By J.F. Mix
Florida Times-Union / Jacksonville.com
May 5, 2010 - It’s easy to dismiss Whisky River at first glance as just the latest in wing joints patterned after the grande dame of them all – Hooters. After all, Whisky River specializes in wings, goes out of its way to hire shapely waitresses who look good in skimpy outfits – in this case black vests, denim short shorts and cowboy boots – and offers a preponderance of fried foods.
But, after dipping my toe in Whisky River, I found that the food in spots is rather praiseworthy.
Since it opened a few weeks ago, Whisky River’s banks have overflowed with customers. This is a combination restaurant and nightclub. Families would feel comfortable there for lunch or an early dinner, but anytime after 9 p.m., I get the feeling the bars and dance floor become the main attraction.
I gathered some guys (including one with a teenage son), and we sampled what Whisky River had to offer during a recent lunch.
The Sampler ($12.99) came with Beer Battered Onion Rings, Dirty Mo’s Cheese Sticks, a Quesadilla and some Killer Wings. The quesadillas come filled with chicken, barbecued brisket, crispy shrimp or spinach and mushroom. We opted for the brisket. It was a satisfying quesadilla with cheese and meat in every bite. The sweet tomato barbecue sauce overpowered the beef somewhat, but it was tasty.
The wings come boneless or bone-in and with a variety of sauces. Being the old-fashioned sort, I asked for traditional Buffalo Wing sauce and asked about temperature. Ordinarily, I opt for medium, but our waitress said mild was the way to go. Thank you, my dear, for that important advice. The mild has plenty of bite. The wings themselves are plump, cooked through and rather meaty.
As for the rest of the sampler, a cheese stick is a cheese stick, and the same could be said for the onion rings. However, I will note that they were not at all greasy or oily. Both offered a satisfying crunch.
The Pulled Pork Sandwich ($7.99) was ample but failed to distinguish itself as a must-have menu item. The baked beans were delicate and served in a slurry rather than as the over-smoked and sticky glob I had expected.
The Fried Shrimp Basket ($8.99) was filled with bite-size lightly breaded shrimp that stayed warm from the first to the last. I hate feeling as if I have to gobble fried food before it gets cold and loses its appeal. The accompanying fries, however, were a bit droopy. The side of Hush Puppies ($3.99) had the texture of doughnut holes and were also very pleasing.
An item that caught my eye was the Chicken Fry in the Red Eye ($7.99). The menu description is vague, and when we asked our waitress about it she admitted she really didn’t know what it was. It turned out to be a chicken-fried steak sandwich. This could have been a gut buster of deep-fried gluttony. However, I was surprised at the lightness of the coating and the flavor of the sirloin. My friend opted to ignore the bun and eat it with a knife and fork, and he said it was filling.
Whisky River serves a selection of pizzas. Here, I expected them to trip over their cowboy boots. Not so. In fact, this pizza was some of the best I have had in town in several years and bested the fare served at a few popular pizzerias. The Dirty Mo ($14.99) is a 13-by-18-inch rectangle of pepperoni, Italian sausage, salami, chopped bacon, ham, fresh garlic, jalapenos, onions and a blend of provolone and mozzarella cheeses. Every bite features a mixture of toppings, and the garlic flavor was consistently present. One of my friends was especially impressed by the cheese blend. The crust was thin and crunchy, rather than doughy like breadsticks.
Maybe it was my prejudices walking in that left me impressed with Whisky River. I expected them to be selling pretty girls and honky-tonk rowdiness, leaving food as an afterthought. While I doubt I’ll be partaking of the late night fun, I can see myself stopping in again as Whisky River is distinguishing itself as an affordable and viable St. Johns Town Center-area lunch option.