BETTER THAN BEER NUTS Steele & Hops goes beyond classic brewpub fare with an inventive and exciting menu, and the beers to match.
In every city it seems there's a cursed corner, a location where restaurants don't last long. For Santa Rosa, that corner is Mendocino and Clement avenues. Over the years, several establishments have tried their luck there, including, most recently, Heritage Public House.
A month ago, it became the home of Steele & Hops, a brewpub with a compact food menu and a long list of ales, IPAs and sours. Not much has changed since it was Heritage: the decor is still the same, the patio is still cozy, the number of diners, on a Thursday night, still relatively modest. The food, however, got an upgrade.
Consider the Pub Caesar salad ($9.5), for example. The fresh, crunchy romaine lettuce wedges and the croutons are accented with briny boquerones (white wine vinegar–marinated anchovies), which make the old classic taste significantly more exciting. The creamy dressing, flecked with black and chile pepper flakes, ties the whole thing together.
Then there are the appetizers. The beet-pickled deviled eggs ($4) are a popular food right now, but they could use some taming at Steele & Hops. The egg whites are a bit sour and the filling too heavy on the horseradish. The mushroom toast, however, is as indulgent as they come. A crispy piece of sourdough, browned button mushrooms, gooey Gouda and caramelized onion jam come together to form a delicious union. For $7 apiece, it's proof that San Francisco's overpriced toast game is now strong in Santa Rosa, too.
Even better are the brisket cigars ($7), crispy, cigar-shaped phyllo filled with shredded, house-smoked brisket and mixed with cheddar and steak sauce. Not many places favor the cigar, a throwback to the '90s, but this version is daring and relevant thanks to the clever filling. Served with hot-pepper jelly, a liquid Sriracha-like dipping sauce, it's the perfect balance of smoky and spicy, crunchy and chewy.
The winning streak continues with the seemingly humble smoked turkey pot pie ($13.5). The golden and properly flaky puff pastry hides mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, peas and cubes of smoked turkey swimming in a rich, spicy sauce. Not as starchy as some pot pies, it's comforting yet bold.
The fish and chips ($14) are quite good, too, but pose a technical issue for me. The thick-cut chips are easy to eat with your hands, and can be dipped in one of three sauces: ketchup, bright and fresh tartar sauce and a dodgy curry dip. The cod filet, however, arrives as one big piece coated in browned, crispy beer batter. The delicate flesh was very flaky, making breaking it to smaller pieces for dipping nearly impossible. The sauces have to be piled on the fish and eaten with a fork. I prefer an informal, eat-with-your-hands method for fish and chips.
Steele & Hops acts and looks like your average brewpub. The name change might go unnoticed, but the menu holds some pleasant surprises, especially when it comes to the reimagined comfort food. For the sake of the brisket cigars, the pot pie and the mushroom toast, I hope Steele & Hops breaks the corner curse and sticks around.
Steele & Hops, 1901 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.523.2201.