Brewski & Such

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Copper Canyon Brewing & Alehouse, 5945 West Ray, Chandler, 705-9700. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Ireland's patron saint had quite a life. Born in Britain, the boy was captured by pirates at age 16 and brought to the Emerald Isle as a slave.

Six years later he escaped, vowing to one day return and convert the heathen Irish to Christianity.

He spent the next 20 years in France, studying with the Church's learned men. Then, with the pope's blessing, he returned to Ireland in A.D. 431 to begin his historic task. Through the years, he baptized more than 100,000 souls and built 300 churches. According to legend, he charmed the snakes out of the country. And by using the three-leaf shamrock to illustrate the mystery of the Trinity, he turned it into the national symbol.

Next Monday we celebrate the birthday of this holy man, Saint Patrick. How? By wearing green underwear, pinning on "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons and consuming huge quantities of beer.

Oh, well. In these decadent, fin de siecle years, the prospect of an all-day brew fest is much more likely to galvanize the population than, say, a reading of Saint Patrick's Letter to Coroticus. Happily, our town boasts two new brew pubs where you can confidently raise your glass and honor his sainted memory.

Copper Canyon and Tombstone Brewing Company are riding the front edge of a brew-pub wave that's about to wash over the Valley. Five years ago, you could have counted the number of local places that manufactured their own brewskis on the fingers of one hand, and still have had enough digits left over to flash a peace sign. From what I hear, however, by the end of 1997 you'll be needing all your fingers and toes to total them up.

No doubt beer is the soul of any brew-pub operation. But to me, food is the heart. And when heart and soul are working harmoniously, as they are at Copper Canyon, you can be sure the body's going to have a pretty good time.

Copper Canyon is set in one of the thriving East Valley's cookie-cutter shopping centers, and its interior isn't much more distinctive. The gleaming brewery equipment is on view in a glass-enclosed room behind the bar. The airy dining room features undistinguished abstract art hung on the walls. The Doors, Bob Seger and the Eagles spill out over the music system. A vase on the table with a sprig of barley is a nice touch.

But, frankly, folks aren't going to be paying much attention to the decor once they start on the beer. Copper Canyon brews some seriously excellent suds.

I went through all the beers, via the $5.95, seven-beer, three-ounce sampler. They're crafted to appeal to just about every taste. I feared the cinnamon-maple winter ale might be cloyingly sweet and overpowering, but the brewmaster kept it in line. The "razzbeery" ale has a cutesy name, but this fruity beverage makes a good "one for the road" quaff. However, these two beers don't pair particularly well with food.

If you're eating and drinking, I'd suggest the Gila Gold Pale Ale, my favorite beer here. It's powerful and flavorful, with a taste that doesn't quit. If you prefer your brews a bit heavier, choose the toasty brown ale or the full-bodied stout. If you're looking for something less intense, the Knotty Amber is marvelous, in the same class as the Gila Gold. The honey-blond brew, the lightest offering, doesn't have quite the pizzazz of its mates.

But along with the beer, the fare also helps set Copper Canyon apart. Imagine, a tavern that doesn't have onion rings, potato skins or chicken wings on its appetizer list. Instead, there are off-the-beaten-track nibbles like the lovely bowl of green chile, livened up with shredded pork, beans, onions and cilantro, served with tortillas. The warm artichoke dip is also first-rate, thickly swirled with cheese and accompanied by chips and French bread for dunking. A smoked chicken quesadilla and spicy grilled shrimp are the other two starter options.

Most of the main-dish fare would work even if you were a teetotaler. At $14.95, one evening's salmon special topped the price list, but no one will complain about a lack of value. A large fillet, cooked to moist, flaky specifications in a bit of ale, comes with mushrooms, rice and squash. It's a very tasty platter.

Veal marsala is not an entree that comes to mind when you're knocking back pints of microbrews. Nevertheless, Copper Canyon's version may work its way into your consciousness. It's competently done, thin-sliced veal sauteed with mushrooms and onions in a winy sauce.

Fettuccine with chicken and shrimp doesn't quite live up to its billing. The menu promises "large Gulf shrimp." What we got, however, were four puny critters that would have required considerable bulking up just to reach median height and weight. The kitchen was somewhat miserly dishing out the grilled chicken breast, too. But the flavorful three-cheese cream sauce coating the pasta helped assuage my disappointment.

