If Sacramento has learned anything since it pledged its undying devotion to hops and barley, it’s that craft beer pairs really well with food.
Ken Hotchkiss, whose Capitol Beer and Tap Room on Fair Oaks Boulevard has played a seminal role in the city’s beer evolution, clearly understands this notion. His second establishment – midtown’s Capital Hop Shop – is his first venture to feature a kitchen and a chef.
Opening this past fall, the Hop Shop – its name a nod to the one-time auto shop where it’s located – marries an ambitious, ever-changing beer list and a largely appealing menu of ale-friendly fare. Not surprisingly, it’s quickly become popular, especially with the after-work crowd.
Hotchkiss and co-owner Patti Aguirre tapped chef Phil Webster, who has done stints at Pangaea and LowBrau, to run the kitchen. The food program leans heavily on standards like burgers and fries, but they are prepared with a lighter, fresher touch than the usual bar fare. Beer-loving crowds aren’t always the pickiest bunch, but the food at Capital Hop Shop is a shade better than it needs to be to satisfy the thirsty crowds.
The menu relies mainly on substantial, flavor-forward appetizers (cheese and charcuterie plates, buffalo wings and baskets of dressed fries) and hearty sandwiches, such as a patty melt, sausage with onions and peppers or the big chicken club.
Mostly, the food works to complement the beer. There are 40 taps, which change constantly. According to Hotchkiss, rarer beers often sell out within a couple of days, so new kegs are swapped in all the time. There’s something for every kind of beer fan, casual or serious, including lots of local options.
Drinkers can delve into trendy sours and saisons, big IPAs, rarely-seen grisettes and Belgian quads. They can check out fruit beers like the amusingly named cherry-red Krieky Bones, and sample ciders, porters and and stouts, including a sweet coffee-ice-cream-like ale from Cafe Moksa. For the more adventurous, there are lip-smacking oddities such as Allagash’s “Pastiche,” a blend of beers aged in four different liquor barrels.
Every beer is available in a larger standard pour or a 5-ounce mini-pour. The latter are very affordable (most are $3 or $4), making it easy to put together a DIY flight or to sample a wide range. The servers and the folks behind the bar are well versed in the beer styles and rapidly cycling offerings, but they can be a little reluctant to offer strong recommendations or guidance, demurring especially when asked about food pairings.
The beer list is fun for hopheads to explore, but possibly a little overwhelming to casual fans, and I wished for a little more steering on what beers to pair with what foods. According to both Webster and Hotchkiss, however, the quickly changing taps mean particular pairings may become outdated. (The restaurant has done more targeted pairings at special dinners.)
Still, the service is hospitable, and the convivial vibe extends to the setting in a long, low former garage, enlivened by a bright, stenciled mural of giant hops hovering over the Sacramento skyline, painted by an employee. The designers retained the automotive feel of the building’s previous tenants; the taps are custom-made of tools, the bar surround is covered in tire treads and the big garage-style doors open wide on nice days, so that crowds spill out onto the patio.
The slight downside is that there’s no host station, and it’s not immediately apparent that guests are expected to seat themselves. That’s less of a problem if you’re eating at the bar, but it could be confusing if you would like to sit at a table in the adjoining room. In addition, it can be difficult to make contact with the busy servers.
Another kink the restaurant could work out is the lack of plates for main courses. Appetizers arrive on plates, but the other dishes are relegated to wire baskets lined with black-and-white checkered paper that plays off the automotive motif. I appreciate the fidelity to theme, but many of these dishes feature wet ingredients and require eating with a fork. Paper liners in wire baskets just won’t stand up to the challenge
Digging into the poutine, I was reminded of one of those old TV ads testing the tensile strength of paper towels. The dish’s gravy breached the paper barrier, making a sad puddle on the table. It was all the sadder because the gravy – mushroom based and savory as could be – was delicious.
When our server came to clear the basket, I apologized for the mess, and he told me it happens all the time and he’s been trying to convince management to change the practice. I hope he succeeds.
While I’m on the subject of the poutine, that gravy – savory and redolent of thyme – could have been even better with different fries. The skinny, crunchy golden ones Hop Shop is turning out tasted great, but they were too thin to do a good job of scooping up poutine toppings, hence the need for a fork. A similar problem plagued the Hop Shop fries, topped with zesty pulled pork and a thick beer cheese sauce. It all tasted fine, but was awkward to eat.
Patty melts are one of my favorite burger styles, and Hop Shop’s version was a good one, with melty provolone contrasting with rich caramelized onions and the tang of rye bread. The meat patty, also featured on the tasty burger, was high quality. The sausage sandwich was fairly straightforward and enjoyable, but not particularly noteworthy.
The chicken club sandwich had thick slabs of chicken meat and equally thick-cut bacon, which unfortunately was a bit tough. The bacon fared better in the “grown-up grilled cheese,” a gooey standout with white cheddar and pear.
Vegetarians here can look to that mushroom poutine, or else to the portobello sandwich, which was a bit dull. A couple of starter dips – hummus and spinach-artichoke – round out the vegetarian options.
Burgers and sandwiches come standard with fries, but if you’re saving room for another beer, the salads are worth a look. Side salads here weren’t the throwaways they can so often sadly be, and feature house-made dressings. The flavorful blue cheese dressing was not over applied, and a Caesar salad was well balanced, with garlicky croutons.
The coleslaw had surprising heat, as did a spicy BLT with housemade habanero aioli, a special during Bacon Week that my friend found too incendiary to finish, though the bartender had said it was only moderately spicy.
Despite that outlier (which now appears on the regular menu), specials are worth a look. I tried a surprisingly delicate plate of chile verde tacos, topped with whisper-thin radish slices and bright pink pickled onion and accompanied by warm, thick-cut tortilla chips. That’s a dish that should go on the regular menu.
Capital Hop Shop has the ingredients it needs to succeed in Sacramento, starting, of course, with those 40 rotating taps, which will pull in crowds regardless of what the kitchen is doing. The food is off to a solid start, though. With some tweaks under the hood (plates for all, for instance), this place soon could be firing on all cylinders.
Email Kate Washington at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
Capital Hop Shop
1431 I St., Sacramento; 916-573-3875; www.capitalhopshop.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 pm. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday.
Beverage options: So much beer (40 taps!), plus a few ciders, sodas and beer-like nonalcoholic choices such as root beer and Chocolate Fish nitro coffee.
Vegetarian friendly: Moderately.
Gluten-free options: Yes, especially among the appetizers.
Noise levels: Bar-loud when it’s full, which is often.
Ambiance: Casual, utilitarian and laid back, with an automotive theme to the décor, plus a big patio for warmer weather. Want to chat at length about beer? Grab a seat at the bar.
A solid entry into Sacramento’s large lineup of spots for beer lovers, with a menu of unpretentious appetizers and all-American sandwiches, plenty of space for groups to hoist a cold one or three. Tap options feature plenty of interesting, high-quality beer.
Chef Phil Webster offers a menu of casual, easy-to-like choices, done fresher than at your average watering hole and with appetizers that work well for sharing (sausage sampler, poutine). The food goes well with different styles of beer: Think burgers and fries, pulled pork, or the strong “grown-up grilled cheese” with pear, bacon, and grilled onion.
Greeting and seating could use some rethinking, as there’s no host station, and it can take a while to get menus and service after guests seat themselves. Food, however, comes out quickly, and both servers and bartenders are informed – and eager to talk about – the beer.
Reasonable prices, especially for the beers; a 5-ounce pour option for each of the 40 offerings makes it relatively inexpensive to try a variety. Entrees (mostly hearty sandwiches) hover around $13.