"Meatballs and beer done right!" exclaims Ball & Chain on its website, a statement that would excite anyone who has an opinion about—and thoroughly enjoys—both. I like beer. I like meatballs. The two of them together can make for a great night out, especially in a joint calling itself a "meatballery." And I certainly hope, one day, a meatballery does come to LA—but for now, Ball & Chain is not it. The beer is done right, sure, but Ball & Chain isn't making the beer. It's making the meatballs, and the meatballs are not good.
On my first visit to the Hollywood newcomer, we ordered every meatball offered except for the daily special. Balls are paired with one of five sauces and can be assembled as a slider, grinder, side stacker (three balls on a side), ball-a-carte or a ball flight (yes, there are plenty of opportunites for ball jokes here, but I'm not going to twist the knife even further). There are multiple combinations of balls and sauces and styles and sides, which means that whether you go classic spaghetti and meatballs or try a more creative option, there's bound to be one that works, right?
Wrong. Each dish arrived on our table in a rustic iron skillet, with portions leaning towards the small side but still promising a true meatball experience. And here's what happened: our beef balls, a blend of Angus beef and pork, sat on greasy, lukewarm noodles and a small spoonful of generic tomato sauce. The meat was underseasoned and overbaked—and prompted an uneasy look around the table. "It's alright," said a friend politely after trying a bite, but none of us were as polite with the Turducken grinder smothered in creamy cheese (a mix, our waiter told us, of Gouda and Parmesan). It was as gross as it sounds, but even with a different sauce—the classic pesto? the sauce of the day?—I doubt it would have been any better. Bland and delivering a consistency that oscillated between mushy and chunky, the meat hybrid left us feeling a tad queasy (to paint a picture: between the four of us, we left half of the grinder on the plate).
Our waiter didn't exactly sell us the place, either. "I'm a big meat-eater, but my favorite is the veggie meatball," he said, when asked for recommendations. Oh, great. We tried the veggie variation with pesto sauce as a slider, and while the ball itself was decent—a blend of butternut squash, chickpeas and quinoa—the bun shimmered with too much butter and the pesto left a bitter aftertaste. Maybe the special ball of the day would be better, and on my second visit I went for it, a chicken tikka variety over sautéed greens and drizzled in masala sauce. But the chicken was extremely dry, even when followed by a swig of beer, and the greens a stringy, flavorless mess. Other dishes were doomed not by the balls, but by the accompanying sides and sauces. The pork meatball was the best of the bunch, and yet, both times I ordered it—once with polenta, once over mashed potatoes—the mushroom gravy ladled on top promptly ruined the dish with its watery consistency and rubbery mushrooms.
There will be some people who will still think this sounds like a cool idea, and they'd be right: a meatballery is a cool idea. Maybe you'll come for a pint of craft beer and a plate of well-executed brussels sprouts (really!), or you'll find the dim, tunnel-like atmosphere romantic enough to split a root beer float with your date. But you won't—or at least, you shouldn't—come for the meatballs. And in a restaurant where meatballs make up half of the mission statement, that's a helluva dish to screw up.
What to Eat: I don't know, the donut balls ($4)?
What to Drink: At least Ball & Chain got this part of their slogan right: The beer list here is extensive (over 120 available) and well-curated, with both bottle and on-tap options. A lighter day-drinking beer might be the Stone Go To IPA ($6), while drinkers who slant towards a heavier beer would be satisfied with the Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout ($8). I also really loved the Mendocino Red Tail Ale ($6), a crisp amber ale that left behind the slightest hint of citrus. There is wine, too, but ordering wine at a meatball and beer joint is about as pointless as coming here for the veggie ball.
Where to Sit: There are two seating options to choose from: the bar or a row of tables along a bench hugging the right wall. Sit at the bar, where you can be entertained by both the TV and the bartender. What isn't a seating area? That awkward nook with a single table top below a stencil that reads "#ball&chain". "It's meant for leaning against," explained the bartender. "Or social media for, you know, when more people start coming in." He shrugged.
Conversation Piece: They have a pretty great jukebox here, where you can choose from bands like NOFX, the Pixies, Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. The $5 for 15 songs is worth it if you're planning to stay for a couple drinks, which is about all you should stay for.