Consider teaming pizza with your beer. The model here is surprisingly good, aided by a light, chewy crust and commendable toppings. My pizza, heaped with broccoli, chicken and cheese, sported a welcome garlic-and-olive-oil kick, as well.

The kitchen doesn't take dessert nearly as seriously as it does the beer or other food. The sweets are supplier-provided, and the serviceable chocolate mousse and lemon-raspberry cakes won't linger in your memory.

But just about everything else will. And that's no blarney.

Tombstone Brewing Company & the 202 Grill, northwest corner of Scottsdale Road and the 202 freeway, 710 East Gilbert Drive, Tempe, 967-2337. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Tombstone Brewing Company takes the microbrew craze one step further than most brew pubs. Sure, the place brews nine varieties of its own suds. But if they wish, amateurs have the opportunity to hone their own brewmastering skills. For $150 (plus tax), Tombstone will furnish advice, ingredients, facilities and bottles, and help you brew your own batch. In two weeks, you can be the proud author of 13 gallons of beer.

Frankly, I have about as much interest making my own beer as I do cobbling my own shoes or removing my own appendix. After all, that's why there are shoemakers and surgeons. I figure I'm better off leaving certain tasks to the experts--especially tasks of supreme importance, like brewing beer.

If the six varieties of Tombstone's home-brews I sampled are any indication, the brewmasters here are no amateurs. The Prickly Pear Porter will certainly get any Saint Patrick's Day celebration off to a rousing start. Powerfully robust, it's not designed for novices. Neither is the stout. The pale ale is particularly outstanding, rich but not too heavy. The hefeweizen and dunkelweizen have a quirky appeal, while the full-bodied blond seems directed at more mainstream tastes. At $3.25 a pint, the price is right, too.

The place looks smart, with blond-wood tables, walls painted in black and white and live, late-evening music. If you wish, you can sit on the patio, which overlooks a sand volleyball court. You can also be soothed by the sound of freeway traffic rushing overhead on the nearby 202.

The food indicates that management keeps as close a watch on the kitchen as it does on the brewery. In the old days, at your neighborhood tavern, beer came with pretzels and peanuts. But this is the brew-pub '90s. So when we ordered a round of beers as a prelude to dinner, it came with focaccia and olive oil for dipping.

Tombstone's appetizers make the take-a-bite, wash-it-down cycle a real delight. Tempura-fried vegetables is an upscale name for oil-rich battered veggies--onions, broccoli, squash and red peppers, served with a spicy garlic dip. The crab cakes are formidable: four crisp, crabby disks teamed with a pungent mustard sauce. And the hot, cheesy, ale-marinated artichoke dip is as tasty as it is filling.

The evening menu is ambitious. Of course, you can find the usual burgers, sandwiches and pizza. But you can also find Southwest Shrimp, six meaty crustaceans first marinated in honey-lemon ale, then grilled, served with peppers and onions over rice.

Chicken Florentine is another good option. It's a boneless breast topped with spinach and pine nuts, moistened by a mushroom wine sauce. Like the shrimp, it's good enough to make you occasionally put down your beer glass.

As far as I know, beer-swilling vegetarians aren't a demographically significant group. Nevertheless, if there is a member of this cohort in your party, you can confidently bring him (or her) to Tombstone. That's because the menu offers vegetarian lasagna, layers of thick noodles adorned with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, coated with a vegetable marinara.

However, your vegetarian pals won't be able to enjoy the best dish here, the New York steak. It's wonderful: a beautifully juicy strip, beefy and deeply flavorful, gilded with portabella mushrooms and roasted garlic. If the accompanying fries had been fresh-cut spuds, instead of freezer-bag potatoes, this platter might have soared right out of sight.

If you're looking for something a bit lighter, consider the Italian sausage hero. The mild sausage is boiled in ale, and embellished with peppers, onions and cheese. My only complaint: mushy, past-its-prime bread. A sandwich like this deserves a crusty loaf to do it full justice.

No one is ever going to mistake Maricopa County for County Cork. And Tombstone Brewery is nobody's idea of a wee bit o' Ireland. But who cares when the suds and grub are this good? Kiss me, I'm Arizonan.

Copper Canyon Brewing & Alehouse:
Artichoke dip
Chicken/shrimp fettuccine

Tombstone Brewing Company & the 202 Grill:
Crab cakes
Vegetable lasagna
Southwest Shrimp
New York steak

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