You have to wonder about the state of American education.
My kids may not be too familiar with the New Deal, electrons, quadratic equations or irregular French verbs.
But our school district has thoroughly educated them about the evils of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.
Perhaps too thoroughly. My kids have taken the message so much to heart that they threw a fit when I got some catnip to rouse our dormant feline.
And if I dare sneak an occasional beer out of the refrigerator, the pintsize prohibitionists fix me with the same kind of disapproving stares Mama Capone must have laid on Big Al.
Driven from my puritan home, I headed off with a couple of vice-ridden pals to Hops!, looking for a pub with some grub.
Hops! is no blue-collar neighborhood tavern. Don't ask for Coors, Miller or Bud here. The place serves its own brews, made on the premises. And don't look for potato skins or burgers on the menu, either. From the wood-fired pizzas to the grilled veal chops, this is upscale American bistro fare.
It's a smart-looking place, except for the tacky display case pushing Hops!-emblazoned paraphernalia. The tiered dining areas have a sophisticated, retro look, while the prominent pizza oven hits the right casual note. Jazz music is piped in so low it's practically subliminal. There's an energetic clatter of people eating, talking and having a good time.
The beer sampler will certainly put your table in a good-time mood. For five bucks, you get five-ounce glasses of the four homemade brews. The hefe-weizen, styled after German wheat beers, is particularly wonderful, fragrant with the aroma of cloves and fruit.
The appetizer prices, though, will sober you up fast. Crab cakes are scrumptious, made with real crab (I got some shell as a souvenir), accompanied by garlic mayo, tartar sauce and a spoonful of corn relish. But they come two small cakes at $7.95 per order.
Pizza is also a first-rate starter. The spicy chicken version has a real mouth-tingling punch, and it sports a terrific, crisp crust along with the intense flavors of fresh herbs and sun-dried tomatoes. But it's about the same size as Pizza Hut's $1.99 personal-pan pizza. Is this gourmet model worth $8.75? It depends on whether you consult your stomach or your accountant.
You won't need a financial adviser, though, to figure out the caesar salad's debits. The menu boasts that it's "traditional." If it is, it ought to go the way of such traditions as burning witches. The lettuce came buried under an avalanche of cheese. The taste of anchovies, lemon juice, mustard and olive oil may have been lurking about somewhere, but I doubt that even Indiana Jones could have located it.
Hops! changes its menu with the seasons, a nice touch that puts a lot of pressure on the chef. The winter dinner menu offers reasonably priced main dishes--most around $15--that have an appealing flair.
Grilled veal chop was outstanding, a good-sized slab, extremely tender and juicy, expertly cooked. It came with fettuccine, sprinkled with some peas and carrots. Bucketfuls of strong, brown gravy didn't do any significant damage. It's a hearty, satisfying platter, just right to ward off the Valley's winter chill.
The shrimp dish showed the generous side of Hops!. A half-dozen large, beer-soaked critters rested on crouton bits, garnished with artichoke slivers and some unadvertised spinach. The shrimp were so tasty we forgave the promised expensive wild mushrooms for standing us up and sending the spinach unannounced in their place.
The Americanized paella didn't quite make it, even though it tried awfully hard. I appreciated the well-intentioned meat, fish and poultry mix: a chicken thigh, a hunk of sausage, a couple of scallops, two shrimp, a few mussels and cockles, all resting in a bowlful of long-grain rice. But the ingredients were dreadfully overcooked, every last droplet of moisturizing liquid turned to vapor. The shrimp and scallops had the texture of a hockey puck. The accompanying dollop of yogurt added only a touch of weirdness.
Those with man-size appetites can choose from six la carte side dishes. It's hard to believe the two we tried came out of the same kitchen.
Wild-rice risotto was no more than 10 percent wild rice. It must have been handled by the same line cook who did the paella--it was dry enough to plug up a hole in a leaky rowboat. And from the taste of it, I'd say it had been simmered in nothing more aromatic than tap water.
On the other hand, wild-mushroom orzo was fabulous, flecked with lots of fungus and bursting with flavor. I could have made a main course out of it.
The homemade desserts have enough variety to please most everyone. The sweet-toothed will go for the double-chocolate-chip pie, a big wedge of chewy, chocolaty calories thoughtfully embellished with several scoops of ice cream drenched with hot fudge. I preferred the cräme brle tart, a pastry shell filled with cream and berries, topped with a caramelized glaze, all floating in a tart berry sauce.
One of my Los Angeles-bred buddies had Hops! sized up just right. With perfect confidence, he ordered decaf cappuccino, certain they'd have it. They did. The kids would have approved. Coyote Springs Brewing Co. & Cafe, 4883 North 20th Street (Town & Country Shopping Center), 468-0403. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Coyote Springs, another joint that brews its own suds, has an altogether different feel. Occupying the site that used to house Barleys Brew Pub, it's got the air of a tavern. Food accompanies drink, not the other way around, as at Hops!. There, the server asked us only once if we wanted more beer. At Coyote Springs, though, the server posed that question every time she passed the table.
The place isn't long on atmosphere. A big-screen television dominates the dining area, a clear indication that food isn't going to be the focus of the evening. A couple of old-fashioned pub signs and a painting of a guy with a beer bottle vied with the college basketball game for our attention. We tried to ignore the condition of the table, sticky from an earlier repast, and the banquette strewn with crumbs.
For the indecisive, Coyote Springs also has a beer sampler: four glasses for $4. The night we were there, the choices were all superb. The stout packed a full-flavored wallop; the creamy amber had a sweet, malty taste; and the Christmas beer was redolent of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I'd come and drink these anytime.
No overpriced crab cakes here, just the usual beer-hall appetizers. Chicken wings didn't get us crowing, but the beer-batter-fried zucchini was surprisingly irresistible. Coyote Springs encases long hunks of fresh zucchini in a thick, doughy batter. It's miles better than the greasy version you usually encounter, and it's a substantial portion to boot. On a chilly winter night, the Sonoran soup sounded great. But the description didn't match the execution. A "comforting mixture of tortillas, cheese, chiles and fresh tomatoes bound with a garlic-and-beer-spiked broth" turned up as a tepid, salty, oniony broth with flaccid chips and characterless cheese.
Our waitress came out lugging the main dishes while we were still nibbling on the starters. Undaunted, she rearranged the plates, combined a couple of platters and asked how we were doing on the beers.
Along with salads and burgers, Coyote Springs offers three dinner entrees. The medium-rare steak, about a half-pound's worth rubbed with spices and ale, had a real beefy kick. Only $7.95, it's good tavern fare.
The mahimahi and grilled chicken breast are alternatives for those who've banished red meat from their diets. Your heart will be more grateful than your taste buds--both dishes are pretty dry. A Southwest-style cold-corn relish came with all these dishes.
Actually, I enjoyed the bratwurst sandwich best of all. So what if it's probably as bad for me as all the other evils the kids learn about in school? The juicy sausage came on a fresh roll, heaped with fried onions. It was accompanied by two side dishes: a potato salad soaked with so much mayo it could raise the cholesterol level of your fork, and a great sauerkraut, studded with sausage and caraway seeds.
The winning dessert here is called Black Irish pie. It's an intense, moist chocolate cake, doused with enough stout and whiskey to require management to check the diner's ID. Those who can't handle such a sugar-liquor punch might try the "lighter" alternative, vanilla ice cream topped with a sweet, ale-tinged caramel sauce.
Don't bother asking for a decaf cappuccino at Coyote Springs. You won't get anywhere, either, trying to convince anyone that a journey here presages an evening of inventive fare or romance. But if you have a regular brew crew, Coyote Springs isn't a bad place to howl.