Detour Before Dark: The Boxing Donkey’s luck of the neighborhood Irish pub
By Scott Thomas Anderson — originally published in the Roseville Press Tribune
“Famine ships” took the Irish to the East Coast before laying rail lines brought them out West, and in Roseville their immigrant dream settled into a vision of squealing boxcars, secret saloon tunnels and overworked men hiding from the Women’s’ Temperance League. The Barker Hotel is a survivor from those days, and the Boxing Donkey Irish Pub in its belly is a popular tribute to the shamrock side of Roseville’s memories.
Today, “the Donkey” is one of the only Celtic havens in greater Sacramento where patrons can drink Guinness while listening to Irish-punk and Gaelic-roots music on the radio. It also serves pub cuisine so in-demand it might be, as the Irish say, “a double-dose of original sin.”
It’s long into a midweek afternoon and daylight pours through the high, arched window that was once the doorway to Charles Barker’s hotel. The sun creeps from a framed Roseville fireman’s jacket to a green flag for Jameson Irish Whiskey: The engine jacket — hung across the bar from an emerald fireman’s helmet — has the words “Boxing Donkey” embroidered across its back.
Not far from the window, novelist Nancy Lee Woody sits drinking a Blue Moon. Woody just returned from Ireland and the Donkey’s lively vibe reminds her of pubs she visited in Belfast and Galway. The establishment is thoroughly Californian but it does stick to some Irish classics: Banners for Smithwick’s ale drape down from its ceiling; hard apple cider handles are fixed on-tap; an array of Paddy’s whiskey bottles line the walls. Old Town Roseville faces a railroad largely built by Irish immigrants in a valley once dominated by an Irish newspaper baron. The memory of that world was still alive when the Barker Hotel was built in 1910. The Boxing Donkey projects this legacy both through the pub’s spirit and the enduring plaster and wood of Old Town itself. The pub also has a modern Irish-Yankee feel that includes its stereo blasting the Celtic crunch of “Streams of Whiskey” by the Pogues or the roving, renegade touch of “Whiskey in the Jar” by the Dubliners. On this late afternoon, Woody sips her beer as its speakers play “Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys.
“I just loved how, in Ireland, there’s music everywhere, just like in this place,” Woody remarks as the manic marching of Scruffy Wallace’s bagpipes goes honking through the bar’s cavern. “The pubs are like this — full of friendly people talking, and music is a part of everything.”Every year the Donkey brings Roseville 9 hours of live music on Saint Patrick’s Day, usually leaning on South Placer’s well-known Irish band One Eyed Reilly. The group continues to grab audiences with songs like “Tipperary Blood,” a speed-spoken drinking anthem thrust along by its trotting bass-line and quick, irreverent violin slashes.
But while fans of rocking jigs get their fill at the Boxing Donkey, the real draw for foodies is what chefs Michael Reese and Melyssa Tucey are cooking in the back kitchen. One of the bar’s most valued dishes is its Saint Patty’s Melt, a burger on thin, toasted Rye, covered in hot jack and cheddar cheese, caramelized red onions and a splattering of Thousand Island dressing. A bite reveals how its beef juices flow into tangy accents, pops of cloying onion and the dressing’s sweet and sour pinch, all held together by the countering dryness of the Rye. It’s a genuine taste sensation.
Another hit at the Donkey is the Pork N’ Cheese, a bowl with honey chipotle glazed hog shanks centered in homemade jack and parmesan pasta, topped with fresh micro greens. The pork stands out with a cinnamon-and-sugar touch to its crispy skin, and the dark meat underneath balances the hints of sugar with silky, salty highlights. The plate only gets better as it stands, with the sweetened pork drippings being absorbed into the ropey bubbles of cheese on the macaroni.
The Boxing Donkey is also famous for its Spicy Buffalo Mac and Cheese. More Irish in attitude than heritage, this bowl is chalked full of cavatappi pasta piled in hefty Buffalo chicken chunks, large bacon bits and sharp globs of blue cheese. It dares anyone looking on it with its massive corkscrew noodles glowing titian with spices, and one fork motion shows how drenched it is in clinging, stringy layers of cheese. The whole concoction appears dangerous, yet there’s a mixed to perfection to its gradation of tastes and textures.
“I think the food has really been a pleasant surprise to the people,” notes the Boxing Donkeys co-owner, Joe Tucey. “You can sum up what our chefs are doing in three words: fresh, fresh, fresh. That means that everything from the kennebec potatoes we use to cut our fries, to the fish we’re battering in Guinness — it’s all coming to us fresh. I don’t mind paying a little extra to get quality.”
Tucey opened the Boxing Donkey in 2008 and runs it with co-owner Kendl Schubert. Schubert has proven to the pub’s fans she has an uncanny ability to remember local faces and their favorite orders. She’s also the master at mixing up the Donkey’s signature cocktails, like “the Old Irish ‘Ass,” a swirl of Tanqueray Old Tom Gin, fresh lime juice, Cock n’ Bull ginger beer and hard apple cider, or “the Boxing Burro,” a blend of Tequila Cabeza, Triple Sec, fresh lime, acrid elements and orange juice. The Donkey’s other bartenders have also been with the pub long enough to know all the personalities flowing in from the city. From auto mechanics in their work shirts to lawyers in full suits, the clientele may be diverse, but it always centers on smiling in the pub’s relaxed atmosphere as the libations flow. This part of Roseville has been a rail-side bar hub since the 1880s, and some things never change.
“I think this part of town adds a certain charm to an Irish pub,” Tucey reflects. “It’s the old brick buildings and the history that’s behind all of these walls down here. Roseville needed a good neighborhood pub in Old Town. And I think that’s what we’ve done. It’s a laidback place where everyone knows each other. It’s a pub where friends are family, and family are friends.”
The Boxing Donkey Irish Pub sits on the outskirts of California’s capitol, fixed in the railroad hub of a region that flourished for decades under the vision of Irish immigrants.
Journalist James McClatchy arrived in Sacramento from the Emerald Isle in 1849. After covering the bloody Squatters’ Riot for the Placer Times he was given the editorship of the Sacramento Bee. From there, McClatchy ran a newspaper empire that would, under leadership of his son, begin to morph into one of America’s largest media outlets.
An-hour-and-forty minutes southeast of the Boxing Donkey is Murphys, which was founded in 1848 by Daniel and John Murphy from Wexford, Ireland. The boys’ proved this little corner of Calaveras County was a genuine gold strike, while their father Martin Murphy became a pioneering farmer for wheat in California’s valleys. Today the town of Murphys is a booming travel destination that fuses rugged western elegance with some of California’s top wine tasting.
Andrew Kennedy escaped Ireland’s great famine in 1849 and soon arrived in the region’s town of Jackson. Two years later, he discovered a massive quartz gold vein — shining white rock doused in sleeves of glitter that plunged nearly 6,000-feet below the earth. Thanks to Kennedy, as the state faced the last, gagging death throes of the Gold Rush, Jackson reinvented itself as a force in wide-scale, industrial mining: The legacy remains in four looming wood head-frames that dot the hills’ horizon.