. And the large portion was balanced between spicy and refreshing without being overly rich.
By offering original, from-scratch takes on classic sports bar fare that make it stand out, Saints Pub + Patio likely will be busy whenever there's a game on — and maybe even when there isn't.