I like beer too much and respect too much the amount of effort, creativity, and skill that goes into making American craft beers to continue to settle for the same tired old crap as an accompaniment.
(This post originally appeared in the seattlepi.com version of The Pour Fool, back in 2014. It was requested by about a dozen readers who had read my bio and saw that I used to be a chef for about three decades…which was far longer than that little tangent should have gone on. It was also prompted by two separate requests from young entrepreneurs in Denver, about eight weeks before this appeared, who were thinking of opening one sports bar and one alehouse. I was asked, in both cases, to give them a menu that would avoid – or at least tweak severely – the usual pub grub clichés.
Today, I’m delighted to say, this universal sameness HAS changed – a bit. But, still, in maybe 85% of all American pubs, the menus read just as I have described here. The restaurants which ARE working with Indie Beer offerings and THINKING about their food are doing tremendous things, these days…which results in me, turning over $$$ more and more often. Pub menus ARE changing. But fast enough? Well, that’s for each of us to decide. For me? No, not at all fast enough and that’s hard to figure when the rest of our food culture is progressing by leaps and bounds.)
This is a little far off the beaten path of what’s usually written here in The Pour Fool and I keep having this creeping impulse to apologize for it in advance. But then I realize that the food we encounter at the places we go to find our favorite beers is a topic so universal and so inextricably married to the beer experience that it’s not only appropriate to this bloglet but almost mandatory.
The food in most American brewery taprooms, alehouses, pubs, and beer halls is driving me crazy and I suspect, from time to time, it’s done the same to you. I bet a whole paycheck that you have, at very least, quietly thought or maybe even said to a friend, “Why is all the food at these beer pubs always the same?” That’s a generalization, of course, but the core truth of that statement hit me squarely in my beer mania as I sat down to research this post.
(As an aside here, let me confess that, for over 30 years, I was a chef, pastry chef, saucier, baker, and just about every other job description found in a commercial kitchen, in settings ranging from Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s in New Orleans to Wolfgang Puck’s Seattle cafe and fine-dining restaurant, Obachine, to a half-dozen smaller, less celebrated cafes and bistros in Seattle, Knoxville, and Greensboro, NC. I also owned a pizza joint and a commercial bakery in Seattle and I’m the pickiest SOB who ever lived about restaurants where I choose to spend money.)
So, it will come as no surprise that I’m picky and critical about pub food. Traditionally, pub grub has been viewed as a sort of lowest common denominator style of dining. Beer was seen as a fairly déclassé beverage, unworthy of the attention and care lavished on the pairing of food with fine wines. And, for most of our American story, that definition fit. Those same old-same old All American adjunct Pilsners – the BudMillerCoorsPabstEtc garbage – really are not worth the effort of thinking up any different pairings. It never seemed to matter that a burger, pizza, wings, potato skins, et al, really didn’t pair with the Pilsners, either, because anything with any flavor at all would so overwhelm those wimpy, characterless beers that they were reduced to exactly the same sensory experience as drinking water. The culture back then was all about casual dining and conversation, so nobody minded – or even really noticed – that every pub in the country basically had interchangeable menus.
But, as craft beer has boomed and pubs devoted to the culture of a whole different type of beer proliferated…nothing happened. The menus basically stayed the same for well over two decades and have only really started to change in the past five to seven years. This week, I went to the list of the nation’s Top 100 beer pubs and chose, based on only a geographic spread, a list of 12 noted American beer pubs, brewery restaurants, and alehouses. I downloaded their menus, if they were available for that, or simply copied them into Word documents. I combed through all the menus and the results were…shocking.
I’m not going to name these restaurants. We don’t take shots any anybody who’s not associated with Anheuser Busch by name, here in The Pour Fool, and I don’t want to embarrass anyone. But inclusion in that Draft Magazine list is testament to their prominence and I didn’t read ANY menu and exclude it, except for Threepenny Taproom in Montpelier, Vermont, whose food was so unique and so thoughtful that it’s now my mission to go there and try that superb beer list with what reads like a literal bonanza of deliciously appropriate food. I excluded them to single them out and I do it with great respect. The general statement that “pub food is all the same” does NOT apply to Threepenny but, if I had written that with them in the list, it would have been unfair to all the rest of the pubs.
