Beer Bust

No vats, no tanks, but the beer at BJ's is microbrewed.
Kristen Karlisch

Brewpubs have had a hard row in Dallas. When a measure passed the Texas Legislature in 1993 permitting the brewing and sale of beer at the same site, some 40 brewpubs popped up in Texas within just a few years, eight in Dallas alone.

The corpses--Coppertank Brewing Co., Moon Under Water, Routh Street Brewery, Breckenridge Brewery, Hubcap Brewery & Kitchen, Yegua Creek Brewing Co., the Hoffbrau brewery on Knox--roll off the tongue like head foam.

Yet BJ's, a California import, has opened a microbrew pub in Lewisville with plans to open a second on Belt Line Road in Addison sometime this year. OK, technically this isn't a traditional brewpub as laws in Lewisville prevent the sale of beer brewed on premise. But the place is selling its own brand of suds, brewing the stuff under contract at Saint Arnold Brewing Co. in Houston from where it is shipped to Lewisville.

And the results are fine, though not stellar. Yet BJ's, which bills itself as a kind of NFL temple when steroids are in season, perhaps has some training to do with the service staff on this count. Our server, eager and polite though she was, planted herself and the beer sampler between my face and the glorious picture tube relaying the final critical seconds of the dumbfounding 49er-Giant playoff game whose final six seconds included a muffed snap and a penalty, ending the sweaty-palmed match in a one-point squeaker. Her staccato tasting descriptions were still going after the clock ran out. Sacrilege.

This might be forgivable if the beer were extraordinary, but it wasn't. It featured seven brews, ranging from good to awful, the latter being a cider species called berry burst, a name that sounds a little like an air freshener. But it tastes like white zinfandel spun with Kool-Aid fruit twist, only without the finesse.

Most of the rest are simply sleepy, with the exceptions of the refreshing hefeweizen with an alluring clover bouquet, the zesty and full-flavored pale ale and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Jeremiah Red with a satisfying fullness and a fruity bouquet that kind of collapses on the finish. The blonde was insipid. Porter promises full flavor with hints of chocolate and perhaps coffee, but doesn't come through. Ditto the stout, reputed to be an aid to regularity and sexual potency (which can make for some strange evenings if true). BJ's stout allegedly trumps Guinness in the alcohol punch, ringing up 8 percent to Guinness' 4.1 to 5.5 percent. Plus, it pours like motor oil, at least according to our server. (She didn't indicate if this was an asset.) Still, it's a little shy on the fullness, complexity and heft you'd expect from a stout.

What you might expect from a brewpub, though, is solid, beer-slosh-friendly cuisine, maybe even grub as creative as the brew recipes (though berry burst is about as creative to beverage as "Piss Christ" is to art). And there is an Asian-Mexican taste bend. Now, Chili's perhaps charted new ground in this area with its Southwestern egg rolls--crispy flour tortillas wrapped around smoked chicken, black beans, corn and jalapeño jack cheese with red peppers and spinach--and grilled Asian-spiced chicken lettuce wraps. But what happens when the mesh plays out in a backdrop of micro suds with names like Piranha Pale Ale ("For hopheads only!")? It comes out as avocado egg rolls, gutsy wedge-cut cylinders swaddling a mudpack of avocado and cream cheese studded and flecked with dried tomatoes, onions, cilantro, pine nuts and chipotle. This is a surprisingly successful kitchen mongrel stunt--a merging that actually works. It dodges the avocado/cream cheese mush hazards and comes forward with distinct flavors.

Ribs are not only good to raft down on a flood of brew; BJ's has found they're good to assault with brew flavor treatments, too. The half-rack has moist chewy meat that slipped off the bones like stretched-out stockings. They were rich with a discernible smoke layer and a sweet but deft sauce (blended with BJ's Jeremiah Red Ale) that didn't gag or get under your fingernails. Plus the meat lacked the prodigious fat pockets that can sometimes make it seem like you're eating a tragic all-expense-paid trip to Paris on the Concord for your cardiologist.

Which is what the flame-broiled porterhouse steak is--a bone-in tragedy with a gooey composure and lots of fat sacs and gristle knots. The side of garlic mashed potatoes had no detectable garlic bite, but they did stick to mouth parts like Spackle, distinguished from the construction material only by the lumpy mushroom gravy.

The Italian chop salad was a utilitarian blend of iceberg lettuce scraps without browning edges or withering and limp flaps. It was a good mix of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, tomato, artichoke, olives, garbanzos, onions and salami in a tame but comestible dressing--a good antidote to the steak shakes.

Like the garlic mashed potatoes, the grilled chicken pasta was more construction adhesive than culinary enticement. Scorched and parched grilled chicken strips tangled with rotelle pasta strands and broccoli in a pasty cream sauce that left behind a film on the mouth.

We sought refuge in the Southern-fried chicken, but were again sent scurrying with wigged-out mouth sensors. The limbs had a modest breadcrumb coating that was greasy and bland, yet moist--the menu's big fried chicken boast. Those garlic mashed potatoes made another appearance, except this time they were saddled with a mushy, flaccid corn on the cob, a thing that would spring back to its original vertical stance after being bent 30 degrees. Maybe they should make road pylons out of this stuff.

You'd expect a place that serves as a beer floodgate to draft a hamburger that would drop jaws, or at least produce drool. But you'd be wrong (pass the hefeweizen). BJ's burger wasn't bad, just middling. Delivered well instead of the requested medium on a toasted garlic roll, the burger was dry and without richness. Pizzas were no better: flaccid, doughy and bland.

What does BJ's do well? Damn if it isn't New England clam chowder. This soup was satisfyingly rich, smooth and jammed with large scraps of clam that were busting with sea-washed robustness. (There's also "clam chowder in a loaf," the same pottage in a sourdough loaf.) Apple crisp also brought on stutters of disbelief. Baked in a pizza pan (maybe they should make their pizza in a Bundt cake mold), this crisp was resoundingly luscious, with tangy apple slices and a muscular crunchy topping composed of oats, brown sugar and cinnamon. I wonder how it would taste if they marinated that topping in porter?

The dining room is muscular, too, with hardwood floors, exposed ducts and conduit stapled to high ceilings and TV flicker everywhere, including a big screen split into four quadrants in the center of the back bar. The centerpiece on the tables is a large jar filled with different malts and other brewing grains that doubles as a pizza service platform. Cute.

Architecture is a peculiar mix of modern metal and glass touches (one banquette is made out of a corrugated section of a holding tank) with a used brick portal capped with Romanesque crown molding. Next to an enclosed patio furnished with brushed metal tables and plastic chairs sits a large tank.

BJ's is a modest chain of 28 brew and pizza installations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Texas (the company licenses one location in Hawaii) operated by Huntington Beach, California-based Chicago Pizza & Brewery Inc. In addition to Addison, a new BJ's is set to open in Houston.

But it's better to come here with a thirst than an appetite. And don't forget your chop block skills. There are still a few more NFL playoff games to go.

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