Neighbourhood: St. James
Address: 2609 Portage Ave
Phone: 204-615-6104, website
The ‘sports bar’ has always been a nebulous category (doesn’t every bar with a TV turn into one when the Jets are playing?). Perhaps the better focus is the sports bar’s appeal. For those seeking a fun and relaxed atmosphere, as culinary as it is convivial, Underdogs is the place.
The interior is sleek, lined with flat screens and decked out in sporty red and blue stripes. Tables are marked with jersey numbers and a back room houses a mini-arcade with air hockey and lines of retro pinball machines, a peppy mix of fun and nostalgia for the elder millennial crowd.
The concept, opened in 2016, comes from one of the minds behind Nuburger, and the pedigree shows. The versatile menu offers both elevated pub grub and some healthful options, and both the food menu and the beer selection (more than 30 on tap) skew local.
Gut-busting burgers and sandwiches are highlights of the menu, messy two-handers that can be eaten without taking eyes off the game. The Byfuglien burger cuts beef’s natural fatty umami with peppery arugula and horseradish, all on an earthy-sweet base of mushrooms and aioli spiked with roasted garlic.
The chicken sandwich is the current reigning champ of the food trend world. Why wait for the internet-famous fast food version to hit the Great White North when Underdogs has perfected the form? The ‘Larry Bird’ boasts juicy chicken fried in an uber-crispy coating, granted depth of flavour from a splash of local Little Brown Jug ale in the batter. Bothwell aged cheddar, a perfectly tangy dill pickle, and a squishy brioche bun round out the sandwich.
Snack-able sides are also a hit. The usual suspects like nachos, poutine, fries and wings by the pound will beg to be paired with a pint. Deep fried pickles threaded with a perfect core of Bothwell cheese are a hot, tangy, crispy-breaded delight.
To cater to a modern (read: health-conscious) crowd, the menu also lists feel-good items that feel like more than a counterbalancing afterthought to deep fryer fare. A wrap stuffed with housemade falafel is stand-out, well spiced with a peppery kicked. Pickled onions, fresh veg and a garlic-heavy hummus round out the wrap. The salmon bowl is another virtuous pick. A well-portioned serving of fish, lightly flavoured with a mustardy marinade, is laid on a base of nutty quinoa and topped with a creamy sauce bursting with fresh mint. Cucumber, tomato, and crispy chickpeas add pops of texture and freshness.
Families populate the tables for intergenerational dinners in the early evening. As night wears on, the crowd may give way to a slightly rowdier mix of wing night revellers and pinball enthusiasts. Give in to the vibe; the game is on, the drinks are flowing … order another round of fried pickles for the table.