I read, all in all, in about a week’s spare time, 89 beer-related menus and what I found could easily be extended to about 90% of them. The “shocking” part was just how much of the chosen 12 menus was exactly the same. Here’s the list of items found on all twelve:
Cobb Salad…Bacon Burger…Caesar Salad…Chicken Wings…Onion Rings…Quesadilla…Tacos (“street tacos” on seven lists)…Hummus and Pita…Chips and Salsa…Chicken Club…French Dip…Chicken Tenders….Greek Salad…Chicken Salad…Chili…Turkey Sandwich…Spinach and Artichoke Dip…Cheeseburger…Bleu Cheese Burger…Chicken Burrito…Veggie Burger
Only ONE menu each did not feature these: Something blackened…Fish & Chips…Reuben…BLT…Chicken Wrap…Patty Melt…Tuna Sandwich or Melt…Fish Tacos
TEN showed these: Pasta with either prawns or salmon in a cream sauce…Pulled Pork Sandwich…Veggie Plate with Ranch or Blue Cheese dressing…Nachos…Potato Skins…Grilled Cheese…Mac & Cheese
On all twelve were items that showed a bit of original – or, at least, not beaten-to-death – thinking. Along with the ones shown in the photos, one, in Colorado, featured a small but inventive range of genuinely different and interesting burgers. One in my own back yard, Renton, Washington, showed Shrimp Ceviche and a Catfish(!) sandwich. One in Massachusetts offered a Lamb Gyro and a Falafel Wrap. In Mississippi, I found Etoufee and Jambalaya. In Michigan, there was a chicken wonton with buffalo sauce inside! In each case, the rest of the menu was mostly items listed above.
But these moments of creativity are few and far between and it all starts to become tiresome, at least for me. Also, frankly, it strongly suggests that people who own and manage and chef for places like these are either unwilling or unable to think outside that “Pub Grub” Box and really consider the inescapable FACT that today’s craft beers can and should have an entirely different set of food pairings. What it says, to be blunt about it, is that beer isn’t important enough to waste any thought upon and, not coincidentally, that beer fans are this homogeneous mass of single-cell organisms who wouldn’t appreciate better food pairings if they were offered. That is, in fact, what many, many people to whom I’ve expressed my misgivings about these menus say: “Well, if all those pubs have the same menu, that must be the food people want.” How much of this is really “giving the people what they want” and how much is blind, unthinking, unquestioning presumption? That I don’t know…but I do know that finding out is a fairly simple matter of hitting the “pause” button on your preconceptions.
Understand, please, that my misgivings about this phenomenon would be reduced by maybe a third IF – and this is the heart of the matter – the food as shown on the menus that is all basically the same…was uniformly of decent quality. It…IS…NOT. Not at all. I cannot fathom how any restaurant that’s staffed by people who have ever cooked in their lives and who possess working taste buds can so completely screw up PUB FOOD. These dishes above have been made billions of times, now, tracing back, many of them, to the early part of the 20th century. And yet, I go into beer bars and order a simple Caesar salad and get…a science experiment. The recipe for Caesar salad – the original one, invented by Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who owned a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, and whipped up the stuff on July 4th, 1924, because of a food shortage in his kitchen – is no state secret. I can make it in my sleep. So can any good chef. I’ve made it in five-gallon buckets, with an immersion mixer, for the Wolfgang Puck Cafes, and tableside, out of its ingredients, to order, while running an Italian joint. But I go into bars and order a Caesar and get something that has been fiddled with and “tweaked” (as one chef put it, when I asked him what it was supposed to be) until it really isn’t Caesar, anymore. Caesar dressing…contains…anchovies. It’s the main flavoring. If it’s not there, it’s not Cesar…but I taste dressings all the time that don’t have it because “Our customers don’t want anchovies“. Then your customers don’t want Caesar salad, period, end of story. Even worse, I get tough, overcooked FRENCH FRIES and onion rings…which just makes me want to pull my own head off and dibble it like a basketball. Those foods are easily available from any food service company. They won’t be great but they’ll be edible. But cooking raw potatoes requires that you rinse the starch off the sliced fries, first, and completely dry them before they go into the fryer. In Colorado, I ate at a beer bar at which the fries had never seen water and which were rubbery and misshapen, because that’s what happens when you don’t wash them. How can ANYONE in a working restaurant skip this most basic of facts? I would venture a guess that fully 40% of the pub food I do taste is far worse than it would be if made by an actual chef, in a restaurant in which food is the main attraction. If there were any sort of scale of cosmic fairness and we could all get our money back on meals which were truly sub-standard, I’d be writing this from my four bedroom chalet at Wallowa Lake, Oregon, right now, before cruising into Joseph in my Maserati.
I’m not expecting haute cuisine and that would be no more appropriate to the beers than the current sameness. But it is, certainly, possible to create a menu that offers a few different and better pairings than what these twelve indicate. My God, the simple existence of big Stouts, Belgian Dubbels and Tripels, Barleywines, Imperial IPAs, and the emerging Sours – which create a whole laundry list of food-pairing possibilities and/or problems – demands some foods that actually complement those styles.
