We're here for the beer

The general trend in imbibing these days may be summed up as less, but better. According to the people who tally such things, we're not drinking as much as we used to, but we're drinking higher quality stuff; sales of single-malt scotch are up; jug-wine sales are down; high-end bourbon is in such demand that the Jack Black you drink is younger than it used to be--the distillers just can't afford to hold onto it as long anymore; and the demand for handcrafted and imported beers is skyrocketing (making you wonder how small those so-called boutique breweries could be).

So how do brew pubs fit into this picture? They seem to buck this trend because, though the beer at most brew pubs is undeniably fresh (and that's undeniably good), it's seldom actually as good-tasting as bottled or draft imports, or even boutique beers.

Yet brew pubs are booming. One of the hottest restaurant "concepts" going right now, brew pubs started opening up all over the country several years ago and Dallas, as usual, is playing catch-up with the trend. There are brew pubs, identically gigantic and noisy, on every restaurant strip from Addison to Oak Lawn.

Deep Ellum is the first place you'd imagine a brew pub would locate in Dallas, but it's the last place one has opened up. The Copper Tank Brewing Company (its name is reminiscent of certain '60s bands--Big Brother and the Holding Company or The 1910 Fruitgum Company) is an import from Austin. It occupies a corner at Main and Good-Latimer and extends a block deep, with another entrance on Commerce. The whole place has high tin ceilings and hardwood floors: Like most brew pubs, it's going for that difficult-to-achieve enormous and noisy ambiance. Copper Tank is even bigger than most brewpubs, a huge cavern with the natural acoustics of one. If the brew pub doesn't make it, there's plenty of room for Deep Ellum's first bowling alley here. What decor there is, is in scale. At night, big-screen TVs are tuned in to whatever sport is in season and the huge shiny tanks, looking like pieces of a Cape Canaveral project, loom behind tall glass walls in lieu of art.

The largest section of the restaurant is the bar, where after-work guys guzzle beer.

Unlike other brew pubs I've tried, the beer is the best thing about Copper Tank. We tried the sampler, which is served the way it always is, with each little glass of beer arranged on its label so you can tell what you're drinking. Actually, we didn't need the labels at Copper Tank--you can tell these beers apart with your eyes closed.

Unlike many of the anemic beers concocted in brew pubs, each of these was full-flavored and distinct. I hate fruited beers, but the River City Raspberry Beer, made with 10 pounds of fresh raspberries per barrel, was the fruitiest I've tasted. I guess that's a "good" thing. White Zinfandel drinkers should love it.

Copper Tank claims that its Copper Light is the "No. 1 selling brew-pub beer in Texas"--one of those no-lose boasts like Ben & Jerry's "Best Premium Ice Cream in Vermont." This is a drinkable lightweight with a full, yeasty taste, a good-news beer for those alarmed by the recent discovery that even with our obsessive gram-counting, Americans are getting fatter all the time. (Of course, most of the alarmed folks are thin, anyway. They should cut loose and try Copper Tank's Firehouse Stout, a rich, chocolatey, almost thick beer, really a meal in a mug.)

Copper Tank seems to be an anomaly among Dallas brew pubs: It's a better place to drink than to eat. We did eat there, of course, first for lunch, an uneventful if acoustically challenged meal. The unoriginal menu may inspire a weary sigh, out of keeping with the beer-hall brouhaha all around. You have eaten all this before: "gourmet pizzas," burgers, sandwiches, hefty salads and soups, and no-surprise entrees like chicken-fried steak, pasta, and calzone. Our pesto-chicken pizza came on a thin, slightly hard crust, the rubbery bits of white meat not seasoned enough with pesto. Caesar salad is a version distinguished only by its large croutons. The Copper Tank Club is a 2-inch stack of deli ham, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and cheese on a "honey-wheat" hoagie which might as well have been white bread. Fries were the best: ranch-cut, with a nice greaseless crust on the floury potatoes.

In my nearly 10 years of reviewing restaurants, a few particularly disastrous meals stand out: the night all the power went out at Sam's Cafe and no one knew where the breakers were; and the meal at Chianti Pizzeria when the waiter helped himself to our carafe of wine. Our second meal at the Copper Tank ranks right up there with one of those nights. It was a restaurateur's worst nightmare, a sit-com series of mistakes culminating in catastrophe.

We had to wait forever for our food, because "the kitchen didn't receive the order on the computer." So we ended up eating in a relay, two entrees at a time, and ordered a brownie for the first shift to eat during the second round of entrees. The brownie never arrived because the kitchen manager had quit and the staff couldn't figure out how to serve it. (I can picture them all standing around staring at the sheet pan, scratching their heads and wondering what to do next.) We told our unhappy but ever-apologetic and gracious waitress to skip the brownie and bring the check, only to find that because of the computer's malfunction, no credit cards could be accepted and I am one of those people who barely carries enough cash to feed a meter.

A night like that is no basis for reviewing a new restaurant. I only mention it because our next visit was a lesson in how to salvage a service disaster. Copper Tank had sent up kitchen staff from the Austin store so the kitchen was functioning. Our waitress, Kendra, recognized us from that Black Wednesday, and went out of her way to ensure that our second dinner was as smooth and pleasant as a professional server could make it.

Well-meaning and friendly as the service was, the food was still mostly mediocre.

We had tried the bacon cheeseburger the night the place fell apart and it was fine. The chicken-fried steak that night seemed to be outlandishly seasoned with fennel or anise--but that could have been an aberration of the brownie-challenged kitchen crew; the uncooked calzone, its stuffing of cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions encased in partially raw dough, certainly was.

When we returned, the food was still uneven. We did like the onion soup, made with a glug of brown ale, the sweet onions and beer combining in hearty accord as they do in the famous stew made by the beer-loving Belgians, carbonnade flamande. The teriyaki-marinated tuna steak (a fish hefty enough to stand up to the beer) was cooked until dry and unevenly seasoned, ranging oddly from sweet at one end to hot at the other. The accompanying rice had been overseasoned with allspice and the vegetables seemed not to have been seasoned at all.

We did check out that brownie, though, and it came with a scoop of chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, and fudge sauce--a good, gooey dessert, but not so unorthodox that a line cook couldn't have figured it out.

The Copper Tank Brewing Company, 2600 Main Street, 744-BREW. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.

The Copper Tank Brewing Company:
Chicken Pesto
Big Dog Onion Soup, Cup $2.25
Copper Tank Club Sandwich $5.75
Copper Tank Bacon Cheeseburger $5.95
Chicken-Fried Steak $7.25
Grilled Tuna Teriyaki $6.95


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