The Sacramento region is home to a number of brewery restaurants that serve excellent beer. But it’s far more difficult to find an alehouse that also offers an interesting menu of solid, well-made food to accompany those handcrafted beers.
Auburn Alehouse, housed in a beautifully renovated historic building in Auburn’s Old Town, is a vigorous newcomer to the scene. The interior is a captivating mix of old and new, with gorgeous brick walls and coldly shiny brewing equipment. Huge picture windows invite diners to enjoy the pretty flowers tumbling out of pots in front of the brewery and watch the sometimes-colorful goings-on in this quaint section of Auburn.
But a real problem with the design became apparent during our first visit: There is absolutely nowhere for people to stand or sit while waiting for a table. When the bar area is full, which it often is, diners stand uncertainly in the tiny lobby. In the warmer months, it might be OK to wander the streets while waiting for a table, but I wonder what management will do once it’s cold and rainy outside.
Design issues aside, this is a great place to bring the family or a business associate for a good, honest meal&emdash;with or without the housemade beer. The menu manages to be readable and compact while offering a fine array of selections, some traditional to an alehouse restaurant (hamburger, fish and chips), others refreshingly untraditional (jambalaya, avocado spring rolls, hot crab and cheddar sandwich). There also is a list of beer-friendly appetizers, such as fried pickle chips and jalapeÃ±o poppers, guaranteed to keep you glued to your bar seat while you guzzle your Fool’s Gold Ale. The two salads (often the most beleaguered, mishandled items on an alehouse menu) I tried were both excellent, especially the delicate walnut Gorgonzola salad: chilled butter lettuce leaves, arranged in a flowerlike pattern and drizzled with sweet-tangy cherry vinaigrette. The enormous Cobb salad arrived with an intriguing, well-balanced lemon tarragon dressing that complemented the salad’s fresh, hearty ingredients.
One of the best things on the menu is the onion strings, a yawningly ubiquitous brewery-restaurant standard that is so lovingly handled here, you’ll wonder how you ever enjoyed them anywhere else. Sweet, crusty and virtually greaseless, these babies arrive hot, hot, hot. If you feel you need more, order the saucy barbecue pork sandwich, which harbors a secret handful of the strings inside its cushiony french roll. In fact, even if you don’t have a hankering for onion strings, order the pork sandwich anyway&emdash;it comes with a fabulous, crunchy cabbage slaw that is the perfect partner to the sandwich’s rich, meaty filling.
The kitchen staff also knows its way around pizza production. Don’t miss the scrumptious Italian Job, boasting a crackly thin crust smeared with garlicky pesto sauce and piled with grilled chicken, prosciutto, feta cheese and fresh tomatoes. The menu also offers a barbecued chicken quesadilla, loaded with Jack and cheddar cheeses. The only component of the dish that I disliked was its accompanying mango salsa, prepared from fruit so unripe that it tasted chalky and bland.
One of the more interesting dishes is a pair of roasted Anaheim peppers, stuffed with sweet crabmeat and swathed in a thinly pounded chicken breast. Served on a bed of fragrant risotto, the dish is hearty and colorful, just begging for a frosty glass of the brewery’s Gold Country pilsner. The jambalaya also was a hit: thrillingly spicy and chock-full of chewy andouille sausage, prawns, enormous mussels and tender hunks of salmon. The kitchen also offers up a Kobe beef chili burger, a New York steak sandwich and a healthy heart sandwich with grilled vegetables, avocado and feta cheese.
Auburn Alehouse’s lineup of craft beers is impressive, from the bright, crisp Auburn Export Lager to the Shanghai Stout, thick and creamy with heady, coffee-toffee flavors. I particularly liked the American River Pale Ale, whose complex bitterness and smooth drinkability made it a superb accompaniment to my pork sandwich. The caramelly, toasty-flavored Old Town Brown is another brew that would complement much of the food.
If you’ve got dessert on your mind, try the bread pudding, redolent of coconut, dotted with raisins and resting in a warm pool of bourbon-spiked butter sauce. I didn’t care much for the chocolate turtle tart, however, with its dry, dense and crumbly chocolate filling. Other desserts include banana crÃ¨me brÃ»le and Key lime tart, and beer lovers will be happy to discover that the Shanghai Stout is featured in an ice cream float, made with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
I’m sure brewmaster Brian Ford would prefer it if you enjoyed a glass or two of his carefully crafted beers with your food, but it’s certainly not a requirement for a first-rate meal at this attractive and bustling new alehouse.
Not your corner alehouse: Tuck into excellent prawns linguine, sweet-potato fries and grilled salmon with garlic mashed potatoes
Get there early: Street parking is sparse; when the restaurant’s full, there’s nowhere to sit (or stand) while waiting for a table
Try it: The beer sampler flight, a tasty array of the brewmaster’s best
Auburn Alehouse: 289 Washington St., Old Town Auburn; (530) 885-2537; auburnalehouse.com
Hours: Daily 11 a.m.â€“11 p.m.