Game On at the Victory Brewing Company

I’ve wanted to write about the Victory Brewing Company for a long time, and I would have pushed this review out close to a year ago, but chose to wait on it.  Don’t get me wrong, Victory Brewing has some of the finest craft beers around, and is home to one of my favorite beers ever.  But when they emerged, butterfly-like, from their renovation last spring, having transformed from a dark, moody neighborhood hang-out (think brewery with some tables and a bar thrown in for good measure) to a full fledged restaurant – something didn’t feel quite right, despite the gorgeous overhaul that included a Brewmaster’s Table, where up to a dozen people can sit underneath a copper brew kettle top.

Prior to the renovation, which took around two months and, at its height, limited the available food items to about six tables and a handful of sandwiches, Victory had offered a decent selection of dishes.  The best output of the kitchen was always to be found in foods that one naturally would pair with beer – pizzas, burgers, the excellent buffalo wings and buffalo chicken wrap, a serviceable steak sandwich.  The menu offered some higher priced items, and whenever we would dare to venture outside the realm of “bar food”, we would invariably be disappointed – a dish described as “osso bucco” was clearly not the shank that the rest of the world has come to recognize as osso bucco, and its texture was closer to pot roast than anything.  So, we would stick with the bar food, and we were pretty happy with that.  The great beer lent a lot of leniency to the food, which wasn’t outstanding, but pretty good for what it was.

For me, the benchmark of any brewpub is the quality of its cheeseburger, which is the perfect pairing with a pint of beer.  So, in my mind, it was an unimaginable sin for the “new” Victory Brewing Company to have taken its burger, which was fine, and replaced it with two thinner patties which surrounded a “filling” – in other words, they took the toppings and tried to get fancy by “stuffing” the burgers with them.  The result was a disaster – the grill cooks could never turn out a proper burger after that, and we’d always get two overcooked, dried out burger patties.  Everyone we spoke with echoed the same sentiment – why can’t Victory just put out a regular cheeseburger and be done with it?

Well, recent excursions to Victory for their monthly “Follow the Liter” event ($5 liters of beer, plus arm wrestling!), as well as an impromptu midweek lunch, has shown the kitchen to be much improved.  Creative burger configurations are a thing of the past, and I am happy to report that the burgers are once again single patty wonders of beefy deliciousness.  They are also better than they were prior to the renovation, thanks to a switch to aged beef.  Having conquered the beer (the renovation enabled Victory to expand their offerings, so today they offer upwards of twenty different drafts plus another four on cask), it was only a matter of time before the kitchen caught up.  As a server recently remarked, the owners kept all of the food items that were working, tossed what didn’t sell, and now introduce new items on the right-side of the menu.  If you want to play it safe, stick with the left side of the menu – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a pick from the right side is doomed to disaster.

There are certainly more high notes to the menu as compared to last year.  The wings are as good as they’ve ever been, just the right heat, accompanied by that traditional tang of vinegar and always, always a requirement when we go there.  The burgers, as I’ve noted, are large and in charge, well enough of a meal in themselves to make you regret ordering the wings (but yet you’ll finish everything anyway).  The pizza selection has been trimmed to reflect the varieties that were actually not, you know, bland disks of bread – so you have a much better shot of ordering a pie that you’ll want to eat.  The buffalo chicken wrap is still on the menu, just as good and spicy as ever.  A hot roast beef sandwich was, in my wife’s words, “what Arby’s must taste like in heaven.”

Perhaps the best new addition to the food offerings at Victory, though, is a dish that I tried the first time we went to a Follow The Liter event.  It’s called Schweinshauxe, and it’s a pig ankle.  Actually, it’s two pig ankles, served with a cream sauce, sauerkraut mashed potatoes, and red cabbage, and it’s all kinds of amazing.  The meat falls off the bone, and the cream sauce pairs with the potatoes and the tart crunch of the cabbage very well – it’s a perfect rendition of traditional German cooking.  That, and one of Victory’s huge pretzels served with cheese dipping sauce, will always make me regret ordering the wings.

Somehow, though, I don’t think I’m ever going to learn from my mistakes.

April 27, 2009   Comments

A Bar Review We Can All Get Behind

Like any bar worth its salt, Ron’s Original Bar and Grille in Exton, Pennsylvania is marked by dark woods, shadowy corners, good music, and an imposing taxidermied head of a caribou that gets increasingly more menacing with each downed pint of draft beer.  We have happily found another bright star in the universe of restaurants with excellent food and a killer selection of microbrews.

