Sports bars, those traditional deep-fryer zones illuminated by flat-screen TVs and the perpetual glow of the faithful fan, are not immune from America’s itch to turn everything into a luxury experience. In recent years, neighborhood bars have ceded some of their turf to palatial operations that look like hotel lobbies or velvet-rope lounges with bottle service.
But if you look past the leather banquettes, antler chandeliers and marble finishes, you’ll notice that the changes at luxe sports bars are mostly cosmetic, as if they’re trying to mimic the sumptuous lifestyles of our favorite athletes, and nothing more. The menus still cling to their deep fryers and grills, just like the old corner pubs where your father tried to watch the game in peace, a basket of wings and a Miller High Life within reach. Upscale sports bars may source better and more expensive ingredients, but they’re not asking anyone to stretch their definition of pub grub, or not by much. They continue to throw a lot of red meat at customers.
The Game Sports Pub in Adams Morgan is part of a small, perhaps growing band of sports-centric restaurants that cater to folks with a taste for something other than wings in Buffalo sauce or Buffalo fried chicken or Buffalo mac and cheese. Think Chi Mc Chicken and Beer in Northern Virginia, where they serve up Korean fare along with the game. Or Eyo Restaurant and Sports Bar in Falls Church, where you’ll find soccer on the TV and Ethiopian stews on injera-covered platters.
The Game has taken over the space formerly occupied by Ventnor Sports Cafe, the neighborhood institution that closed last year after a solid 14-year run. Ventnor’s demise did not come without a little controversy involving a landlord who’s also the mother of Game co-owner Oscar Guardado. But I’m not here to serve as the dining scene’s instant-replay judge. I’m here to tell you that the Philippine plates at the Game are big-league level, maybe not the equivalent of a perennial all-star, but definitely a solid .280 hitter who’s respected by his teammates.
The pub has a split personality. Part of the menu is dedicated to the wings, nachos and burgers that we’ve been trained to expect at sports bars, where the food has to be no better than a journeyman infielder who hits .220 or .230, tops. The rest of the menu is devoted to the dishes created by Jo-Jo Valenzuela, a Philippines native better known for his high cocktail IQ, which often injects international flavors into spirits both dark and clear. He has developed cocktail menus all across the region, whether Brine in Fairfax or Lucky Buns in Adams Morgan.
Since moving to the United States more than two decades ago, Valenzuela, 43, has worked with some D.C. chefs with a wide variety of skills and ambitions. He made himself a student of their techniques. He points to Ris Lacoste (Ris), Geoff Tracy (Chef Geoff’s) and R.J. Cooper (the James Beard Award winner now cooking in Nashville) as some of his prime mentors in the kitchen.
You can see how the chefs have influenced his Philippine cooking. Valenzuela’s sizzling sisig is served in a standard-issue cast-iron pan, its steam and hiss announcing the appetizer’s arrival before the plate actually hits the table. The dish revels in sisig’s usual bluster — the textures of pig offal, the heat of siling labuyo peppers, the acid of calamansi juice — but Valenzuela enriches the preparation with squirts of chicken liver aioli, a clever way to incorporate the customary organ meat. It’s a cheffy touch, to be sure, but one that respects the mouthy genius of the original dish.
In a sense, I think the sports-bar banner provides cover for Valenzuela, who says he has no interest in becoming the quote-unquote “next Filipino chef,” along the lines of Tom Cunanan at Bad Saint. The Game’s dark, subterranean space, decorated mostly with flickering flatscreens, sets a non-Pinoy’s expectations somewhere north of Buffalo Wild Wings, which Valenzuela soars past with no problem. Many of his plates have a grace that, I have to think, is virtually lost on those preoccupied by the game. Personally, I was preoccupied by how the chile oil fire of the gambas al ajillo slowly consumed the sweet garlic punch of the shrimp. Or how the “sausage and peppers” — sweet, tangy, tantalizing — went down like Philippine street food by way of a Kansas City barbecue shack.
Valenzuela organizes his larger bites under different headings (sandwiches, rice bowls, pastas and family-style plates), and there are heavyweights in each category. Like the cross-cultural kick of the chopped brisket sandwich with Asian slaw; the sweet glazed pork and shrimp-paste funk of the Pinoy BBQ hot and cold bowl; the slobbery “crab fat” kiss of the shrimp and aligue pasta; and the surprise, trapdoor flavors concealed within the family-style platter of binagoongan fried rice. The bonus here is that you can wash down these dishes with any one of Valenzuela’s time-tested cocktails, including the Rizal, his award-winning riff on the D.C. original, the Rickey.
Should you find yourself reviewing the dessert menu — and you should just for the musky pleasures of turon, a deep-fried roll stuffed with plantains and jackfruit and sealed with a crackly brown-sugar shell — you’ll notice the Game promotes upcoming events at the bottom of the page. Valenzuela is still trying to pull together one such event, a series of pop-ups in which local mixologists cook the food of their heritage and pair it with drinks. The pop-ups are promoted under the hashtag #somebartenderscancook.
If you harbor doubts about the truth of that hashtag, just wander over to the Game, where Valenzuela leads a kitchen that prepares Philippine food that deftly balances tradition, craft and love of country, both his native land and his adopted one.
2411 18th St. NW, 202-846-1952, thegamedc.com
Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan or Columbia Heights, with less than a mile walk to the pub.
Prices: $5 to $15 for appetizers and vegetarian dishes; $14 to $22 for sandwiches, rice bowls, pastas and family-style dishes.