Gordon Biersch, 420 South Mill, Tempe, 736-0033. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
It's hot. It's sticky. It's August.
How do you find relief this time of year? If you've got some vacation time and disposable income, you can get a cabin in rim country or hotel reservations in San Diego. If you don't, you can jump in the pool and pretend you're visiting a thermal hot spring. Or you can do what my cat does: Curl up in front of an air-conditioning vent and lie inert until Columbus Day.
When we first moved here, my 9-year-old daughter believed she could cool off in the bath. When the water came out of the faucet at about the same temperature McDonald's brews its coffee, she got angry at me: "Hey, Dad," she demanded, with childlike logic, "turn on the cold-water heater."
Yes, endless days and nights of triple-digit temperatures can play havoc with your faculties. That's why I figure the best way to deal with summer is to wait it out in an air-conditioned brew pub over a fresh, foamy, handcrafted cold one.
It is true Hops!, Bandersnatch, Coyote Springs and other brew pubs are scattered around the Valley--but brew-pub fever hasn't caught on here yet as a focus, the way it has in other cities. Brew-pub entrepreneurs are now making up for lost time. At the rate they're building, the Chamber of Commerce might soon promote the area as the Valley of the Suds.
Two expanding brew-pub operations, Gordon Biersch (with branches in California, Nevada and Hawaii) and Alcatraz Brewing Co. (with units in Denver and Indianapolis), have recently moved to town, looking to slake local thirsts and fill local bellies.
Although it's set in the heart of Mill Avenue just a short walk from the university, Gordon Biersch is not aimed at undergraduates with fake IDs looking to get sloshed. It's a stylish, high-energy brew pub, with a big-city setting, a range of sophisticated beers crafted in-house and a menu aimed at grown-ups.
The place looks great, with big picture windows, lots of brick and burnished wood. The designers have cleverly kept the dining area completely separate from the bar area. This way, those who want to mingle, flirt, smoke and watch sports on television don't intrude on those who want to talk, eat dinner and nurse their beers in relative tranquility. The best spot for those three activities is the second-story balcony, from which you can gaze on South Mountain in the distance or take in the vibrant Tempe street scene down below.
The heart of any brew pub, naturally, is the beer. The lagers here are outstanding. And management is so confident you're going to like them, the first round is complimentary.
What a nice touch: To educate customers, servers bring out a gratis sampler of all the brewskis. They're all so compelling it's hard to choose.
That's probably because Gordon Biersch's brewmaster follows the Reinheitsgebot, a German purity law that dates back almost 500 years. It strictly forbids anything in beer except hops, malted barley, water and yeast. (You'd be surprised at what goes into some American mass-market swill.) It's the reason German beer has the reputation it does.
And it's probably the reason these beers go down so easy. There are four all-year-round brews: a brisk, hoppy pilsner; a crisp blonde bock; a rich, malty, unfiltered dunkles; and my favorite, a smooth, full-flavored marzen. Watch out for the maibock, a seasonal spring/summer brew, which packs a whopping 7 percent alcohol punch. Chug a half-liter of this, and once you step out of the air-conditioned brew pub into the furnacelike summer heat, you might get an up-close-and-personal view of the Tempe pavement.
Beer isn't the only thing Gordon Biersch does with distinction. The food is crafted with the same attention to detail.
Don't look for typical pub-grub dinner fare. There isn't a potato skin, mozzarella stick or hamburger in sight.
Instead, look for smoked salmon handrolls, gilded with radish sprouts and enoki mushroom. A skillet full of pan-roasted mussels, bathed in a garlicky broth, stands up to the beer. Pot stickers filled with shrimp and chicken make for pleasant nibbling. If you insist on a fried munchie, opt for the crisp artichoke hearts. They're a better alternative than the huge, beer-battered onion rings, which, on one visit, the kitchen neglected to cook all the way through.
The main dishes could turn Gordon Biersch into an attractive Tempe restaurant stop even if the strongest thing you drink is iced tea. Cioppino, a mix of shellfish and halibut in a summery tomato broth, offers light, hot-weather eating. The beefy, 14-ounce New York steak with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus delivers basic animal-protein pleasure. For a contemporary Pacific Rim touch, nab the thick slab of peppercorn-crusted ahi tuna, uncooked except for a quick sear and paired with cold buckwheat noodles. Also out of the ordinary is the first-rate oyster pan roast, a big bowl stocked with oysters, okra and a mound of jasmine rice, in a tomato cream sauce.
Less effective is the dry rotisserie chicken, coated with a honey balsamic glaze so weak it was undetectable. I'm also not terribly impressed by the sausage plate, three plump, oversize grilled wieners with very little Teutonic oomph, teamed with sour red cabbage and an odd, rosemary-tinged apple-onion compote.
