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Sports Bars: Fun Eating Is Name of Game

April 01, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Most of us are familiar with the unique olfactory melange--sweet hot scents of malted barley, grilled burgers and steamy warm-up suits--that can only be experienced in a crowded sports bar.

March Madness, otherwise known as the NCAA basketball tournament (concluding with games this weekend and Monday), seems as good a time as any to visit either or both of two huge, muscular new examples of this all-American genre: Legends in Costa Mesa and Buena Park's National Sports Grill and Bar. Both are loaded with high-tech equipment, crowded beyond reason and noisy beyond redemption.

Ready to pound a few brewskis? Let's party on.

Forty-four TV monitors (that's right, 44 ) await you at National Sports Grill and Bar, but nary a parking space in the large lot.

This is a labyrinthine place, part pool hall, part sports bar and part restaurant extraordinaire. It's filled with sports memorabilia (e.g., Muhammad Ali's trunks) and the walls are plastered with decalcomania.

Service is performed by tough, gum-chewing waitresses in baseball uniforms who look as if they stepped off the set of "A League of Their Own." What can you expect to eat in a joint like this? Well, it ain't gonna be sushi.

A bunch of us started out with something called splattered fastball, a whole batter-fried onion fanned out like an angry sunflower, which you eat with a Cajun mustard sauce. Whew, is this thing ever salty! Sliders are what you call those classic mini-burgers in rows of three, six or nine, served on tiny buns linked at the bottom. They are actually flavorful here, and National slops them up with a mock Thousand Island dressing and grilled onions. For a penny more you can add cheese.

The nearest thing to a candidate for carbo-loading would be the hefty salads. Chicken Caesar Augusta is a cheesy, garlicky but apparently anchovy-free bowlful of romaine, topped with relatively bland char-broiled chicken breast. The Ty Cobb salad has a weirdly sweet dressing and chunked chicken to go along with the required amounts of bacon, avocado and chopped egg. If they'd had a sense of humor, they would have added peaches to it. (Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach--get it?)

The paper menu doubles as your place mat, and offers quite a bit of substantial fare for those desiring more than just a snack to go along with one of the 15 draft beers. Quarter-pound sausages such as Polish Rifle or Pistol Pete--a spicy Louisiana sausage named for LSU's late, great basketball star Pete Maravich--come on long, chewy French rolls topped with things such as confetti slaw or sauteed red bell peppers.

"Fullback" ribs are a bargain, a full rack of baby backs (get it?) for only $7.99, great meat with a slightly insipid and sugary barbecue sauce. One more bargain is the Touchdown T-bone, a pound of steak cooked to order ($10.99).

Sides of good, crisp homemade potato chips or something called Firecracker 500 fries, lightly battered and seasoned with peppered salt, accompany all the dishes. So do the inane pronouncements of sportscasters from Billy Packer to Len Berman, heard nattering away constantly on the screens that surround you.

Inexpensive. Munchies, salads, sandwiches and hot dishes are $1.99 to $10.99.

It's money you smell first at Legends, in the upscale South Coast Plaza area where the clientele dresses up, not down, and where there are more Porsches in the parking lot than beat-up Trans Ams.

There's something of a Big Brother feeling to this vast place, where the sportscasters' boom-box voices blare down at you from huge speakers and athletes defy gravity on 72-inch screens. (I stopped counting the screens when I reached a dozen.)

It's loud, really loud , in here. There are lots of ducts high overhead, an enormous control panel to run all the screens, and nothing at all to deflect sound. Seating is on comfy banquettes, at tables with rich, walnut burl-type finishes, or on hard little chairs strategically clustered around square bar tables in the middle of the room. No matter where you sit, you get the master blaster treatment.

The food is quite a bit more elaborate than at the National. This is the third Legends (the original is on 2nd Street, Long Beach, the second is in Santa Monica), and it's a big-time operation. You'll find complex carbos galore on the menu, things such as a bland capellini checca or a workmanlike barbecued chicken pizza, made with fresh pizza dough and sauce.

Then there is a full menu of sandwiches, salads, burgers, steaks and seafoods, as well as a few lusty appetizers. The house specialty is Buffalo wings, $12.95 for a 50-piece bucket. (Smaller quantities also available.) These are good, fiery deep-fried wings, served with ranch dressing and celery sticks. I spotted one poor guy working his way through an entire bucket, bigger than the thing Jack carried up the hill.

"I come once a month," he said, "and I've never finished one yet."

Our waitress insisted we try the baby back ribs, informing us that they'd won some sort of local award. They were good, sticky ribs, mesquite broiled with more of that sticky sweet sauce. Hey, fellas, try dipping the ribs in the hot sauce you use on the Buffalo wings, and you've got yourselves a winner.

Until then, gimme a brewski, a set of ear plugs and one pair of size 12 Air Jordans. If I stay around this place long enough, I'm going to start thinking I can defy gravity, too.

Legends is moderately priced, with dishes between $3.45 and $21.95.

NATIONAL SPORTS GRILL AND BAR

5970 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park.

(714) 523-0803.

Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.

American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

LEGENDS

580 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa.

(714) 966-5338.

Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.

American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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