I’ve been asked twice, in the past three years, to come up with some new food items and some thoughtful variations on existing pub dishes and was surprised to find that it really wasn’t all that difficult. This is a compilation of the two menus, both of which were designed to pair with the ales we find in real beer bars, not the generic roster of foods that show up everywhere. Some are new ideas, some are modifications. PLEASE, if you own a beer bar, pub, or restaurant and want to steal these, DO IT. If you need preparation help, email me. I’ll come and try it, too, (within reason. If you’re in The Yukon, you’re on your own.) but I personally have ZERO desire to ever run a restaurant kitchen again and no one I know is planning one, so the chance that these dishes will ever get made depends on someone reading this and thinking, “Hmmmm…” Please note that some of the Specialties and burgers were titled to be served in a sports bar, and should have their names changed.
THE DENVER PUB FOOD PROJECT:
Dirty Rice Balls: Dirty Rice with minced shrimp, ham, green onions, and Gruyere, rolled in panko and crushed pecans and fried. Served with remoulade.
Toasted Ravioli: Mushroom and pancetta or pork and green apple ravioli, tossed with seasoned masa and deep fried quickly. Served with marinara or a chipotle cream cheese.
Turkey-Wrapped Pickled Asparagus: Whole pickled asparagus spears, each with a spear of Fontina cheese, wrapped in seasoned slices of our house roasted turkey and served with chevre-peppercorn sauce.
Waffle-Cut Gorgonzola Garlic Fries: Aged Gorgonzola and chopped, blanched fresh garlic sprinkled atop our Idaho house waffle fries and toasted in our oven.
Polenta Sophia: Soft polenta with mascarpone cheese and bay shrimp, served in a dark chicken au jus with cippoline onions and bits of Italian sausage
Pig in a Snuggie: House made peppercorn pork sausage with Manchego in a fire-roasted poblano, wrapped in a garlic crepe and served with a smoked tomato coulis
Dusty Chicken Fingers: Oven-Roasted chicken breast strips, tossed with our hickory-ancho seasoning and quickly sauteed. Served with a tangy lemon remoulade.
Fried Chicken Fingers: Our extra-thin variation on the traditional, dipped in seasoned teriyaki batter and quick fried to a golden blush. Served with Maytag Bleu Cheese dressing.
First Round Draft Pickle: Spicy garlic dill pickle, cored and stuffed with a artichoke-jalapeno cream cheese filling and served with flatbread.
Vietnamese Mini-Mi: Our take on the traditional Viet Bahn-Mi sandwich. Mini-bolo stuffed with sliced roast pork, hickory-smoked bacon, avocado, shredded daikon, and sweet onions, with Kewpie mayo and ginger mustard, lightly grilled.
House Flatbread: Our buttermilk pizza dough swabbed with white truffle oil, rubbed with fresh garlic and sprinkled with smoked sea salt and Parmigiano Reggiano, grilled to a golden brown. With smoked tomato coulis or pesto.
Tummy Scratch: Our strange hybrid of the British pork scratchings and Cuban chicarones, these cubes of pork belly are air-dried, seasoned, and then quick fried to a crisp, dark brown. Crusty. Chewy. Sinful.
Wing T Formation: Big chicken wings, brined for two days, dried, fried, and served with Brie Dijon dressing.
Potato Cracklins: Crisp fried potato skins, tossed with Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs and served with buttermilk dipping sauce.
The Pullet Surprise: House-roasted sliced chicken, quick-sauteed in EVO oil and bacon scraps, piled on a rustic bolo and dressed with pepperoni, sliced apples, arugula, Fontina, and a schmeer of remoulade. Toasted, sliced, and served with apple-fennel slaw.
White Trash: Fried baloney, Velveeta, lettuce, red onions, and French’s mustard on couple of slabs of white bread. Smeared with margarine, grilled and served with our house Potato Cracklins.
Trailer Park Wellington: Beef and venison burger, seasoned and rolled and grilled like a hot dog, then wrapped in our pizza dough with bleu cheese and red onions and baked.
The Tom Tom Club: Smoked Turkey, quick-sauteed with cracked pepper and smoked gouda, laid out truffle-oiled flatbread and dressed with apple-fennel slaw, sweet onions, and remoulade.
Cuban Defector: Sliced smoked pork, sliced ham, house made garlic dill pickle slices, Gruyere cheese, and a decent swab of stoneground mustard on a buttered, grilled Cuban water roll.
The Mike: Our house beefalo patty, hot-grilled, topped with red onion jam, blue cheese, frizzled onions, butter lettuce, and smoked sea salt tomatoes, on a house roll.