For two years, our work and shopping travels have taken us within yards of this straightforward, unassuming spot, just a quick turn off of the intersection of Routes 113 and 100.  Whenever we exited the Pennsylvania Turnpike, our route would take us straight to the front door of Ron’s – if only we turned left, that is, instead of turning right to head home.  For two years, we thought of Ron’s Bar and Grille as nothing more than another restaurant with an ad in the local newspaper insert.  We had no idea what we were missing.

Last month, we needed to ship some Christmas gifts and, instead of going to the shipping store located closest to home, we decided to stop in Exton on the way home from work.  The parking lot of the modest strip mall was packed, and we had to drive around to the back of the building to find a spot next to the dumpsters.  Laden with bags and gifts, we lugged ourselves around the side of the building, passing right under the exhaust vents that lead directly out of Ron’s kitchen.  It was the right place, at the right time, and it smelled like bar heaven.

And what, you rightfully ask, does bar heaven smell like?  It smells like pizza, and grilled onions, and burgers, and beer.  And when the weather turns dark and cold, and you haven’t eaten anything since lunch, it smells perfect.

We’ve been to other neighborhood bar-restaurants that have lofty dreams of serving higher-class fare, and in the grand majority of cases, these kitchens fall short of the mark.  Instead of focusing on making the best bar food that they can, these establishments offer one page of bar food, followed by more complex, more expensive selections that are marketed as ‘complete meals’.  The result is too often perfunctory bar food and middling entrees no better than your average nationwide chain restaurant.

This is exactly why the menu at Ron’s is so refreshing.  Yes, there is a selection of dinner entrees, mostly Italian, that occupies the back page of the menu.  But, as is suited to a place with an outstanding variety of microbrews, the rest of the menu, all five pages’ worth, is devoted to bar food – buffalo wings, chicken fingers, burgers, hoagies, pizza, roast beef and roast pork sandwiches, and what Ron’s calls ‘ovals’, which are rounds of pizza dough with a selection of toppings, no sauce.  For now, I can only comment on the wings, ovals, nachos, and cheesesteak, but seeing as we have been to Ron’s twice in one week, I have little doubt that we’ll be making my way through the entire menu in short order.

There’s a universal standard for what makes a good buffalo wing – deep fried, not too saturated, no breading, with a slight vinegary kick that can only come with the right kind of hot sauce.  The wings at Ron’s Original Bar and Grill hits all of these points, and perfectly at that.  These are truly outstanding wings, served hot and served right.  We also sampled the No Holds Barred oval, which comes adorned with chopped steak, pepperoni, bacon, cheddar, and mozzarella – truly a heart attack on a plate, but so good.  On a subsequent visit, a platter of chicken nachos illustrated the generosity of the kitchen, with heaping mounds of cheese and grilled chicken that made the tortilla chips cling stingily to one another.  The cheesesteak, as much a barometer of good bar food as a burger, hits on all cylinders – decent amount of meat, chopped fine so that it blends seamlessly with the cheese, and a soft long roll to do justice to it all.  It goes without saying that all of these items pair wonderfully with the beer.

Let’s talk about the beer.  From the outside, no one can tell that Ron’s would have such an outstanding selection of microbrews.  Once you set foot inside the bar area, though, your eyes are drawn first to the immense caribou head mounted to the wall, but then to the chalkboard that lists that day’s beer offerings.  During our visits, about 80% of the board consisted of heavier beers for the cold weather – stouts that showcased elements of coffee or chocolate.  We ordered, between the two of us, the Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, the Breckenridge Christmas Ale, and the Founder’s Breakfast Stout.

Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, as is described on the Dogfish Head website, is a “dark beer made with a touch of roasted chicory, organic Mexican coffee, St. John’s Wort, and licorice root. Brewed with whole-leaf Cascade and Fuggles hops, the grains include pale, roasted & oatmeal”.  It was, from the moment it touched our lips, an instant classic – dark, but not too heavy as to overwhelm the palate, its sweetness pairing wonderfully with the spice of the buffalo wings.  We left Ron’s that evening with four bottles of this brew from the neighboring takeout counter, and are trying to ration our inventory until we can get back to the store.

