Minor-league grub

“I wonder if one metropolitan area can support two hockey restaurants,” I remarked en route to Red Wing Chris Chelios’ new shrine in Dearborn. I was thinking of Mike Ilitch’s Hockeytown Café, and wondered how the boss feels about his handsome defenseman opening up some competition.

“Detroit is Hockeytown!!” replied my companions, amazed at my naïveté. And they were right: 7,000 fans per week flock to Cheli’s to watch Red Wings games, eat bar food and drink beer. On the game night that I first visited, a Saturday, the hostess predicted a 45-minute wait (it was actually only 25).

The Wings scored in the first 14 seconds, so all was right with the world.

Fans would probably rank this a three-and-a-half star experience, but there’s no reason for hockey agnostics like myself to visit Cheli’s. It’s a barnlike, underheated space with 14 TVs in one room (and one in each restroom) and a familiar menu whose execution ranges from poor to average. For red-and-white-jerseyed boosters, though, it’s a place to exult in pure hockey-ness. The place assumes women aren’t die-hard fans; the TV in the women’s bathroom plays non-hockey fare.

The menu includes burgers, steaks, salads, soup, sandwiches and a host of fried appetizers: cheese, calamari, wings, chicken fingers, potato skins and coconut shrimp.

Oddly, chili isn’t given big play here, nor should it be. It’s medium-soupy with zero fire. Lots of folks were ordering it served in bread bowls.

Probably the best dish I had was Manhattan clam chowder, although it was more like warm tomato bisque, with little clam flavor. The large (though overpriced at $8) bruschetta was also good except for its pallid tomatoes; it was loaded with tangy Parmesan.

My friend’s $8.95 chopped salad was fine, with decent greens. It was served in a huge glass bowl crammed with bacon, hard-boiled eggs, chicken, tomatoes, cheddar and jack cheeses, cukes, avocado, garlic toast, onions and black olives — way too much for one person to eat as an entrée. I thought it was funny that although this extravaganza in no way could be considered “ladies’ food,” the server assumed it was for me rather than for my male companion.

And, by the way, who dreamed up appetizers like fried mozzarella, and potato skins loaded with cheddar, bacon and green onions, with sour cream on the side? Cardiologists looking for work? I admit that I liked Cheli’s skins — roasted just crackling right, not burnt.

I ordered a Reuben, however, that seemed thrown together without care. Corned beef on grocery-store pale rye bread, with grocery-store Swiss and a dab of something orange — the whole thing was dry and unappetizing.

You don’t expect delicacy in fish and chips, but you do hope for some flavor other than the beer in the batter. Buffalo wings came without blue cheese or celery, as promised on the menu.

My pulled pork and beef brisket sandwich was served on a characterless bun, soft to the point of mushiness, and the combined meats had no flavor other than that of sweet barbecue sauce. Bread here is clearly an afterthought. When a friend asked for a Gardenburger, it was served on a cold squishy bun, with a side of still-frozen cantaloupe.

For dessert, the death-by-chocolate cake is at least very tall, but it tastes like a standard bakery birthday cake. Chocolate is more in the color than in the flavor.

Service too could use some work, and the place could adjust the dishwasher so the cutlery isn’t spotted.

The atmosphere is interesting. Diners are surrounded by displays of Chelios’ jerseys, including those from his time as a Blackhawk and as a Canadien. His shirts from the University of Wisconsin and Mount Carmel High look so tiny! There’s a Team USA jersey from the Olympics, a Wayne Gretzky jersey and a softball signed by Michael Jordan.

A pro shop has caps, T-shirts and pucks for sale. The door, which reads, “Pro Shop Always Open,” was locked both times I visited.

After 9 p.m., Cheli’s is restricted to those over 21. Open every day from 10:30 a.m. (noon on Sunday), and food is served till 1 a.m. No reservations.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].