Desserts are superb. The warm apple bread pudding in butterscotch sauce, tossed with candied pecans, is a marvel. I'm incredibly fussy about cheesecake, but I found no shortcomings in the rich, creamy model here. And the chocolate cake is moist, dense and intense.
A few words about the service--it's great, even when it stinks. How's that possible? Well, during one midweek visit, the restaurant got overwhelmed by unexpected hordes. Our harried waitress apologized for the endless delay getting our food out to us. Appetizers took 45 minutes. The entrees took an hour more. The whole experience was painful.
That is, it was painful until she uttered the three magic words: "I'm sorry it's been such a mess tonight," she apologized. To make up for it, dinner was "on the house."
My mouth dropped open--the tab for our table of four was more than a hundred bucks. I've had meals in restaurants where the chair I was sitting on has collapsed. I've had meals where the food was spoiled. I've had six-legged critters wander across my plate. I've eaten in total darkness. But never in my life have I been totally comped. Evidently, the brewmaster and chef aren't the only folks here who know their jobs. Give the manager and staff credit for turning around a potentially disastrous encounter.
Gordon Biersch's formidable beers, food and heads-up service won't make anyone cheer for August. But they sure can take the sting out of it.
Alcatraz Brewing Co., Arizona Mills mall, Tempe, 491-0000. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
I wish Alcatraz Brewing Co. had its priorities straight.
This brew pub is beautifully designed: There's a spectacular diorama of San Francisco viewed from Alcatraz; blown-up mug shots of famous inmates; pelicans suspended in flight hanging from the ceiling ("Alcatraz" means pelican in Spanish); a single, naked light bulb shining over each booth, giving the impression you're dining in a cell; and waitresses done up as "guards," with handcuffs tucked into their outfits.
The eclectic menu is just about as well-designed, and the food here is far better than you'd expect in this discount mall setting.
But the beers? They're a disappointing lot.
The only wholly satisfying brew here is the Searchlight Ale, a crisp, light beverage that can handle a summer thirst. Weiss Guy Wheat is thoroughly undistinguished, with none of the body or staying power you'd find in a German hefeweizen. The Pelican Pale Ale is one-dimensionally hoppy, with no character. The menu calls the forgettable Big House Red "robust" and "fruity," but those adjectives never came to my mind. The creamy Penitentiary Porter is long on smoothness, but short on depth.
It's too bad, really, because the kitchen here sends out some wonderful, brew-friendly fare.
Mussels steamed in ale and loaded with garlic fire on all cylinders. So does the roasted garlic, two big bulbs teamed with creamy cambozola cheese, tomato chutney and focaccialike bread to spread it all on. Skewered chicken also gets the meal off to a fast start, poultry threaded on a stick teamed with a perky peanut dipping sauce and a marvelous cucumber ginger slaw.
Most of the main dishes are just as impressive. This is about the last place I'd expect rib-house-quality ribs, but the meaty, tender bones here have no defects. Neither do the thick, sweet barbecue sauce, the crisp, seasoned French fries or the funky peanut cole slaw accompaniment.
The $17.95 filet mignon platter gives you $17.95 worth of value. The first-rate piece of meat is wrapped in highly scented applewood-smoked bacon, and paired with garlic mashed potatoes and an enormous stalk of perfectly steamed broccoli. I also admire the seafood brochette, which sports shrimp, scallops and swordfish.
The kitchen gets a little too ambitious with the four-cheese ravioli. It's heavy enough to sink a rowboat: heavy pasta, heavy sauce and heavy on the sun-dried tomatoes.
The crab melt sandwich makes for lighter eating, and the lovely mixed greens tossed with a zippy lemon-pepper vinaigrette that come with it are an unexpected bonus. In contrast, the burger needs work. The menu calls it "thick," "juicy" and a "half pound." But none of those words described the burger I got.
Desserts provide the high the beer doesn't. The Total Blackout is a knockout, an unholy combination of rich chocolate cake, chocolate sauce and a chocolate slab. The Rock, meanwhile, is mocha and vanilla ice cream in a cookie crust, heaped with toasted pecans, frozen whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It's not exactly a culinary-school creation, but it's just right on a warm summer's night.
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Alcatraz Brewing Co. seems to have gotten everything right except the beer necessities. I sentence the brewery part of this operation to hard labor.
Smoked salmon handrolls
Oyster pan roast
Peppered ahi tuna
Apple bread pudding
Alcatraz Brewing Co.:
Crab melt sandwich