The Breckenridge Christmas Ale, noted by Breckenridge as the “ultimate winter warmer” at over 7% ABV, is another dark beer with notes of caramel and chocolate.  It made for a good first beer, something to sip off of while waiting for your food to arrive.  Contrary to my suspicion, having a glass of the Breckenridge while eating a full meal did nothing to slow the absorption of the brew into my system.  I was glad to be sitting down.

I finished the evening with a Founders Breakfast Stout, which is brewed with flaked oats, chocolate, and two varieties of coffee bean to arrive at a knockout 8.3% ABV brew.  This was probably my favorite out of the three microbrews that we had that evening, with the combination of chocolate and coffee forming an excellent post-meal libation that made me all so very grateful that I wasn’t the one driving home.

January 18, 2009   Comments

On Fire at the Wild Wing Cafe – Charleston, SC

Yes, I’m getting around to trip updates from the Charleston excursion.

If there’s ever a mecca for wing eaters, it’d be the Wild Wing Cafe.  At any given moment, Wild Wing has over 30 different types of wings, ranging from five or six different heat levels of your standard buffalo wing, to alternate flavors such as Thai, Lemon Pepper, or Garlic.

Wild Wing also lays claim to one of my favorite appetizers, the Hot Shot, which is what you see pictured above.  A basket of Hot Shots, along with an introductory beer, is the preferred way of slipping into a meal here.  Served piping hot straight from the fryer, hot shots are similar to fritters and consist of spicy sausage, cheese, and batter-of-some-sort, rolled into balls and fried crispy.  All of this is served with a dipping sauce that looks like a tub of melted margarine with some lemon pepper thrown into it (which is probably exactly what it is).  It’s the finest appetizer of its kind.

Coming to Wild Wing immediately after checking in at the hotel, we were fortunate to find ourselves arriving on Wild Wednesday, which is their way of saying ‘2 for 1′ on the wings.  Charleston is, after all, a college town, so there’s lots of deals to be found that are appropriate for a college student’s budget.  We each ordered a dozen, with two varieties per order for a total of four flavors.  The hardest thing about coming to Wild Wing is figuring out which kinds you want.  We ended up getting Gold Rush, Garlic! Garlic! Garlic!, Lemon Pepper, and CHINA SYNDROME.

Gold Rush and Lemon Pepper have been our favorite flavors since well before we were married, so it was a no-brainer to order them.  The Lemon Pepper is exactly as it sounds – the wings are tossed in a light margarine coating, and then liberally sprinkled with lemon pepper seasoning.  They aren’t spicy, but they sure are tasty.

The Gold Rush, which is my pick, is a tangy, slightly spicy, slightly sweet sauce.  The menu describes it as honey BBQ with a kick, but the flavor is more subtle, less cloying than your typical honey barbecue flavor – and I think the barbecue in this case may have been mustard-based.

So that brings me to the China Syndrome story.

I have quite a tolerance for heat.  For some time now, I’ve maxed out on the heat level at Hooters, and their 911 wings don’t affect me at all.  Everywhere I go, I tend to order the hottest level of wing that is on offer, and, for the most part, I am rarely impressed.  So, when it came time to order a typical straight buffalo wing at Wild Wing, well, I went for China Syndrome.  On the menu, it’s two steps above the typical ‘Hot’, and two steps below what the restaurant calls Braveheart.  When our food came out, it’s the first one that my fingers went for, and I promise you, I will never, ever order that flavor ever again.

I have been defeated by a buffalo wing.  Here’s the thing about the wings at Wild Wing – they aren’t served covered in sauce, like you’ve seen in other places.  Here, what seems to be happening is that the cooks fry the wings, toss them in sauce, and then pop them into the oven for a bit, so that the sauce bakes onto the wings.  The sauce still comes off on your fingers, but they’re a little neater.  So, with the China Syndrome, what I discovered that evening is that the wings actually had red pepper flakes baked into them, and that’s what made all of the difference.

My mouth was on fire in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Bhut Jaloki Incident, which I have yet to tell you about.  Beer, as quenching as it may be, was no match for the pain and fury that my body was experiencing.  So, with that one wing, my entire meal was put on hold while I waited for the effects of the China Syndrome flavor to subside. I’m never doing that again.

August 7, 2008   Comments