Hot Rod Cafe in New London dazzles on many fronts

There are very few things to not like about Hot Rod Café on Bank Street in New London and, from my perspective, any reluctance at all about a full endorsement is based on very subjective observations. Let's get those out of the way first.

I wish there were more menu options for my wife Eileen, familiar to many of you as The Vegetarian Who Really Likes Rod's Bloody Marys but Can't Find Much to Eat Other Than Fried Appetizers and the Olives in the Cocktail (TVWRLRBMBCFMTEOTFAATOITC). Of that Bloody Mary, E reports, "Honestly, one of the best I've ever had in any bar — or that I didn't make. And that's saying a lot."

Secondly, the décor of the restaurant features "walls of fame" exterior and interior portraiture of musicians and entertainers — Jimi Hendrix, Richard Pryor, Redd, Foxx, Prince and Bob Marley. I get and enjoy the artwork and the motif, and though Cornish didn't ask me, a likeness of Gil Scott-Heron would be a handsome addition.  

Okay, let's now accentuate the positive.

The aforementioned Hot Rod popularity is due to an amalgam of many things in addition to the proprietor's personality and force. The place is comfy throughout whether on the outdoor deck, the cheerfully boisterous bar area with its sports-centric big screens, downstairs in the recently added arcade pub, seated in the French window-fronted interior dining room, or even challenging a staffer on the portable chess set out front. The staff members are young, friendly and clearly feel like integral parts of the operation. This is reflected in their enthusiasm towards customers and efficiency even at Happy Hour or late night periods of maximum occupancy.

As for food and drink, there are plenty of revolving craft beers on tap, the aforementioned Bloody Mary and specialty cocktails/martinis are creatively blended, and, while the menu is not expansive, it hits most of the "tavern sustenance" highlights with an emphasis on world-class wings — and that's not an exaggeration. Hot Rod has won first place in the "Best Wings" each of the three years of The Day's annual Reader's Choice Awards. And, in 2015, the Hot Rod crew were asked to compete in the invitation-only National Buffalo Wings Festival in Buffalo, N.Y. — ground zero for wingage — and returned with a second place trophy.

Available in spicy, medium spicy and not-so-spicy categories — with flavors ranging from standards like Buffalo, jerk, teriyaki and honey BBQ to exotics such as jalapeno peanut butter, sriracha ranch and garlic-pepper dry rub — the wings ($11.95 for 10) really are things of glory. They're big, meaty and the house method seems to involve a flash-fry technique that lightly sears the exterior for a brittle crust whilst trapping the juicy tenderness within. Favorites include garlic parmesan, chipotle ranch and, despite its apparent simplicity, the miracle of the Old Bay seasoning wing. I prefer the boneless tender version, but I could eat a few hundred of the Old Bay.

The rest of the menu is divided into appetizers, soups and salads, and sandwiches, wraps and entrees. We've tried most of the apps since that's the main source of anything vegetarian, and we heartily recommend the tangy, crisp fried pickles with Cajun ranch sauce ($7.95), jalapeno poppers with smooth cream cheese filling and smoky-fleshed peppers ($7.95) and, particularly, the huge basket of tater tots with a wonderful hashbrown-esque interior texture ($7.95). You can get tots with Cajun spice ($1 more) or garlic pepper/parmesan spangle ($2 more — and worth it). I also love the flavor-packed deep-fried hotdog ($2.50) with a bit of added snap and contrast with each bite.

If we're going to do a full meal at HR, Eileen will typically get a chopped pasta salad ($13.95), replacing the usual chicken with a fried egg. It involves mixed greens, onions, tomato, the pasta, gorgonzola cheese and balsamic vinaigrette dressing. It's fresh, a huge serving, and tastes good.

Just last week, we were delightfully surprised when the evening specials included vegetable plantains ($7.95). Four four-inch plantain sections had been butterflied and then fried, topped with cheese, tomato and onion — and then baked. Drizzled with a remoulade-like sauce and served with a dish of the sauce for dipping, the thick, chewy plantains were a nice (and possibly healthier) change from other cheese conveyances like bread or chips. It was a nice combination of flavors and textures and would be welcome as a permanent menu addition.

While I typically fill up on apps or wings/tenders, the sandwich/wraps list includes a variety of chicken options, a lobster roll, lobster grilled cheese, a teriyaki beef tip dinner or grilled chicken breast dinner and a Philly cheese wrap. The ½ pound cheeseburger ($12.95 with fries), with a choice of cheeses, lettuce, tomato and onion on an undersized bun, is hard to argue with. It's just an excellent, basic, juicy cheeseburger cooked precisely and — along with Kamp Dog's — it's the best in downtown New London.

If you go - Hot Rod Cafe

Hot Rod Café

114 Bank St., New London

(860) 447-2320, hotrodscafenewlondon.com

Cuisine: Hearty tavern favorites, with emphasis on vBuffalo wings

Atmosphere: Relaxed, with sports bar feel; can get loud

Service: Enthusiastic and eager, with occasional delays during peak hours

Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Tues.-Thurs., noon-midnight Fri.-Sun.

Prices: appetizers, soups and salads $2.50-$13.95, sandwiches, wraps and entrees $10.95-$15.95, wings $11.95 (10 pieces), $26.95 (25 pieces) and $52.95 (50 pieces)

Handicap access: Easy through front door but very crowded floor plan

Reservations: Advisable for large parties

Credit cards: All majors

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