The Sam: Salmon, shrimp, and jalapeno patty, hot-grilled, and served with roasted garlic remoulade, dilled Havarti, fire-roasted poblanos, leaf lettuce, and red onions, on a toasted garlic butter bolo.
The Will: Seasoned chipotle pork patty, seared and baked and served with garlic dill pickles, sweet onions, roasted garlic aioli, melted Gruyere, and butter lettuce on a toasted bolo roll.
The Lottery Pick: 100% beef, half-pound patty, seasoned and fried on a bed of sweet onions, dressed with Colorado White Cheddar, pepper bacon, smoked sea salt tomatoes, and mango catsup, on a crusty baguette. BIG.
The Parcells: Big Tuna melt, with grilled filet of yellowfin, Colorado cheddar, garlic dill pickles, red onion jam, and house potato crisps, on toasted sourdough.
A Big Left Tackle: A ton of pepper bacon, smoked sea salt tomatoes, butter lettuce, and avocado or grilled apples, served on toasted sourdough.
House made flatbread, brushed with white truffle oil, grilled, topped, and baked quickly. Choose from these:
Colorado Caprese: Smoked sea salt tomatoes, torn basil, fresh dill, Bufalo mozzarella, brushed with Balsamic and garlic oil, baked Neapolitan style.
That Frenchy Bastard: Butterflied Shrimp, brie, white truffle oil, Yukon Gold crisps, roasted garlic, and Gruyere
Carnivore: House pork sausage, chicken carnitas, pepper bacon, sweet onions, fresh herbs, Fontina, and mozzarella on house marinara
Smoke Alarm: Smoked chicken, smoked mozzarella, red onions, cilantro, and fire-roasted tomatoes on a smoked tomato coulis
Green Piece: Chicken carnitas, sundried tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, and mozzarella on pecan pesto
Carolina: Hickory Smoked Pulled Pork, brined tomatoes, garlic oil, Vermont Cheddar, Mozzarella, baked and dressed out with a sprinkle of apple-fennel slaw
Bowls & Plates:
Bowl O’ Red: House chili, made from scratch, starting with beef and pork, chipotles, sweet onions, and loads of pungent seasoning. Winner of 14 different chili awards!
Blackbird Pie: Garlic mashed potatoes line a ramekin and then filled with Southern-style black beans, smoked chicken, red onion jam, and Havarti and baked until golden brown.
Mac Daddy: Manchego, Fontina, Havarti, and Brie, tossed with a roasted garlic cream sauce, white truffle oil, and crisp pancetta, baked to order with a seasoned potato bread topping. Sinful.
Pea Diddy: Green pea puree with jasmine rice, chopped peanuts, garlic aioli, and green onions, stuffed into a pressed chicken breast and oven baked. Served with a Parmesan peppercorn sauce.
Coctel de Guapo: Traditional Puerto Vallarta Coctel, a little twisted – with Imperial IPA, clarified tomato juice, whole large prawns, lemon and lime wedges, Old Bay, and avocado chunks, over ice, with pickled asparagus
Inverted Omelet: Served anytime – Duchess potato crepe, layered with smoked salmon, fresh dill, smoked sea salt tomatoes, Brie, and two cracked eggs, folded and finished in the oven. Served with Wasabi cream cheese sauce
This menu was designed to be easy to execute and quick to serve. It requires good, well-maintained equipment and a fairly high level of competence in your prep cooks. This is NOT the whole menu and is less than half of what I came up with for the two restaurants.
One of the more inspired developments of the post-2010 brewing culture in the Northwest is the boom in food trucks which come and park on brewery lots and serve patrons a FAR wider selection than any brewpub ever could manage, AND the advent of co-habitation of breweries and independent food operators. As the trucks rotate out and are replaced by others, it does two really amazing things: It gives breweries a constantly changing, flexible, adaptable “menu” that never gets old and I’ve even found brewers who schedule tap offerings to complement whatever truck is coming in next! (Kinda lends a whole new definition to the idea of “craft”, doesn’t it?) The idea of a brewery sharing space with a food booth or kiosk does much the same, as the smaller format allows for quick changes in the menu and closer coordination of beer and food specials. And, maybe best of all, it encourages and funds entrepreneurism; that small-business component of our economy which, I’m convinced, is the only real, lasting solution to recession: returning the roots of American business to old-fashioned, individual initiative.
I like beer too much and respect too much the amount of effort, creativity, and skill that goes into making American craft beers to continue to settle for the same tired old crap as an accompaniment. Today, in 2017, I have legitimate hopes that even more brewery pubs and alehouses will climb outside their own assumptions of what pub food has to be and search for Something Better. I’ll stand in line to get into places like that…but it has barely happened, as yet.