Although it's not without flaws, Area 51's fare is a step above the average pub grub. 

An Alien Concept

Area 51
1713 E. Main Street
Dinner Monday-Saturday from 5 p.m.; Sunday from 6 p.m.

I tend to avoid restaurants that have pool tables. Not that I don't mind a grudge game of pool now and again. But up to now, The Triple was the only pool hall worthy of true restaurant status, to my mind.

Not that Area 51 is even in the same gourmet-food category as The Triple; but it's a good 25 steps up from nuked nachos. It's even a nouvelle step or two up from Penny Lane Pub, where the ale, not even the pool table, is the main event.

Area 51's strength is more in the innovation (and remember, we're speaking comparatively) than in the execution. The ideas are all right. The proof just hasn't quite made it to the pudding.

Nonetheless, Area 51 has a personality you have to love. For instance, our tattooed waiter was also the bartender, whose bartending, to our advantage, was not in great demand. His third job, which was quite time-consuming, was channel surfing one of the three wall-mounted TVs. Despite the burden, he was charming and fresh, if grossly uninformed. He didn't know the day's fish, failed to point out a chalkboard of specials, and at meal's end, confessed he'd checked all the freezers and couldn't find any dessert. Even worse, the cook had just left.

On the innovative side, the menu alone will make you giggle. When my guest asked for iced tea, our waiter/bartender/TV guide said sweetly and unapologetically, "We don't have iced tea." I flipped the menu over and, under drinks, it said: "And no, we do not have iced tea." That policy statement, along with the proclamation "open 7 days a week every day of the year," was enough to make us overlook all the misspellings.

Unless a kitchen can stand on product alone, I must confess I can be swayed by frilly-speak. Short of five stars, all the colorful and thematic description is what makes my palate shiver. Area 51's menu is even entertainingly descriptive which is what, in part, nudged my guest toward the Lil' Asteroids ($3.50), "Area 51's best," according to the menu. In concept, the dish sounded like the spicy bean cakes we'd had other places and liked: pan-seared cakes blended with red onions, and red and green peppers. But a far cry they were. The Asian hot sauce squiggled on the plate rim offered the only flavor. But the real killer was the flavor of paste. (Admit it: You tasted it in grade school.) The four bean cakes would've been a great value for the price if they'd been edible.

On the other hand, the black beans that topped a very average but generous nacho appetizer called the Big Bang ($5.95) were savory and flavorful. Our seemingly guileless waiter swore the salsa was homemade.

Both our entrees had weak points and good points that balanced. My Thai Star salad ($5.95) was a pretty plateful of truly fresh lettuce, carrots, red pepper slices and shredded cabbage topped with strips of moist, fork-tender grilled chicken. The dressing (in a little plastic cup) was thick enough to be spread on bread and tasted like chunky peanut butter on fire. I liked it, but it was hard to eat both salad and dressing together.

Guest's Jamaican chicken fettuccine ($8.95) was bathed in a delicious cream sauce and surrounded by sweet strips of roasted red pepper. Pieces of portobello mushroom added flavor and another texture. The chicken, though, was in places too salty to eat, although it was just as tender and moist as that on my salad.

Although there were no sides (that our waiter knew about anyway), entrees were an excellent value, almost all under $10. We didn't get any bread, either. But I don't know if that's policy or our multi-talented waiter at work. We'd hoped to end with the elusive cheesecake but, as mentioned, it was too well-hidden to serve.

While Area 51 isn't a place we'd seek out, it is a good value. And the next time I get hungry while banging the billiard balls, I'll think fondly of Area

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