Scottsdale can't have all the fun.
Sometimes it feels as though that city has a monopoly on dining hotspots, from the action around the canal, to the stuff around Shea, to the northern outposts at DC Ranch. But while Scottsdale Road might be a main artery for the metro Phoenix restaurant scene, that doesn't mean you won't find a pulse anywhere else in the East Valley. Thanks to the opening of SanTan Brewing Company, which joins a handful of other independent eateries at Chandler's San Marcos Plaza, you can eat to a different beat.
Yes, the vibe over here is distinctive — its Gen X and Y mix is more grown up than Tempe's college-centric, budget-minded crowd, and much more down to earth than Scottsdale's see-and-be-scenesters. Sure, SanTan Brewing Company still has its own surgically enhanced female contingent (albeit clad in Gap instead of Dolce & Gabbana), but at least I didn't spot any shiny shirts among the sea of dudes in polos and jeans. On Saturday nights, the cavernous room swarms; you can hardly make out the strains of Top 40 and disco music above the conversation and clatter. But weekday lunches are laid-back.
Copper-colored metal beams criss-cross the high wooden ceilings, and there are two huge retracting garage doors behind the bar, opening the warehouse-like space to the outside, à la Postino. Along the inner wall, there's a row of brewing vats behind glass, and an open kitchen window toward the back. What led me to the place wasn't the atmosphere, though. I was just hoping to try a few microbrews and find a good burger.
Actually, I snagged a couple of good burgers (more about those in a minute), and the beer was pretty tasty, too.
For your first visit, at least, the beer sampler is the way to go. Among half a dozen house brews, it includes a mini-glass of each except the Sunspot Gold, a light-bodied ale described on the menu as "infinitely approachable." (As it turns out, I prefer beers that are "slightly antisocial," so I didn't try that one.) Oscuro, which means "dark" in Latin, was actually a nutty amber lager, SanTan Pale was a crisp, citrus-y ale, and HopShock I.P.A. was bitter and hoppy, although not nearly as jolting as the name would lead you to believe. HefeWeizen was my hands-down favorite, with its vaguely spicy aroma and rich banana flavor. I also enjoyed the smooth, super-dark Gordo Stout, which tasted distinctly of coffee.
Later, when I was ordering pints, I noticed the unique hand-blown glasses for each beer. Turns out, head brewer Anthony Canecchia (formerly of Four Peaks), designed them in collaboration with glass artist Peter Sciacca — definitely a nice touch.
Back to the burgers. I tried two different ones — the stuffed mushroom burger, and the stuffed Kasbah burger — and both were nicely presented, on fresh, floury buns with a frilly leaf of lettuce. According to our waitress, they didn't make them stuffed anymore, but instead mixed in the ingredients for more even cooking. That was fine by me, because my stuffed mushroom burger, topped with melted mozzarella, was juicy and perfectly done. The fresh ground beef patty was just lightly pressed together, and since bits of marinated mushroom and beer-braised onion were mixed in, all the flavors just melded with meat. I can hardly ever finish a big burger, but I quickly devoured that one. The Kasbah, topped with cilantro aioli, was an exotic variation made with lamb, chopped dates, pistachios, and smoked gouda. Quirky, but quite delicious.
Another standout was a doughy, golden-baked calzone filled with marinated portobello mushroom strips, roasted red peppers, zucchini, and more of that creamy gouda. It came with a side of flat-cut fries that had a bit of crunch but were thick enough to stay fluffy inside.
From there, the rest of the menu was traditional, from a Reuben sandwich to rib eye steak. That said, there were plenty of solid renditions, including a mountain of nachos heaped with black beans, tomatoes, jalapeños, pico de gallo, cheese and sour cream (the $2 side of guac was skimpy, though), light, crisp onion rings coated in ale batter, thick pizzas with puffy, chewy crusts, and shrimp scampi with garlic baguette toasts. That dish had five juicy prawns in garlicky white wine sauce, and with a side salad, could easily pass as dinner.
I wasn't as pleased with the entree salads. On my first visit, I ordered the Off Boston Salad, which was certainly big enough to make into a meal, with grilled chicken, tomatoes, pistachios, banana peppers, feta, raspberries, and mandarin oranges. But the menu said it had mixed greens, and what I got was about 99 percent iceberg, with a few shreds of something greener thrown in. I wouldn't have bothered to order it if I'd known that was in store. The raspberry vinaigrette that accompanied it was also too bland to jazz it up. However, a few weeks later, I took a chance on a Pub Salad, and it was full of fresh mixed greens (no iceberg in sight), with a side of tangy balsamic dressing.
Roasted red pepper hummus, which was creamy and admittedly good, still lacked the hoped-for zing of peppers, and a customized quesadilla was disappointingly light on filling. I also wondered why beer menus were so hard to come by on my first couple of outings, although that appeared to be rectified in recent weeks.
In general, SanTan does a much better job with stick-to-your-ribs fare that complements the brews. Among the dinner platters, I was particularly impressed with the fish and chips — moist, beer-battered cod with homemade tartar sauce, coleslaw, and, of course, fries. The crab cakes were mouthwatering, too, and the portion was so big I took home leftovers: two meaty rounds dotted with diced peppers and bacon, slathered in remoulade, and partnered with chunky garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. Options like that should help you drink all night long.
You'll have plenty of company.
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