I've always been keen on word of mouth when it comes to places I haven't tried yet, and ever since I started writing about restaurants, more people have been recommending their favorites. If it's just one friend raving over and over about a place, I file it away on my to-do list. But if it becomes a chorus of friends telling me to go somewhere, then I have to go as soon as possible, just to shut them up. (I'm kidding well, sort of.) This happened recently with Sonora Brewhouse, an unassuming spot on Camelback Road that I passed countless times before finally stopping by. I've heard more about it in the five months I've been a food critic than in the five and a half years since it opened.
One friend, a regular there, told me, "Oh, it's kind of like a townie bar, only nicer." Maybe it's the ashtray smell, or the neon beer signs, or tables full of leering dudes, but you know, I'm just not into townie bars. They conjure up memories of hot dogs and Michelob at the American Legion bar my grandfather frequents.
But this is a brew pub, so I figured the beer wouldn't taste like water. The thing that actually got me through the door was friends talking about the food. As it turns out, Sonora Brewhouse serves some decent grub that isn't just for soaking up another pint.
And really, it's no townie bar. A neighborhood hangout, yes. But it's smoke- and neon-free, with exposed brick walls, wooden furniture, and a cozy vibe. Outside, visitors are greeted with a "warning" sign that reads, "The consumption of good beer and good food can cause happiness and laughter, which can lead to feelings of great contentment." There are several booths, tables, and a small bar inside the main building, which connects to an outdoor dining area. Just beyond that is a recently added second dining room called the Brewer's Den, where shiny, high-tech brewing equipment is visible behind a glass wall.
The sampler set is the best way to try what's on tap, and at five bucks for six tastes, it's a good amount of beer. The samples are served from lightest to darkest on numbered placemats, with descriptions of each. The Hefeweizen was clean-tasting and lighter than most, so the American ESB that came next was a bitter wake-up. (I adjusted to it, though. Usually the place serves a cream ale, but that night I got the ESB instead.) Desert Amber, as red as the rocks in Sedona, was smooth and a bit malty. Burning Bird Pale Ale had a fresh citrus flavor, and the outstanding India Pale Ale was crisp and fragrant, bursting with hops. Midnight Porter had a rich chocolate taste.
Little things impressed me about the rest of the menu things the proprietors could've skimped on but chose to make from scratch. The soup of the day (chicken rice), the salsa, and even the root beer were all homemade. Fresh, warm tortilla chips were delicious with a sprinkle of salt. And thick kettle chips came straight from the cooker.
Among the starters, the Hefeweizen-battered onion rings were the standout. Usually, onion rings are so heavily breaded that I can only eat a few, but these were addictive. Outside, they were crisp and golden, and inside, the batter was puffy and light. I could actually taste the onion in there, too. Spicy green chile and artichoke cheese dip had a nice peppery kick, balanced out by lots of melted Cheddar. The battered calamari, though, seemed overcooked, with too much crunchy coating for the meager slices of squid. As a result, the side of red pepper aioli was pretty useless.
Sonora Brewhouse serves a dozen different sandwiches for lunch and dinner, and again, the ones I tried were better than average bar food. The Santa Fe chicken breast sandwich was decent, served on a big bun and slathered with guacamole, green chiles, and melted jack cheese. The bratwurst, soaked in Desert Amber, came on a soft roll with tangy sauerkraut, sweet sautéed onions, and homemade beer mustard. And the Kobe burger something Sonora's really proud of, from the looks of the big sign out front was quite tasty, a thick half-pounder with nice-looking char marks from the grill. I tried it with sautéed mushrooms, but it was plenty juicy on its own.
Roasted pepper pasta didn't sound very exciting. (Fettuccine with grilled chicken? Big whoop.) It was pretty good, though, with a creamy, surprisingly spicy sauce (the better to stand up to a strong ale), and a pile of grilled red pepper and chicken slices to give it heft. Side dishes like coleslaw and horseradish mashed potatoes (with little evidence of horseradish) were nothing to write home about, but one entree truly was: the chipotle barbecued baby back ribs. Have you ever sniffed out the one outstanding dish at a restaurant and stuck to it forevermore? These ribs were so delicious that I'll be hard-pressed to ever order anything else at Sonora Brewhouse. It's a total cliché to say that the meat was falling off the bones, but there's no other way to explain how tender it was. The ribs are slow-cooked in beer before being grilled and covered in a sweet, slightly spicy glaze. For a whole rack, it's a sweet price, too.
That tidbit's definitely worth passing along.