Three years ago we were surprised by all the grace notes we found at Red Zone Sports Bar and Grill, a new establishment on Panama Lane. Apparently enough other customers were won over so they could open a second location across from the Rabobank Arena.

Our early visits wowed us in the atmosphere department, left us mildly impressed with the food and apprehensive about the basic service issues. In short, it’s not up to the standards of its Panama parent, but the atmosphere alone gives us hope that things will be eventually up to snuff.

Last home to the Mexican restaurant Sol Y Luna, it’s been completely and stylishly transformed into what you’d expect from a sports bar. Meaning at least 16 flat screens all around the room, a finished cement floor, industrial ceiling, aluminum kick bar at the base of the large reclaimed wood bar that winds back to the kitchen and plenty of tables for groups and smaller parties. Lots of good viewing angles. I have to believe this would be a great place to stop before a Condor game, or maybe during the state high school wrestling tournament we’ve been hosting for more than a decade.

One service glitch was the place being closed on the Sunday I attempted to visit. (Editor's note: Since the time of this review, the restaurant is now open Sundays.)

Our first visit ended up being on a Taco Tuesday, with a few college basketball games on and ESPN coverage of the NFL playoffs. My companion jumped all over those discount tacos, getting two carne asada and two chicken ($1.25) and two shrimp ($2). Advised by a Facebook friend that I needed to order the bacon-wrapped shrimp appetizer ($7.95), we also ordered that, and I, with fond memories of the burgers at the Panama Lane location, ordered the Texas burger ($10.95).

Our waiter was a cordial young man, but he and the kitchen are not well-versed on the purpose of an appetizer. Meaning that it comes before your dinners. No effort was made to bring the food together, either, which means my companion was working on her tacos while I was sipping my Wolf Pup IPA (there are 18 taps here — a strong selection). No explanations, just bringing food when it could be brought. The shrimp followed, then finally the burger. Don’t go here if that casual approach bothers you.

I ordered the burger patty medium, and it was prepared well done. Not sure why. The Texas burger here is a strong product, with three house-made extra crispy onion rings, a barbecue sauce that was smoky and not too sweet and Swiss cheese. Bacon is $1 extra, and I wish I’d sprung for that. The beef patties are imperfect, hand shaped and managed to stay juicy even though it was overcooked. I’d recommend medium. When I had this at the Panama location they jazzed it up with roasted garlic, and I missed that. The buns are bakery fresh.

The praise from my friend for those shrimp is well deserved — crispy with a bacon shell and fresh tasting with a sweet shrimp center. No one can approach the gold standard set by Cafe Med for such an item, but this is the closest I’ve sampled in months. The shrimp in the tacos (breaded and fried without bacon) were similarly impressive, as were the chicken tacos, made with fire-grilled breast meat. The carne asada was just too dull. Get some spice going on that beef. At least the chicken and beef tacos were topped only with cilantro and chopped white onions, a simple approach that’s a winner. The shrimp had a creamy seafood sauce, but not too much, and cabbage.

One of the strengths at both places are the specials, which include 59-cent wings on Wednesdays and for special sports events such as playoffs, as well as a Thursday steak special of $14.95, and a Monday burger special of $7.95 with $4 Mondo beers. That makes any Monday worth the pain. If they serve the burger as ordered.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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