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The Thirsty Penguin

Out of a possible five
$

Eatery at ice rink has high points

I wasn’t really expecting the Thirsty Penguin Grillhouse, the restaurant on the second floor of the Lutheran Health SportsCenter, to blow me away.

I just wanted to know whether it was good enough to visit even if I didn’t have a reason to be at the ice sports facility. There were plenty of people who did have reason to be there, whether watching their kids’ hockey practice or to observe (i.e. heckle) a friend who was practicing his puck skills like I did one night as Journal Gazette Komets writer Justin Cohn worked out on a rink below.

Plenty of parents took advantage of the Wi-Fi and tapped away at their laptops, and almost everyone filling the long sports bar/eatery that overlooks all of the rinks was munching away on something from the menu. And most of them donned jackets as this place was too cold to be comfy. I know ice is cold, and I would expect to be cold if I was down there with Cohn, but a little more heat upstairs would have been nice.

Other than that, the atmosphere at the Thirsty Penguin was fine. It was clean and sharp, and there were a few TVs airing various sporting events at one end of the room and more arranged around the centrally located bar.

Given it was so busy, I was impressed during my first visit when, after taking drink orders, my server had no trouble tracking my party down even though we had moved two rinks away to watch Cohn. All of the employees were helpful and welcoming – sort of made me feel like a regular – and stayed on top of everything for the most part.

During my second visit, however, the wait was way too long to put in orders. Our server even jokingly asked, “Did you think I forgot about you?” when she finally did take our order. The waiting continued after the orders were made as a lot of time passed before my rather simple requests – chicken wings, a grilled cheese and a cheeseburger – finally made it to the table. And it was not right.

The “medium” order of boneless wings arrived as regular bone-in wings. Still, they were the highlight of my visits. The medium consisted of 12 wings, so I assume the “small” has six and the “large” has 18, but there was no indication on the menu. The wings were big and plump, fried crisp and dripping with sauce. During my first visit, those regular wings were a tad overcooked, but still better than anything else I had.

Other pleasing finds included the pepperoni pizza, which had a hand-tossed style crust that was nicely dusted with garlic powder, sweet sauce and plenty of cheese and toppings. It was paired with a straightforward but fresh house salad of greens, tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and red onions, and I was quite happy.

In addition to the wings, the other appetizers also proved to be winners.

The cheesy bread with bacon was decent with a bi-colored mix melted slightly brown atop garlic butter-smeared hoagie rolls. The chili-cheese fries were respectable with a thick, dark, hearty chili with plenty of meat and a nice blend of cheese slopped over the fries, which remained crisp. The only other soup I tried, the chicken noodle, was worth having again with its dark yellow, flavorful parsley-spiked broth, carrot, celery and thick fettuccini-style noodles.

The biggest disappointment at the Thirsty Penguin did not come from poor quality, but rather failing to deliver on a promise. I was excited to try the Grilled Cheese Deluxe because the menu said, “This triple-decker is definitely for the hungry. We build it with cheddar, crisp bacon and red onions. We finish it with even more cheddar. Say cheese!”

It wasn’t a triple-decker. It wasn’t even grilled. And it had me saying, “Geez!” Well, actually I said something a little worse. It was two slices of not-even-buttered bread that was so lightly toasted it was still soft. It had one thin layer of cheese, a few slices of red onion and two strips of bacon. It was bland, boring and nowhere near worth the $5.99 I was charged for it.

Next to the grilled cheese, the terribly average classic bacon cheeseburger looked like an award winner. The burger, itself, was OK, but it was lazily dressed. The bacon was sparse, the bun was like one you would find for 99 cents a bag at the grocery and “all the fixings” consisted of a little limp lettuce, a few red onions and a tiny tomato ring.

So, in the end, I learned that the Thirsty Penguin was probably not worth visiting unless I had a reason to be at Lutheran Health SportsCenter. But if I did, I would not refrain from having some more wings or a pizza with a few cold draft beers – they do have that, too.

It’s somewhere between being the best snack bar you’ve ever tried or just being a pretty mediocre sports bar.

Restaurant: Thirsty Penguin Grillhouse

Address: Inside Lutheran Health SportsCenter, 3869 Ice Way

Phone: 387-6614

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Wings ($7.99; $11.99; $17.99), pepperoni pizza (7-inch $3.99; 16-inch $9.99), chili-cheese fries ($4.49), house salad ($3.99), bacon cheeseburger ($8.99), cheesy bread with bacon ($3.49)

Rating breakdown:

Food:

* (3-star maximum);

atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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