Good food, a universe of beers at the Flying Saucer

The cultural Kuiper belt surrounding UNC Charlotte makes me think of the popular TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory." As its character Sheldon might say, our problem really boils down to physics.

It isn't that we entirely lack cool places to hang out: the coffeehouses, interesting eateries and other amenities for which true college communities are renowned. What we don't have is a critical mass.

Instead of being clustered together in an inviting and walkable village, our attractions are scattered across our strip-malled landscape, like isolated asteroids on the edge of the Solar System.

Case in point: The Flying Saucer, an inviting college pub, wedged in the back corner of a mall parking lot on U.S. 29, across the road from the new UNC Charlotte football stadium.

Walking through The Flying Saucer's doors is like passing through a stargate to escape the Mall-osphere. Inside, it's woodsy and dark, with traditional pub tables ringed by sturdy chairs, and cozy booths with seats of hunter-green leather.

Just to the right of the entrance, a circle of big, puffy couches next to two dartboards - under a pair of carved angel heralds floating from the ceiling - invites you to chill out and have a little fun.

When I was there at lunchtime last week, a couple of college-age men were tossing darts, while a friendly server in barmaid attire looked on. In a corner of the couches, a 6-year-old boy was plugged into his own games on an iPad.

The long, long bar has 35 stools lined up in front of it, facing a remarkable wall, paved in pennies and bristling with dozens of different beer taps.

The Flying Saucer, in the great pub tradtion, is a good place to eat, even if the menu is eclipsed by the beer list. In fact, the back page of the menu is entirely dedicated to a primer on beers - how to tell a lager from an ale, that kind of thing - which starts by pointing out that "beer could be responsible for civilization itself."

But there's no need to drink your supper here (though you could). Beyond the predictable wings and pretzels, you'll find decent, filling and (is it possible?) nutritious salads, soups, sandwiches and build-your-own pizzas with lots of choices for toppings. The Saucer even offers a more-than-token number of vegetarian choices, including a worthy "Hippie Burger" with avocado, and hummus with pita.

A standout is "The Hungry Farmer," which allows you to build your own board from an impressive list of cold cuts and cheeses, including finocchiona (a Tuscan salami made with fennel), smoked salmon and Red Dragon cheddar, made with Welsh ale and mustard seeds. Helpfully, a recommended beer accompanies each item on the list.

If you don't drink beer, the pub offers Abita's high-quality, non-alcoholic root beer and other drinks. But if it is beer you want, beer they've got.

The Saucer's mission statement says it seeks to provide the largest selection of quality handcrafted beers from North Carolina and around the world. It has scores of beers on tap and in bottles.

You can even join the UFO Club. For an $18 fee, you get a T-shirt and a card to swipe each time you order. When you pass the required number of beers, you are celebrated with a plate bearing your name, the date, a motto of your choosing and your UFO number.

These plates festoon the walls and ceilings throughout The Flying Saucer. You may see a plate for your professor or boss. A census might make an interesting community project.

My only minor quibble was with overbaked tortilla chips, which appeared to have been zapped with a phaser on stun.

The Flying Saucer feels as a close to a pub as you'll find this side of the Atlantic, but Mexico influences the menu far more than Ireland or the UK. Here you don't find fish and chips, pot pies or bangers and mash. Instead, you're offered nachos, quesadillas and tostada chips with queso.

For crying out loud, bring in a technical adviser who knows Mexican food (not hard to find, amigos) and learn how to fry tortilla chips!

But that's a very minor glitch for a place that provides such an inviting ambiance, friendly staff and tasty and varied food, not to mention a universe of beers.