Older sisters can be, well, difficult. So Susan Duggan learned to her dismay after her sister, Claire, dissed her in paint on a wall: “Susan is a pinhead” at the Amtrak station in Schenectady.
The graffiti seemed to take on a life of its own, painted over then reappearing until the city finally bought some anti-graffiti paint. It now lives on, immortalized by Jack and Dennis McDonald as the name of their Irish pub.
Now a fixture of downtown dining, Pinhead Susan’s is in a historic building that dates to 1852. After several iterations over its lifetime, it was revitalized by the McDonalds in the final year of the 20th century and the restaurant opened in June of 2000.
You can get “Mad Jack” beer, brewed at the McDonalds’ historic Mad Jack Brewing Co. at the nearby Van Dyck Lounge. Add to those The Stockade Inn, and the McDonalds own and operate a fair chunk of Schenectady.
Pinhead Susan’s provides a congenial, relaxed atmosphere in a comfortable old building of brick and wood that is familiar as a pair of old jeans. You walk right into the main dining area with hardwood floors and handsome red brick arches, its antique walnut bar with marble top and brass foot rail the focal point of the room.
Prices are reasonable, as is the menu if you’re thinking Irish pub. Starters sound delicious, like mozzarella wedges ($7.50) or Reuben fritters ($7.95). You’ll find fish and chips ($10.95) and mac and cheese made with Guinness stout ($9.95). There’s a full bar and a rotating selection of New York state beers, and a fair number of whiskeys from which to choose.
I started with a cup of the day’s soup ($3.25), wild rice and chicken, which I liked quite a bit. Soup is never salty enough for me, but this was. The chunks of chicken were tender and the fresh vegetables were very good, though the rice was a bit soft.
We ordered the Buffalo (beef) quesadillas; what we got was a Buffalo chicken version ($8.95), which doesn’t appear on the menu. It could be that we’d just talked with the server at length about their house-made chicken tenders. It was very tasty, though.
The Buffalo sauce was pleasantly hot, just enough to tingle, and the tenders were smothered in melted orange cheese. The flour tortillas crisped up nicely, offering a contrast to the gooey filling. The salsa, in a small plastic cup alongside one of sour cream (a buck extra for both), was a bit more hot than mild, with lots of chunks of vegetables, just how I like it.
They do nice tenders, which are soft, with a thin coating of breading and real chicken texture, like homemade if you’re a pretty good cook. We liked the quesadilla, although the cheese felt excessive and the whole thing set the calorie counter in my head to spinning fast.
Either our chatty, absolutely delightful server or the kitchen has a poor sense of timing, as our entrees were delivered just after we got our first course. There wasn’t quite enough room on the table for all the plates.
I’ve encountered Pinhead Susan’s style of shepherd’s pie ($10.95) at Irish restaurants in the Capital Region, and I don’t quite get it. Apparently I need to get out more, because all of the recipes I saw online were some version of the same thing.
Pinhead Susan’s mixes a lot of seasoned ground beef with frozen vegetables and adds a mountain of mashed potato, topped with melted cheese. Frozen mixed vegetables are colorful and attractive, as is melted orange cheese. Ground beef not so much. It goes down easily, and the dish is lightly seasoned, though a bit monotonous.
I would prefer a recipe that used fresh vegetables and herbs, and perhaps lamb, but this was perfectly good and there was a lot of it. I managed to make a good dent, even while on a diet.
The Reuben sandwich ($9.50) Patrice ordered was good-looking, stuffed with meat, on swirled rye bread that was buttered and grilled until crisp. Something was missing, she said, and examined her sandwich closely and found there was no Russian dressing.
It was a good sandwich though, she said, and gave high marks to the macaroni salad of bowties, chopped colorful vegetables and just the right amount of mayonnaise, and the fresh pickle.
The photos on the dessert menu were tempting, but we were stuffed, and passed, also, on a whiskey.
The server brought boxes and a check: $33.65 with tax, and lots of leftovers.
Pinhead Susan’s is for sale, but I have it on good authority that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon and are fully operational. Visit Pinhead Susan’s in its beautiful old building for a cozy Irish meal.
WHERE: 38-40 N. Broadway, Schenectady, (518) 346-6431, www.pinheadsusan.com
WHEN: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday
HOW MUCH: $33.65, before tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express. Children’s menu. ADA compliant.