In 1982, Hector, a short and friendly Salvadoran left his country and went to California in search of a better future. Six years later, he moved to Somerville. In 1986, Liam, almost the archetypical Irishman left the Emerald Island and Galway’s shores for the cold winters and short summers of Boston. Hector worked at the Station Café (now closed and replaced by P.J. Ryan’s), where Liam would often go for a drink after a long day of work. Both men shared the immigrant identity and the love of food and hospitality that characterizes Latinos and Irishmen, and so they quickly became friends. Liam would often talk about his plans of setting a bar (“Every Irishman’s dream is to own a bar,” he told me later) and always knew Hector would be there as the main chef.
In 2003, Liam remodeled an old “terrible dive bar” in Union Square and turned into what we now know as Sally O’Brien’s. One day, before the bar opened, Hector knocked on the door and said “I’m here. I’m ready!” They’ve worked together ever since.
Initially a sports bar, it eventually transited into a place where people go to see live bands while they share a drink and have some delicious food. Now they even have two shows every day of the weekend. “I met Tom Hogerty at a Home Depot. He said ‘how about trying an early show at your place? It will work, I have a following.’ We packed the place!” Liam explains to me. “Early shows begin at around 5:30 and people come to have dinner and leave around 9:30. We don’t charge cover for early shows.” The variety of shows at Sally O’Brien’s is quite remarkable. From comedy and reggae to bluegrass and traditional Irish music.
“We have specials every day,” they tell me. “grilled tilapia, salmon, Guinness beef stew, shepherd’s pie, Irish burger…” Hector explains to me that they do everything from scratch. “We clean, we portion, we marinate… All the salsas, everything from scratch!” he says smiling. “Everything is fresh,” he continues. “We buy fish two or three times a week. If it was any fresher we would have to serve it under water!”
“Hector makes the best chilli in the world,” Liam says as he joins the conversation. “He even won a competition!” They tell me he has invented several dishes on the menu, like the Texas Chilli Burger and the Guac & Roll Burger. “I used to cook all the dishes,” Liam explains. “I would teach Hector how to cook the Irish dishes. Now his Irish stew is better than my grandmother’s!” Hector’s smile is equally shy and proud when he hears this. “I still cook the shepherd’s pie, though,” Liam concludes.
I order an Irish burger, made with bacon and cheese imported from Ireland. “The Irish bacon is totally lean, without fat,” Liam remarks. The burger is big. “This is wholesome food, not fine dining,” Liam says with a laugh. “We serve big portions! We don’t want anyone to leave this place hungry, it’s Irish hospitality!” As I savor the burger, I think about this bar in Union Square that used to be a sports bar and is now a place to eat and see live bands; that is the result of the dreams and ambitions of an Irishman and a Latino; that merges the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ immigrants in our city; a place that, perhaps better than any other, represents the contributions, dreams, and hopes that immigrants have brought to Somerville for more than a hundred years.