Cafe Reviews

Foam Booths

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.

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Howard Seftel